Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Good News, Bad News

There's a a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times on the latest in weaponry being developed for the military, much of it on spec by the builders. The goal is to provide the Pentagon with smaller, cheaper, more effective ways to kill the right people in 21st Century warfare.

Under mounting pressure to keep its massive budget in check, the Pentagon is looking to cheaper, smaller weapons to wage war in the 21st century.

A new generation of weaponry is being readied in clandestine laboratories across the nation that puts a priority on pintsized technology that would be more precise in warfare and less likely to cause civilian casualties. Increasingly, the Pentagon is being forced to discard expensive, hulking, Cold War-era armaments that exact a heavy toll on property and human lives.

The keys to the new development are miniaturization and the current darling of the military set, the pilotless drone. Here's just one example of the new technology being developed for the new kind of war being fought:

Marines already have small spy drones with high-powered cameras, but what they need is a way to destroy the enemies that their drones discover.

Looking to fill the need, the 13-pound "smart bomb" has been under development for three years. The 2-foot-long bomb is steered by a GPS-guided system made in Anaheim. The bomb is called Small Tactical Munition, or STM, and is under development by Raytheon Co.

"Soldiers are watching bad guys plant" roadside bombs and "can't do anything about it," said Cody Tretschok, who leads work on the program at Raytheon. "They have to call in an air strike, which can take 30 to 60 minutes. The time lapse is too great."

The idea is that the small bomb could be slung under the spy plane's wing, dropped to a specific point using GPS coordinates or a laser-guidance system, and blast apart "soft" targets, such as pickup trucks and individuals, located 15,000 feet below.

There's plenty of good news about this trend. The weapons are cheaper and more effective on the battlefield. There is less collateral damage to civilians and civilian buildings. It's hard to fault the developers and the Pentagon for that kind of thinking.

Still, all of this technology is going towards making a more effective, albeit less expensive war machine. Yes, it provides jobs. And, yes, it is designed to protect the innocent located in the midst of the bad guys du jour. But why isn't this kind of innovative thinking and invention being harnessed in other battles, like the ones against Alzheimer's and diabetes, or the building of levees along rivers prone to flooding?

If long-time contractors are building such weaponry at their own cost, it is only because they know their buddies at the Pentagon will find room for the project in the vast military budget at some point. Life saving projects don't have that cushion in our culture.

And that's a shame.

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