War is about to change, in terrifying ways. America's next wars, the ones the Pentagon is now planning, will be nothing like the conflicts that have gone before them.
In just a few years, US forces will be able to deal out death, not at the squeeze of a trigger or even the push of a button, but with no human intervention whatsoever. Many fighting soldiers--those GIs in tin hats who are dying two a day in Iraq--will be replaced by machines backed up by surveillance technology so penetrating and pervasive that it is referred to as "military omniscience". Any Americans involved will be less likely to carry rifles than PlayStation-style consoles and monitors that display simulated streetscapes of the kind familiar to players of Grand Theft Auto--and they may be miles from where the killing takes place.
War will progressively cease to be the foggy, confusing, equalising business it has been for centuries, in which the risks are always high, everyone faces danger and suffers loss, and the few can humble the mighty. Instead, it will become remote, semi-automatic and all-knowing, entailing less and less risk to American lives and taking place largely out of the sight of news cameras. And the danger is close to home: the coming wars will be the "war on terror" by other names, conflicts that know no frontiers. The remote-controlled war coming tomorrow to Khartoum or Mogadishu, in other words, can happen soon afterwards, albeit in moderated form, in London or Lyons.
This is no geeky fantasy. Much of the hardware and software already exists and the race to produce the rest is on such a scale that US officials are calling it the "new Manhattan Project". Hundreds of research projects are under way at American universities and defence companies, backed by billions of dollars, and Donald Rumsfeld's department of defence is determined to deliver as soon as possible. The momentum is coming not only from the relentless humiliation of US forces at the hands of some determined insurgents on the streets of Baghdad, but also from a realisation in Washington that this is the shape of things to come. Future wars, they believe, will be fought in the dirty, mazy streets of big cities in the "global south", and if the US is to prevail it needs radically new strategies and equipment.
Only fragments of this story have so far appeared in the mainstream media, but enough information is available on the internet, from the comments of those in charge and in the specialist press to leave no room for doubt about how sweeping it is, how dangerous and how imminent.
Military omniscience is the starting point. Three months ago Tony Tether, director of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon's research arm, described to a US Senate committee the frustration felt by officers in Iraq after a mortar-bomb attack. A camera in a drone, or unmanned aircraft, spotted the attackers fleeing and helped direct US helicopters to the scene to destroy their car--but not before some of those inside had got out. "We had to decide whether to follow those individuals or the car," he said, "because we simply didn't have enough coverage available." So some of the insurgents escaped. Tether drew this moral: "We need a network, or web, of sensors to better map a city and the activities in it, including inside buildings, to sort adversaries and their equipment from civilians and their equipment, including in crowds, and to spot snipers, suicide bombers or IEDs [improvised explosive devices] ... This is not just a matter of more and better sensors, but, just as important, the systems needed to make actionable intelligence out of all the data."
Darpa has a host of projects working to meet those needs, often in surprising ways. One, called Combat Zones That See, aims to scatter across cities thousands of tiny CCTV cameras, each equipped with wireless communication software that will make it possible to link their data and track the movements of every vehicle on the streets. …