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Tom Lehrer clearly expected the third world war to be a brief affair. In his 1960s satirical song "Bye-Bye, Mom, I'm Off to Drop the Bomb," a young pilot bids his mother a fond farewell and promises to see her after the war is over "an hour and a half from now . . ." The prospect of instant nuclear annihilation may have receded, but those paid to gaze into what future warfare may hold don't expect tomorrow's conventional conflicts to last much longer than Lehrer's Armageddon.

"Technological developments are about to give us the capacity to wage war at a blindingly fast pace," says one senior British scientist looking at future warfare. "Changes in information technology and remote sensing will revolutionize the ways wars are fought."According to these scientists, the most important single development is in intelligence and surveillance: Future generals will know the exact location of every important installation an enemy possesses.

By the turn of the century, commercial satellite mapping will give anyone with the money the chance to buy images of anywhere on Earth to a resolution of one meter. That will allow potential combatants to identify individual buildings, ammunition dumps, science laboratories or communications centers.

In a parallel development, the commercially available Global Positioning System, a satellite-based navigation aid that allows users to identify their exact location anywhere on Earth, will permit potential aggressors to feed the exact location of any target into the computers of an aircraft or missile. Together the two technologies will permit even those countries with modest means to hit any target they choose.

However impressive it may sound, such technology is just the standard, off-the-shelf variety. Real space-age warriors, particularly the United States, already have much more sophisticated tools. American "Keyhole" spy satellites have mapped large areas of interest down to a resolution of a few centimeters and are permanently on hand to photograph new trouble spots.

The power of these images is instantly apparent to politicians. In the buildup to the gulf war in 1990, President Bush showed some Keyhole photographs of Iraqi troops massing near the Saudi Arabian border to President Francoise Mitterrand in an attempt to persuade France to commit itself to the multinational force.

Mitterrand was instantly convinced and asked to keep the shots. When Bush refused, France immediately started a rapid program to develop its own spy satellites.

Of course reconnaissance is nothing new. What is different is the detail and accuracy of the images and the way in which they can be used to target missiles.

During the NATO raids on Bosnia last summer, one knot of air defense and communications centers was judged too dangerous for pilots to fly against. Instead, satellite and spyplane photographs were programmed into Tomahawk cruise missiles on U.S. ships in the safety of the Adriatic; 13 were fired, scoring 13 direct hits.

Attacks on such fixed targets are today's warfare. The United States is trying to push such technologies forward to give a detailed picture of a moving battlefield as the action takes place.

A combination of spy satellites, high-level reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned vehicles able to photograph the battlefield at low levels will be teamed with reconnaissance helicopters and radar mounted in aircraft to give a full picture of the "digital battlefield."

These maps can be beamed to top-level commanders for strategic decisions or the relevant parts sent to individual field commanders to give them an accurate report on the forces they're attacking. The United States has already tested early versions of such a system under the code name "Force XXI" and will conduct all exercises with a full division of 10,000 men within two years.

Early results from the Force XXI experiments have been disappointing, with troops having to carry more than 40 pounds of additional electronic equipment without a significant improvement in results. But it's early yet.

The other strand to development of the digital battlefield will be the requirement to hit a target as soon as it has been identified and before it's had a chance to move. Energy beams are one obvious way to strike instantly over long distances, and the United States is working on high-powered lasers mounted in Boeing 747s that will be able to shoot down missiles as they leave their silos.

This technology may have other applications, and the science-fiction image of high-intensity lasers slicing across a blood-stained battlefield is growing closer to reality. Scientists are also working on ultra-high-velocity missiles capable of traveling more than five times as fast as Concorde. At that speed, the missile doesn't need an explosive warhead - the energy of impact is enough to destroy even the most hardened target.

The combination of visual, infrared and radar imaging, combined with laser and high-velocity missiles will make battle a frenetic spasm. The seven-day war may become the norm and dreadful casualties are likely to be incurred.

Partly as a result, the long-term trend toward a lower concentration of troops on the battlefield is likely to continue. Forces also will have to reduce their visibility. Technologies such as stealth, which seeks to reduce radar and infrared detection, will become vital.

Several military sacred cows may also be slaughtered. In the air, the unmanned fighter aircraft isn't far away. Pilots account for half the running cost of a modern fighter aircraft, yet they limit its capability. Most existing fighters could turn much faster if their human pilots could stand the acceleration forces without blacking out.

Designers say they could make aircraft 40 percent smaller and at a lower cost if they could leave the pilot out. The United States is working on prototypes.

On land, the main battle tank may have run its evolutionary course. The tank's weight has grown remorselessly as its armor has had to get thicker and more sophisticated. Already the tank is only really useful for fighting in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa; most of the rest of the world is too mountainous or boggy.

