On June 26 we attacked Baghdad with 23 unmanned missiles launched from 300 to 600 miles away. It was a seminal change in the art of warfare. Although we saw this same action during Operation Desert Storm, the lesson was lost in the plethora of other activities. We should learn it now if we are going to reshape our military sensibly to the demands of a new world order.
The message: Sophisticated technology is increasingly being placed in the weapon, rather than in the platform that launches it. In this case it made no difference that the cruise missiles came from a destroyer and a cruiser at sea. The platform could have been an aircraft carrier or a merchant ship; a B-1 bomber or a 747 airliner. The missiles needed no pilot or ship's captain to see their target. Some 17 to 20 of them hit the buildings they "saw" in their computers.
In a period of budget stringency, this should tell us it is not a time to design and buy new high-performance aircraft and large aircraft carriers. Rather, we should invest in those technologies that made the raid on Baghdad possible: remote reconnaissance systems to locate what we want to strike at without having to place a man on the scene, and guidance systems that will hit a target we choose.
Today we're limited to striking at targets that are geographically fixed. Tomorrow it may be anything that moves. Today we count on the small size of cruise missiles to make it difficult for defenders to knock them down in flight. Tomorrow stealth technology may make them nearly invisible.
We selected cruise missiles rather than supersonic aircraft for this mission because we did not want to lose pilots or have them captured. We also wanted to minimize the loss of innocent Iraqi lives by using accurate weapons. These concerns for human life will continue to be more important to us than the key disadvantage of cruise missiles; they cost about $1 million each.
Small, accurate operations like the Baghdad raid will be a continuing demand on our military. We will face more problems with nations that support terrorism, or engage in aggression against their neighbors or their own people. But even in more sizable military undertakings, we will turn toward sophisticated weapons that make high-performance launch platforms unnecessary.
In the Desert Storm air campaign, only a small percentage of the munitions dropped were unmanned cruise missiles, or "smart" bombs guided from aircraft. Yet they did most of the damage.
The trend is unmistakable. Slowly modernizing our fleet of manned aircraft, while developing this unmanned capability, is a low-risk effort.
Desert Storm showed us to be far ahead of the competition with the high performance aircraft we now have. Delaying their replacement would allow us to build a new generation of aircraft that accounts for the capability of cruise missiles. Of course, there will be a transition period. But it will not require anything like the number of new air frames we are now considering.
What stands in the way of a move into this new era? Ironically, one impediment is our legitimate quest for nuclear arms control. With the best of intentions some advocates of arms control suggest outlawing all cruise missiles as the best way to get control of those with a nuclear capability.
Cruise missiles are so small that it is difficult to count them. The conventional versions, such as we employed against Baghdad, are almost indistinguishable from the nuclear ones. It appears to be easier to ban these missiles than to control them. But we must abandon this plan. We should not give up a weapon that minimizes loss of life and is so well suited to our responsibilities in the world around us.
Besides arms control, the major impediment to moving into this new era is military tradition. Alec Guinness once played the lead in a marvelous play about a colony of ants. He was the colony scientist who invented DDT. The ant generals, realizing that their traditional modes of warfare had become outmoded, desperately objected to fighting wars with chemicals -- since it meant they could not eat their defeated enemy! We'd best eat some traditions of our own.
Adm. Stansfield Turner, USN, Ret., is a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.