NPR Talk of the Nation/Science Friday (3:00 PM ET) November 30, 2001 Friday
High-tech weaponry the US is using in Afghanistan
IRA FLATOW, host: For the rest of the hour, we're going to turn to the war in Afghanistan and the military technologies being put to the test as US and Northern Alliance forces battle the Taliban and try to track down Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. And you've probably heard about the Predator, that pilotless spy plane that flies over Afghanistan, takes close-up pictures, almost instantly relays the information to a command center on the ground. It's flying its first combat mission in the war, along with the newer Global Hawk.
Well, high-resolution digital cameras aren't the only sensors supplying soldiers with reconnaissance data. Others are detecting heat and movement, other signals of activity, and reporting to airplanes or satellites above. And this war, more than any other, is taking advantage of these latest technologies, including advances in PC computing and medical imaging to provide the most up-to-the-minute battlefield information to military personnel. You might call it, as some have, the first Internet war.
And so for the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about these high-tech weapons, how they work, how well they're working on the front lines of this war. What else might we need to get the results that the president would like to have? Our number--1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. And let me introduce my guests. John Pike is the director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia, and joins us today from our NPR studios in Washington.
Welcome back to the program.
Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.com): Glad to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Mike Johnson is a retired rear admiral in the United States Navy and the president and CEO of Recon/Optical in Barrington, Illinois, and he joins us by phone from his office.
Welcome to the program.
Rear Admiral MIKE JOHNSON (US Navy, Retired; President and CEO, Recon/Optical): Happy to be with you today, Ira.
FLATOW: I called this--John Pike, is it your terminology?--the first Internet war? Would that be correct?
Mr. PIKE: Well, it's certainly the first war where we have seen the degree of integration of all of the different sensors, all of the different guidance systems, the communications systems, at this level. This basically marks the culmination of a transition that started with the Gulf War. We saw some of these things being introduced during the Kosovo war, but there were an awful lot of lessons learned in both of those wars that are now coming into play here.
FLATOW: How is the technology different from just the war--and I'll ask both of you--just 10 years ago, the Gulf War? How far along have we come?
Mr. PIKE: Well, the big thing that's happened in the last decade, of course, is the Internet, and all of the improvements in wideband communication, distributed high-power computing, networks that we've seen in the rest of American society have had their counterparts on the military side. It's really astonishing when you go back and read some of the stories about the Gulf War, about the way they were having to use a helicopter to haul the air tasking order out to the aircraft carriers because they couldn't download it via satellite, or the way they were having to fax around reconnaissance imagery in a way that would seem laughable to anybody sitting at home with a laptop computer today. And so the military today is using all of these soft-copy digital distribution networks that really were not available a decade ago.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: And I would echo what John has to say. Clearly, the ability to network most of the new intelligence capabilities, most of the new information sharing has meant a considerable increase to our forces, both on the ground and those planners and policy-makers who must be able to keep track of an ever-changing and fluid battlefield in an environment we have not been used to, far, far from any host nation that we have normally been associated with in our past.
FLATOW: So you can move intelligence around so quickly now that the bottleneck thing just becomes the response and the decision making--the human bottleneck. Wouldn't that be correct?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: That is probably a fair assessment. We are probably limited more by our decision abilities than we are today by the amount of information or data that's able to transfer back and forth. It's the ability to use that data in a coherent manner that I think you're seeing just the tip of the sword for, and I wouldn't necessarily say it's the culmination. It is certainly a very increasing path that's been started from the Gulf War through the actions that we had in Serbia and Kosovo.
FLATOW: Is it due to our satellite capabilities more than anything else, increase in that, or just the growth of the Internet?
Mr. PIKE: Well, I think it's due to all of the above, and that's really one of the fundamental attributes of networked systems, that there's no one particular key technology but it's the combination of all of the technologies. There's been roughly a doubling in the raw bandwidth of satellite communications, but through a variety of new signal processing techniques, they can get more signals through it. Certainly there have been a lot of improvements in tactics, techniques and procedures, and learning how to use some of these systems. The Predator drones were first used in Bosnia back in the mid-1990s; they really didn't understand what they were good for, what the limitations were. And after the Kosovo war, I think that they had finally figured out, 'Here's what you use Predator for; here's what you use the satellites for.'
