[Peter Goldmark] Generation of weapons: small, smart, anonymous
Published : Jun 19, 2011 - 18:31
Updated : Jun 19, 2011 - 18:31
A new generation of weapons is being born.

They are small, smart and anonymous.

There’s a company on contract to the Pentagon building a drone ― a remotely piloted air-going craft ― no bigger than a small bird. Another military contractor is developing an invisible mist to be sprayed on enemy individuals or vehicles, thus “painting and tagging” them to be recognizable electronically without their knowledge. A third contractor has developed a small drone only 2 feet long that can be carried in a knapsack and fired from a mortar like a fireworks rocket whose wings unfold after launching. The demand for these small attack-drones arose in Afghanistan, where troops had remote visual equipment that allowed them to observe guerrillas planting roadside improvised explosive devices, but no weapon they could use immediately and guide to the target with pinpoint accuracy. Calling up an airstrike with blockbuster bombs that arrived hours later just didn’t fill the bill.

All this is a big jump from the GI slogging through the rice paddies of Korea with a knapsack and rifle. These new weapons are changing the role of humans in war. In traditional warfare, you generally knew who the enemies were and where their armies originated. Guerrilla warfare is a little more complicated: You know why and how they’re fighting you, but their tactic is often hit-and-run-and-blend-in ― and they can be very hard to identify if they look and act like the civilians among whom they hide.

But in the new era of remotely controlled, miniaturized weapons systems and cyberattacks, sometimes you just won’t know who your enemy is at all.

If a drone plane arrives over your village and fires a rocket at a house concealing an important target, how are you going to be sure who sent that drone? A computer virus called Stuxnet was used to temporarily cripple the Iranian project to build a nuclear bomb. This brings us to the arena that offers the biggest possibility for anonymous destructive action: the Internet. We’ve seen examples of sophisticated hackers gaining access to protected private information and, in a couple of cases, to well-guarded defense installations. We have not yet seen a large-scale, destructive attack by another state or rogue group against a country’s computerized banking or electricity transmission systems, for example.

But we do know there are a handful of countries that do have that capability ― and that handful is growing in number every year.

In the financial arena, stealth and surprise, traditional weapons in the business world, may be used to mount a takeover attempt, or to corner a market in a rare commodity. We have seen attempts to corner the silver market in the past few decades; we have seen organized attacks on the currency of sovereign nations; and as we enter a period of food scarcity, we will surely see attempts to manipulate grain commodity markets. But we have not yet seen an attack aimed at gaining financial, political or military advantage by seriously disrupting the entire financial system of an enemy. It’s now possible for an enemy to do this.

This may sound like science fiction. It is blood-curdlingly real.

And like every technological development in the history of warfare ― from the horse-drawn chariot and the siege cannon to 20th century inventions like machine guns, tanks, aircraft and missiles ― the arrival of remotely controlled precision weapons will create a new set of winners and losers.

By Peter Goldmark

Peter Goldmark, a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund. He wrote this for Newsday. ― Ed.


(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)