New weapons change the nature of war itself. This has always been so, but the rapidity of change has been especially great in our century. In 1914, as World War I broke out, the new idea of fighting was to hit the enemy with as many men and weapons as often as possible. The new rapid fire machine gun got its test in battle. Not much skill or aim was required; just mow down the enemy as they approached. Skill no longer mattered and ability and years of training had become obsolete.
But no Gatling-gun or machine gun could penetrate the armor of a tank. Though the tanks of World War I were slow, awkward, and inefficient compared to their present descendants, their presence was enough to break a soldier's spirit. The airplane and the German U-boat were also put to their first test in that war. From planes, hand-held bombs were dropped on targets. The U-boat made the allies reconsider how to fight wars at sea.
World War I was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen yet. Big armies fought bigger ones. The more men sent in, the better. Victory depended less on strategy than on not being first to run out of men.
With the exception of gas, all these weapons were used again 20 years later. The machine gun was now a smaller hand-held version for every soldier to use. Tanks, submarines, and airplanes became yet more powerful; to them were added nuclear weapons and rockets.
During the Cold War, despite all the treaties, nuclear weapons came to be guided by the computer, which was uniquely talented in finding a target. Eventually almost all military vehicles and missiles were guided by computers.
Moreover, the Russians launched Sputnik, putting an artificial satellite into orbit. The descendants of the V-2 had changed the world. Weapons could now hover above and nothing could be done about it - at least until the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan planned to put futuristic Buck Rogers-style weapons in orbit to shoot down Soviet missiles. Lasers, plasma weapons, and interceptor missiles - all these were promoted as "defences."
The cessation of the Cold War has not ended the reliance on mass destruction. Though there is a good prospect for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, war itself has not come to an end, and a new metamorphosis of warfare is underway - though it is coming so silently that hardly anyone is noticing it.
The Gulf War was a turning point, with its "smart" weaponry. Computer guided weapons were able to pin-point and engage the enemy. An example of these weapons was the laser-guided missile (LGM). A single LGM could carry out the same mission as a squadron of planes - possibly more effectively.Tanks were computer-guided and night-vision technology allowed targets to be located in low lighting conditions. Common infantry soldiers wore uniforms that protected them from the elements, with night vision equipment and lap-top computers. If soldiers of the past were stereotypically considered to be of low intelligence and social status, those of the Gulf War were highly-trained and intelligent. The whole U.S. army moved as a single unit, and everyone knew what the others were doing. Iraq was quickly overwhelmed.
The Gulf War opened a floodgate of weapons technology.The laser guided missiles of the Gulf War had been used in experiments as far back as Vietnam, but were regarded as too complicated. Now that the Cold War had ended, science fact has nearly caught up with science fiction.
The ideal of mass destruction is now obsolete. The smaller, the quieter, the more secretive the weapon, the better. Rockets and missiles are controlled by computers, and tanks, cars, planes, and even guns are becoming fully automated. We can get a glimpse of future weapons from such sources as Alvin and Heidi Toffler's book, War and Anti-War.
Out of the five human senses, sound is perhaps the most necessary. But now sound has become a weapon. It has been discovered that certain sound frequencies have surprising effects on the human body, such as causing uncontrollable bowel movements, unconsciousness, or (according to rumor) even death. Allegedly, armies can be halted by a sound so powerful that they can not even hear it. There is also supposedly a "sonic bullet" - a projected sound wave that acts like a bullet. The "peaceful" applications of these sonic technologies are for riot control or even the excavation of earth.
In 1994 Japanese scientists created the world's smallest working car. It can drive around on a dime; an electron microscope was used to build the engine. Tomorrow, the smaller the enemy, the harder to detect. The harder to detect, the more dangerous. Imagine a person walking into a high-tech military base carrying a container full of 100 robots, nearly invisible, like tiny insects. Near a supercomputer, the robots are released. Their function is to remain dormant inside the computer until a radio signal is sent; then they are to seek out and destroy the power source, disabling the defence system. Although this situation is still theoretical, many U.S. robotic scientists believe that by the year 2020 robots could be small enough to enter into the human body through the skin. This field is known as nanotechnology.
Space technology has also begun using sound and robotics. Today's satellites can pick up radar images from all over the world, and can single out individual targets. It is rumored that some satellites can read the time on a person's watch or pick up infrared images that can distinguish between individuals. This type of technology creates new possibilities for warfare. Instead of using an assault team to fight an enemy, a satellite spots the enemy, who is exterminated by high intensity ultra-sound (which is capable of causing earthquakes), plasma beams, or even lasers. From orbit, satellites can identify the individual heat signature of a high ranking political opponent (even inside a building) and destroy that person.
In 1877 the Satsuma rebellion broke out in Japan. It was the last stand of the Samurai. To become a Samurai took decades of training. In their day no opponent could withstand their ancient form of fighting. Yet at Satsuma they were slaughtered by the rifle. For most of the next century war was won by arms and numbers. Death came in mass numbers, not individually. Atomic war was no contest of skill. Discipline was sacrificed for the sake of supremacy.
Yet like the ideals that came before it, the "mass" approach of the 20th century may also be dying out, replaced by a form of warfare that seeks efficiency, minimization, and secrecy. The same ultra-sonic technology that looks at unborn children may also be used to neutralize entire armies. The mass destruction that was brought in with the nuclear era is now on the way out. Efficient and even non-lethal ways of fighting are on the way in. The common soldier is acquiring training, education, and discipline that would make the Samurai envious.
Components for the weapons of tomorrow can be found at a computer shop or hardware store. Such secretive weapons, designed to be used in small numbers, will be hard to monitor.
Now is the time to think ahead and consider the arms control and disarmament problems that these weapons will bring. Instead of waiting for the new technology to become real, now is the time to bring accountability and publicity to these trends, to scrutinize the plans and debate their implications. Is this the next challenge for democracy?
Derek Smith studies sociology at Erindale College, University of Toronto.