If the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys, then the Pentagon has to be the coolest Boys Club in the history of the world.

With nearly 400 billion dollars earmarked for 2003, and with his military budget projected to rise to almost 500 billion dollars by the end of the NEXT administration (whether it's his own or not) President George W. Bush has got to be keeping some hawkish campers VERY happy out in the far-flung desert reaches of the earth.

And if it were MY camouflaged sandy ass baking in the noonday sun, I'd be happy too. Because money spent on high-tech toys is money saved on body bags and life insurance policies.

Regardless of politics, morality, the price of oil, and filial debts real or imaginary, paid or unpaid, George Bush has well-noted that Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan, chasing Bin Laden, eventual abandonment of our "allies") demonstrated the burgeoning importance of unmanned aerial vehicles, real time battlefield information networks, precision munitions, and high-tech Special Operations gear in the extension of American influence abroad.

War toys save American boys' lives, and that's the bottom line.

From the Gatling Gun, to the Thompson sub-machine, to the A-Bomb, the M-16, the Huey UH-1, the Aegis, and the Predator, America's preoccupation with mechanical ingenuity on the battlefield may well be her epitaph, for surely no good, ultimately, can come from so much death.

Be that as it may, however, the newest military toy we know about is something quite special indeed: it's a tiny airplane with a video camera and a four-foot wingspan.

Dragon Eye is the military's latest deployed drone aircraft. Battery-powered, fiberglass, small enough when disassembled to fit in a Marine's rucksack, Dragon Eye differs from its big brothers, the Predator, the Pioneer, and the Global Hawk, in that it is the first of a new generation of drones to be used directly by commanders in the field rather than operated by remote pilots at a distance from the battle.

This darn thing is built three miles from my home by AeroVironment, located in Monrovia, California. It's a sixty-thousand dollar model airplane.

"It looks like something my kids would play with," says Lt. Colonel Christopher Conlin, commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, from Living Support Area 7, 45 miles north of Kuwait City. "I couldn't believe it actually works, but it does. It goes where you don't want to send a pilot or a scout, so it's a big advantage. We've got plans for it."

The five-pound craft is launched slingshot-style with a bungee cord, although it will also fly after being thrown like a paper airplane. 21-year-old Lance Corporal Michael Deguzman, from Glendale, California (a few miles on the other side of me!), as one of the few Marines trained to fly Dragon Eye, admits that he hasn't been cleared to launch the craft by hand. "It's a bit too expensive to play around with like that" he says.

Indeed, Deguzman himself is a pretty expensive item. Trained as an intelligence analyst, he spent three years analyzing satellite images and surveying terrain maps, all of it in an office, safe in the rear. Now, after his month-long Dragon Eye training, his place will be with his fellow Marines, at the front.

Wearing special goggles linked electronically to his drone that allow him to see what the plane's camera sees, he controls the craft from his laptop computer, recording its transmitted images to disk for playback on a five-inch monitor. The pictures are wobbly certainly, as the craft is buffeted by the wind, but Deguzman can identify types of vehicles, make a rough count of how many personnel are standing by, and note obstacles both geographic and man-made.

"It's a great challenge using such high-tech gear," says the personable young Marine. "We'd normally have to send scouts into harm's way to find the enemy. The plane can move more quickly and cover more ground, without putting people at risk. It'll also help prevent friendly fire when units are working real close together."

Is it so far-fetched to consider, perhaps, that some day all "wars" will be "fought" by toy machines utilizing real-time intelligence analyzed by well-educated young men and women empowered by a beneficent government that values—at a profound level—the value of a human life?

Yes. I suppose it is. But even soldiers can dream, can't they?


IN THE FIELD: With the Dragon Eye, Johathan Finer, The Washington Post, March 7, 2003.
The Pentagon's Budget, Michael O'Hanlon & Aaron Moburg-Jones, New Economy, The Brookings Institution.

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