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The left has a regrettable tendency to share the right's technofantasies about the performance of military equipment: e.g., obsession with the (useless) U.S. "electronic battlefield" in Vietnam; deference to Defense Department claims of nuclear missile accuracy; and, a grave fault of David Pearson's analysis of the K.A.L. 007 affair, childish faith in the supposed efficiency of U.S. surveillance and communication systems. A fresh example is provided by the contras' howls for shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, claiming that only thus can they prevail against the Nicaraguans' Soviet MI-24 helicopter gunships. The Reagan Administration has denied the request for now, but I sense among the pwogwessive forces a feeling that if they wver get such missiles the contras' fortunes could revive. The pwogwessives need not quake.

The first of this type of weapon on the field of battle, the Soviet SAM-7, was used by North Vietnam in the mid-1960s and initially obtained a kill ratio of one in three. But U.S. pilots soon learned to decoy the missiles with flares and to mask the heat source of their helicopters. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war the Arabs fired more than 5,000 SAM-7s and, on the official Israeli count, scored somewhere between one and three kills.

The U.S. equivalent of the SAM-7 was the Redeye, made by the Pomona division of General Dynamics and later "upgraded," with a fantastic escalation in price, into the Stinger. In the early 1980s the United States gave some to the Chadians, who complained bitterly that they were useless.

Last Monday a couple of contra leaders interviewed in The Miami Herald claimed that the "humanitarian" aid had now rendered them ready for battle and with the missiles they would be assured of victory. They pointed to the success of the Blowpipe, the British equivalent of the SAM-7 and the Stinger, in the Falklands in downing Argentine planes. In his detailed study of the Falklands conflict, Air War South Atlantic, Jeffrey Ethell established that the Blowpipe missiles accounted for just two kills.

Lack of shoulder-fired missiles is merely the latest alibi for contra failure. In guerrilla struggles, after all, the basic precept remains that of Napoleon: in war the moral is to the material as three is to one. The Sandinistas aren't winning because they have six MI-24s. If the contras do ever get Stingers they will soon realize the limitations of the weapon. The launcher and the missiles weight thrifty-five pounds, which means that you can't carry a rifle as well, and you get very tired. After World War II the great military writer S.L.A. Marshall established that the top load, including uniform and boots, for a soldier at maximum efficiency is forty pounds. Already the average contra in the field has to sustain a full file of The New Republic for the past six months (six pounds), the collected New York Review articles of Robert Leiken (lightweight but still burdensome), the essays of Charles Krauthammer (three pounds), as well as the entire pantheon of Western democratic thought as supplied by PRODEMCA in anthology form.

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Title Annotation:Contra request for anti-aircraft missiles Beat the Devil
Author:Cockburn, Alexander
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Apr 26, 1986
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