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The 99% fallacy.


Will the Star Wars defense against Russian ballistic missiles work? Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has announced the goal of deploying a "99 percent effective' system by the mid-1990s. But this laudable hope is unrealistic, for the simple reason that none of our existing complex military systems come anywhere close to this standard for reliability and lethality.

Consider a few examples, going up the scale from relatively simple to extremely high technology:

None of the Army's existing inventory of anti-tank missiles is 99 percent effective. In various practice shoots, the TOW missile has hit its targets anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of the time--stationary targets, not tanks maneuvering at 20 miles per hour. And even these results were obtained only under benign, near-laboratory firing conditions.

Not one of our fleets of high-performance tactical jets meets its stated "full mission-capable' goal, that is, the percentage of aircraft with all systems "full up' and ready to fly. After massive infusions of spare parts, and the careful ministerings of hundreds of flight technicians, our jets have higher "mission capable' rates than they did four years ago. But they still don't meet the Pentagon's reliablity goals, which are not nearly as demanding as 99 percent.

Defending our Navy carrier battle groups is a much less challenging task than fending off waves of Soviet ballistic missiles. Yet we have never achieved a 99 percent effective defense for our patrolling ships. The Navy relies on a combination of three defensive "layers'--F-14 fighters, AEGIS missile cruisers, and close-in rapid-fire cannon--each of which is thought to provide an 80 percent effective shield against air or sea attack. On the drawing boards at the Pentagon, the Navy calculates that the carrier group defenses achieve an overall theoretical effectiveness of 99 percent. But in their honest moments, off the official record, many naval officers concede that their mathematical figuring does not translate into invincible ships. These officers have commented to me that in battle the individual defensive layers would be ineffective, especially if subjected to saturation attack.

Moreover, this is all military hardware with a "man in the loop,' enjoying almost daily maintenance and frequent field exercises to validate its performance. We have a reverse situation with Star Wars, which would consist of highly complex, unmanned armed satellites, floating for years in outer space, with little or no maintenance. Yet we are expecting the space defense system to work perfectly the first time out--better than our antitank missiles, better than our pampered jet fighters, better than the multi-layered defenses of our carrier battle groups. Today's simpler systems, which supposedly reflect mature technology, don't work this well.

The Pentagon seems to have forgotten the time-honored axiom of military development: "Great advances rarely come from systems intended to produce great advances.' Recall the high hopes placed in the strategic bombing campaign of World War II, the Star Wars of its day. General Ira Eaker's brief to the Joint Chiefs in April 1943 sold the program with its 1,000-foot circles drawn around 76 "precision targets' that represented key sections of German industry. Flying 100 bombers over each, he announced, would cause the "desired destruction.' So many 1,000-foot circles, multiplied by 100 bombers, multiplied again by the number of raids per month and, voila: an 89 percent reduction in U-boat construction, 76 percent in ball bearings, 43 percent in fighter output. Not 40 or 50 percent, the supremely confident General Eaker predicted, 43 percent, exactly!

And on what grounds were these precise judgments made? On 12 previous raids and some post-attack photographs.

Hundreds of massed bomber attacks were launched on the basis of this absurdly small and incomplete data base, a huge effort that consumed 40,000 lives and nearly half the dollars spent fighting World War II. The results are a familiar paradox of the war: in the face of the American air assault, German military production increased until the final few months of the fighting.

The same pattern of thinking prevails with regard to Star Wars. Reduced to a technical problem, blem, war is amenable to an engineering solution. A target of 2,400 Russian submarine and silolaunched missiles, multiplied by a calculated number of orbiting battle stations leads ineluctably to a tidy measure of 99 percent effectiveness. Only now, the real-world data base is even smaller than General Eaker's. Under test conditions, not during simulated combat, the Army successfully intercepted and destroyed one Minuteman missile warhead last June. The Air Force, meanwhile, succeeded after an initial failure to bounce a laser beam off a small mirror attached to the NASA space shuttle.

These meager experiments to not vindicate the program. Almost all of the technical arguments in favor of Star Wars are based on computer studies, each loaded with unprovable assumptions, and a few low-powered laboratory devices. To borrow a phrase from Thomas Edison, "We don't know one-millionth of one percent' about the effects of lasers and particle beam weapons on ballistic missiles in flight.

The Star Wars effort is quite unlike the A-bomb Manhattan Project with which it is often compared. That single-minded effort focused on the development of one weapon, not a family of weapons. The A-bomb could and was tested before use. A ballistic missile defense can never be tested in any meaningful way. If the A-bomb exploded with only half the predicted force, it nevertheless would have been a great success. If the defensive layers of Star Wars are 50 percent effective, the consequences are potentially disastrous--scores of Soviet warheads would get through.

Despite all this, assume, for argument's sake, that a 99 percent effective defense is achieved. The Soviets today have about 7,500 nuclear warheads mounted atop 1,400 land-based and 1,000 submarine-based missiles. By 1990 they will possess about 12,500 warheads. If just one percent get through, that amounts to 125 hydrogen bombs penetrating the defense. Even if many miss their targets by miles, and some fail to explode, there would be an unimaginable level of destruction and tens of millions of casualties.

After spending anywhere from $100 billion to more than $1 trillion to research, develop, and deploy a Star Wars defensive system, we will not have moved one inch away from the vise-like dilemma of mutual assured destruction.

It is necessary to recognize there is not technical solution to this depressing reality. The constructive path out of the shadow of unclear confrontation is marked by mutually advantageous political agreements--verifiable treaties that limit deployment and testing. If such agreements are reached, both sides may be willing to acknowledge that continuing reductions in force would increase trust and, ultimately, security.
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Title Annotation:Strategic Defense Initiative
Author:Evans, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1985
Previous Article:The Navy's plane stupidity.
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