The U.S. ended the Cold War the way a master pilot lands a fighter jet, in a sort of ecstasy of precision and the gradual reduction of force. Today that same jet is screeching around the runway, as our capacity for messy outcomes (Iraq, Libya, Egypt) expands before our eyes.
All of us have less faith in precision these days. Events such as Japan's nuclear plant crisis or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill have proven that even in the private sector, technicians are far less masters of their situations than many believed.
One place where the potential for unparalleled damage has increased is the U.S. That's because there are more tools available to terrorists, extremists or just plain kooks now than in 2001. As John Geis, director of the Air Force Center for Strategy and Technology has been saying, people looking to make trouble have a least four new technologies at their disposal.
"As nuclear proliferation was to the 1950s, the proliferation of lasers, microwaves and bioengineered disease is to coming decades," Geis told me in an interview.
The military has worked for years on an airborne laser. The chemical oxygen iodine laser, known as COIL, uses chemical reactions to generate intense beams. But these lasers remain unwieldy. It's a different story for private industry, which is developing electric lasers the size of a flashlight.
Products such as the handheld Spyder III Pro-Arctic can blind pilots, temporarily or permanently, from more than 100 feet. The device can also pop balloons and melt Dixie cups, as fans have demonstrated in YouTube videos.
People are already using such devices to disrupt air travel. Federal Aviation Administration officials reported 2,836 incidents of lasers pointed by people at aircraft cockpits last year, compared with fewer than 300 in 2005. Last year there were 102 laser incidents at Los Angeles International Airport, 98 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and 38 at Newark Liberty International.
The Spyder is cool. It so resembles a "Star Wars" light saber that filmmaker George Lucas threatened to sue unless its maker, Hong Kong-based Wicked Lasers, publicly stated the device has no connection to Lucas's products. However, the Spyder is a Class IV laser, which means it shouldn't be available, and various state and federal rules seek to block civilian use. But the reality is that people can buy them. An NBC reporter who placed an order had no trouble and produced a segment featuring burning cups and paper.
A second advance, that of microwave pulse systems, is also a threat. A microwave pulse system induces a current into the circuitry of a microprocessor, frying the computer chip. The technology has gained so much power that it can disable an entire computer network.
The hazard has increased because computers are much denser than they were even a few years ago, Geis says. Here, Moore's Law, the rule about how rapidly computer chips grow in speed and capability, does double damage. With each doubling of transistors per chip, the weapon becomes more powerful and the target more vulnerable.
What might a microwave pulse terror attack look like? A truck driving up next to the back of a power plant.
A third vulnerability is in the area of cyberterror. It used to be that companies and government offices could isolate their computers from the world. Today that is much harder to do because systems are almost always exposed to the Internet in some way or another.
A fourth vulnerability involves the human genome. In 15 years, scientists will be able to engineer a disease that will kill an entire population, according to Geis. Soon after that, it may even be possible to use viruses or other diseases that target a specific ethnic group, while leaving another healthy, he says.
Big Bang Theory
How might a terror attack play out? Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonprofit research group in Washington, modeled such an attack in his book, "7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century." Nuclear explosions are the main feature of his scenario for a terror attack in the U.S. But he foresees threats as large as nuclear attacks coming from other types of weapons.
The point is not for Americans to scare themselves silly. It is to reconsider the antidotes.
One may well be to increase defense spending, which is still at about 5 percent of gross domestic product, or half the presence in the economy that it was in the 1950s. But cooperation among agencies to an extent that goes beyond the creation of the unifying Department of Homeland Security is probably also needed. Too, government must spend more flexibly, and the old 10- or 20-year cycles for new weapons must become shorter.
On the civilian side this means more restrictions, less-happy Internet shopping and more security lines. It's not pleasant to contemplate, given the battle fatigue most Americans feel a decade into the War on Terror. But the reality is that just when we want to downgrade defense in our lives, the technology that can be used against us is relentlessly upgrading.
(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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