It is tempting to argue, based on the difficulties that U.S. forces have encountered in Iraq (and the similar problems of the Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip), that the effect of the Information Revolution on warfare has been overstated by some enthusiasts. There is some truth to this—there has been an awful lot of hype—but it would be a mistake to go too far in dismissing the results of recent advances. That would be akin to denying the effect of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s simply because the British had a lot of trouble subduing the Boers. Improvements in technology have always had a more immediate impact on conventional than on irregular warfare. But that doesn’t mean that the art of war has remained static. Indeed the tactics of Islamist guerrillas, who rely so heavily on the Internet, cell phones, and satellite television—all of which barely existed in 1980—show just how much things have changed.
Not all of the changes wrought by the Information Age are obvious at first glance, because the basic military systems of the early twenty-first century look roughly similar to their predecessors of the Second Industrial Age. Military analyst Michael O’Hanlon notes that “basic propulsion systems and designs for aircraft, ships, and internal-combustion vehicles are changing much more gradually than in the early twentieth-century, when two of those three technologies had only recently been invented.” The average speed of a U.S. Navy destroyer, for instance, has not increased in the past one hundred years. The U.S. Air Force continues to rely on B-52H bombers last built in 1962. And the Marine Corps still uses helicopters that flew in the Vietnam War. What has been changing with great rapidity since the mid-1970s is the communications, targeting, surveillance, and ordnance technology that can make such “legacy” systems considerably more potent.
LAND WARFARE: Advanced armies are still structured, as they have been since the 1940s, around armored forces complemented by infantry troops who move by armored vehicle, truck, and aircraft. The best tank in the world is probably the American Abrams (of which the U.S. has nine thousand), but the British Challenger II, the German Leopard II, the Israeli Merkava Mk. 4, and the Russian T-80 and T-90 come within striking distance. All modern tanks have stabilized turrets, night-vision capabilities, laser range-finders, and targeting computers that allow them to fight in conditions—on the move or in the dark—that would have stymied earlier models. In addition, composite or reactive armor offers far more protection than in years past, and main guns firing depleted uranium rounds have far more penetrating power. Armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, such as the American Bradley Fighting Vehicle and Stryker and the Russian BMP and BTR, are essentially light tanks, some running on wheels, others on tracks, that sacrifice armor and armaments for extra room to carry infantry, command-and-control suites, or other cargo. Self-propelled artillery and rocket systems are also mounted on armored chassis.
Armored vehicles have improved over the years. But so have antiarmor weapons. These range from heavy missiles such as the U.S. Hellfire and Russian Ataka-V fired from vehicles or aircraft to handheld versions such as the U.S. Javelin, the Franco-German Milan, and the Russian Kornet. In addition, even the most advanced tanks can be disabled by other tanks, massive mines, aerial bombs, or artillery shells. The full impact of advances in antiarmor technology has not yet become apparent, because the forces that have fought modern tanks in recent years—Iraqis, Palestinians, Chechens—have not possessed the latest defensive weapons. But the U.S. success in wiping out Iraqi tanks from standoff ranges suggests that, in the constant struggle between offense and defense, the advantage may have shifted against heavy armor.
The U.S. Army is responding to these changes by budgeting at least $124 billion to develop a Future Combat System that is supposed to replace much of its current armored force with a family of lighter vehicles, manned and unmanned, that will have stealth designs that will make them harder to detect and hybrid-electric engines that will lessen their fuel requirements—one of the chief disadvantages of the gas-guzzling Abrams, because it increases demands on vulnerable supply lines. Future vehicles will feature advanced composite armor designed to deliver more protection than current models for the same amount of weight, but they will rely for protection less on armor and more on locating and destroying the enemy before they are attacked. Critics believe this is placing too much faith in “perfect situational awareness,” and that these vehicles will not be of much use against guerrillas who can strike with no warning.
As usual, the infantryman’s tools have changed least of all. A modern soldier has better protection than his forefathers if he wears Kevlar body armor, but his firepower—which comes primarily from a handheld assault rifle like the M-16 or AK-47 and from a variety of crew-served mortars and machine guns—does not vary significantly from that of a G.I. in World War II. A replacement for the M-16 known as the XM29 is under development but it is hardly revolutionary. In addition to shooting the same 5.56 mm rounds as the M-16 out of one barrel, it will have another barrel that can fire 20 mm high-explosive airburst projectiles to a range of half a mile. These minigrenades will come with embedded microchips that will control when they explode, allowing them to kill enemy fighters who might be lying flat on the ground or hiding behind a berm. Alternatively, nonlethal projectiles like rubber balls could be substituted for crowd-control situations. This is not terribly different from the capability afforded by grenade launchers attached to today’s M-16s. Electronic guns that are capable of spitting out a million rounds a minute have also been developed. They might permit a soldier to stop an incoming rocket-propelled grenade with a solid wall of lead. But such weapons are years away from being fielded.
Unfortunately for Western infantrymen, the proliferation of small arms can put low-tech foes on an almost equal footing with the representatives of the most advanced militaries. There are 250 million military and police small arms knocking around the world, and more are being manufactured all the time by at least 1,249 suppliers in ninety countries.
The salvation of Information Age infantry, at least when they are conducting conventional operations, is their ability to use a wireless communications device to call in supporting fire on exact coordinates. It is doubtful that any military force will again enjoy the preponderance of power of a Kitchener at Khartoum, but Americans dropping JDAMs on Afghan tribesmen armed with Kalashnikovs—or even on Iraqi soldiers with outdated T-72 tanks—came close. The American edge decreases considerably, however, when its troops have to deploy for peacekeeping or counterinsurgency operations that leave them exposed to low-tech ambushes.