Saddam Hussein now faces a $1-trillion-plus array of lethal weaponry that's innovative, sophisticated and disturbingly unproven. Should there be war, Iraq will be as much a high-tech test bed as a killing ground.
If the systems perform as promised, they will crack Iraq's military as swiftly and surely as they will save tens of thousands of American lives. If they do not, the Pentagon will have the bitter task of justifying its enormous faith and investment in high technology. And it will raise serious questions about to whether our technological superiority is really as valuable in actual combat as we think it is.
"I think it's a reasonably fair test," says former defense secretary Harold Brown. "It's not guerrilla warfare, where the targets can't be fixed; it's not jungle warfare where you can't see the targets. ... Wherever you use high-tech equipment, there are going to be some environmental problems."
"It's an excellent test," asserts Kosta Tsipis, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program in Science and Technology for International Security and a critic of the Pentagon's high-tech investments. "This will be a test of our weapons rather than our rhetoric."
Robert B. Costello, the Reagan administration's undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, is even more blunt: "If I were there, I would test every modern system I had and see how it worked; I would use Iraq as a proving ground... . A new weapon isn't a threat if the other guy doesn't know it exists."
Ironically, the very sophistication of U.S. military technology breeds as much uncertainty as confidence. Like the Americans who built them, these systems can be unexpectedly temperamental. These weapons are difficult to maintain. Frequently, they reflect our remote-control-oriented pop-culture desire for instant gratification.
The complexity and diversity of these technologies has destroyed any consensus about how well they will perform in battle. There's no question that the United States will hold a technical edge; but there's nothing but disagreement about how sharp that edge will be.
"We're going to find out that overwhelming technical superiority isn't as overwhelming as it ought to be -- that the reality didn't live up to the test program," says former defense undersecretary Costello. "We're going to find out in Iraq that our very complex systems are going to require unusual amounts of maintenance and we're just beginning to understand that."
"If you think command and control of multinational forces will be complicated, just think of what's involved in managing the electronic spectrum with all those systems competing out there," says Bobby Ray Inman, a retired Navy admiral and former National Security Agency chief. "That's going to be a massive job."
"I think we will be unpleasantly surprised," says MIT's Tsipis. "Our weapons are very sophisticated and they will break down frequently in the hostile environment of the desert. Our infrared sensors won't work as well because of the heat. Hot deserts and hot tanks will effect their ability to discriminate between targets ... sand and winds will hurt helicopter performance."
That's nonsense, asserts former Navy secretary John Lehman. "The desert is the perfect environment out there: You don't have the moisture degradation that affects electronics in Europe. Precision weapons using TV cameras can find their targets because of the visual contrast between a tank and the sand."
What's more, says Lehman, "Every weapon that's in the inventory -- everything we've got that's good -- is there. The Iraqis have no idea what they're getting into."
He expects a technology-intensive conflict to "yield rapid success. Success in the air war can be measured in hours; in the ground war, weeks."
Former defense secretary Brown is a little more measured. "Using high-tech things that haven't been tested may risk failure, but it doesn't risk casualties for you," he observes. "On the other hand, these things have been tested quite a lot more than some of their predecessors. But the practice range doesn't fight back, so the first few days of the conflict may not go as well as expected."
Indeed, Brown points out, "We may be expecting too big a military effect even if the weapons live up to their pronounced physical effects. It's not clear that they will shatter Iraqi morale. There's more uncertainty there."
The greatest uncertainty, everyone acknowledges, is what role all this high-tech weaponry will play in minimizing U.S. and allied casualties. The Pentagon's strategy of the past 20 years has been to substitute technology for manpower.
"It was a very conscious policy to invest in high-tech weaponry to reduce the dependence on cannon fodder and manpower," says Lehman, who adds that he's concerned about the number of troops in the gulf.
"We have a manpower-intensive force," he asserts. "It's more of a Grant at Richmond force rather than a Sherman through Georgia force." Lehman fears that this force structure may prompt commanders to deploy troops rather than technology.
Indeed, Costello fears that some commanders might not deploy particularly delicate weapons systems because they want to avoid the specter of failure. "We may be worried that it won't show up as good as it might... . I don't want to be seen as foolish with high failure rates."
That may seem a cynical view, but the multiplicity of technology weapons options begs the question about what trade-offs the Desert Shield command will make. What are the best opportunities to substitute technology for manpower? What kind of technical tactics offer the best trade-off between maximizing damage and minimizing casualties?
Make no mistake: Casualty rates will be a direct function of how effective our technologies are on the battlefield. Indeed, much of U.S. military doctrine is built around that premise. The technology in the gulf is not designed for a war of attrition; it is designed for the maximum amount of destruction in the minimum amount of time.
The Pentagon has put its trust, our money and American lives in a high-tech approach to warfare. If, after trillions of dollars, the technology can't deliver, it will make the savings and loan crisis look like a child's broken piggy bank. The toll in American lives, however, will be incalculable.
But we have to face another possibility: In the final analysis, technological superiority may be able to guarantee only a narrower margin of casualty insurance than we hope for. "We have been following technology and thinking it's the Holy Grail," says Costello.
It never was, and the Pentagon knows that. In Iraq, we will find out just what it really is.
Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.