FLATOW: All right. John Pike, Mike Johnson, hang on. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more of the technology of this battle and take questions from our audience, so don't go away. We'll be right back after this break.
I'm Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about high-tech weapons that are being used and even tested out in this war that's going on in Afghanistan with my guests, Mike Johnson, retired rear admiral in the United States Navy and the president and CEO of Recon/Optical in Barrington, Illinois; John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.
When I rudely interrupted John Pike, he was telling us about some of these new drones that you said had a history before this war.
Mr. PIKE: Well, the Predators--this is really their third time at bat. When they were originally used in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, they were basically sending them out to try to find things. And it turned out, with the relatively small field of view that the cameras had, that they had a hard time finding things. By the time Kosovo rolled around, they knew that the Predators were best for looking at things that you already knew the location of. They basically used them to monitor crossroads to very good effect, and although we really don't have any reports about how many of the weapons are working in Afghanistan right now, one of the things that the Pentagon has confirmed is that they are pleased with the results of Predator, even though, as we've known all along, it has a hard time in bad weather and two of them have already crashed.
FLATOW: Mike Johnson, let's talk about imaging. I know that's what your company specializes in. And we've heard a lot of talk about the possibility of imaging and what it might do for us. How might imaging be working now? Now that we have ground troops on the ground and the air campaign is not as intense as it was and we're depending a little more on ground troops, how might the imaging be helpful to them?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Well, the big gains in imagery come from the ability to patch all of the different sources for imagery together into very useful and comparative mosaics for the area of operations that you're in. Previously we were very dependent upon individual platforms, and those were often bottlenecked by where the sources of the film had to be analyzed. Today's changes occur because most of the images can now be digitally processed, moved electronically through those pipes that John talked about, and compared against what had been seen either hours before, days before or sometimes years before to detect the changes that are ongoing in whatever you're looking at.
That has a tremendous implication when it comes to being able to focus your efforts instead of have to do very wide-area searches that before would take hours upon hours. Now your computers can help the analysts to decide what they're seeing and where to look in greater detail. The cameras that we make today--for instance, when compared to the former film cameras, you would be able to shoot with one reconnaissance airplane several hours and maybe a couple of thousand of square miles of imagery. Today you can take over 10,000 square miles of digital imagery in an hour, exploit it on board, exploit it in various places that you have sent it, via either data links or satellite.
FLATOW: Can it be real-time imagery?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: It can be real-time imagery. It can be real-time and what they call near-real-time, and then, of course, you always have the ability to go back and analyze it in greater detail in the non-real-time world.
FLATOW: Admiral Johnson, what kind of signals are we trying to detect beyond the visible imagery here? Are we trying--are we going beyond radios or cell-phone types of signals, too?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Well, the beauty of the network that John described is that you can use signals from multiple different things, whether they're electronic or whether they're visual, whether they're infrared, whether they are from synthetic-aperture radars or other types of radars, and you can blend them all together to help you pinpoint where your areas of search are to a greater extent than we've ever been able to before.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Lots of people want to ask questions, so instead of me asking the questions, like I always do, I'll have our audience do it. Let's go to Bob in Chicago. Hi, Bob.
BOB (Caller): Hi. I wanted to talk to you about--I think it's called synthetic-aperture radar. It was first made public many years ago when they found some buried riverbeds under the sands of the Sahara Desert. But what it's really used for is to find missile silos in solid rock. And I'm wondering if this can be used to find the cave and tunnel systems in Afghanistan.
FLATOW: John Pike, take a guess on that?
Mr. PIKE: There are a number of different imaging radar systems that are being used, from reconnaissance satellites; the JStars aircraft uses a radar system to track vehicles, and that was apparently the one that tracked the convoy that was coming in to try to attack the Marines a couple of days ago. The drone aircraft also have synthetic-aperture imaging radars on them. Really, it is the blend of being able to take this radar imagery, the optical imagery and the other information that you have, combining all of that into a common operating picture, that is going to be the key to tracking down things like the al-Qaeda leadership hide places, where it is that the Taliban fighters have gotten off to.
