Industries & Professions /
From simple rocks to sophisticated satellite surveillance
systems, people have always sought ways to defend themselves and to
protect their territory and to promote their interests. The
development of weapons, tools, vehicles, and strategies, both
defensive and offensive, plays a crucial role in the safety and
welfare, as well as the economic health, of almost every society.
Today, defense is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise with private
industries building weapons and defense systems for the
The rudimentary weapons of earlier times-rocks, slings, and
spears-were made of whatever materials were available. The weapons
were often made by the warriors who used them. At the same time
people developed weapons, they also developed ways to protect
themselves. The earliest armor was of animal hides, and as weapons
evolved into spears and arrows, warriors learned to fashion metal
Another early weapon was fire. The Greeks used incendiary
weapons as early as the fourth century B.C.
Gunpowder, invented by the Chinese, became one of the most
important developments in the art of war. By the 14th century,
armies had adapted gunpowder for use with cannons, which could fire
large stones or metal balls for long distances and destroy a city's
fortifications. Mortars, developed by the Dutch in the 17th
century, and other explosive bombs were used to terrible effect.
The castles and other fortifications that had protected cities for
so many centuries were rendered far less effective by these new
weapons. Gunpowder was also adapted for use in firearms by the 14th
century and in rockets by the 13th century. Cannons were also
mounted on sea vessels. In the 16th century, the British designed
the first real warship, and the British naval fleet soon dominated
The invention of the airplane and the automobile married private
industry to war and defense efforts in the early part of the 20th
century. The first military order for an airplane was made soon
after Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright's first flight in 1903. By
1911, airplanes were being used in war. At first, airplanes were
used mainly for reconnaissance missions. However, they soon were
adapted for dropping bombs. In peacetime, the government relied on
industry to produce equipment such as vehicles, tanks, naval
vessels, and airplanes. World War I and, to a greater extent, World
War II proved just how adaptable private industry was to producing
the materials of war. When the United States entered World War II,
industries that previously had little to do with defense efforts
were mobilized to produce everything needed for the war, from
supplies to vehicles to weapons.
Other industries were tapped for valuable defense technologies.
Radar, radio, and sonar were useful not only for guiding aircraft
and naval vessels but also for warning of impending attacks.
Chemical weapons, such as the mustard gas used in World War I, made
new types of defense equipment, such as gas masks, vital to the
soldiers on the ground. Automobiles made armies even more flexible;
where previously they had relied on the railroads or horse-drawn
wagons for supplies, armies could now be deployed and maintained
virtually anywhere. The automobile was also adapted for strategic
use in battle. Outfitted with armor and heavy weapons, a tank
became a ferocious, seemingly unstoppable weapon.
Another important innovation of World War II was the development
of the first jet engine. By the end of the 1950s, jet travel had
revolutionized the airline industry, opening air travel to millions
of people around the world. The Cold War between the United States
and the Soviet Union, coupled with the space race that developed
between the two countries, saw the dedication of enormous amounts
of resources to the development of ever more sophisticated weapons.
Cold War-era weapon development included conventional, nuclear,
biological, and chemical weapons; air and naval craft; and
surveillance, intelligence, communications, and computer
technology. Much of the technology developed initially for defense
has been adapted for commercial and civil use. The aerospace
industry, for example, provides not only military aircraft but
aircraft for commercial aviation.
Defense and the aerospace industry remain intrinsically linked.
The use of aircraft and space technology has become a dominant
force in modern warfare. The Persian Gulf War (1990-91) showed the
strategic importance of these technologies. Using aircraft,
long-range missiles, and sophisticated guidance systems coupled
with satellite-based intelligence operations, the United States and
its allies were able to weaken the Iraqi army almost to the point
of surrender before the land-based war even began.
After tensions eased between the United States and Russia, new
concerns arose with smaller countries, such as North Korea, that
had the technology to build rockets that could reach the United
States. The Strategic Defense Initiative, proposed by President
Ronald Reagan and known as Star Wars, died with the end of the Cold
War in the 1980s, but new concerns prompted the government to
invest in a new national missile defense system.
Today, the United States is waging military operations in
Afghanistan and Iraq and is concerned with fighting the threats of
terrorism that come from terrorist groups from various parts of the
world. Billions of dollars are being spent on developing high-tech
weapons, aircraft, communications systems, and other methods of
protecting the United States from traditional military attacks as
well as chemical and biological warfare.