Since before CNN showed us video of Operation Desert Storm?s laser-guided bombs literally going down chimneys and through back doors, the United States has had a collective obsession with fast jets, black-box electronics and ?smart? weapons.

There is no doubt that high technology does wondrous things in warfare. It vastly increases the U.S. military?s ability to detect and engage threats at greater ranges with greater accuracy, which in turn helps it better protect its own soldiers.

Unfortunately, however, all those electronic gizmos and smart weapons aren?t perfect. As the Kosovo conflict and recent air strikes in Iraq demonstrated, even the best technology can miss its target or be fooled by decoys.

Also, faulty intelligence and human error will always be a problem ? it is considered poor form to destroy a target and later find out that the CIA mixed up its list of Serbian military installations in Belgrade with its world directory of Chinese embassies.

Most importantly, high-tech weaponry does not come cheap. According to abcnews.com, the U.S. defense budget for fiscal year 2001 is roughly $290 billion. Although the national budget is approaching $2 trillion, that?s still quite a bit of money.

Apparently it?s not enough. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in order for the Pentagon to purchase the new weapons it wants, it would need at least an additional $90 billion a year.

Assuming the money existed ? which it doesn?t ? the additional expenditures would drive defense spending above the average year spending during the Cold War.

So what costs so much?

Much of the money would go to the purchase of three new types of aircraft. The Air Force wants to build 339 new F-22 stealth fighters over the next five years ? at $200 million a plane. The Navy and Air Force want to construct more than 2,500 of the newly developed Joint Strike Fighters over ten years at a similar price. Finally, the Navy wants to buy 338 of the latest version of its F/A-18 fighter-bomber.

Presumably, the new planes represent considerable advances over their predecessors. However, the United States is militarily already first in the world by far. In a major war, no one country can really match the combination of quantity and quality of this country?s armed forces. Most that can come close are in Western Europe and have been our economic partners and military allies for the last 50 years.

So the impulse to spend $90 billion a year to modernize an already advanced military machine seems highly questionable, especially in light of pressing domestic and international social problems.

Besides, in a conflict like Kosovo or the even more politically confusing example of Bosnia, what could a plane like the new, stealthy Joint Strike Fighter do that the current F-16 attack aircraft couldn?t?

In practical terms, not much. The F-16 already outclasses anything that the Serbians could field against it, and it represents an effective, flexible and fairly cheap weapons platform. Any improvements in the Joint Strike Fighter would probably be overkill, for a much higher price.

Also, flying faster, higher and stealthier doesn?t ensure that it will be able to tell who exactly the bad guys are in the confused, multifaceted conflicts of the former Yugoslavia ? conflicts that are likely going to be the norm for the first 20 years of this century.

Finally, fielding expensive new weapons systems may hurt the military?s fighting ability by forcing the armed services to cut back in less visible, yet vital areas of their budgets. Cuts in training budgets and logistics decrease military readiness and hinder American ability to respond rapidly to problems in the far corners of the world, while neglecting the pay and welfare of soldiers and their families hurts morale.

In short, technology plays a useful part in modern conflict, but it?s not worth it to break the budget to pay for extravagant new programs. Lawmakers and military planners need to realize technology?s limits and avoid viewing it as a magic pill that cures all problems associated with contemporary diplomatic and military



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