It's still, though, going to be a very big challenge, and I don't think that anybody can say at this point which of these technologies are going to be most useful, because the war is very far from over.
BOB: Are we still going to be relying on guys on the ground with machine guns and flame throwers to go in and find these things?
Mr. PIKE: The Pentagon says no. The Pentagon is basically saying that the plan is that if we find a tunnel that they're simply going to be collapsing the entrance of it. I mean, I'd have to say that there has been sort of this image developing over the last week or two that, somehow or another, we're looking for this giant cavern that bin Laden and all of his henchmen are hiding in, and somehow or another it's all going to...
FLATOW: The Tora Bora--they've called it Tora Bora.
Mr. PIKE: And I can guarantee you that if everybody in the United States knows about Tora Bora, that's not where bin Laden's hiding.
BOB: Yeah. OK.
FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling, Bob. 1 (800) 989-8255. In fact, there are news reports about the ability of the Global Hawk being able to see 100 feet into some of these caves with some of the imagery going through the rock. Is that correct?
Mr. PIKE: That would certainly go beyond any capability that's been publicly reported. And there certainly are a number of technologies that you can use for imaging underground. Unfortunately, the problem is that they either work under very specific circumstances--the shuttle imaging radar that was referred to only works when you're looking through dry sand into hard rock, or some of the other earth-penetrating radars only work if you're actually on the surface. So most of these are scientific or laboratory devices rather than battlefield systems.
FLATOW: Admiral Johnson, you agree?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: I would concur with that, and it is a problem that is not going to be solved only by technology. Clearly, one of the big advantages we have is the use of many of the indigenous people that are there to help us to determine where the focus should be. But ultimately, I am personally a believer that it's the soldier on the ground who's going to resolve what has to be a visual and a personal view of this type of a fight.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: And it is the only thing that clearly these people that we're fighting will understand.
FLATOW: We've heard reports this week that, you know, that the winter is actually going to be helpful for finding some of these hidden caves, in that the mountains where the people may be hiding out will be warmer from people occupying them inside than the surrounding air, and they might show up easier, these hiding places, on infrared imagery. Would you--Admiral Johnson, would that make sense to you?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Well, you certainly gain a considerable ability to determine temperature differentials that occur when you have a wider spread of temperature. And what you're really seeing when you do that is activity. You're not necessarily gaining intelligence until you use things such as your Predator to get a closer stare or you use Special Forces on the ground or you use other assets that you might have to be able to determine what that activity really means.
FLATOW: John Pike, you agree?
Mr. PIKE: Yeah, and this goes back to the networking question because with the available digital communications, with your ability to fuse intelligence from a variety of different sources, with the satellite navigation system so that everybody knows precise locations--all of these working together are giving you an ability to operate in a much faster decision cycle than was previously possible. How well any of this is going to work, how quickly it's going to lead to a satisfactory conclusion of the war, of course, is a completely different question because it's much easier to describe how the systems work in principle than it is right now to assess how close we are to actually eradicating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
FLATOW: Well, so this is sort of--some of this technology this war is serving as a test bed for.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Well, every...
Mr. PIKE: Well, there's...
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: ...battlefield we've ever had has been a test bed for some type of high technology implementation, on both battlefields as well as on the training grounds. And I don't think that's new. I think one of the things that's new today is the ability for us to use commercialized versions of things that may have been designed to go find geological or oil exploration or archaeological explorations. A lot of these things have now had military applications applied to them, whereas before they may have been reversed. The application would have been developed in the military. Today that may not be so.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Michael in San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Michael.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. You see, my background, I was a technical officer in a project, land-testing program in Ft. Lewis, involving tanks, airplanes, helicopters and jets. So I do have some background. So the first thing, and I would like to see here some comments, is that, in my opinion, the capability of doing field testing has not been used in the United States as much as it could have to develop new technologies. We don't need Kosovo or any other death wars to develop new technology. We could have done it in field testing. I'm sure that there is a proper reply to that and I'd like to hear.
