ASEE Prism Magazine - September 2003
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Winning Edge

Engineering Researchers Helped the U.S. Triumph On the Iraqi Battlefield and Will Play a Crucial Role in Transforming the Military of the Future

- By Bruce Auster

HE IRAQI MILITARY never knew what hit it. The American force that steamrolled into Baghdad in just three weeks is vastly more sophisticated than the one that fought and won the Gulf War just 12 years ago. Yet what is most remarkable is that much of the gear—the tanks, the ships, the fighters and bombers—are the same platforms that were used to run Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. Everything's the same, yet everything's changed.

Technology developed by engineers in university research labs across the nation helped make the difference. All sorts of satellite, sensor, and communication technologies that helped the United States defeat Iraq quickly and with relatively few casualties evolved from research conducted over the years at many American schools, including Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Berkeley. The Pentagon shelled out almost $1.2 billion in 2002 at university engineering labs for basic and applied research. Interestingly, researchers may not always be aware that their work formed the basis for some military technologies. The convoluted trail that technology often takes from basic research done at universities to applied applications cooked up in the labs of the Department of Defense or its contractors often means it can be hard to trace much of it to its origins, says Paul Czysz, a professor emeritus of aerospace and mechanical engineering at Saint Louis University.

University researchers will continue to play a crucial role in the future. In an interview with Prism, Arthur Cebrowski, director of the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation, outlined the broad areas of research that he hopes engineers at America's research universities will take up in coming years: electrical, mechanical, and computer science. These represent the fields where the United States military still needs improvement as well as where Cebrowski predicts that research dollars will be available. His predictions carry weight, particularly with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. “I establish the capabilities and needs with the hope that DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], Defense Research and Engineering, and the scientific community will follow,” he explains. The coming years could be something of a golden age for military research as the Pentagon tries to reinvent the way it does business. Everything could change, from the way the military strikes targets (old: smart bombs; new: directed-energy weapons) to the way it moves troops and equipment (old: ships and helicopters; new: fast airships). “In general,” says Cebrowski, “we're at the point of diminishing returns for systems born of the Cold War and the industrial age.”

The American military's unmatched strengths are speed, precision, and firepower, and it is the power of information that made it all possible. Dramatic advancements in the ability to see the battlefield have allowed the U.S. military to outpace opponents. The use of satellites and global positioning systems allowed the American forces to inflict more damage by making each strike a precise hit. The military used Unix-based computer systems from Sun Microsystems, a company whose heritage can be traced back to research first conducted at Stanford and Berkeley and, in part, funded by DARPA. Satellite communications research that began in the mid-70s at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory has resulted in voice and data services capable of being used on the battlefield. The research enables the military to use “affordable, anti-jam communications to networks of small tactically mobile users,” according to the lab. The global positioning system piggybacked on technology that was devised at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab more than 40 years ago. That technology, known as Transit, was initially used by the Navy to give its nuclear Polaris submarines a navigational fix while remaining submerged. But Transit–which used only four satellites (GPS relies on a constellation of 24)–was the first satellite-based navigation system.

And looking ahead, the military will call on engineering researchers to correct some of the shortcomings that an otherwise successful campaign exposed. The lessons for the future are being drawn from the experience on the battlefields of Iraq. There was much that was new and different about the Iraq war. The numbers tell the tale:

  • In the first Gulf War, about 7 percent of all ordnances were precision munitions. This time, the number was about 70 percent. And those Gulf War vintage precision munitions already seem prehistoric: Because they were laser guided, cloud cover had the nasty habit of turning the early smart bombs into dumb gravity bombs. Against Iraq this time, precision munitions were guided by a constellation of GPS satellites.
  • During the Gulf War, the United States unveiled two experimental planes called JSTARS; this time there were some 14 of the surveillance aircraft, which can track movements of troops and tanks in real time on the ground. And MIT also had a role in developing early versions of the radars used by the JSTARS. Research commenced more than 25 years ago at the Lincoln Lab led to multiple antenna surveillance radars, which can work from fast-moving platforms and detect slow-moving targets, despite the presence of strong ground clutter.
  • During the Gulf War, there were no unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the fight. This time there were some 50, scanning for Scud missiles and watching every move of Iraq's army. According to the Lincoln Lab, research conducted there in the 1980s helped “develop the moving target indicator radar for UAVs.”

