In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the West entered a new age: it was the era of the ‘shadow war’, in which American – and Western – might was ranged at preventing the export of terrorism from the Middle East. That was, of course, before the futile exercise of ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. Twenty years on, we are back where we started: Afghanistan is in the grip of a radical Islamist regime. Again it is likely to become a launch pad for Al Qaeda (and Isis) attacks in Europe and America. So how can the West defend itself from the threat?
Amidst the debacle of the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is some good news: weapons technology has moved on considerably. The United States – and Britain – now possesses equipment that allow it to stay at arm’s length and strike out at terrorist threats as these unfold, without having boots on the ground. In the battle to prevent terrorist atrocities from taking place on the streets of London, or New York, these will prove vital.
So what do these tools look like? Intelligence assets for overhead surveillance – such as small, mission-specific satellites for imaging and signals gathering to monitor communications – have advanced dramatically. Increasingly sophisticated drone systems and smart munitions all have a crucial role to play. Artificial intelligence to process raw intelligence data is also maturing. Drone strikes against Isis-K in recent weeks used the so-called ‘Ninja Bomb’ or AGM-114R9X. This modified Hellfire missile has no warhead but in its place are six, long razor sharp blades. This is just one example of how the lethal reach has been extended in the last two decades. Other smart munitions with low-yield warheads – which limit the number of fatalities on the ground – now combine laser, infrared, and GPS guidance for maximum precision in hitting just the target.
Long-range assault helicopters and tiltrotors are also under development that will permit the insertion of special forces to attack and destroy targets and then leave.