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An essay on computers in military applications

An essay I wrote for a college class on computers in military applications.

Tracy Reed
CS 440

Computers In Military Applications

Computers have given the modern military a degree of efficiency and
effectiveness that has completely changed the way the military operates at
sea, in the air, and on the ground.  The fast computational abilities and
the accuracy of digital computing enable the military to perform more
quickly with less risk to themselves and with less cost to their

Wars fought prior to the advent of digital computing could take years to
complete and resulted in tremendous loss of property on both sides. 
Weapons of mass destruction used to be the fastest way to achieve the
objective. A discussion with Dan Carroll, Vietnam war veteran and current
contract engineer for major aerospace companies revealed that in World War
II and in Vietnam, American forces employed a technique known as carpet
bombing to wipe out enemy troops and resources. Many large bombers would
overfly an area and drop thousands of bombs in an effort to destroy the
enemy. This proved to be very costly for both sides in terms of property
and human life. The attacking force had to expend many bombs and put many
aircraft and their crews at risk by exposing them to enemy anti-aircraft
artillery and ground to air missiles. But this technique was far worse for
the people on the ground. Entire cities were leveled in one pass and their
populations decimated under a constant stream of falling bombs.  During
World War II, the allied forces launched one such attack on Dresden,
Germany. The attack was so fearce that the entire city was set ablaze in
one gigantic fireball. The heat was so intense that metal objects were
melted and the rising thermal created by the fire created tremendous
wind storms. Anyone in the city not burned to death was suffocated as the
inferno consumed all of the nearby oxygen.

An even earlier example of the brutality of primitive warfare is the
American Civil War. Without computers and aircraft at their disposal,
other methods of mass destruction were used. According to Charlotte Hood,
a Civil War historian studying at Wellesley College, General Sherman,
during his famous march to the sea, burned everything in his path. 
Destroying towns, homes, shops, and added further to the destruction of
the infrastructure and the economy of the south.  

Nuclear weapons threatened to destroy the American continent, Russia, and
other parts of the world for nearly three decades. Like carpet bombing, a
nuclear blast can completely level a city. Such weapons are completely
indescriminant in what or who they destroy. Not only are the intended
military targets destroyed, but countless civilians as well as the city's
industry and infrastructure. Not only is this a tremendous waste of human
life, it makes the city completely worthless to whoever happens to end up
winning the war. Another recent problem due to the development of nuclear
weapons is the proliferation of nuclear materials. As America and the USSR
begin to phase out their nuclear weapons, parts from nuclear weapons and
fissile material from reactors are slowly finding their way to unstable
third world countries. The balance of weaponry between the superpowers was
the only thing that prevented a major nuclear conflict.  Once a small
country with nothing more than conventional guns and troops gets a hold of
a working nuclear weapon, the results could be most unfortunate. 

Assuming that war is inevitable and that enemies must sometimes be
destroyed, small, powerful computers are useful. Weapons can now be made
intelligent enough to know precisely where and what the target is. It is
now possible to launch a projectile from hundreds of miles away and
destroy one particular building in an enemy installation. This sort of
precision warfare is much less expensive in the long run and makes much
more efficient use of resources. When human beings must be killed, we
have the ability to spare the vast majority of people in a city who are
innocent bystanders and target only those directly involved in the war
effort. These smart weapons are made possible by the advanced optical
systems, lasers, and the computers needed to process all of the
information, make autonomous decisions, and take action.

Knowing precisely where a ship, aircraft, soldier, or projectile is
located has always been very important. The Global Positioning System
(GPS) system is used extensively by the United States military for just
that purpose. A group of satellites orbit the earth broadcasting signals
which tell the receivers precisely where they are. It's practically
impossible to launch a satellite without the aid of computers. Computers
are also required to generate the signals sent to the receiver. It is
because of GPS that missiles know exactly where they are. A Tomahawk
cruise missile can be launched from the deck of a destroyer off the coast
of an unfriendly country and pilot itself at low altitude and supersonic
speeds (to avoid being shot down) under computer control using the GPS
system for navigation for many miles resulting in a precision impact with
the target. 

Another use of computers combined with satellite technology is in the area
of reconnaissance. Computers allow the satellites to obtain spectacular
images of enemy territory for transmission to the ground where the images
will be processed by another computer and analyzed by intelligence
personnel. Thanks to reconnaissance satellites like the KH-1, the US was
always able to know what the enemy was capable of, which aided in planning
and in maintaining the delicate balance of the arms race.

Modern fighter aircraft depend heavily on computers for their operation. 
There are more variables than could possibly be controlled by a human
pilot. Some aircraft are even inherently unstable, requiring hundreds of
minute course corrections each second just to keep the aircraft under
control. This allows the aircraft more maneuverability, longer range, and
faster speed. All of these things are big advantages which make the
aircraft more likely to successfully accomplish it's mission.

