Conflict Showed Technology Is Making Warfare More Efficient WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington. Operation Desert Storm may have changed the way wars are fought, say experts, not because it introduced new technologies -- it didn't -- but because it showed how technology is making warfare more efficient.

"What this war did was give us a peek into what can be done when you combine modern conventional munitions with improved delivery systems," said military analyst John D. Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution.

Being able to bomb selectively -- to devastate military and strategic installations in Baghdad and Basra with what appears to have been relatively few civilian casualties and little damage to surrounding structures -- "is a form of military power that nobody has had before," Mr. Steinbruner said.

But it is also a "dangerous and troubling" achievement, he continued, because, as shown in Iraq, modern weapons "can produce very severe disruption in civilian society, even if they appear to be clean and precise."

The fact that not all the "smart" bombs and computer-programmed cruise missiles struck their designated targets showed they were still far from perfect, he said, but their overall success undoubtedly will spur improvement.

The growing sophistication of modern weaponry could require revision of international agreements on warfare, he said. Countries in dispute may now be more inclined to resort to war if they believe it can be done "surgically."

Had the laser-guided and TV-directed bombs, the Tomahawk cruise missiles, the F-series fighters and fighter-bombers not been so accurate, he said, the world may not have tolerated the U.S. and allied bombing of Iraq for as long as it did.

Military analysts say the biggest problem in assessing the war was the surprisingly tepid performance by Iraq's military, which provided few clues as to how a more efficient power would have responded.

The Iraqi air force, for example, hardly figured at all in the war, which gave the coalition air forces little by which to gauge their combat performances, said Seth Carus, military analyst of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

On the other hand, he said, the ability of the allies to virtually paralyze Iraq's air defenses early in the campaign may signify the strength of systems like Stealth fighters, "J-Stars" battlefield surveillance and control aircraft and even modern night-vision equipment.

Impressive as it might have been, though, much of the technology that proved so effective in Desert Storm, like guided bombs, radar-jamming and night vision equipment, was really no more than refinement of decades-old weaponry, said Capt. George Cully of the U.S. Air Force Historical Research Center at Maxwell air base in Alabama.

"We had the concepts of the technologies, but not the sophistication that we have now," he said.

Even the Stealth technology that proved so effective in slipping past the Iraqi surveillance systems, he said, was only a sophistication of the age-old concepts of camouflage and concealment.

The coalition successes in the gulf, however, also were attributable to factors that are more mundane but just as crucial, Captain Cully said.

The jet fighters and bombers employed in Desert Storm, for example, were able to sustain an unprecedented high rate of sorties because they were more reliable -- able to fly 30 times longer without maintenance on average than the U.S. aircraft used in Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and early 1960s, he said.

In addition, a fighter-bomber such as the F-15E used against Iraq was able to carry almost as much bomb weight as a B-17 bomber did in World War II, he said. And not only were the gulf warplanes able to carry more bombs, but the bombs themselves were delivered more accurately, consequently with far greater effect.

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