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jueves, 30 de junio de 2011

Killer Drones, Stealth Jets, Spy Planes: Bob Gates’ Legacy in Military Tech

On his way out the door at the Pentagon, Robert Gates leveled with the military. A staggering $700 billion in defense R&D and gear since 9/11 led to only "relatively modest gains in actual military capability," Gates said on June 2. No giant robots, jet packs or sharks with lasers. But in a way, that made Gates' job easier, since the arch-realist was never about military fantasies, anyway.

As Defense Secretary, Gates protected the military's huge budgets for four and a half years. But while he did, he took a firm aim at popping the military's fantasy bubbles that inhibited durable technological and martial innovation. He tried to reboot what the military buys around a simple principle: reality. That is, buy what's immediately relevant for troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what will be relevant to those facing the most likely threats of the future. That's meant blast-proof trucks, intelligence gear and radio frequency jammers, not giant planes that shoot laser beams. He'd be the first to say he's had mixed results.

Thursday is Gates' final day as secretary of defense. His technological legacy is a dual one: not just an explosion of robots and whole new commands for online warfare, but a junkyard full of military futurism that was archaic when he first stepped into the building. Gates can't know if history will vindicate his perception of the threats the military is most likely to confront. But while the self-styled realist cut a lot of cherished military programs, a reflection on the military tech he favored -- and disfavored -- shows that he was mostly out to cut back on cherished military fantasies.

Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles

One of Gates' biggest successes comes from an uncomfortable vehicle that happens to save lives. The hull of the MRAP is shaped like a V, so it deflects and absorbs energy from a bomb blast better than a standard Humvee. Buying MRAPs for the bomb-packed roads of Iraq would be a no-brainer, right?

Not for the military, which fretted about having too many MRAPs at the end of the wars. A dumbfounded Gates went outside the typical Pentagon procurement process to surge them into Iraq and Afghanistan at the torrid rate of over 1000 per month, culminating in a whopping 27,000 of them purchased. With homemade bombs surging as well in Afghanistan, Gates' MRAP push saved the lives and limbs of thousands of soldiers and Marines.

The Killer Drones

Drone warfare hardly started under Gates' tenure at the Pentagon. But in 2007, shortly after he arrived, it accelerated to a whole new level.

That's when the Air Force began flying the Reaper drone above Afghanistan. The Reaper is a Predator drone on steroids, able to fly twice as high, three times as fast, and carrying eight times more Hellfire missiles and smart bombs.

All of a sudden the military had a whole new option against terrorists in places it couldn't invade. From 2004 to 2007, Predators launched merely nine strikes into Pakistan. The upgraded drones turned that into a full-fledged shadow war, with 33 strikes in 2008, rising to a stunning 118 in 2010. Those drones are now patrolling Yemen and Libya (though the drones hunting Moammar Gadhafi's men are Predators, not Reapers).

The drones are only getting more advanced. By 2018, the Navy should have one that can take off and land on an aircraft carrier at the click of a mouse. The third generation of the Predator, the stealthy Avenger, is on its way, and can stay aloft for at least 6 hours longer than the Reaper. That's enough time to think long and hard about outsourcing assassination to robots flown remotely, halfway around the world.

F-22 Raptor

Before 2009, if you asked the Air Force brass what its future was, you'd have heard a lot about the F-22 Raptor. The fighter pilots at the helm of the service believed that the stealthy fighter jet, with its aircraft-destroying missiles, essentially guaranteed U.S. dominance of the skies for decades to come. For years, they said the Air Force needed 381 of them. At least.

But when Gates looked at the plane, he saw a $250 million aircraft that wasn't even flying in Iraq or Afghanistan. He capped the F-22 at 187 jets in 2009 -- which, to the Air Force, was synonymous with killing it. His counteroffer to Air Force futurists: the Joint Strike Fighter, a family of fighter planes shared with the Navy and Marines, and a flying armada worth of drones.

The Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle

One day, when the wars end, the Marines won't be a second U.S. land army. When that day comes, the Corps insists, they'll need an updated, armored vehicle to take them from a ship to a beach while under fire. Just one problem: It spent nearly 20 years and $3 billion just to get to a testable version of its Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle -- which carried an estimated price tag of another $13 billion. Oh, and its light armor made it vulnerable to shoreside homemade bombs.

Gates finally gave the so-called "swimming tank" the budgetary heave-ho in January. But it didn't come without massive angst in the Corps, which felt that killing the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle was a prelude to abandoning amphibious warfare, the life's blood of the Marines. Gates won the battle. But no sooner did he win than the Corps began talking about a new amphibious vehicle that sounds suspiciously like the old swimming tank.

Photo: U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command

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