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Weapons And Equipment

Improvised Explosive Device Blast in a Afghan Road, Nov. 22, 2010

A soldier's survival depended on his weapons. During the American Revolutionary War, weapons and equipment were often in short supply. Iron foundries, such as Hopewell Furnace, produced weapons for the Continental Army. However, many soldiers and officers provided their own weapons and household items. They also carried the equipment needed to fight, such as shot molds, tinder lighters and cartridge boxes.

Edged weapons played a critical role in the Revolutionary War. Battles like Guilford Courthouse were decided in bloody hand-to-hand combat where bayonets, swords, and axes were used. Riflemen, having no bayonets, relied on knives and tomahawks. Swords were widely used during the war. Infantrymen used hangers, while their officers carried short sabers. Cavalrymen carried heavier and longer sabers. Officers' small swords were light, straight, and slender. Hunting swords were short, cut-and-thrust weapons used by the German Jaegers, American riflemen, and officers of both sides. Pole arms served both as combat weapons and symbols of rank. The bayonet was the most widely used edged weapon of the war. It transformed the musket into a spear. It was a terrifyingly effective weapon when used by an experienced soldier. Inexperienced troops often fled in the face of bayonet charges.

Although it was used for centuries by numerous armies, the unobtrusive-looking device called the caltrop, or calthrop, has often been overlooked by military historians, but certainly not by anyone unfortunate enough to have encountered it under field conditions. In many respects, the caltrop is the ideal passive weapon-€"simply constructed, cheap and easy to manufacture, requiring no special skill or training to use, easily portable, needing no care, maintenance or preparation, capable of recovery and, above all, extremely effective in most settings. It has killed or disabled innumerable soldiers, horses, camels, elephants and even land vehicles equipped with pneumatic tires. Silent, insidious and decidedly not glorious, the caltrop has few admirers. On the other hand, it has never been denounced in the same way as have the crossbow, poison gas, land mines and a whole arsenal of other weapons, ancient and modern. And unlike other weapons, it has never been completely replaced by more modern descendants.

Game-changers that revolutionized warfare

Though its origins are lost to time, the bow revolutionized both hunting and warfare. Its elasticity enabled the archer to strike-and kill-targets beyond the reach of muscle power. Gradual refinement into such forms as composite bows and longbows ensured it was the premier missile weapon well into the gunpowder age.

The first smoothbore cannons emerged during the 13th and 14th centuries. They were crude, inaccurate, and unpredictable, yet they were also game-changers. As cannons developed they rendered fortifications vulnerable in a way that torsion and counterweight artillery such as catapults never could. The builders of castles-those great centers of noble and aristocratic power-began a long, losing battle against powder and shot, while artillery began its ascent to become the primary battlefield killer.

Entering service in 1915, the Fokker Eindecker-fitted with an interrupter gear that allowed a machine gun to fire safely through the arc of the propeller-was arguably history's first true fighter aircraft. From this point on, many military aircraft were purpose-built to fight rather than scout; other types quickly emerged, such as the SPAD VII, Sopwith Camel, and Fokker D VII. The skies instantly became a new dimension for combat that by World War II had utterly transformed both the strategic and tactical options of warfare.

From their first use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, atomic weapons revolutionized warfare at the strategic level. Fission and, later, fusion bombs were the ultimate "force multipliers," capable of reducing a city to ashes with a single strike. When married to intercontinental missile delivery systems, nuclear weapons locked the world in a potentially apocalyptic arms race for more than 40 years, and the threat of their use is still enough to dictate the terms of global politics.

The caltrop is dangerous to man and beast. In fact, it is so potent an agent of infection-€"being exposed to contamination by soil and weather-€"that attempts to deliberately apply poison to it seemed unnecessary. Despite its shifting fortunes, the caltrop remains very much with us. Its use was revived during the Korean War, when it was employed effectively against sneaker-shod Chinese infantrymen. Today, it has reclaimed its old Greek name and reappeared as the tetrahedron, the bane of all vehicles running on pneumatic tires, and is used by both the military and police. Beside this versatile, durable and diabolical little device, its alleged descendant, the barbed-wire entanglement, seems quite prosaic.

