- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

An interesting notion, but not necessarily a good one, is the military use of very small, remotely controlled gadgets that either crawl or fly.

Think of tiny remotely controlled aircraft. These are being researched in the United States and Israel. The idea is that if you knew approximately where a sniper was hiding, for example, you would send one of these small mechanical insects to look for him. It would then kill him either by ramming him and blowing up, or perhaps by injecting poison.

The military has long been interested in remotely controlled vehicles that could save American troops from danger. Some are sort of motorized golf carts, resembling the robotic bomb-disposal robots that police use. Others fly.

Most of the latter, such as Condor, a remotely controlled aircraft that can fire missiles, have been large and sophisticated. This has meant among other things that ragtag enemies couldn’t use them. A Condor can’t be assembled from parts bought at RadioShack.

Today these weapons are getting much smaller. Some of the research is reaching the press. For instance, from Reuters last year, “Israel is using nanotechnology to try to create a robot no bigger than a hornet that would be able to chase, photograph and kill its targets, an Israeli newspaper reported. … The flying robot, nicknamed the ‘bionic hornet,’ would be able to navigate its way down narrow alleyways to target otherwise unreachable enemies such as rocket launchers,” the daily Yedioth Ahronoth said.

The Israelis inexplicably do not e-mail me the results of their military research, so I don’t know how hard it would be, or will be, to manufacture these “hornets.” I do know that if you are willing to have a somewhat larger vehicle, they get much easier to make.

Miniaturization has made cameras, GPS receivers, computers and so on so very small that assembling cheap and tiny aircraft is not terribly hard.

This means they will not be the exclusive property of countries with high levels of technology.

In fact they might easily become commodity weapons, such as mortars and rifles. And — crucial point — they would be much more useful to terrorists, guerrillas and insurgents than to American forces.

Think about it. One proposal is to use tiny flying robots to destroy the tires of terrorist trucks. Destroying truck tires remotely sounds sophisticated, but who has trucks — them or us? If your military depends on supply lines crossing a desert, the last things you want to be available are a cheap, safe way of stopping those trucks from a distance. In Baghdad, American troops are conspicuous and exposed. The insurgents are not.

Cheap, deadly, barely detectable “aircraft” would be a guerrilla’s dream. As an American patrol walks down the street in Baghdad, the insurgent launches the gadget from the window of a building.

How do you defend against such an attack? An advantage often cited for these weapons is that they will be readily used at the platoon level, being controlled by a small console resembling a Nintendo box. It other words, by something easy to use and to hide. If I were currently a GI, I’d be happier without the things.

Usually we think of military technology as working in favor of American forces. If we are talking about fighting conventional forces, this is reasonable. But the wars we actually fight these days are usually against urban guerrillas and rural forces that can blend into villages. Maybe people who live in glass houses shouldn’t invent better stones.



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