WASHINGTON -- Few events drive technological changes as much as war, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been no exception.
While many of the super high tech items the military purchases get a lot of attention -- such as the F-22 Raptor, a $150 million stealth fighter jet -- much of the success in America’s current conflicts is being driven by less expensive mid-level technologies.
While these technologies have proven to be successful, critics charge that the military still invests too much in the big-ticket items,
“Most [of the services] are focused on conventional military operations scenarios,” said Robert Martinage, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis. However, he added, the current wars have driven the military to rethink its smaller scale technologies. “Clearly there [are things] going on in the irregular warfare area that are significant shifts.”
The Defense Department has stepped up its acquisition of mid-level technologies, many of which were in the works well before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have been developed faster and in greater numbers as a result of those two conflicts.
The unavailability of MRAPs, or mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, gained a great deal of press attention when it became apparent that the military’s lightly armored Humvees were totally insufficient to deal with the increasing number of roadside bomb attacks in Iraq.
The military has ramped up production of the highly armored vehicles, which cost about $850,000 per unit and have proven effective keeping troops safe from mine attacks.
The MRAP is fairly conventional compared to many of the technologies under development. Things such as slippery foam designed to deny access to vehicles in certain areas, translation devices and attack robots may all become part of a soldier’s arsenal as they come online in the next few years. Small Arms Not all the changes involve major shifts in equipment. Many are small shifts designed to meet the challenges of America’s conflicts.
The fighting in Iraq has forced the Army to change from the long-barreled M16 as the main service weapon to the shorter M4 carbine, a rifle better suited for urban combat.
Small-arms maker Heckler & Koch has developed the XM25, a rifle capable of shooting around corners and into trenches. The weapon, which will be in the field in about 2 1/2years, works by sensing the range and placement of a target. A detonator in its .25 caliber bullet puts out an explosion capable of hitting targets not in view.
The weapon costs about $30,000 while each round costs about $25, making it about 30 times the base cost of an M4, but still cheap enough to field in limited numbers.
Weapons such as this have the potential to increase a soldier’s effectiveness while lowering the risk of collateral damage.
“The individual soldier right now is that tip of the spear. He is seeing this counterinsurgency up close and personal,” said Richard Audette, deputy project manager for PEO Soldier Weapons, the Army’s small arms supplier. “Precision is becoming more important as we go out and talk to the individual soldiers.”
Non-lethal technologies As the military attempts to make its lethal technologies more precise, the Pentagon is also developing a range of non-lethal technologies that can be used in a range of counterinsurgency operations, including crowd control and reconnaissance.
Providing security while limiting collateral damage is crucial to winning a counterinsurgency, a situation where unnecessary deaths can spur civilians to take up arms against the troops on the ground. Many innovative non-lethal technologies have come on line in recent years to meet these challenges.
“I think over the next 10 years there will be a proliferation of new non-lethal technologies,” Martinage said.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, can produce a wealth of real-time information crucial for waging war against a highly decentralized enemy that relies on its ability to melt back into the local population.
“You can spot a guy with an RPG and instead of taking him out, you can follow him around for an entire day and see who he visits,” said Shawn Brimley, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Raytheon, a major military contractor, has developed a heat wave that induces a burning sensation in targets up to 250 yards away, a non-lethal weapon ideally suited for riot control operations.
Providing security is only part of the job of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops are also being called upon to help build the institutions of government.
Biometric scanners have become one of the most valuable pieces of equipment for troops on the ground. In a country without census data, biometric scanners allow troops to build a database of residents for purposes such as elections or policing.
“One of the lessons from small wars in the past is that the ability to do a census is vital,” Brimley said.
Tech can’t solve everything Though technology has played an important role in current conflicts, experts warn that the ability of technology to be a game changer is inherently limited.
“When you talk about irregular warfare, so much of it is not about gadgets but about training,” Martinage said.
The military also needs to be wise about what kind of technology it buys. Weapons systems need to serve the principles of counterinsurgency operations if they are to be used successfully.
“It is not going to get you all the way there and the technology that you focus on has got to be the right kind of technology. It can’t be tech that is less discriminate and less proportionate,” said David Tretler, a professor at the National Defense University. Problems with procurement Though the military is making inroads when it comes to purchasing technology to meet the challenges of present conflicts, there is still no systemic way to handle these types of acquisitions.
Throughout the Cold War, the military set up procedures to develop and acquire big ticket items such as the F-22 stealth fighter jet, a project that has been in the works since the 1980s. However, no such framework exists for the smaller scale technologies used in counterinsurgency operations, and much of the development and procurement is being done on an ad hoc basis.
“Too much of it happens on the margins,” Brimley said. Further, he said many of the big weapons systems that came out of the Cold War era are being spun as having applications for counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of the smaller technologies, such as the MRAP are being funded through supplemental budget bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, these technologies don’t have a place in the permanent Department of Defense budget, and money for them may fall by the wayside when the wars wind down. That could be a problem if the U.S. ever ends up in another conflict similar to the ones it faces today, Brimley said.