The use of chemical weapons in World War I ranged from disabling chemicals, such as tear gas and the severe mustard gas, to lethal agents like phosgene and chlorine. This chemical warfare was a major component of the first global war and first total war of the 20th century. In the early evening of April 22, 1915, the first lethal poison gas attack of World War I occurred at Ypres, Belgium. German troops discharged approximately 160 tons of chlorine gas that slowly crept toward the Allied trenches with the aid of a gentle wind. The unprecedented attack killed more than 5,000 men and injured 15,000 others.

There were between 880,000 and 1,297,000 gas casualties during World War I, and gas warfare may have caused more than 26,000 deaths. American casualties from poison gas totaled almost 72,000, and of these more than 1,200 died. The Central Powers and then the Allies attacked with the weapon even though two separate prewar international conferences had banned the use of weapons and projectiles intended to diffuse asphyxiating, deleterious, or poisonous gases.

Mustard gas, like lewisite, is a vesicant. The two chemicals have many of the same characteristics, but there are also important distinctions. Mustard agents can be composed of sulfur- or nitrogen-based compounds, whereas lewisite is composed of arsenic. Sulfur mustard was the compound used extensively during World War I, first by the Germans and later by the Allies. Similar to lewisite, it is effective as a liquid, vapor, or aerosol, but in contrast to lewisite, its effects are delayed for up to a few hours. They will both form large blisters on the skin, but mustard lesions take about two to three times as long to heal. Whereas lewisite has a lower freezing temperature than mustard agents, both compounds can persist for days, even months under certain conditions. Mustard gas accounted for almost 40 percent of the total gas casualties in World War I.

Lewisite, the major American contribution to chemical weapons development during World War I, has had an amazing history, from its inadvertent discovery by a priest in 1903 to its presence a hundred years later in the arsenals of some countries. Most notably, North Korea has an estimated twenty-five hundred to five thousand tons stockpiled. Whether lewisite will eventually be used in combat situations or as a terrorist weapon - and, if so, how effective it would be - remains to be determined.

While science fiction directly inspired many of the weapons we now use, military robotics actually has a lengthy history. Attempts to build lifelike machines stretch back to ancient Greek mathematician and scientist Archytas of Tarentum (400–350 BC), who built a steam-propelled mechanical dove. When World War I devolved into a trench-warfare stalemate, remote-controlled vehicles gained appeal as a means to break the deadlock: Land-based devices included the electric dog, a three-wheeled supply cart designed to follow the lamp of its controller; more deadly was the land torpedo, an armored tractor meant to trundle 1,000 pounds of explosives into enemy trenches. In the air the first of what we now call cruise missiles was the Kettering Bug, a tiny airplane that used a barometer/altimeter, a mechanical counter and a preset gyroscope to fly on course and then crash into a target. The war ended before it could be used in combat.

The only system operationally deployed during World War I was Germany's FL-7 wire-guided motorboat. Designed to be rammed into enemy ships, it carried 300 pounds of explosives. FL-7 drivers initially sat ashore atop 50-foot towers, later aboard seaplanes. Both methods proved unwieldy, however, so in 1916 the Germans put a wireless radio-control system into service. In October 1917, off the coast of German-occupied Belgium, an FL-7 struck and damaged HMS Erebus, a British monitor that had been bombarding German naval bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge.

In World War II Germany again proved more inclined than its enemies to develop and use unmanned systems. The vehicle that saw most use was the Goliath tracked mine, which carried 100 pounds of explosives. Designed to be steered into enemy tanks and bunkers, it was about the size of a small go-cart, powered at first by electric motors and later by 12.5-hp gasoline engines. The Germans built some 7,000 Goliaths, using them on the Eastern Front, at Normandy and during the Warsaw Uprising. Its effectiveness was limited, however, by its low speed, poor ground clearance and vulnerability to small-arms fire.

