It was one of those internet features, written for The Fiscal Times to tweak curiosity and lure me to distracting ads. But this one was relevant, I thought, to the Syrian Red Line crisis. The title was, “12 Weapons That Changed Everything”. What they came up with was this:
1. Club (bone, stick, rock) (Cave-man era)
2. The Greek phalanx, spear/shield formation (750 BCE)
3. Gladius, short sword (400 BCE – 300AD)
4. English longbow (600 AD – 1600 AD)
5. Gunpowder (900 AD)
6. Rifled gun barrel (invented 1500, not widely used until 1848)
7. Colt revolver (1836 to present)
8. Belt-fed machine gun (20th Century).
9. The tank (1916 – present).
10. Atomic bomb (1945).
11. AK-47 (1947).
12. Drones (present day).
In my opinion the unknown author missed at least four very important weapons, the submarine (Civil War), poison gas (WW I), the intercontinental ballistic missile (Cold War), and the satellite-guided cruise missile.
The technologies to perfect the cruise missile came together during the Cold War, including its efficient gas turbine engine, GPS navigation system, and terrain-hugging radar. It is widely advertised that the accuracy of these weapons is within 15 feet of an intended target, something that is extra useful because advanced intelligence satellites can identify and pinpoint targets with great precision.
As we can see from the list above, the advance of technology until the mid 20th Century entailed making weapons ever larger, faster and more powerful. But something radically changed when nuclear, chemical and biological weapons were developed. The instant destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the horror of nuclear weapons of mass destruction and ironically motivated nations to decline their use. The use of poison gas in WW I had a similar effect on its use and it was banned from war by protocol in 1925. Nerve gas, a particularly nasty form of the weapon, was discovered in 1936 and was in production by Nazi Germany at the end of WWII, but wasn’t used in any significant way until the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system. And of course, Saddam Hussein used poison gas on Iraqi Kerds in the 1980’s, but that was mustard gas.
The change from broader and more massive weapons design to more precision-guided types seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the public. This is consistent with the changed nature of war itself. The Vietnam war was likely the last in which sheer number of troops was as important to the fighting function as the technology, and it was the last war in which conscription was used. Today’s combatants are far fewer in number but are much better trained and equipped.
The question of whether it is practical for the U.S. to be the world’s policemen ought to be seen by the Congress in this new context. President Obama has seen the potential for precision-guided drone weapons and has used them to greater effect than any president before him. He sees the same potential in them for holding the line on poison gas as well. But if Congress is to support him on this, two things are needed. They and their constituents need to understand that warfare has fundamentally changed, and that this same technology, including satellite intelligence, now makes it possible to enforce a ban on WMD’s. Something tells me they don’t. Hope I’m wrong.
- How Obama Got His Tomahawks (wchildblog.com)
- What’s it like to launch a Tomahawk missile… (h16613.com)
- Mission All-But-Impossible: Destroying Syria’s Chemical Weapons from the Air (swampland.time.com)