To justify the way they fight, U.S. Military Officers are fond of quoting Confederate general Nathan Forrest's admonition to "git thar fustest with the mostest." But increasingly, even Army generals agree they have been emphasizing the "mostest" at the expense of the "fustest." The Army has a cold war hangover: the war machines of a U.S. armored division tip the scales at 300,000 tons. It took the molasses-like movement of the Army's AH-64 Apache helicopters to Albania during last year's Kosovo conflict to make planners publicly admit this is no way to fight a war in the future. "Our heavy forces are too heavy, and our light forces lack staying power," General Eric Shinseki declared as he assumed command of the Army last year. To make the U.S. military lighter--but still lethal--Shinseki and other Pentagon officials are working on a new arsenal of agile arms that could accompany troops into battle over the next generation.
U.S. pilots--unlike those who led the way into Iraq and Yugoslavia--will no longer have to play hide-and-seek with enemy radar and deadly antiaircraft missiles. Before U.S. troops enter hostile airspace, a fleet of unmanned combat air vehicles will have attacked missile batteries capable of shooting down any troop-carrying aircraft. Sensors aboard each drone will detect targets, which will be attacked--after receipt of a human command--by the aircraft's precision-guided munitions.
U.S. troops will then fly into a foreign hot spot on huge, ungainly tilt-rotor aircraft. The C-130-size "quad tilt-rotor" will be able to carry nearly 100 troops more than 2,000 miles. The rotors, perched at the ends of a pair of big wings, act like a helicopter's for takeoffs and landings, eliminating the need for runways. But once airborne, the rotors tilt forward and pull the plane through the sky at more than 350 m.p.h.
Soldiers pouring from such aircraft will be climbing into wheeled vehicles, not the tracked tanks that have been the backbone of Army armor for more than a half-century. The civilian world's fascination with off-road vehicles has generated improvements the military wants for itself. Twenty years ago, only tracked vehicles could traverse squishy terrain. Today tire pressure can be adjusted from inside the cab--the softer the ground, the softer the tires--meaning heavy, tracked vehicles no longer have a monopoly on mobility. "If technology permits," says Shinseki, in what some of his colleagues see as battlefield blasphemy, "we are prepared to consider going to an all-wheel fleet."
Tomorrow's soldiers will also be outfitted with the Army's new Buck Rogers-like supergun. The lower of its two barrels sprays more standard bullets, but the key to the new rifle--given the catchy Army name of "objective individual combat weapon"--is the 20-mm air-burst round fired by its top barrel. A built-in laser range finder tells the round where in flight to explode, giving it the ability to spray lethal shrapnel in all directions, like a hand grenade, as much as half a mile from the shooter. That translates into a gun that can kill enemy soldiers hidden behind walls or in foxholes.