Secure and efficient communication is essential to the success of any
military campaign. Powerful computers allow for strong encryption
techniques to be used to keep valuable information from falling into the
wrong hands. Older encryption techniques that did not use computers were
always relatively easy to figure out. During World War II the Germans
constructed a device called the Enigma Machine. Allied forces quickly
figured out how to decrypt the information. But today, fast computers can
use large keys to encrypt data using sophisticated algorithms. Many modern
encryption techniques are yet to be broken by anyone after years of

The military does a lot of research and development itself or funds it
through outside contractors. Computers are playing a bigger role than ever
in this field. Computers are used to study everything from simulating the
effects of a nuclear blast to controlling a flight simulator to produce
better pilots. One day, advances in remotely piloted vehicles and
artificial intelligence may make human pilots a redundant component,
eventually to be phased out entirely. Automated tanks may one day attack
other automated tanks. NASA and other agencies are already developing
rovers to explore Mars which may one day become the predecessors of
automatons which seek out and destroy enemy equipment. This would further
the trend in which fewer and fewer people were directly involved in the
act of war and less property is damaged.

However, the added complication of computers means there are more ways in
which things can go wrong. One of the big fears is that computers are
taking over the decision making processes once controlled by human minds. 
While humans can deal with nearly any situation and use conscience and
reasoning, computers cannot. Computers rely on a fixed set of rules which
guide their action and decision making process. Any deviation from the
expected can often result in and unpredictable result. This makes
computers just fine for laboratory and mathematical use, because if an
error occurs, the wrong answer is given or the machine stops operating and
the user just resets it. But a computer which is mobile and armed may take
that wrong number and turn it into an action with potentially disastrous

In many systems, especially those which are automated, there is no human
override. Once a Tomahawke missile is launched, it is completely on it's
own. There is no self destruct command like that which exists on payload
carrying rockets that are launched into space. If something goes wrong
with the rocket, controllers on the ground will usually cause it to self
destruct before it crashes in a populated area. But the enemy could figure
out how to cause our missiles to self destruct and render our cruise
missiles useless if such a command existed. Due to a computer glitch, that
same missile could become confused and attack the wrong target or even
turn against those who launched it. Even defensive systems have been known
to fail occasionally. Anti-aircraft missiles and radar systems must be
intelligent enough to distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft.
There have already been several incidents where friendly aircraft were
shot down. One civilian example is the Iranian passenger jet that was
mistaken for an enemy fighter and destroyed. Computerized systems have
also accounted for friendly-fire fatalities in the military, but these
incidents are usually kept quiet.  The Patriot anti-missile system used to
protect Saudi Arabia and Israel against Scud missiles even had a few
problems. While the Patriot did not really malfunction, it intercepted
it's target directly over a marine barracks, raining explosive debris down
on the building causing many to be killed. While preventing this sort of
thing is probably beyond our current computational abilities, a little
more intelligence on the part of the Patriot missile may have prevented

Another major concern is the fact that the enemy could use our computers
against us. It is believed by some that national governments are engaged
in research programs to develop computer viruses which can be unleashed on
an unsuspecting enemy. If the virus went undetected for long enough and
could spread far enough, the virus could disable a large number of
computers which we have come to rely on. This could potentially make us
easier to overtake in a war. Especially if we become even more dependent
on computers which are so vulnerable to this sort of attack.

Hand held GPS satellite navigation receivers are getting less and less
expensive every day. Many police, taxi cabs, aircraft, ships, and mountain
hikers use GPS to know where they are and where they are going. Some have
theorized that it could be possible for an enemy to transmit their own GPS
signals and mislead vehicles. If this were possible, the results could be
devastating. Airplanes would most certainly crash, ships would be run
aground, and with the enemy controlling the GPS signal, our missiles could
be guided right back at us. It may be possible to simply jam the signal.
In which case many of our modern weapons are useless due to the fact that
they have no idea where they are. Fortunately, ships and aircraft still
have older instruments as backu ps. But a pilot may not be able to tell he
is being mislead and to use his backup instruments until it is too late.
The government seems to think that the GPS signal is very hard for others
to duplicate due to the fact that the way it works is secret. But many
would prefer not to rely on secrecy for protection. If specifics of the
GPS signal were to get out, the results could be disastrous. Public key
encryption of the digital GPS signal might be a good way to prevent this.
It could also provide authentic ation to the receiving device that the
sender was really an official satellite and not a terrorist group trying
to bring down an airliner.

Computers have made the military much better at doing it's job while
actually saving lives. As strange as it may seem, it is true. The usual
objective of a military is to take control of a piece of land. The days of
one thousand soldiers charging a hill only to be mowed down by the
machine gun nests at the top are gone. A single smart bomb can now take
the hill. While there some risks involved in automating so many of our
weapons, they seem to be paying off. The safety record for computer
controlled weaponry has been quite good. Of course, once our enemies
become more technologically advanced, they may begin to learn how to
exploit weaknesses in our weapons systems (such as those that rely on
GPS). But hopefully, we will have developed sound testing procedures for
systems as critical and as dangerous as these. 
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