Despite a rising chorus questioning our country's long-range strategies in Iraq, last month's third-annual Military Electronics Show seemed likely to be one place where I'd find virtually unanimous support for the war and subsequent efforts to rebuild Iraq.
To be sure, attendees and exhibitors at MES (an event produced by our parent company, Penton Media) have benefited from the military technology buildup over recent years. The Pentagon priority on upgrading weaponry via ultra-sophisticated electronics has outfitted our troops with preeminent battlefield intelligence. Still, echoing the general populace's growing misgivings about our post-war approach, I did hear concern from MES attendees as to the impact of the Bush administration's request for an additional $87 billion for Iraq.
First, fiscal reality is that government funds routed to provisioning the troops for a prolonged stay in Iraq are defense dollars not available for designing the next level of advanced technologies. In addition, there is concern that the tide of negative press and public discourse surrounding a protracted effort in Iraq will eventually erode public and congressional support for stepped-up military and security spending programs, programs that have gotten essentially a "blank check" since the terrorist attacks on the U.S.
At the onset of the Iraq war, faith in electronic warfare was riding high. The public remembered the starring role that electronics had played in the first Gulf war, where U.S. casualties were limited and computer-coordinated warfare kept ground troops playing a carefully orchestrated role. Going into this year's war, much of the public expected a repeat "shock and awe" campaign: a quick, almost remote-controlled victory followed by a clean sweep-through by ground troops, all facilitated by our superpower electronics.
Prewar press speculated on U.S. use of the "e-bomb," a top-secret weapon that would disrupt enemy electronics using powerful pulses of microwaves. An Associated Press story claimed the e-bomb would "fry computers, blind radar, silence radios, trigger crippling power outages and disable the electronic ignitions in vehicles and aircraft." E-bombs were not to be confused with "smart bombs," the precision-guided missiles "now so accurate they can take out a front door on a house with pinpoint accuracy."
Business Week, in an article highlighting the benefits to commercial enterprise from our investment in military electronics, trumpeted our mini UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and "PackBot" crawler robots. These were both designed to carry chemical-agent sensors and radio-linked cameras, offering the ultimate in reconnaissance data.
Then the realities from the frontlines of a war on terrorism hit. E-bombs? The front page was hijacked by brutal, anti-tech realities with the likes of suicide bombers blowing themselves and our troops up at roadside checkpoints.
Now our country debates the necessity of extended tours of duty in the face of these seemingly daily and decidedly low-tech ambushes and sniper attacks. Postwar media coverage alternates between the mounting U.S. casualties and the travails and expense of extended occupation. Forget PackBots. The buzz is now about bottled water. Newhouse News Service called the ongoing supply of bottled water to the troops "a financial and logistics nightmare that runs counter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's drive to make the military lighter and more agile... In Iraq alone, 45 million 1.5-liter bottles a month, drained thirstily and tossed aside."
As I write this column, President Bush is meeting with the United Nations, under pressure to find multinational support for the rebuilding of Iraq. Meanwhile, the American public's patience is eroding quickly as we face uncertain timetables and our troops' lives in the balance. When it comes to supplying the dollars to keep our troops prepared, few want to say no. On the other hand, pressure mounts to bring our troops home alive and well, as quickly as possible—and to redirect the funding from bottled water to building next-generation, advanced electronics to help keep our troops behind the frontline of terrorist attacks.
On another note, thanks to all our readers who wrote in to point out that the blackout photo in my September 15 Editorial was a hoax. I got raked over the coals by many of you. I could tell you that I was just trying to keep you on your toes, to see how many of you would find the inconsistencies in the photo. But the truth is that I accepted the image at face value and further perpetrated the hoax by publishing the photo in my column. Apologies! I'm always happy to hear from readers, though it's more fun when I'm not being handed my head for technical inaccuracy! At www.elecdesign.com, plug in ED Online 5742 and click on Reader Comments to see further details on the hoax and some actual satellite photos of the blackout.