The VT or proximity fuze, which some rate at par with radar and the Atomic Bomb in Second War importance, emerged in response to the difficulty of stopping determined attacks by high speed enemy aircraft. Although the US had the best dual-purpose heavy antiaircraft weapon of the war in the 5"/38 gun, it was still woefully inadequate against threats like the Kamikaze because the shell had to directly hit its target to destroy it or hope that the mechanical fuze would detonate the shell close enough to do the job. But the proximity fuze enabled an AAA shell to detonate when it passed near enough to its target to damage it. The improvement was dramatic: whereas it used to take an average of 1,162 5-inch rounds to bring down an aircraft with a mechanical fuze, VT-fuzed shells were achieving one kill per 310 rounds expended. Anti-aircraft efficiency was quadrupled at a stroke. Radar too evolved in response to the need to strip the cloak of night or weather from enemy aircraft and submarines. As the Second War progressed, these three important weapons were combined for greater effect. The Atomic Bomb was a perfect example of this synergy. It combined nuclear physics, a proximity fuze to sense the height of bomb over the ground and possibility of aiming the whole via radar. That these three weapons represented a technical advance is unquestionable; whether they contributed to civilization is quite another.
X-ray backscatter technology may some day be viewed with the same ambivalance. American Science and Engineering's Z-Backscatter Van, now being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, allows any van, equipped with the right equipment, to surreptitiously look right through the skins of cars, vans and trucks to find contraband and car bombs.
American Science and Engineering of Billerica, MA received a $9.5 million firm-fixed price contract for eight Z-Backscatter Vans to meet U.S. Central Command requirements for Afghanistan and Iraq. AS&E's Z Backscatter Van (ZBV) is a low-cost, extremely maneuverable screening system built into a commercially available delivery van. The ZBV employs AS&E's patented Z Backscatter technology, which offers photo-like images that reveal contraband that transmission X-rays miss - such as explosives (including car bombs), people and plastic weapons - and provides photo-like imaging for rapid analysis.
What's new is the ability of these vans to "drive by" whole streets at normal speed and examine each and every vehicle it passes. The manufacturer's website describes this capability in more detail and provides a video, complete with cheerful music, showing how the equipment can turn everything it passes into the opacity of clear glass. The backscatter X-ray is tuned to organic wavelengths, enabling it to find hidden people and explosive. But this is not all it can do. For an optional extra, the Z-Backscatter Van can also find those pesky dirty bombs and nuclear weapons that every well-managed city wants to be rid of, all at a low price and in an environmentally responsible manner: getting frisked by the Z-Backscatter Van only requires an exposure equivalent to a fifteen minute flight on a commercial aircraft.
Early models of the World War 2 proximity fuze were bulky affairs powered by commercial dry-cell batteries. But under the pressure of war, 1940s technology produced "radio components rugged enough to withstand an accelerative force 20,000 times stronger than gravity and a centrifugal force set up by approximately 500 rotations per second, yet small enough, together with the other three components, to be contained in a space approximately the size of a pint milk bottle." It is conceivable that X-ray backscatter technology, as one example of the many developed in response to the challenge of asymmetrical warfare, will eventually be miniaturized and integrated with other weapons systems to the point where like the shipboard AAA systems of the late Pacific War it produces an exceedingly lethal system. As the one decimated the poet-warrior of Bushido, unafraid to die yet doomed withal, what happens when swarming robot insects, able to see through walls, can call down directed energy fires over a networked battlefield? Not just the Jihadi, but man himself is inevitably diminished by his own creation. Islamic terrorism, by threatening ruthless destruction, has provoked 21st century technological civilization into responding without limit; every scientific advance, every mathematical discovery, every material, method or craft will be brought to bear at a geometric rate on the Jihadi problem until it is solved.
This may overstate the case, but only just. The principal problem following the Second World War was how men could coexist with their own creations. Not until a half century from Hiroshima was there was some sense of coming to grips with the monumental forces unleashed in 1945. And then came September 11. Osama Bin Laden and Zaraqawi may feel that they have nothing to fear from X-ray backscatter technology. Perhaps not; but it is what comes after, and after, and after that will be truly terrifying.