The Germans were equally revolutionary in the air, deploying the first workable cruise missile (the V-1) and ballistic missile (V-2). They were also the first to deploy remotely piloted—as opposed to preprogrammed—aerial drones. The FX 1400 "Fritz" was a 3,000-pound (1,400-kg) glide bomb with a 700-pound warhead, four small wings, controllable tail surfaces and a rocket motor. The Germans would drop the device at high altitude from a Dornier Do 217 bomber. A bombardier would then steer the Fritz via radio link using a joystick. In September 1943 a fleet of Fritz-carrying Do 217s attacked an Italian naval fleet defecting to the Allies near Sardinia. One bomb damaged the battleship Italia. Two others hit the battleship Roma, which broke in two and sank in minutes, taking more than 1,200 crewmen to their deaths. Germany built about 2,000 of these remote-controlled bombs, though by that stage of the war Allied air superiority generally negated the threat.

Starting in early 1944 American B-24s dropped more than 450 Army-developed VB-1 Azons—1,000 pound radio remote-control glide bombs steered visually by bombardiers—over the Pacific and Burma. The evolution of remotely operated weapons, including aircraft, slowed considerably in the immediate postwar years. The newly independent U.S. Air Force particularly frowned upon unmanned aircraft as a professional threat. Indeed, the Pentagon initially left further development of such systems to the Army and Navy.

Unmanned systems didn't play a major rolein the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The only true success story in the conflict was the Navy's use of the Israeli-developed Pioneer drone, an unmanned plane similar to the Aquila. The Navy used the UAV to pinpoint targets for the 16-inch guns of its World War II–era battleships. During one mission a Pioneer overflew a group of Iraqi soldiers, who, rather than waiting to be hit by a 2,000-pound high explosive shell, waved white sheets and undershirts at the drone—the first time in history that human soldiers surrendered to an unmanned system.

While unmanned aircraft accelerated in capability during the early 1990s, the 1995 integration of the Global Positioning System marked what one U.S. Air Force officer called a "magic moment" in UAV history. Military operators could now dispatch GPS-equipped UAVs anywhere in the world and undertake reconnaissance and targeting missions with extreme precision. Such systems were far more intuitive to operate, while the real-time information they provided was more detailed and useful. Newly capable systems such as the General Atomics RQ-1 Predator and Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk made their combat debuts in NATO air operations against Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo Conflict, gathering timely information on everything from air defenses to refugee movements.

By the start of the 21st century the technology had matured, each year getting more effective and easier to use. Moreover, unmanned systems were garnering a portfolio of success stories that proved their value. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the amount spent on ground robots has roughly doubled each year, while the amount spent on aerial systems has grown by around 23 percent annually.

As U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, they faced enemies that not only tried to hide among the civilian populace, but also used such indirect methods of attack as improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Such scenarios are tailor-made for UAVs, which can linger over a site to investigate potential threats, thus keeping soldiers from harm.

With each life saved and each new use found for them in combat, acceptance of and demand for the unmanned systems has grown. Indeed, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan were so pleased with prototypes of the tactical PackBot—used to locate and dispose of IEDs—that they refused to return them when the 2001 field test ended. Manufacturer iRobot has since sold more than 2,500 of the devices to the military.

The U.S. military inventory now comprises more than 12,000 ground robots and 7,000 UAVs. The robot of science fiction is thus now a very real part of war, one spreading globally. In addition to the United States, 44 other countries are now pursuing unmanned military systems. It's not that the human role is disappearing from war. War remains a human endeavor, driven by our flaws and reflecting our best and worst traits. Rather, what's happening now is akin to the first use of gunpowder, airplanes or armored vehicles: A technology that started out as abnormal and limited in use and acceptance is revolutionizing the tools we use to fight and rapidly becoming an everyday aspect of 21st century military operations.

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