Seeing the Enemy

But the real key is that these types of technology allowed the United States military to see the battlefield—often in real time –while its enemy could not. That level of battlefield awareness allowed the United States to dictate the battle. The Pentagon has a new term for what is, essentially, a classic concept: Network Centric Warfare, which Cebrowski defines this way: “We saw the power of shared awareness, particularly in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, [and] very high-speed networking.” A networked force—in which the Air Force can talk to the Army and surveillance systems can instantly share data with attack aircraft—changes the nature of the battle. “The principal thing that gives you speed, again, is the sensing, and networking that does that,” says Cebrowski. “It's the same vehicles. Their engines don't run any faster than they were before. That was not the limiting factor.” The basic idea is that you connect the sensors with the shooters,” says John F. Leahy III, chief of staff of Sun Microsystem's Federal, Inc. and a former Navy officer with degrees in engineering and computer science. Last year Cebrowski told the New York Times that the whole notion of network centric warfare was made possible because of Sun Technologies.

On this new battlefield, engineer-designed sensors become nearly as important as firepower because what set the Iraq war apart from past conflicts was the ability of the U.S. military to conduct surveillance, analyze intelligence in real time, and immediately strike what had been spotted. That is why unmanned aerial vehicles were among the most important weapons systems in the war. The United States flew about 16 Predator UAVs and a smaller number of Global Hawks. “We didn't have it in the Gulf War and used it a little in the Balkans,” says Michael Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Budgetary and Stategic Analysis, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “It basically allows you to stare at your enemy, takes away his options, and allows you to react immediately,” says Vickers. Key missions for the Predators and Global Hawks during the war involved searching for and suppressing the use of Scud missiles.

Predator and Global Hawk allowed the Air Force to conduct what Vickers calls “persistent surveillance,” meaning that the unmanned vehicles could linger, providing round-the-clock coverage of the battlefield. So while these systems were not fielded in great numbers, their contribution was dramatic. Global Hawks, for instance, flew about 5 percent of all intelligence missions during the conflict. But those missions accounted for 50 percent of intelligence required for time-sensitive targets, defined as those that needed to be hit immediately or be lost. In some cases, the surveillance drones were also the attack craft: Almost half of the 16 Predators in the theater of operations were equipped with Hellfire missiles, so they could strike what they saw.

Seeing the battlefield, then, was the first dramatic advantage American forces had over the Iraqis. A second edge was firepower. The aerial bombardment during the first Gulf War lasted 38 days before ground forces attacked and began to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. In the recent war against Iraq, air strikes and ground operations occurred simultaneously, and according to Air Force figures, far more of the sorties flown involved strikes against targets. Much of the critical bombing was done by big bombers, including the workhorse B-52 and the long underused B-1. Neither of these aircraft is stealthy, like the super expensive B-2, but they were pressed into service in this conflict to go after the Republican Guard. “They weren't plinking tanks,” says Vickers. “They were whacking major formations.”

Far more of those strikes hit the targets they were supposed to hit because far more precision munitions make up today's arsenal. And those precision munitions—including Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from ships or submarines, as well as Joint Direct Attack Munitions dropped from aircraft—were guided to their targets by global positioning system satellites. That meant that poor weather or sandstorms failed to slow the air campaign. According to one estimate, the weather was not clear for about half the days of the war. Nevertheless, U.S. forces cancelled just 4 percent of flights during the 21 day campaign, and two thirds of those were during a particularly intense sandstorm. “It is new when you can provide close air support under all weather conditions and at night,” says Cebrowski.

The routine use of global positioning systems made possible the precision strikes that characterized the air campaign; but GPS also changed the way the Army and Marines were able to see the battlefield from the ground. According to Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there was about one GPS receiver in each Army company during the first Gulf War, or about one for every 180 soldiers. During the Iraq war, the military fielded more than 100,000 Precision Lightweight GPS Receivers (PLGRs), which amounted to about one for every nine ground troops. The systems help troops navigate and avoid shooting at friendly forces. According to press accounts, a new and improved version of the GPS systems can identify allied forces based on their GPS coordinates, as well as spot enemy forces. More advanced systems—including a hand-held model—are already being developed.

Fast-paced warfare puts even greater demand on engineers to help foot soldiers, who must be able to keep pace and to see the battlefield more clearly. The Iraq war marked one of the first instances of the creation of what is being called the “land warrior,” or more simply, the information-age grunt. Infantrymen, who some years ago would have been lucky to have had a radio in a nine-man unit, can now speak into the tiny boom microphones that are fast becoming standard issue for GIs, as commonplace as the M-16 rifle or the Kevlar helmet. “Everything used to be hand signals,” says Vickers. “In the information age, that's nutty. Special forces pioneered the idea of personal communications for everyone.” So now, the soldier's ensemble includes a GPS receiver, night vision gear, and a personal communications system. “It's still expensive,” says Vickers, “but to conduct a fast-moving, 24-hour-a-day war, you need communications, you need sensors.”