The other thing is that, in my opinion, there has been no technical breakthroughs. If you notice carefully what they have said, it is all things that have been around for a while. And when I spoke to contractors--names may not be mentioned--they all told me it was the lack of funding. And this is also 20 years ago. And there was some inertia because some people see these robot airplanes as personal conflict because--for some retaliation or whatever you call it. Most of the Predators and all of the other things have been around for many years, so I'm sure they know this.
FLATOW: Gentlemen, any reactions to that?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: I'll take that one on...
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: ...a little bit.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: I would disagree that there's not much field testing going on. Field testing is a considerable effort by all of the services, and in joint regimes as well as from the individual service regimes. So much of what you're seeing is a result of field tests that have been done by laboratories, by battlefield labs in the US, by the Joint Forces Command out of Norfolk, Virginia, as they blend these capabilities so that we don't spend money without having some knowledge of what it's going to do.
I would definitely agree that much of the technology that you're seeing out there today may not be new. In fact, drone airplanes flew in World War I. That's nothing new at all. So it's how they're used, how they're networked, how they're put together in a state of the shelf, not necessarily state of the art, environment.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What seems to be newer now are these cruise missiles. I mean, we saw them--I think the public was first made aware of cruise missiles 10 years ago in the Gulf War. Are the cruise missiles much better now than they used to be? We saw pictures during the Gulf War, wonderful shots of guided missiles, not all of them cruise missiles, and then we learned later that a lot of them missed their mark. Are they better today? Are they better guided today?
Mr. PIKE: Well, the cruise missiles that we're using today are satellite guided vs. the much more complex guidance system that was being used back during Desert Storm. These long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles were originally developed to fight World War III. The United States Navy had a lot of time to do mission planning there. And after the Gulf War they really concluded that they needed something that would give them a much more rapid mission-planning capability. And they went to the Global Positioning System satellite navigation system, where you basically dial in the coordinates and the missile knows where to go. We're also using the Joint Direct Attack Munition, which is also a satellite-guided munition. A few of those were dropped by the stealth bomber back during the Kosovo war. Now they're using them in relatively large numbers.
FLATOW: What is that, the Joint...
Mr. PIKE: The Joint Direct Attack Munition is basically a kit, costs about 10,000, $5,000, that you can add to a regular dumb bomb, 500,000-, 2,000-pound, 5,000-pound version, that instead of having an accuracy of, say, roughly a baseball diamond or a football field, it gives you an accuracy of about a dozen feet or so. The accuracy is not quite as good as a laser-guided bomb, but the difference is that the satellite-guided bomb costs about $10,000, can be dropped from any airplane. The laser-guided bombs can only be dropped from certain aircraft, and they cost upwards of $100,000.
FLATOW: Let me remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
We're talking today with Mike Johnson and John Pike about new technology in this war. We've talked about the fact that there are ground troops and that they're going to be indispensable in prosecuting the rest of this war.
What about, you know, these caves?--'cause everybody is interested in these caves? Do we have the kind of technology that will allow us to destroy the cave? Or, as you say, are we just trying to get to the openings and seal them up with a simple explosion.
Mr. PIKE: Well, at this point the Pentagon basically says that their strategy is to destroy the mouths of the tunnels that they belive to be associated with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. And I think it's important to understand that the primary target system here apparently consists not of natural caves but rather of military tunnels, literally hundreds and hundreds of military tunnels, that were built back during the 1980s during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which have been used since by the various warring militias to hide in, to store equipment in, while several of these, such as the infamous Tora Bora complex are quite extensive underground mazes. Most of these tunnels only go back a few dozen, perhaps a hundred feet into the side of the hill. You drop a bomb near the front of it and it'll collapse the front and trap whoever's in it.
FLATOW: How do we know about these, so intricate, the details of these of where they extend? Is the intelligence that good?
Mr. PIKE: Well, some of it's good because the United States was, of course, supporting the anti-Soviet mujaheddin resistance back in the 1980s, worked with some of the people who were constructing these tunnels. Of course, a lot of these tunnels show up very nicely even in commercial satellite imagery. Several months ago we started looking at one commercial imaging from Space Imaging Corporation, and you can see that this Duranta camp complex is just littered with these tunnels that have been dug into the sides of hills. And, of course, if you combine that with much higher resolution military imagery, drone imagery, the intelligence that presumably we're getting from the Russians or the Pakistanis, it would give you a pretty comprehensive appreciation of what could be hidden and where.
