Off-target bombs show the changing face of the modern infantryman

War on terrorism
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The war in Afghanistan has thrown up some intriguing technological contradictions. The bombs from the B-52s that killed three Americans and wounded 20, including Hamid Karzai, were not so smart. The mounted US soldiers calling down the strikes, on the other hand, could be the new face of war.

The 2,000 JDAM, or Joint Direct Action Munition, is a fearsome weapon that can destroy the enemy under and over ground but it is effectively a dumb bomb that has been fitted with an electronic brain and fins. It is fed the co-ordinates of the target from the ground before being dropped. It then homes in by reading global positioning system (GPS) signals. The JDAMs' accuracy is not foolproof. During the conflict, they have hit a Red Cross building in Kabul and many civilian homes.

The co-ordinates may be fed in incorrectly and the bombs may also misread the GPS signals or the fins, used for steering, may fail.

It is not known which of these problems, if any, was responsible for the death of the two special forces soldiers near Kandahar, a Pentagon spokesman, Lt-Col Dave Lapan, said yesterday. The main aim of the bombs is not so much for a finessed strike but to inflict maximum damage over the widest battlefield area.

In contrast, the US spotters on the ground have been fighting a highly specialised and localised war. There are no signs of the US army's hi-tech tank divisions. Instead, the soldiers are not looking that different from the riders of the Golden Horde. Rivers are forded on horseback and cavalry charges directed against enemy positions. The parachute drops have included saddles, bridles and horse feed.

But appearances, of course, deceive. In their saddlebags, the special forces carry satellite communications equipment, GPS trackers, and laser designators. These are used to track the enemy, pinpoint locations and call air strikes.

After spotting the target, the troopers alert the warplanes. The target is then "painted" using laser guided sights, with laser pulses arcing into the sky and acting as guiding beacons. The bombs use these to adjust their flight paths.

Military strategists in the West believe this is likely to be the shape of many conflicts to come. Yesterday, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, reinforced this view with his call for retraining of conventional units of the British army for rapid deployment as light, mobile brigades capable of carrying out "stiletto attacks".

Behind this lies a fundamental change in the perceived role of the infantryman. Until now, his main task would have been to get close enough the the enemy to attempt to destroy them, and, in the process, put himself in the line of fire. Even in Vietnam, most infantry engagements were at less than 25 yards.

British and American special forces have, of course, been involved in firefights with the Taliban and al-Qai'da – such a firefight is how four members of the SAS were injured. But these have been very much the exception in this war.

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