Even in Europe, there's an absolute weight limit of about 70 tons before almost half of the continent becomes impassable. The U.S. MIA1 Abrams tank already weighs more than 65 tons.

As one senior British defense scientist says, "Philosophically, the tank seems to be heading into a dead end. Most other systems - warships, for example - have been trying to shed weight and become more maneuverable. Their emphasis is on not getting hit in the first place, rather than being able to stop anything thrown at them.

What might replace the tank is less clear. Given that the battlefield of the future will be a fearful place to be, troops and artillery will need some protection, but defenses designed to confuse imaging systems, rather than brute strength, might be the solution.

At sea, the long-predicted demise of the surface ship is emerging again. The United States is already working on stealthy "arsenal ships," built to avoid detection and packed with every conceivable defensive missile. Yet the slow-moving surface flotilla, laid bare to the unblinking eye of the satellite, will have a hard time surviving long-range laser attack.

While the new evolving technologies will confer tremendous power on those First World powers that possess them, they all rely on the transfer of huge quantities of information. This may prove their Achilles heel since transmitting information, particularly by radio, gives away position and, even more important, is vulnerable to interception.

Western military planners and scientists are certain they have both problems under control, which is perhaps a cause for concern in itself. They argue that modern, frequency-hopping transmissions are extremely difficult to detect and that encryption methods are running well ahead of code-cracking.

That may be true in theory, but an embarrassing number of 16-year-olds have broken into Pentagon computers. This, argues the military establishment, is the result of sloppy housekeeping rather than vulnerable systems.

But humans are sloppy, particularly when under the strain of an all-out war. Furthermore, the confidence of scientists is reminiscent of the certainty Germany had in its Enigma code system in World War II. Fear of the possibility of the military information network being cracked is one of the reasons why the Pentagon has an urgent program under way to investigate "information warfare."

The more dependent both U.S. civilian and military life becomes on computers and transmitted information, the more vulnerable it becomes to losing those systems. Such an attack would indeed have lots of attractions for small powers unable to match U.S. might in military hardware.

Military planners seem confident they can resist such attacks. They point to the decentralized nature of most large computing systems, which often means that the same data is stored at a number of locations and can be routed by a variety of paths. Any large-scale intrusion, they argue, would be detected at an early point and defensive measures to limit the damage taken.

What really scares planners, however, is not the idea that the information would be destroyed but that it could be subtly corrupted so that its user didn't know it was inaccurate. Even computer scientists seem uncertain of how this might work, but the aim would be to create total confusion by making computers usable but unreliable.

Information warfare may help even the balance between First and Third World nations in 21st century combat, but there's little doubt that most of the trends favor an increasing dominance by industrial powers over everyone else.

Wars may be frighteningly expensive, but as the gulf war and even Bosnia eventually showed, the application of Western military might is quickly decisive when applied, even against massed armies.

Western planners make much of the need to develop new military technologies to check the expansion of fundamentalist states which, they argue, are prepared to go to any lengths. The reality is likely to be the reverse, however, with the West increasingly able to project its power against ideologies it dislikes.

Between developed nations possessing such technologies, however, there may well be an increased mutual deterrence, given the frightening losses one could inflict on the other just using conventional weapons.

Unfortunately, this Mexican standoff would be terribly unstable, given that a rapid and massive first strike to blind and disable the enemy could well prove effective.

An unstable equilibrium was maintained throughout the Cold War partly because nuclear weapons are so unimaginably destructive. The new weapons may offer the apparent surgical precision that could make their use politically acceptable.

Nor is it likely that the problem will be avoided by agreement not to pursue these technologies; history suggests that a weapon, once devised, is bound to enter the world's armories. If these new weapons follow the same pattern, politicians will have to get used to fighting wars at a lightning pace.

Such speed will cause a real problem for political control of warfare. Current techniques of diplomacy and defusing tension still owe more to the age of Palmerston and Bismark than that of the information era and may be ill-suited to a rapidly escalating future crisis.

Should old-style diplomacy fail, future politicians may be faced with the simple choice of caving in to their opponent's demands or unleashing their new high-speed dogs of war without constraint: Politicians may lose detailed control of military actions because there won't be time to dictate the pace of the escalating conflict.

Political leaders will no longer have the luxury of hovering over an attack on this bridge or that bunker or even whether one type of weapon or another may be used at all. Nor will they have the opportunity of lulls in the fighting to put out peace feelers to a badly beaten enemy.

Wars, even limited regional wars, are likely to be rapidly and brutally prosecuted to their conclusion, with politicians prisoners of the logic that they must finish rapidly what they have started or be defeated.

The long shadow of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction seems to have receded, yet a new philosophy of the control of warfare will be needed before long. What is perhaps most frightening about this danger of losing political control is that the world's politicians seem content to ignore it.