Author: Yogi Schulz

On the daily news, we’re watching the results of the latest technological advances in warfare as coalition forces bomb Iraqi targets and fight the Iraqi armed forces.  These recent advances are being adapted for civilian use as surely as previous technology developments in explosives, metallurgy, navigation and communication were adapted.

We’re probably familiar with these examples from history.  The use of explosives to fire cannon balls was adapted to the excavation of rock.  The casting of bronze and steel into swords and shields in ancient times was then adapted to make industrial products like wheel rims or household products like pots and pans.  The navigation advances of the Portuguese navy in the 15th century were adapted by the Dutch to manage navigation in the spice trade.  Telephone communication via satellite, which was developed to co-ordinate the Cold War, was then adapted for business and personal communication.

Here are some examples of military technology and their civilian applications.

Global Positioning System

Knowing your own position accurately is essential in war to coordinate movement with other units, to avoid being targeted by friendly fire and to describe the location of enemy forces for artillery or air strikes.  Telling your commander that you’re behind the third sand dune on the left will only lead to confusion or tragedy.

In modern warfare, determining position is achieved through the Global Positioning System (GPS) that consists of a series of low-orbit satellites that send out a continuous location signal.  These satellites were developed and launched by the U. S. military in the late 1980’s.  A hand-held GPS receiver, that receives signals from 2 or 3 of the satellites, can accurately calculate and display the position of the GPS receiver within about 10 meters.

The main predecessors of GPS were the sextant and the compass.  The sextant can be tricky to use under battlefield conditions.  Neither the sextant nor the compass can deliver sufficient accuracy for modern warfare.

Civilian applications for GPS include confirming course and location for maritime and automobile travel, improving accuracy for surveying, improving yield for precision agriculture and not getting lost while hiking.

Smart Bombs

Smart bombs are called smart because they have a sophisticated navigation system to pinpoint targets.  In contrast, gravity and wind propel dumb bombs with uncertain precision.  The cheapest smart bombs use GPS data.  More expensive smart bombs use a laser guidance system or a TV camera.  While laser and TV guided bombs are more accurate than GPS-guided ones, they are also vastly more expensive.

The smart bombs of the air war offer important benefits that far outweigh their costs.  Smart bombs produce far fewer missed targets that are very expensive in terms of unproductive flying time and increased risk of loss of aircraft and pilot due to enemy missiles.  Smart bombs also reduce “collateral damage” which is a military euphemism for civilian deaths and injuries.  Beyond tragedy, such deaths undermine the political objectives of war.

Civilian applications derived from smart bomb technology include laser guidance used in surveying and TV image processing used in surgery and on robots used in cramped or dangerous environments.

Cruise Missiles

Cruise missiles navigate the flight path to their target by comparing digital maps stored in the missile’s computer to radar images the missile collects of the ground below as it’s flying.  This approach is more complicated but more accurate than navigation using only an inertial guidance system based on a gyroscope.  Because radar works day or night and is impervious to clouds, cruise missiles are highly effective weapons.

Cruise missiles can be cheaper to buy and fly than manned bombers or fighters for larger and stationary targets.  A disadvantage of cruise missiles is that they can’t be recalled or re-targeted once launched.

Civilian applications for radar images produced by satellites like RADARSAT include land use monitoring, hydrology, oceanography, forestry, mineral exploration, and agriculture.  Sophisticated radar is also likely to be the basis for future automobile collision avoidance systems.

Unmanned Aircraft

The wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan demonstrated the value of unmanned aircraft like the Predator for gathering real-time video, radar or infrared images.

A pilot “flies” the Predator from the ground with a joystick sitting at a monitor much like a TV set.  (Teenagers immersed in video games would love this job.)  The monitor displays a real-time image from the Predator that is transmitted via a satellite communications link.

The Predator is cheaper to buy and fly than the U-2 or SR-71 spy planes or various generations of spy satellites.  The ability to easily fly around clouds and fly in low for a close-up can not be matched by other intelligence gathering technologies.

Civilian applications for video imaging include video telephones, video news gathering, high-speed video capture of fast-moving events like simulated automobile crashes and slow-speed video capture of slow-moving events like a flower opening its blossom.

Civilian applications for infrared imaging include night vision as used on the Calgary Police Service HAWC1 helicopter and non-destructive inspection and testing of welds, structures and coatings.


It’s ironic that the technologies of war, that cause so much death and destruction, are all being adapted for civilian applications that make life easier or simpler.


The Wired War Has Arrived

BusinessWeek 31 March 2003, p. 38JDAM smart bombs prove to be accurate ÷ and a good buy
Gary Stoller – USA TODAY March 23, 2003

Cruise Missiles



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High-Performance ComputingWe’ve heard news reports of the Patriot missile battery in Kuwait successfully shooting down incoming Iraqi SCUD missiles.  How can a missile like the Patriot respond fast enough and accurately enough to destroy another missile?

The Patriot missile system uses radar to determine the flight path of the incoming missile and a high-performance computer to calculate the intercept point and the Patriot missile flight path, then load the flight path into the Patriot missile and launch it.  Because all the calculations have to be performed in a few seconds, the computer must be high-performance.

High-performance computers are used in many civilian applications including weather forecasting, wind tunnel simulations for automobile or aircraft design and reservoir studies for the oil and gas industry.