IT Army

April 23, 2003

THE AMERICAN MILITARY just fought a war that was, like, totally shaped by video-broadband-GPS-laser-laptop technology, and in three weeks swept the field while sustaining few casualties. More gizmos are in the offing, and the question is: Will the thrill of putting all that stuff to use again and waging digitized war just be too tempting to resist?

Put it another way: Is war becoming too easy?

American armed forces are in the process of mastering IT, and although there's still a long way to go, it's showing results. The successes achieved in targeting and in delivering precision munitions on Iraqi tanks, artillery pieces and command-and-control centers stemmed from the gathering and instantaneous processing of large amounts of information, all helped along by satellite communications.

The United States knocked the Iraqi military out of the fight without ever engaging in a major pitched battle, hastening the end, saving lives on both sides and accomplishing its objectives against an enemy.

That was the triumph. But let's pull back for a moment. Let's consider the limits to gee-whiz.

American technology does a great job in pinpointing a target. It does a pretty good job of dropping explosives on that target - and should get better at it in years to come. But the key moment happens before all that: in deciding what's a target and what isn't.

This is where technology is useful but not sufficient. An army that fights on information needs information. That takes judgment and knowledge, which are not always easy to come by. And the paradox of military intelligence in the information age is that the less sophisticated your foe, the harder it is to beat him.

American satellites and propeller-driven drones can spot a tank, or a radio tower, or a fighter jet, or a division in the field. It's those guerrillas in the mountains, those fedayeen in the teeming slums, that pose a problem. Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard is probably gone forever; the Taliban, even now, is regrouping in the Afghan wilderness.

And another thing: Information technology helped U.S. soldiers get to Baghdad within three weeks. It hasn't proved very effective in stopping the people of Basra from punching holes in the city's water mains so they can have something to drink, or in preventing looters in Mosul from stripping the equipment off oil wells. It's useless in doing anything about hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims gathering in Karbala and demanding an Islamic state that would not, presumably, be a friend to America.

And that's why it's a mistake to think that war could be an easy fix. The U.S. military is getting pretty sophisticated about the blowing up of buildings and equipment. It's the blowing up of societies that's the problem. Handling that kind of a rupture takes real intelligence - and not just of the military kind.

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