FLATOW: Of course, all that imagery was bought up by the government, one of the first acts of the war.
Mr. PIKE: Well, unfortunately we haven't been able to get a look at very much imagery since then, which is, you know, frankly one of the reasons that I was very frustrated with their decision not to allow this imagery to become available to the public because I think that it was very important in helping to understand exactly what a lot of these targets look like because some of these videos that the military's releasing really don't tell you very much.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Let me take a break right now. We're going to come back and talk lots more with John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia, and Admiral Mike Johnson, president and CEO of Recon/Optical in Barrington, Illinois, and take more of your questions about military technology being used in this war. So don't go away. We'll be right back.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
FLATOW: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.
A brief program note: President Bush wants to make sure Americans feel safe at home and while traveling, so join Neal Conan on TALK OF THE NATION at this time on Monday for a discussion of homeland security.
We're talking this hour about the latest military technology with my guests John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia; Mike Johnson, a retired rear admiral in the United States Navy and the president and CEO of Recon/Optical in Barrington, Illinois. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255.
Let's go to the phones to Chris in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hi, Chris.
CHRIS (Caller): Hi. I was wondering if those Predator spycraft you have--I was wondering if they had the thermal imagery things, cameras that can see heat?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Clearly the Predator is--and I wouldn't label it as a spy aircraft. It's a reconnaissance aircraft, which doesn't have to entail spying. But they have both visual and infrared sensors on board those aircraft.
FLATOW: Do they have--we've heard in this last week about magnetic sensors, things like that that can detect magnetic fields. Do they have those kinds of sensors on them also?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: I wouldn't discuss what specifically is on the particular airplanes that are out there, but there are multiple sensors of different types available to the services to use.
FLATOW: OK, Chris?
CHRIS: Yeah, OK.
FLATOW: All right.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255.
Now from what we know about the Global Hawk plane--that this is another high-flying drone which I understand cruises at 65,000 feet. Is that correct?
Mr. PIKE: That sounds a little high to fly.
FLATOW: That's what I was wondering.
Mr. PIKE: Yeah. I mean, basically they come in roughly 20,000-foot increments. The Predators are propeller driven. They're typically going to be flying at 20 or 25,000 feet. The Global Hawk--and this the first time Global Hawk has been used in a combat environment--it's jet powered, typically would be cruising at an altitude of up to about 40,000 feet. And then you go up another 20,000 feet. That's the point at which you'd encounter the U2, which, of course, has a pilot on board.
FLATOW: 'Cause I have two different sources, one from NASA and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronomics, and another is a newspaper article that both say they're at 65, 67,000 feet.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Well, the Global Hawk can be operated at very high altitudes, let's just suffice it to say that. Probably it's classified the altitudes they do their operational missions at.
FLATOW: Well, why would you want it that high, from a technology point of view?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: There's many advantages to operating up there. There's less disturbance from the atmospheric conditions that exist below there. You have the capability to focus your cameras from that altitude that have been demonstrated in multiple different reconnaissance platforms. So...
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: ...it's not an impediment to the ability to collect the information that needs to collect from that altitude.
Mr. PIKE: The big advantage, of course, is that you're flying above the weather. And that's the problem that the Predator has consistently had. If you're cruising along at 20 or 25,000 feet, that's sort of the perfect altitude to run into freezing rain, and that has been a persistent problem with Predator that it does have problems in bad weather and the Global Hawk is basically flying above the weather.
FLATOW: That's pretty thin air up there, almost at the edge, are you not?
Mr. PIKE: It's a...
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: It's...
Mr. PIKE: ...big aircraft. These are not toy airplanes. I mean, I think that there is a tendency to think that because they don't have a pilot in them that they are too small for the pilot to fit into. The Predator is a pretty good size aircraft, and Global Hawk is large.
FLATOW: It has a wingspan of 116 feet.
Mr. PIKE: That's not small.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: It's a 737.
