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The door SDI won't shut.


The proposed Star Wars defense isalmost always diagrammed from a meteor's viewpoint, showing a sky full of orbiting gee-whiz weapons that neatly zap ballistic missiles as they blast off from the Soviet Union.

Yet none of this tangle of kinetic kill vehicles,hypervelocity guns, x-ray lasers, particle beam generators, surveillance satellites, and mirrors is ever shown blowing up a relatively ordinary weapon that could destroy our cities and industries almost as well as ballistic missiles could: bombers.

The Reagan administration would undoubtedlyprotest that some of the technology that comes out of SDI surely could be used some day to protect against these bombers (or their unmanned cousins, cruise missiles). But even Star Warriors admit that most of the exotic gizmos now being discussed aren't even theoretically capable of working in the atmosphere. The few that might be made to work could be rather easily countered.

Instead, we'd be defending ourselves againstbombers and cruise missiles with more conventional arms. But the record of this kind of defense is pretty poor; the best defenses have never been able to stop more than a fraction of even a weak air offensive. When you talk about conventional bombs, percentages may count for something; for nuclear warheads, they are meaningless. Until someone figures out how to stop all the planes, the problem of stopping ballistic missiles is irrelevant to the protection of the American population. never has a large-scale, determined attack by ordinary aircraft been stopped to any degree that would make difference in a nuclear war.

Real world glitches

In 1942, 163 Liberator bombers raided the Germanoil refineries at Ploesti, Rumania. Fifty-two of them were shot down in a brilliant performance by the Luftwaffe and German antiaircraft gunners. That was one of the worst losses in any air raid in any war. Yet two-thirds of the planes still dropped their bombs and returned to base. For all the technological improvements since then, defenders have seldom stopped more than 10 percent of attacking bombers.

One reason planes get through is that pilotsrelish shooting first at the people who are shooting at their planes. In 1951, the North Koreans and Chinese communists tried to repair an airfield at Pyongyang that was ringed by more than 100 antiaircraft guns. Forty-six american Shooting-Star jets swooped in one day to pound the fields with bullets, bombs, and rockets. Twenty-one four-engine B-29s bombed through the rising dust to complete the destruction. Not a single American bomber was damaged.

But we weren't the only ones getting throughthat era's defenses. Robert Jackson, in his air War Over Korea, describes how the communists regularly bombed our airfields at night with Russian Polikarpof-2 Biplane Trainers. These "bedcheck Charlies" created little radar image and flew too low and slow for our jets, which were designed for high-speed dog-fights, to shoot down. It was a time warp in technology--the sort of glitch that happens all the time in the real world. These biplanes kept the troops awake, destroyed five million gallons of fuel at Inchon, and once straddled a group of parked Sabrejets with bombs. "In less than two minutes," writes Jackson, "one rickety stick-and-canvas biplane had inflicted more damage on Sabres of the 14th Fighter-Inceptor wing than had the speedy MiG-15s in all their air combats so far."

Defenses have gotten more sophisticated overthe years, but bombers have kept up. During the Vietnam war, American radar-jamming aircraft drove the North Vietnamese SAM missile crews crazy. Our F-105 wild Weasel jets spotted their ground radar and knocked them out with missiles. In 11 days of bombing over Hanoi in the winter of 1972, American B-52 bombers flew 700 sorties. The North Vietnamese launched between 750 and 1,000 SAM-2 missiles at them, but only 15 planes were brought down.

Consider how well antiaircraft defenses workedin the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Egypt, with Russian help, had constructed perhaps the most dense missile defense field ever created. It included 150 batteries of the best Soviet SAM missiles--three different types with interlocking fields of fire and different electronic guidance characteristics. Hundreds of Russian Strela shoulder-launched missiles were also in place, plus hundreds more antiaircraft guns. Its ground forces reeling under the surprise attack of Egypt and Syria, Israel couldn't give the missiles first priority, and lost 50 planes in the first five days of the war.

Then Israeli fighter-bombers started after themissiles, sometimes flying in very low to hide in radar ground clutter, zooming up just past the missiles to dive back and release bombs. As pilots broke away at low altitude, they dropped flares to confuse heat-seeking SAMs. Starting at the northern end of the Suez Canal, Israeli pilots destroyed battery after battery.

In a later case, the Syrians in 1982 put threetypes of SAM missiles in the Bekas Valley in Lebanon. In response, the Israelis flew a remotely piloted drone above the missiles, which caused the Syrians to switch on their radar to pinpoint the little target. Flying nearby, but out of range, was an Israeli E-2 Hawkeye surveillance plane that determined the radar frequencies of the Syrian weapons. Israeli planes then launched Shrike anti-radar missiles set to those frequencies and sent Wolf ground-launched missiles behind them. Nineteen SAM sites were destroyed and four heavily damaged--without the loss of a single Israeli plane.

But if the Syrians developed nuclear bombs,could the Israelis' air superiority stop them? An hour-long dogfight followed Israeli's destruction of the Bekaa missiles. A hundred Israeli planes tangled with as many Syrian planes and shot down 29 of them, again without a single israeli loss. It was a terrible defeat for the Syrians, but it was nonetheless a defeat that would have left 71 Syrian planes to deliver nuclear weapons had they been armed with them.

Shooting them in the back

There are those who may say that inferiorweapons or their operators were responsible for the failure of these Arab defenses. Western science is surely better, Western warriors more capable. Our Star Wars missiles would work.

