Solar power

THE US ARMED FORCES ARE proposing a new generation of ultra-high-technology weapons, which would make today's best armaments, look prehistoric by comparison. The weapons they foresee, such as hypersonic aircraft and lasers, should prove to be more than a match for any foreseeable threat apart from one: the lack of such a threat.

The US armed forces (and politicians) find themselves in a unique position, unparalleled in world history certainly since the days of the Roman Empire. The USA is the world's sole remaining military superpower: in the strength, technology and control of its forces there is no nation or group of nations, which could now match it in a full-scale conflict. (That is not to say that the USA cannot be frustrated or even beaten in smaller-scale conflicts, as it has found to, its cost in its involvement in peace-keeping operations in Africa and central Europe.)

Its present supremacy will be even further reinforced by the entry into service of its next generation of military technology, as exemplified by the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 and the Boeing Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche. As the forces and the industry have already discovered, however, such technology is already sufficiently far in advance of anything which is likely to be fielded by any potential foe for politicians to have lost the will to push for its rapid introduction.

The much delayed, sometimes reluctant, development of the Comanche, typifies the problem. No matter how advanced the helicopters new technology may be, the politicians who control the US military budget, see existing equipment defeating anything, which today's foes can offer up in opposition and they see potential foes, making little or no progress in updating their own equipment, far less developing new equipment.

For a couple of years, the Comanche programme was effectively put on the shelf: the technology was developed, but the politicians could see no point in putting it into production unless and until a threat worthy of that technology materialised. Fortunately for the aerospace industry, that view has been modified, and the development and (albeit limited and low-rate) production of the Comanche has now been approved.

The F-22 programme has not been quite so overtly threatened, but the danger is still there. By most benchmarks, the F-22 promises to be superior to anything either now in service or in development anywhere in the world. What chance then, for the development of something to replace it? When you already have absolute superiority, the concept of greater superiority becomes an abstract one - and abstract concepts are difficult to get funding for.

That is not an argument for complacency; nor is it meant to be. There are enough lessons of the dangers of technological complacency, even in recent history, to ensure that no country in the position of the USA - or even its major European allies - should sit back and watch others approach or overtake its capabilities.

It is, however, an argument for more searching re-appraisals of the roles of defence forces, especially those of the NATO alliance, which enjoys such apparent superiority at the moment. The Gulf War demonstrated that current NATO technology was unstoppable in a head-on fight, but even the best of high-technology surveillance could not be guaranteed to track down and destroy a mobile missile-launcher.

Again, in Bosnia, it has proved extremely difficult to isolate or destroy simple, mobile, heavy guns operated by a guerilla-style foe. It is exactly the same problem that faced the US military in Vietnam three decades ago. The need now, as then, is more for something to put out brushfires, rather than something to put out volcanoes.

Any defence industry and any home customer of such an industry, must ensure that it continues to develop the very best technology, to ensure continued superiority, but it must direct its energies so that the threats that it imagines are ones, which can be believed, by those who will pay for that technology. For they remain the greatest threat of all.