FLATOW: Wow. It's the size of a 737.
Mr. PIKE: Yeah.
FLATOW: That's a big plane. Why would you need it? Well, you're not going to tell me. Why would you need such a big platform? There's got to be some heavy stuff on there, or you need to get it to fly in such high, thin air you need a big wingspan, I would imagine.
Mr. PIKE: Well, part...
FLATOW: The U2 had a huge wingspan on it.
Mr. PIKE: Well, part of it is that basically you're trying to get approximately the same capabilities as the Predator on Global Hawk except that it's at, you know, twice the altitude, which means at least twice as far away. So you're going to need larger cameras, more sensitive electronic sensors, and all of that takes more weight.
FLATOW: Admiral Johnson, is there anything to tell the lay people--you know, you deal with classified information--give us some idea of the sophistication or the advances without giving away the shop here?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: With regard to what specifically, Ira?
FLATOW: I was afraid of that. I don't know. I thought you'd tell me something.
Mr. PIKE: Well, there...
FLATOW: That trick didn't work, I can see.
Mr. PIKE: Their marketing brochures that we picked up at some of the trade shows have some just absolutely breathtaking examples of what can be done with their cameras, and this is one of the things...
FLATOW: Well, give me an idea. Read some of that brochure material.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: The differences in some of the technologies that now exist are that you can do simultaneously shooting visual pictures that are typical of what your digital cameras today, except of a much higher quality than the average person could afford to carry around in their hip pocket. And simultaneously, while shooting IR spectrums, whether it's in the shortwave IR or longwave IR, you could do multispectral dual band imagery, which tells you a lot of things that you weren't able to do before.
FLATOW: Such as?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Well, it tells you, you know, when you look at some object out there and you see it with what the eyeball would see it you don't necessarily recognize that there may be some camouflage or concealment or human activity associated with it until you add the non-visible spectrum that occurs in the various IR wavelengths simultaneously to what you're seeing visually.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: So while that part's not classified, the ability to put them together in the same environment has been lacking before, and now we've made some breakthroughs in technology that allow us to do that.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Most of that technology actually came from the medical field.
FLATOW: We have medical imaging still.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Yes.
FLATOW: Yeah. Now also I would imagine some of the imaging stuff must have come from space imaging technology.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Clearly there was some transfer of that, but it was largely done because of the need to get the medical-type information from looking at a holistic look at a human body.
FLATOW: A few weeks ago--we talked about it on the program--the Pentagon released a plea to anyone who had some new ideas about high technology, you know, devices that they might invent for waging this war, 'Please rush them over to the Pentagon.' You know what I'm talking about? Do you think that's a smart thing, Admiral? Do you think that's going to really get anything useful, that someone who would come up with something now they hadn't thought about before?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: There's always that needle in the haystack. And clearly there have been some people who've walked in off the street with some extremely useful technologies in my career...
FLATOW: Is that right?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: ...and had not been necessarily exploited and needed some more developmental to be able to put into use. And I can name you at least three...
FLATOW: Go ahead.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: ...major--well, I'm not going to give you the specifics of them, but three major technologies that just people off the street with small companies and good ideas were able to bring to the military for future exploitation in other types of systems. And many of them deal with the type of networking of various informations, and it was the one piece of information that might have added clarity to the kind of pictures that you need.
FLATOW: Do we know how well this has gone? Has anybody been following up on how well this request--John, do you know if anybody has...
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Well...
Mr. PIKE: Well, they made an announcement looking for technology in, I believe, about 18 different areas. The deadlines for the initial submissions are coming up later on in December.
Mr. PIKE: And presumably they're going to start the contract awards in the January-February time frame. So I have no idea how many submissions they got. I know that I have probably gotten a couple dozen submissions, unsolicited, myself, so I assume that they have been absolutely deluged.
FLATOW: Considering the speed that this war has progressed, could it almost be obsolete by the time they get in and get it finished?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Oh, Ira, the speed...
Mr. PIKE: Oh, the war is not over yet.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Yeah. The war, as the president has said numerous times, is not a short-term effort.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: And the elimination of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is not the end of the war. So all of these thing will be useful as you try to look at the asymmetric way that these types of extremist groups will be operating against the United States.
