The United States military can deliver any level of lethal force to a vehicle or particular room within a building any place in the world. The ordinance delivered now hits the target designed with almost perfect accuracy. In places where it is mobilized to do so, it can strike within five to twenty minutes or so after a decision is made to strike. Elsewhere, it could take up to as much as a few hours to organize a strike.
This reality dramatically changes the jobs of troops on the ground at times when they have a few minutes at their disposal to call in a strike, as opposed to responding to an attack in the immediate moment. All that local forces need to have where the strike on a target the size of a vehicle or building will take place, is to have someone with personal knowledge of the situation to confirm that the target should be hit, and someone to mark the target appropriately.
This has profound implications for how it makes sense to organize U.S. military forces from an offensive perspective. And, someday, when the military opponents of the U.S. catch up with their capabilities, the U.S. will need to dramatically rethink how it can defend against these kinds of tactics.
When this very lightly equipped forward observer acting alone in the field "tags" a fixed target, or tags a moving target before it can remove a tracking chip and escape visual surveillance by someone or some reconnaissance resource in the force, it will be destroyed. The military is capable of giving this single individual in the field (perhaps subject to the veto of someone back at headquarters monitoring the observers actions) the power to mark any place or any vehicle for destruction and anyone who is there at the time for death.
This is not flying cars technology. These are practical military resources that are in place, or can be implemented with existing technology. Moreover, the minimum size of the lethal blow that can be delivered is getting smaller over time. At this point, the minimum blow is about the size of a single tank or artillery shell, perhaps twenty or thirty pounds of TNT.
But, we are not far from a day when it may be possible to deliver explosive force no bigger than a single grenade or a large bullet.
Implications for the nature of modern warfare
In a world where a single soldier with a cell phone can destroy any building, and a soldier who can place a tracking chip can destroy any vehicle, there are revolutionary implications for the nature of modern warfare.
* It is much less important for front line soldiers to carry around large amounts of heavy ordinance in big military vehicles with big crews on strike missions. A handful of artillery batteries and a couple of aircraft in the air are sufficient to give ground troops in an entire metropolitan area this capability at just a few minutes notice. Very light forces away from their bases out in the field can have immense offensive power.
* No amount of passive armor is effective against the lethal tag of a tracking chip glued to the outside of a moving target by hand or with a paintball gun, or having a fixed target's GPS coordinates determined. If a target is better armored, a bigger, more armor penetrating missile that is as big as is necessary to breach it, can be directed at that particular target, without increasing the cost of ordinance directed a less well armored targets.
* The people who actually deliver the lethal force in these kinds of arrangement are reduced to being little more than technicians carrying out a ministerial task from a distant position of safety. The people who actually load and fire the missile or artillery round now have jobs that have more in common with the secretary who types up a general's orders, or the mechanic who prepares a fighter jet for takeoff, than with the traditional soldier on the battlefield or pilot ready for a dogfight. More generally, a much larger portion of the force which was historically seen as engaged in a combat position, is now basically "part of the tail" of the military operation, rather than the being part of the "tooth" of the force.
* The real battlefield soldier now in this kind of operation is generally going to be the forward observer, who is the only person in the operation who is harm's way, who is closest to where the strike will eventually take place (although he may be long gone by the time the missiles actually hit their targets), and who exercises the most discretion in the operation.
The forward observer must be informed enough and close enough to confirm that the target is something that needs to be destroyed and to mark it.
Soldiers in the military intelligence are no longer merely as acting in a supporting role to soldiers who do the "real" fighting. They have increasingly become part of the tooth of the operation, rather than being part of its tail.
* Put another way, we have reached a revolution in military affairs in which the question of how to destroy the enemy has become almost trivial and secondary to the primary question of who the enemy is and where the enemy is located. A solution to the second question now has an almost cause and efective consequence wehn it comes to what happens next.
* Often the job of marking a target doesn't require a human forward observer on the scene at all. Increasingly, nobody at all in the force is on the front line. Everybody is back at the base.
A combination of advanced planning to mark possible targets before they need to be hit, satellite imagery, civilian tips, long distance targeting binoculars and telescopes, and reconnaisance drones (or more mundanely, preplaced security cameras networked to a central base) will often make it possible to mark a target and authorize a strike without ever having put the soldier authorizing the strike in anything close to harms way.
Still, even when "tagging" a target doesn't require the on the scene presence of a soldier, somebody in the chain of command still has to be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, which takes expertise which is frequently impossible to obtain anywhere but on the ground.
* This incredible "tag, you're dead" way of making war has the potential to level the playing field in the asymmetric war of attrition between well funded and well organized counterinsurgency forces like those of the U.S., and insurgents who have never been able to win outright, militarily, but have historically been able to impose massive expense upon counterinsurgency forwards with minimal economic costs to themselves and win a war of attrition that counterinsurgency forces may eventually decide to stop fighting because they are costly and indecisive.
* The skill set that is important to someone who is marking targets or who is deciding which targets should be marked are much more like those of CIA agents, special forces operatives, and mid-grade military officers, than they are like those of traditional battlefield heroes. Understanding who the bad guys are often takes high levels of specialized skill in foreign languages and obscure foreign politics and cultures. It also requires investigative skills more familiar in police detectives and FBI agents than in soldiers.
* In a counterinsurgency war context, it is effectively impossible to sustain any kind of military base or vehicle in a military force unless the U.S. counterinsurgency force knows it exists but can't get any of its forces somewhere they can see it, or doesn't know where it is located, or doesn't know that it exists. Absolute secrecy at all times becomes a supreme imperative. Large open battles become suicidal.
Implications for the balance of power
* Pax Americana remains the political and military reality of our age. Our military capabilities and strong alliances with other militarily powerful countries make our military capabilities irresistable to any country that does not have nuclear weapons or a ally with them who is willing to intervene on its behalf (e.g. North Korea, China, Russia or Pakistan).
Any other wars that take place without the intervention of one of these sponsors continues only because the United States, as a matter of policy rather than power, has decided not to intervene decisively on one side or another in the conflict.
Overwhelmingly, the current military conflicts in the world in which the United States has decided to refrain from intervening decisively are civil wars, or wars conducted in the close sphere of influence of an interested nation with nuclear weapons.
* Fortified bases and armored tanks and personnel carriers and ships and warplanes only matter if you can manage to keep the U.S. military or a similarly equipped military force out of your territory, either because diplomatic considerations or nuclear threats keep them from acting, or because you are a military near peer to them in conventional military capabilities.
The Iraq War established definitively that a moderate sized late model air force and large stock pile of tanks and artillery and late model anti-aircraft weapons were not even a close match to the capabilities of the United States and its first world allies when engaged in full fledged, international, conventional warfare.
Tanks and warships are sitting ducks that can be obliterated in a matter of days or weeks, if the U.S. and its allies control your airspace. The edge that this provided to the rebels in Libya was enough to tip the balance of power on the ground, without much involvement by the U.S. or its allies in the ground war phase of that conflict.
The only military resources that can survive a situation once the U.S. and its allies control your airspace is one in which you have submarines that it can't find, or light military equipment (no heavier than mechanized infantry) that can be hidden from their intelligence efforts.
Only a handful of countries that lack nuclear weapons and are not extremely reliable military allies of the United States have any significant submarine resources. If one counts North Korea as a nuclear power, then Iran with 23, Vietnam with 2, Egypt with 2, Indonesia with 2, Columbia with 4 are pretty much the only ones and only Iran is anything close to a foreign policy "enemy" or has more than four of them. In the entire Mediterrean Sea there are only two submarines that belong to countries who are extremely reliable military allies or have nuclear weapons. In the whole of the Americas there are another four. In the Pacific and Indian Oceans combined (beyond the reach of Iran's coastal submarines) there are just four divided between two countries who aren't particularly close allies of each other. Iran's capacity to use its submarines to exercise power in the economically and militarily critical Persian Gulf makes it unique in the world in military clout among countries without nuclear weapons who are not extremely reliable military allies of the United States.
* To prevent the U.S. or a similarly equipped military force out of your territory for reasons other than diplomatic considerations or nuclear threats, you need some combination of state of the art anti-aircraft defenses and state of the art air to air combat capabilities that can't be defeated by long range missiles, satellite imagery, U.S. special forces operations, and stealth fighters and bombers. No country in the world that does not have nuclear weapons can mount an overall successful defense of its airspace against these U.S. offensive capabilities right now.
The list of nations without nuclear weapons who are not extemely reliable military allies of the United States with significant air to air fighter resources is similar to those that have submarines: Iran has 189+, Egypt has 89, Myanmar has 69, Indonesia has 22, Syria has 85, Saudi Arabia has 82, Eritrea has 6, Morocco has 22. And, again, very few of those are anything close to a foreign policy "enemy" with whom a conventional military war with the U.S. is conceivable.
The U.S. has 277 air to air fighters in its air force alone, according to the same source, and its are state of the art worldwide, Egypt and Saudia Arabia bought their fighters from us and weren't allowed to buy our very best models. No one seriously doubts that the U.S. could if it was moved to war and it the other country had no ally with nuclear weapons, obliterate the Air Forces or Myanmar, Indonesia, Eritrea or Morocco.
Iran, Egypt, Syria or Saudi Arabia, if any one of them were standing alone, would never be able to hold their airspace against a force including both the U.S. and its allies in the region.
Syria has been able to hold onto its Air Force so far and use it against its people, only because the U.S. and its allies have refrained from destroying it for diplomatic reasons (most importantly, the lukewarm support of long time Syrian ally, Russia, which has nuclear weapons).
One could imagine a united Arab League plus Iran maintaining a united front having some chance of sustain control in a battle to control their airspace against the United States, Israel and their European allies. Indeed, we have allowed Egypt and Saudi Arabia to purchase large numbers of advanced air to air fighter aircraft precisely in order to create at least the appearance of a balance of power between Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East in order to secure peace diplomatically. But, these nations have never been united against anything but Israel which has nuclear weapons, the firm allegience of the United States, the less firm allegience of the rest of the Western world, and some of the most impressive air to air fighter resources and anti-air missile defenses in the world of its own.
* U.S. stealth fighter and bomber resources, technical intelligence resources and long range missile resources could conceivably be used to incapacitate the nuclear weapons of some nations that have them before they could be used.
* The capacity that the U.S. has to mark targets is easily replicated and effectively impossible to control without shutting down the GPS system that has so many military and civilian uses to the U.S. entirely in a region.
Unfortunately, restricting access to guided munitions isn't that easy either. The science and engineering concepts behind guided missiles are widely available, and this also makes it easier to obtain otherwise secret plans for building them, or to obtain one from which reverse engineering can be conducted, further reducing the scientific and engineering investment needed to do so. No hard to get materials are absolutely required to build them. Guidance systems can be assembled mostly from commercial, off the shelf, electronics parts and sheet metal and springs. All of the components except the guidance systems are already in hand and assembled in most moderate sized nation's military arsenals since most countries have been able to purchase dumb missile munitions already.
It is almost impossible to set up missile defenses every place that a conventional guided missile or munition could be used as a terrorist weapon, and it seems as if it is only a matter of time before people who want to use them in that matter will secure access to them.
How is it done?
The forward observer's "offensive equipment" which is used to "tag" a target doesn't have to be heavier than a smart phone, a pair of binoculars, a loaded paint gun, and a pocket full of tracking chips. Other than that, he needs whatever a soldier on patrol would like to have on hand to be comfortable and respond to surprise attacks - perhaps a flak jacket, a canteen, a sack lunch and a standard issue rifle. Any vehicle that can carry one soldier is big enough for him and his gear (or her and her gear).
In the case of a fixed target, a target can be marked by determining the three dimensional GPS coordinate of the target, either with a device not much more sophisticated than a cell phone, or from other intelligence such as satellite imagery, sites identified and cataloged long before the need to strike, and a Google Street View image. The target can be fit with an accuracy of up to a few feet.
In the case of a moving target, it can be marked by marking it as a fixed target and striking before it moves, by having a person or device (perhaps on a small reconnaissance drone or on a strike drone or on a missile approaching the general location of the target) confirm its location in real time, or by affixing a tracking chip about the size of a quarter to the target that is not removed before the strike is complete.
A tracking chip could be placed by hand. Or, it could be done from a distance with a glorified paintball gun that would quietly and with no more drama than a bit of gravel flying up from the road hitting a car, affix the tracking chip with some sort of glue to the target.
When the U.S. has airspace access nearby or can place an artillery battery nearby, in five to twenty minutes or so from the time a decision is made to strike.
Command and control of these missiles can be handled from a combination of military bases in the United States and secure forward operating bases to manage aircraft, drone and/or artillery assets, without putting the soldiers delivering the lethal force at serious risk of harm from enemy forces.
The practice of having these resources on call is essentially what the U.S. has done in fact in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.S. and its allies have effectively had total or almost total control of the air space, after the first few weeks or months, for almost the entire duration of almost every U.S. war since World War II including recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia.
In these situations, all that is necessary to maintain this capability is to have one or two drones or aircraft in the air at all times in an area within several dozen miles of the desired target, or to have one artillery battery within a dozen miles or so (the exact range depends upon the weapon) of the intended target on call to make strikes as directed.
In situations where fighter aircraft or artillery batteries are not close at hand, additional time to active a naval ship or submarine in the region with cruise missiles that is within range, or scramble and deploy a stealth fighter or bomber, possibly supported by airborne refueling planes if the distance is great, could take as much as a few hours.
What does it cost?
This amazing U.S. military capability has become surprisingly cheap and will become dramatically less expensive when patents on the simpler missile guidance technologies expire.
The technology to mark targets requires no technological innovation and is affordable as military procurement goes. Devices for marking targets, either a cell phone like device, or a tracking chip shooter, can probably be brought down to less than $10,000 per soldier and should last for at least several years of regular use in the field. The cost of tracking chips can probably be brought down to under $200 each complete with glue in remotely delivered rounds, and probably under $50 each if placed by hand.
The guided missiles and guided artillery rounds that carry out these strikes are expensive ($20,000 to $100,000 per missile) but this is mostly because the manufacturer is using intellectual property protections from patents to recover R&D costs. But, something close to 95% of this cost disappears when those patents lapses sometime in the next twenty years. The manufacturing cost of guided ordinance without guidance systems more advanced than GPS and systems to point them towards tracking chips is on the order of a couple of thousand dollars per round.
Putting this capability in place in theaters the size of Afghanistan and Iraq has necessitated having a rotation of just a handful of delivery systems comprising less than two percent of total U.S. military aircraft and artillery resources mobilized and available to deliver strikes at any given time.