Engineering the Transformation

The outcome of the war and the lessons learned from it will have important implications for the shape of the military in coming years, and even decades. Some of what has already caught Cebrowski's eye suggests shortcomings with the new way of war—as well as implications for future research, development, and procurement. There are even hints of weakness in areas of strength. For example, as noted, real-time surveillance made it possible to spot important targets and then strike them quickly. But the sensors work best “close-in.” And that presents a problem. Says Vickers: “All these assets are nonstealthy and close range. They're only OK in a benign environment.” That is why one new program being considered aims to create a ground-tracking surveillance system (not unlike the airborne JSTARS program) that would be based in space. The program, called Ground-Moving Target Indicator radar, or GMTI, would provide the persistent surveillance that was so critical in the Iraq war without putting the systems (like Predator) in harm's way.

There is a similar problem with precision bombing. As already noted, the Iraq air campaign relied on heavy bombers, whose payloads pack a big punch. And because they are long-range aircraft, they can loiter above the battlefield until a target is identified; the strike near the end of the war at a residential site where Saddam Hussein was believed to be hiding was carried out thanks to a combination of timely intelligence (in that case a human source, on the ground) and a bomber circling in the sky, ready to strike at a moment's notice. Again, however, there is a problem: Most of America's bomber fleet is not stealthy. B1s and B52s cannot, on their own, penetrate enemy air defenses. That suggests that if the United States needed to fight a more potent adversary, the advantages of persistent surveillance and precision strikes might not be as overwhelming. If the United States were serious about solving this problem, the Pentagon would have to spend many billions of dollars to design a new bomber. An exploratory project is underway at Wright Patterson Air Force base in Ohio and aims to have something that might be built by 2012. There are two approaches: build either a slow, subsonic plane that is stealthy enough to loiter or build a supersonic (or even an exotic hypersonic) plane that can respond and get to a target very, very quickly. These programs, of course, are still a long ways off.

Other lessons Cebrowski is drawing: Army attack helicopters did not perform well during the war; they often took fire. In the new military, in which each element of the armed forces may specialize in what it does best, it may make no sense to place a slow-moving Army helicopter in harm's way when targets can be struck from long range by the Air Force instead. Another lesson: The weapons that will remain critical elements of the armed forces are those that can be networked. “We have ample evidence that networked forces simply outperform forces that are not networked. As a matter of fact, if you want to know what good candidates are for forces to be removed from the rolls, look at those that are incapable of being networked.”

The military of the future will likely be lighter and more mobile; in fact, the Pentagon is already reconfiguring the way it bases troops around the globe. In Korea, for example, the United States is beginning plans to pull back from the demilitarized zone and even reduce the number of soldiers and airmen based on the peninsula. And it means the Army, in particular, will have to remake itself. Its controversial Future Combat System is at the heart of the debate: The Army would give up its heavy tanks for lighter vehicles; in effect, ground troops would be trading the physical protection of armor for information protection. In other words, modern surveillance technology would allow U.S. forces to see the enemy first, so that light armor would not be vulnerable. The Future Combat System would also employ robotics, so that soldiers would not be exposed.

The Role of Research

But the real work for many scientists and engineers won't involve weapons systems already in development. Instead, the military hopes university scholars will play a central role by contributing basic research that could drive the Pentagon's effort to revolutionize the armed forces. For example, Cebrowski has identified nonlethal weaponry as a key area for future research. “We have a moral obligation to kill as few people as possible,” he says. “It's terrible when you look at an account of a security checkpoint where people were killed.” A related research field is directed-energy weaponry, which could be used for lethal and nonlethal missions. A third area: The Pentagon is looking to reinvent the way it maneuvers its forces. That means, in essence, replacing the helicopter. The military is interested in an airship that might carry up to 1,000 tons of cargo at high speed. The research might involve materials science, among other areas. The Pentagon will be studying research on hybrid cars to find ways to reduce fuel consumption, which is a major burden. And the military is also interested in new ship designs, particularly those that can alter what is called the speed/drag curve. Breakthroughs there would allow ships to carry more, faster. Finally, says Cebrowski, he is interested in what he calls “tactically responsive space.” That means being able to put a payload into orbit on the order of a military commander and have it play a role in battle. “This is new,” he says. “We're trying to change the risk calculus, to invite new ideas, new technology, and new people.” Engineering researchers will be important players in this new army, fighting the nation's battles the way they know best: in the labs.


Bruce Auster is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at


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