- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

There aren't many of our challenges in the war on terror that can be solved quickly or easily. But there are some that can be solved with technology, and that's where the solutions can come quickly, if not always easily. American scientists and engineers are never short of ideas. During peacetime, we take months or years to sort them out. In war, we can and must move faster. During World War II, the desperate need for a long-range fighter resulted in less than 90 days in the P-51 Mustang, which soon became one of the most effective aircraft of its day. We don't need to have new fighters in the next year. But we do need other systems that are designed to protect people and economic assets here at home.

In the first few days of the 1991 Gulf War, American aircraft trying to distinguish between friend and foe on the ground during blinding sandstorms accidentally shot up some of our own forces on the ground. Twenty-four hours later, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) presented us with the prototype of a new infrared emitter the size and shape of a coffee can. Attach this coffee can to your Humvee or Bradley fighting vehicle with velcro tape, turn it on, and suddenly the fly-guys can see you. Thousands of them would have been produced if the air war had lasted longer than it did.

We did this because a real smart guy named John Foster had the idea to inventory all the other real smart guys' ideas. Even before we began assembling our forces in Saudi Arabia as the prelude to Desert Storm, Johnny Foster convinced then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney to survey all the Defense Department and industry research labs to see what ideas they were playing with. Along with the survey, weapons buyers got authority to take some of these experimental technologies into production without spending months or years in the normal procurement process. As a result, the Iraqis literally didn't know what hit them. Most of our people didn't even know about then-new systems like the JSTARS aircraft.

One of the reasons we had such complete control of the ground war in Iraq is that early versions of the JSTARS command and control aircraft were put into action. JSTARS uses complex radars and other sensors to pinpoint and track forces on the ground and can do so with accuracy that is truly awesome.JSTARS was an experimental system in those days. Technicians were literally rewriting the computer programming day by day as the war progressed. Newer, more capable versions of JSTARS will work even better in the coming war against Iraq.

The Defense Department is already doing what it should. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is fielding new weapons without waiting for all the paperwork. The new "thermobaric" bomb which reaches down deep into caves not only to kill the occupants, but also to burn up their chemical and biological weapons was rushed from the lab into the field.

Mr. Rumsfeld and the war-fighters will continue to grab useful technologies out of the labs and put them in the field. But Mr. Rumsfeld's action is not enough, because it deals only with military needs. This is a war without a "front" where the fighting occurs. The front in this war is wherever the terrorists are and wherever they can threaten us, whether it's Baghdad or Boston. We must remember that the terrorists' war here is focused on our economy. They want to attack us in places and ways that will halt commerce and damage our ability to conduct business. We need to be fielding technologies that can protect lives as well as key economic assets.

It's pretty clear that Congress will pass some sort of incomplete Homeland Security bill by the fall. It's also pretty clear that the new agency will not be able to coordinate technological breakthroughs the way the Defense Department does. The technologies that should be readied and made available to help civilian security shouldn't wait for Congress and the new agency to sort themselves out. The threats won't wait.

Consider just one example. When FBI Director Robert Mueller said that al Qaeda was trying to smuggle shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles into this country, he pointed to the kind of threat that we should be dealing with through technology. These missiles, both the American-made Stinger and the Russian "Strela," use heat-seeking guidance to take the missile to its target. Commercial airliners are completely unprotected from missile attack. Were a coordinated series of strikes on commercial aircraft to occur, lives would be lost, air traffic would be grounded and our economy would suffer a tremendous blow.

But we can protect commercial jets. There's a system that affixes six sensors on the aircraft's wings and fuselage to detect and track the missile, fires a wide-beam laser to blind it, managed by a computer all of that in much less time than it takes to describe it. Unfortunately, it's stuck in the procurement process, while someone tries to sort out which among three companies should build the system. But one company has the best sensors, another has the best laser and a third has the best processor. Unless someone grabs the idea and forces it into production (taking the best part out of each of the three and jamming them together) it may be years before our airliners have this kind of protection. There is no good reason to wait to do this.

Civilian security should benefit from new defense technologies long before Congress gets off its duff. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge is clearly underemployed. Mr. Bush should order him to coordinate with the Defense Department and the intelligence and civilian agencies to pick the technologies we need now and get them into production. Pushing technologies out of the labs and into our hands may answer quite a few threats and save a great many lives.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide