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War Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card May 26, 2003

Global Hawks and Raptors

Country music usually doesn't try to be cool -- but it often tries to be truthful. Tracy Byrd's "The Truth About Men" (written by Tim Johnson, Rory Lee, and Paul Overstreet) explains to women what men are really thinking.

But I think it could also be said by America to the world at large:

"We ain't wrong; we ain't sorry; and it's probably gonna happen again."


I recently got a letter from a military wife who had just found out her reservist husband would remain in Kuwait until February. She said:

"Many people do not understand that just because the war itself is off CNN and FoxNews, that does not mean that our soldiers, sailors and Marines are finished with things.

"They also appear to have difficulty understanding that because one or two units are shown returning to their families, many others remain secluded, wishing for wives, husbands and children who are half a world away. (I am personally helping several wives in our unit who are so hugely pregnant they look about to burst at any moment.)

"Our husbands still believe in the reason they went to fight. You merely have to look at the pictures and vignettes that they send in letters and emails to see why Iraqis needed to be saved from the destructive force that was the Ba'ath party.

"I also worked with a Chaldean woman (an Iraqi Christian) and I know that its important that he's there. Please keep reminding Americans that yes, we do have men and women over there and yes, it is for a good reason."


I just got back from a weekend trip to Langley Air Force Base, where I got a chance to look at the unclassified aspects of what is going on at the Air Force Command and Control, & Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Center -- otherwise called AFC2&ISRC. (The job they do is C2&ISR).

These are the people who, when the Battle of Iraq was about to begin, were told to bring out their cool new machine, the remotely-piloted Global Hawk aircraft.

This plane can, in fact, fly itself -- it takes off and lands by itself, when you need it to, and can make point-to-point flights without intervention.

But it's real power comes when it is piloted by guys on the ground.

Pilots can only be effective for a certain period of time. When a plane takes off, you only have so many hours before you need to bring the pilot home so he can rest.

But not with the Global Hawk. It can stay in the air for more than 24 hours. Pilot gets tired? You swap him out -- it doesn't affect the plane.

In practical terms, that means you can send this aircraft over an area where ground forces are about to advance, and it can provide superb reconnaissance.

Then it can hang around for a couple of hours, doing nothing, till the advance actually begins. Then it will provide continuous reconnaissance feedback to the forces on the ground -- the realtime eye-in-the-sky that commanders have always dreamed of but never had.

Yes, I really do mean that one of the big advances here is that the plane can do nothing for a couple of hours.

You see, a pilot hanging up there in the air gets just as tired doing nothing as doing something. No matter what, that plane is coming back home after eight hours, and so you either have to use two planes, or choose between advance surveillance or realtime surveillance.

Not with the Global Hawk.

Here's the funny thing: This plane was not ready.

As the guys at AFC2&ISRC said, this plane was still in the "science project stage." It was not in production, it was still a prototype.

But it was needed. So they stuck it together with gum and duct tape (well, not really) and send it to the Persian Gulf.

The team of pilots remained in California. The head of the team was living with his Mom, coming to work each day -- no risk at all of having any of the pilots killed or captured.

How did the plane perform?

It had optical sensors, for daylight. It had infrared for night. It had synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to see the ground through sandstorms.

Major General Bob Behler, finishing up his term as commander of the Air Force C2&ISR Center, pointed out that the Global Hawk has "appropriate" technology.

There exist cameras that can read the license plate on a Volkswagen -- but all Global Hawk needs -- all the commander on the ground needs -- is to know it's a Volkswagen.

There exist sensors that could give you the exact engine temperature of that VW. But all the commanders need to know is whether the engine is on.

The Global Hawk gives them exactly what they need.

This plane provided only 3% of all air-based imagery, and made only 5% of all high altitude reconnaissance sorties.

But it generated 55% -- more than half -- of all the time-sensitive target data used to shwack Iraqi air defense assets.

Because of images from Global Hawk, our forces were able to target and destroy within minutes 13 full SAM (surface-to-air missile) batteries, 50 SAM launchers, 70 SAM transporters, and ... 300 tanks. More than a third of Iraq's known inventory of tanks.

This from a plane that wasn't yet officially available for combat duty.

To keep complete coverage of a whole battle area the size of the Battle of Iraq, four Global Hawks would be needed.

Fortunately, that's how many we'll have.

Unfortunately, if we were fighting two wars simultaneously, we'd have to choose which one would get this plane.

Why? It's expensive.

So is the new F-22 Raptor air-superiority jet -- the plane our pilots will be using in the near future to sweep the skies of enemy aircraft and clear the way for planes like Global Hawk and our smart bombers and unmanned Predators to operate safely and effectively.

Right now, our existing planes and pilots can dominate the skies against enemies with unimproved planes from other sources. (Especially when, as in Iraq, the head of the Iraqi Air Force never allows a plane to take off, effectively letting us know that he is not going to waste any of his pilots to defend a doomed regime.)

But we have enemies whose planes have been much improved, making them potentially a match for American planes.

Nobody puts pilots in the air who are a match for American pilots, who are superbly trained and who fight like free people.

Anybody who thinks that doesn't make a difference hasn't seen the difference in attitude of Americans abroad. Part of what makes Americans so obnoxious is that we don't just obey orders from people in authority. We have to have an explanation.

But once we have that explanation, then we're able to judge, for ourselves, how best to achieve the goal instead of just blindly following instructions.

The result is that not only do our pilots control their aircraft perfectly, they are bold, resourceful, and creative -- and they fulfill their assignments even when things don't go according to the script.

But the new Raptor, expensive as it is -- and man, does it cost -- will give those pilots a machine that nobody's plan can match. Nobody in the world. And there's nobody who's even close to being able to do so.

Is it worth the cost?

Well, think about it. If we face an enemy who can keep us from establishing air dominance, that puts every soldier on the ground -- and every pilot in the air -- at far greater risk. We will pay back in blood any money that we save.

But if we have fighter planes and pilots that simply cannot be beaten, then we are saving lives continuously on the ground and in the air.

The power to destroy any other nation's air force does not mean that we intend to do anything of the kind.

But knowing that we have that power will make it far, far less likely that anybody will attempt to take us on.

Our next war will not be identical to this one. In fact, our enemies are right now studying everything we did in the Battle of Iraq, trying to find weaknesses.

For instance, now they know they have to try to shoot down the Global Hawk, because that's why Saddam couldn't move his troops under cover of a sandstorm.

That's why we need to have the weapons that will make it impossible for future enemies to exploit any weaknesses they think they may have found.


By the way, in military language, "kill" does not mean physically killing a human being. The word has long been used to mean "destroy the target." An empty tank is still a "kill."

But it was disturbing to a lot of civilians to hear these smiling American soldiers cheerfully talking about "killing five tanks" or saying, "Whenever they moved, we killed them." As if killing meant nothing.

That's why I strongly advocate that the military change its language. "Kill" should be reserved to refer only to the known death of a living being. A different word should be used for "destroying the target."

I think that word should be the one General Behler used: shwack. It conveys the real meaning much better than "kill."

The military's goal is to shwack the enemy. But if the enemy soldiers have the sense to get out of the tanks, out of the SAM sites, out of the trenches, nobody has to get killed by all that shwacking.

We'd always rather that the enemy soldiers be eliminated by turning them into civilians who can return to their families and help rebuild their country after the war is over.

Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.

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