TCS Daily

Something Old,
Something New

By Sallie Baliunas - April 8, 2003 12:00 AM

The heroic sweep into Baghdad by coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom is reminiscent of the swift summer 1944 run across occupied France by General George S. Patton, Jr. when the Allied Forces traded caution for speed to free Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Modern anti-U.S. military wags toss banalities to drive their emotional campaigns. One of them is that the U.S. military fights the last war, a statement meant to demean U.S. military capability through the implication that military weapons or tactics are always too outdated to be effective in a contemporary conflict.

Bad news for the wags! The U.S. military emplaces what is effective, whether new technology or old concepts that date from the era of Civil War veteran George Smith Patton, grandfather of General George S. Patton, Jr. who fought in World Wars I and II. (Patton Jr.'s maternal grandfather is Don "Benito" Wilson, who cleared a trail up a mountain near Los Angeles. That mountain is home to the famous Mount Wilson Observatory, whose mountain is named after Don Benito.)

Here are a few examples of how the U.S. military mixes both old and new weaponry for operational success.

Gatling Gun

An important weapon created during the U.S. Civil War but never used in it is the Gatling gun. The Gatling delivers rapid fire by using, in its early design, six or ten rifle barrels mounted parallel to and surrounding a central cylinder that is driven by a hand crank. A round is fed by into one barrel then fired, while the crank rotates the next barrel upward for automatic loading and firing.

In contrast, an automatic machine gun operates with a single barrel and uses the gas pressure or recoil force of firing one round to fire the next, in a chain of firing during one pull of the trigger. But a misfire of one round halts firing. In the Gatling gun, a misfire in one chamber only prevents that chamber from firing in its turn. The other barrels continue to load and fire while the misfire is mechanically ejected, and that barrel will fire during its turn in sequence next time around. The Gatling gun also allows a just-fired barrel to cool before it refires while firing cycles through the other barrels. For a single-barrel machine gun, an overheated barrel must be added to the worries of a machine gunner in the field.

The Gatling gun was extensively used in international conflicts during the late 19th century. The British used the Gatling gun against the Zulus (although not during the battle at Rourke's Drift, so the Gatling, correctly, is not shown in the movie Zulu.) President Teddy Roosevelt acknowledged the Gatling gun was indispensable for taking San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

The Gatling gun was abandoned before World War I when the automatic machine gun was developed and not again seen much until the Vietnam conflict, when it was electrified and resized to be an assault and defensive cannon that could be mounted on ships, helicopters and aircraft. Every U.S. combatant ship has the Gatling-gun based Phalanx close-in weapon system, with its six-barrel, 20mm gun firing at least 3000 rounds per minute. This updated rapid-fire weapon is in use in Operation Iraqi Freedom, despite its invention in 1864.

M2A1 ("Ma Deuce")

During World War II this .50-calibre tripod, ship or vehicle mounted machine gun came into wide use. The M2 is fed by belt-loaded ammo, and works effectively against vehicles, small boats, slow, low-altitude aircraft and enemy infantry under cover. Modern versions fire about 550 rounds per minute. Many embedded reporters have shown footage from Iraq of the Ma Deuce in operation.


This semi- or fully-automatic personal carbine is lightweight (just over 7 pounds) and grew out of experience in the Vietnam conflict. Over 3.5 million units have been manufactured for the U.S. military, and most U.S. infantry carry this weapon or the shorter, M4 carbine version.

Bradley Fighting Vehicle

During World War II the infantry could be transported in an armored and armed vehicle to the battlefield in the half-track, which runs on wheels in front and tracks in the rear. Personnel and equipment could be carried in the rear bay of the vehicle. Protection is provided by one-quarter-inch thick plate steel, except on the windscreen, whose plates are one-half inch thick. Many were outfitted with Howitzers, mortars, or quad-mounted .50-caliber M2 Brownings. The U.S. military had approximately 50,000 half-tracks manufactured during World War II, and used them primarily in the European and North African theaters. The half-track is a familiar vehicle in World-War II genre films like Patton.

One thing the halftrack lacked was overhead protection for the occupants. Eventually the U.S. military evolved to a closed armed and armored vehicle, the Bradley, which was heavily criticized while under design and construction in the 1970s as unworkable and overly expensive. Critics were wrong. The Bradley is a motorized, armed and armored, fully-tracked transport to protect and support troops in the battlefield; it has some assault capability, and the speed to keep up with the Abrams tank in most terrain. The Bradley has been successful and reliable in the extreme in the battlefield.

While the half-tracks of World War II had headlights for night viewing and could carry a radio for communication, the Bradley has rapid-speed electronic communication, including computer control for the weaponry, plus thermal imaging systems for night vision. The Bradley is equipped with a TOW anti-tank missile system and a 25mm Bushmaster chain gun, able to fire at 200 rounds per minute (and the Bushmaster is often shown in televised footage from Iraq). The Bradley can also can launch smoke grenades; it can quickly deploy inflatable pontoons to travel through water. The Bradley's modern armor protects crews far better than that of the half-track.


Another tool from a prior era that retains its battlefield prowess is the B52 Stratofortress. The prototype first flew over 50 years ago, in 1952. The manufacturer, Boeing, has been engineering the aircraft so that the airframe can be used at least until 2040. This subsonic jet (at speeds of approximately 650 mph) can ride up to 50,000 feet altitude to deliver personnel and ordnance anywhere in the world. It can travel approximately 8800 miles without refueling, and can be refueled in flight, leaving a flight plan limited only by crew endurance.

The aircraft has been constantly updated with night vision and other capabilities to detect the environment. Ordnance is continually updated, and the B52 can launch the widest variety of modern bombs, even the 2000-pounders.


Long-distant television viewers of Iraqi Freedom quickly learned that smoke clouds from oil set afire in trenches were of little value to GPS-guided bombs. The Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) is an infrastructure that upgrades bombs to be self-navigating with Global Positioning System capability that is independent of weather. It can be launched from a distance as great as 15 nautical miles, which means that bombers launching it can deploy from higher and safer altitudes. An upgraded version should increase the accuracy of targeting to within 3 meters, from its current 13 meters.

The anti-U.S. military crowd is wrong. Anciently designed weapons have battlefield value alongside space-age systems. They are necessary to protect troops who risk, as Lincoln phrased it during the Civil War, "the full measure of devotion" for their country. Gatling guns may date from the Civil War, but the U.S. military makes effective use of human ingenuity and technology - both old and new - in getting the job done.

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