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Weapons and Strategy for Future Wars

Two books scope out possible crises and how the US will fight them

Digital Soldiers: The Evolution of High-Tech Weaponry and Tomorrow's Brave New Battlefield

By James F. Dunnigan

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St. Martin's Press

309 pp., $25.95

The Next War

By Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweizer

Regnery Publishing Inc.

470 pp., $27.50

What kind of future wars will the United States be called on to fight? What kind of technology will be most effective in these wars? What weapons will be available and how well will they work? What has history taught us?

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These are just some of the questions James F. Dunnigan says military strategists must constantly weigh. He makes a frontal assault on them himself, and emerges with a decisive victory, in Digital Soldiers: The Evolution of High-Tech Weaponry and Tomorrow's Brave New Battlefield.

If there can be such a thing as a readable book on modern warfare, this is it. Dunnigan leads readers through an acronym-mined terrain of TOWs, SAMs, AWACS, HEATs, and their innumerable brethren.

Readers desperate for enlightenment, but short on time, can charge through a 10-minute chapter giving the book's chief conclusions. A glossary helps readers separate SLBMs from ICBMs PDQ (pretty darn quick).

Dunnigan doesn't have "star wars" dazzling in his eyes. But he's not exactly a techno-skeptic, either. In the 1960s and '70s, he points out, the press had a field day exposing faults in high-technology weapons. But by the time they were used in the Gulf war, most performed well. "New high-technology weapons may not work at all that well when first released," he writes. "But if you keep improving them, they will eventually become quite capable in combat. A decade or two of use will usually turn any new weapon into something useful on the battlefield."

The pitfall is to spend too freely on high-tech glitz and ignore other essentials. "Technology is easy, training is hard," he says. "This is why there are so many well-equipped troops in the world who don't know how to use their weapons very well."

The "digital" warfare of the near future means more laser-guided bombs and other "smart" weapons. But it won't mean Terminator-style androids roaming the battlefield. Most crucially, it means a leap forward in communications: Get information to and from your forces faster than the enemy, and you win. "The 'laptop general' and his electronic tendrils will change warfare in ways not seen before in military history," Dunnigan argues.

Taking advantage of new technologies also means giving up old assumptions. Robotic or remote-controlled aircraft and missiles will eventually retire one military icon - that glamorous guy in the sky - the fighter pilot. The most efficient ships may be not much more than floating platforms - packed with 500 missiles but 100 or fewer crew members - a far cry from the thousands of sailors aircraft carriers need today.

For Dunnigan, the cost of developing new aircraft like the F-22 fighter and B-2 bomber doesn't make fiscal sense. Current models can be fitted with new technologies at a fraction of the cost and still be a couple of steps ahead of the competition. Constant upgrading, he notes, was how the M-1 tank went from being an embarrassment in the early 1980s to the state-of-the-art machine that tore through the Iraqi lines in the 1991 Gulf war.

Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweizer love high technology, too, and they've got plenty of it strewn throughout The Next War.

But the real purpose of their book seems to be to keep readers awake at night muttering "Do we have enough?" The "enough," of course, is enough military prowess for the US to accomplish its objectives around the globe.

The authors answer with a decisive "no." To illustrate their point, they offer five fictional future scenarios, or "war games." They assume that the US military will continue its scaling down of personnel, material, and research. The resulting vacuum of US power contributes to Russia invading Europe, North Korea attacking South Korea, a Japanese thrust into south Asia, Iran's assault on oil-rich Gulf states, and a crisis in a corrupt and bankrupt Mexico.

In these scenarios, bad American policy decisions begin in the mid-1990s (long after Mr. Weinberger had stepped down as secretary of defense). The US failed to build a missile-defense system, leaving it open to nuclear blackmail.

These truly "worst case" portrayals, while not totally implausible, stretch the imagination considerably. Could Russia develop a secret missile-defense system, recruit several of its old vassals like Ukraine and Bulgaria, and send highly motivated troops armed with top-notch weapons tramping through Europe? It's impossible to prove this couldn't happen. But should the US plan its military strategy on that basis?

Another scenario shows Japan, suffering a sudden economic crisis in 2007, steaming its fleet south to conquer markets and capture raw materials. After neutralizing China and Taiwan, it nearly succeeds. But would Japan really replay its unsuccessful World War II strategy?

High-tech weapons of today and tomorrow are woven into all the stories (the Russians use lasers to blind German pilots). Readers may grimace as taboos on nuclear and biological weapons are broken. Tactical nukes incinerate cities and armies as political leaders gamble that nuclear exchanges won't follow. Biological warfare by North Korea against US troops opens the way for an attack on the south.

After being thrown for losses, in each scenario the US recovers to blunt the aggressor, albeit at a high cost. The authors may want to make a point about military preparedness, but they know that in any good story the good guys have to win.

* Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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