FLATOW: Well, I...
Mr. PIKE: This Office of Special Technology has been around for a decade now developing counterterrorism technology, and I'm sure it's going to be in business for quite some time.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Quite some time.
FLATOW: Yeah. I guess I was thinking more of the kinds of stuff that looks through mountains and sees--X-rays mountains 'cause I was looking at the list of stuff.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: We've been trying to do that since...
Mr. PIKE: That will continue.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: ...man first took up the sword.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Cave warfare and tunnel warfare is nothing new.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. I'm Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. And we're talking about new technology, high technology, for this war on terrorism. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to--is it Oriss in Berkeley?
ORISS (Caller): Yes. That's me.
FLATOW: Nice. Go ahead.
ORISS: Well, I was listening earlier in the program when you were talking about how there's sort of all of this information coming in to the people making the decisions and sort of this very top-down view of what's going on, and it struck me that there's kind of a convergence between the way the decision makers are looking at this war and the way people play real-time strategy games. And while it might sound a little absurd, the artificial intelligences, both for sort of overall battle control and for individual units in those games, is getting pretty sophisticated. And I wondered whether anybody has discussed that kind of artificial intelligence, either for helping suggest strategies or for controlling the use of, you know, spy plane type things and so on, making them more sophisticated. And I'll take my answer off. Thanks.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Yeah. How much--well, it's been 10 years since the Gulf War.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Ira, put it into perspective. About 70 percent of the military that we have today wasn't in the military during the Gulf War. So you've got a generation of people who have been using those strategy-type games and other electronic games that are now manipulating some of this data using some of the same techniques that are used in those to help sift through myriad amounts of information that's coming in and are much better able to use it, present it to the decision makers in a logical manner.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: So I would say certainly much of that is being used. But as far as letting artificial intelligence make the decisions, I don't think any of that's going to be used in the near future.
FLATOW: Now I've only got about a minute left. I want to ask both of you in that minute is there one asset, one high-tech asset, that's quietly doing its work that we haven't heard very much about that is very crucial?--'cause you hear a lot about all the big, heavy equipment. Is there something behind the scenes that we don't know about?
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Probably.
Mr. PIKE: With all the money we're spending, I would certainly hope so.
FLATOW: Well, I guess you could point to the, as you say, networking that you never see. No one ever sees that stuff. You know, the networking...
Mr. PIKE: Well, I think that there--yeah, that number one there is this fallacy of misplaced concreteness, that somehow or another there's one specific gadget or device that is the key to it all. But I just want to emphasize again, the war isn't over yet. We don't know how it's going to end or when it's going to end. And I don't necessarily assume that it's the high technology...
Mr. PIKE: ...that is going to make the crucial difference here.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: I would agree with John wholeheartedly. And I think America cannot forget that a lot of the success we're doing right now is because we do have some soldiers on the ground in very high-risk areas and CIA operatives that are in there doing their job.
Mr. PIKE: Who are well-trained and highly motivated.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: Right.
Mr. PIKE: And I think that that may be the secret weapon that we're tending to overlook when we talk about the total story.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: I would 100 percent agree with that.
FLATOW: All right. We'll leave it there. Thank you, gentlemen, for joining me this hour. Mike Johnson, retired rear admiral in the US Navy, president and CEO of Recon/Optical in Barrington, Illinois; John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia. A great Web site there for looking up some of this stuff. I did a lot of homework on there, John.
Mr. PIKE: Thank you.
FLATOW: Thank you.
And thank you, too, Admiral Johnson for joining us this hour.
Rear Adm. JOHNSON: You're quite welcome.
FLATOW: And if you have comments or questions or you missed any of the references we make, you want to go to John Pike's site and look up all this security stuff at GlobalSecurity.org. You can go to our Web site and check out all our links at sciencefriday.com. You can also leave us e-mail there. And if you just want to send regular e-mail, you can send it to sciencefriday.com. TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY can also receive your letters. Yes. You can send us in the old classic mail way to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY, WNYC Radio, One Center Street, 27th Floor in New York, New York 10007.
Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
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