Sun, Dec 01, 2002 - Page 10 News List

Makers work on `flash-to-bang time'

ARMS INDUSTRY Following the Sept. 11 attacks on the US, American's have become more willing to pour big bucks into some fast-paced development projects

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WESTMINSTER, MARYLAND

Faster-moving infantry, smarter bombs, newer satellites, and pilotless vehicles are all being propelled by a wartime sense of urgency. A military overhaul in the US has led to new products such as a driverless armored trucks developed by General Dynamics in Westminster, Maryland.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

In soldier slang, the interval between a gun's recoil and the shell's explosion is known as "flash-to-bang time." In combat, the shorter it is, the better.

With war looming in Iraq, the term has taken on broader significance -- in both the business of war and the business of supplying warriors. Everyone wants shorter flash-to-bang -- from the moment a target is spotted to the moment it is destroyed, from the moment a march is ordered to the moment troops arrive, from the moment of invention to the moment of production and delivery.

That is why, here in the rural hills of Maryland, at a robotics laboratory owned by General Dynamics, the engineers boast that their new driverless vehicles, little armored off-road trucks bulging with lenses and antennae, can maneuver through the woods and fields at a snappy 32kph (16kph at night).

And that is why General Dynamics, after just two years working on the vehicles, is ready to brief the brass on how robotic vehicles like this could transform combat units. The company says the firepower of a full infantry battalion could be packed into a unit of about one-third the people: 270 soldiers equipped with 140 robots.

The same quick tempo can be seen across the military industrial complex. Faster-moving infantry, smarter bombs, newer satellites, pilotless vehicles -- are all being propelled by a wartime sense of urgency in what is sure to be a costly quest for speed. The average time between finding a target and hitting it dropped to 15 minutes in Afghanistan a year ago from 45 minutes in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. And the Pentagon is pushing to trim that even more.

At Boeing, thousands of kits are being produced each month to turn unguided bombs into the satellite-guided smart bombs that were used more widely in Afghanistan than in any previous war. Pentagon leaders have promised that if there is war in Iraq, there will be plenty of smart bombs.

With American troops still engaged in Afghanistan and getting ready for a possible war against Iraq, and with the Bush administration promising a "transformation" of the military, Congress appears willing to pay the price.

In recent years, it has increased the military's budget beyond what the president requested, and military spending is now growing at its highest rate in 20 years. With Republicans controlling both chambers, President Bush is sure to get a warm reception for another spending increase in 2004.

David Strauss, who follows the military industry for UBS Warburg, predicts that spending on research, development and procurement will accelerate to 8 or 10 percent annually over the next few years, adjusted for inflation, after real growth of 4 percent annually since 1996. In the early 1990s, he says, the Pentagon went on a "procurement holiday."

Of the total military budget of about US$370 billion, procurement this year will come to about US$71.6 billion, up US$10.7 billion from this year, while spending on research and development will come to US$58.6 billion, up US$9.9 billion, in the spending bill signed by President Bush on Oct. 23. It sounds like a lot, but in fact the money for procurement is roughly 40 percent less than it was 20 years ago, adjusted for inflation. In 1983, during the Reagan military buildup, procurement spending came to US$121 billion in today's dollars.

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