Book review: The software wars of the future

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Tuesday Book

THIS IS one of those books about the future that would frighten the daylights out of you - if you believed it. The trouble is that so much of it reads like science fiction. Indeed, two of the chapters are fiction: the author's device for presenting his thesis in a graphic and dramatic manner.

James Adams, a former defence correspondent on The Sunday Times and its Washington correspondent for many years, has developed a reputation as an authority on intelligence and covert warfare. He lectures to the American National Defence University and the Central Intelligence Agency. On this military/intelligence circuit, he sensed the angst of the American military- industrial complex about the vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. They felt a "My God, what do we do now fellas?" feeling that the Gulf War only briefly allayed. Talking to the brighter lights in Washington and Moscow, he developed a vision of the future that is the centrepiece of this book.

The United States is the most powerful nation in history. For the Gulf War, it put together a combination of conventionally-armed manpower and new-tech weapons that proved murderously successful. Yet when the US got involved in two-bit countries such as Somalia and Haiti and a few American servicemen were killed, the public outcry was enormous. The lesson was obvious: the US only wants to fight wars in which no one gets hurt. Like Hollywood producers, Pentagon officials have to tone down the violence to get the PG rating that will maximise their box office.

The answer: IW and NLW (Information Warfare, and Nonlethal Weapons). You had better get used to acronyms - this book has a glossary with more than a hundred listed - and, indeed, to a new language. The next world war will be fought in "cyberspace" by "cyberknights" armed with viruses, bugs, worms and logic bombs - familiar old words used to describe nasty new things.

The theory of IW is that since computers run so many things these days, - communications, banking, production processes, oil supplies, electricity grids, transportation systems, air traffic control, government records and defence systems, to name only some - then an assault on the computers of an enemy of the US could bring that foe to its knees in days, if not hours.

But, of course, the reverse is also true. A determined cyber-terrorist armed with his trusty laptop could change baby-food formulas at the factory to make them poisonous. He could disrupt banks and stock exchanges, make aircraft collide,black out cities, make telephone systems crash and paralyse a nation's defence. More than 95 per cent of the US defence and intelligence community's voice and data traffic uses the American public telephone system.

Barry Collins of the Institute for Security and Intelligence, says such a terrorist would be able to "make certain that the population of a nation will not be able to eat, to drink, to move, or to live. In addition, the people charged with the protection of their nation will not have warning, and will not be able to shut down the terrorist, since that cyberterrorist is most likely on the other side of the world."

At this stage, with the country brought low by computer failure, the troops move in with their NLWs and hit you with their "slickums" or "stickums". Slickums are superlubricants that can coat roads, runways, ramps, railroad tracks, stairs and pavements with hard clear coatings that allow no grip for wheels, tracks or feet. We would literally slip and slide to disaster.

Stickums are polymer adhesives that trap vehicles and people like flies on flypaper. Alternatively, the enemy will get us with pepper sprays, aqueous foam, stingballs, laser dazzlers, strobe lights, liquid stun guns, or acoustic canons.

If you go along with James Adams's thesis that IW is the new arms race, then you will find this book fascinating. As the publisher's blurb puts it, "This is not the future. It is here. It is now and how it will be used will decide the future of the world." Maybe. If you are sceptical, as I am, and if you believe that this is just another way for the arms manufacturers to frighten more money out of Congress, as they did in the 1980s with the science fiction of the Strategic Defence Initiative programme, then read it as a new episode of Star Trek - called, perhaps, "Set Phasers to Stun".

Philip Knightley