Western interceptor missiles--the British SeaDart and Rapier, the American Patriot--would probably be part of our first-choice defense against cruise missiles and bombers. (And against ballistic missiles in early Star Wars plans. Most long-range Star Wars planning also calls for such missiles as our final defensive layer.)

But the record of this kind of missile in theFalklands isn't encouraging. In that short little war, some outdated Argentine planes went up against American Sidewinder missiles on British Harrier fighters and a whole array of surface-to-air missiles: Sea Slug, Sea Cat, Sea Dart, Sea Wolf, Rapier, even the shoulder-fired British Blowpipe and American Stinger. Plus hundreds of antiaircraft guns.

The Argentines did nearly everything wrong. Theyattacked the wrong ships, aiming most often at missile-firing destroyers and frigates instead of the helpless troop ships and transports vital to the British invasion. They also made little effort to attack British carriers, which launched the Harriers that shot down Argentine planes.

Nevertheless, a handful of Argentine pilotsnearly won the Falklands war--and probably would have if they had realized how successful they were being and had persisted. They planted missiles or bombs in 13 British ships, six of which sank.

In The Battle for the Falklands, Max Hastingsand Simon Jenkins describe the British reaction to the sinking of their destroyer, Sheffield, by an Excoet missile: "Officers and men alike were appalled, shocked, subdued by the ease with which a single enemy aircraft firing a cheap, L300,000, by no means ultra-modern sea-skimming missile had destroyed a British warship specifically designed and tasked for air defense."

Defense ground-to-air missiles often didn'twork well for the British. A Sea Dart on the destroyer Coventry zeroed in on a high-flying Argentine reconnaissance plane, but the missile's flash doors refused to open. By the time a sailor beat the doors open with a hammer, the plane was out of range. British radar failed to see planes that skimmed ten feet above the sea. Missile radars failed to zero in when planes approached with land masses behind them. "The cold was creating intense difficulty for the aimers, who found themselves unable to track missiles whose tail glow was obscured by a cloud of condensation. Both Sea Dart and Sea Wolf were achieving kills, but they seemed unable to provide decisively effective protection for themselves, far less for the task force," write Hastings and Jenkins.

Destroyer Coventry and frigate Broadswordwere patrolling west of the Falklands when they were attacked by Argentine Skyhawks. The Broadsword's computer studied two close radar images of approaching planes and couldn't decide which to attack. It locked up. The frigate took a bomb, which luckily for it didn't go off. Broadsword was about to fire at a second pair of Skyhawks when the Coventry, taking violent evasive action, turned across her bow. This time Broadsword didn't dare fire. Three 1,000-pound bombs hit Coventry and sank her.

Salt water had damaged the big Rapier missilesbefore they were installed on the hills ringing the British anchorage at St. Carlo. They had a tendency to fall off their slides onto the ground. Even when they were firing steadily, Rapiers claimed only nine kills, and Argentine planes still swarmed above the anchorage, bombing ships. British troops fired dozens of shoulder-launched Blowpipe missiles without a hit.

Not that the British didn't some successes. Missile-aimersclaimed a total of 29 Argentine planes. But when pursued by Harriers, Argentine planes didn't deploy flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles, and they usually didn't take evasive action but flew straight away until Sidewinder missiles caught them. British pilots had the luxury of approaching fleeing Argentines from behind, and of firing only when the planes were in their missile look-angle. Of 27 Sidewinders fired under these circumstances, 24 hit their targets.

With all its missiles and fighters, the Britishfleet was hit hard. Argentine attempted 445 combat sorties from the mainland with its first-line Mirage and Skyhawk planes. It completed 302 and claims to have lost only 34 of these planes.

Californian dreaming

If we peer far down the road at the possiblenew defenses against planes and cruise missiles that might come out of SDI, the odds don't get much better. There may be plenty of reasons why high-tech weapons may never work in outer space, but the hurdles multiply once you bring them into the earth's atmosphere.

The bullets of hypervelocity guns, which aremeant to be fired at 10 or more kilometers a second--36,000 kilometers an hour--would encouter enormous air resistance down here and would probably burn up.

Virtually all scientists agree that x-ray lasersand neutron particle beams would be blocked by our atmosphere. Charged electron and proton particle beams could penetrate, but the unpredictability of the earth's magnetic field would make them hard to aim. Short wave-length, pulsed light lasers might pose a threat, but the atmosphere, and particularly clouds, weaken the beams. Furthermore, planes could be coated to reflect much of their energy, and simple evasive action such as a barrel roll could keep the laser from hitting one point long enough to achieve a burn.

Since the late 1960s, the Soviet Union and theU.S. have relied mainly on ballistic missiles for their nuclear threat. But if those missiles should fail, or are knocked out, both sides have enough planes to get through.

The Soviets have the old Bear and soon willhave the fast, high-technology Blackjack. Unrefueled, both could hit the entire U.S. and return to base. Their Mach 2 Backfire bomber would need mid-air refueling to cover the whole U.S. and return. Soviet bombers could come at you at 800 mph, turning and jinking at tree-top level. They could come out of the night, out of ground clutter and domestic planes on our radar. Send up a beam to find them; they can kill you with missiles that ride backward down the signal. Or they simply nuke you with cruise missiles that can hug the landscape and can be launched from up to 1,500 miles away.

Americans--and President Reagan--may bemesmerized by the flash and zap of the world of SDI dream technologies. Never mind that going ahead with the program will violate a treaty, destabilize the world's power structure, escalate the arms race, and cost more than anything else ever has. Ronald Reagan may promise that the $100 billion Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) will be a perfect shield that will "protect [our people] against nuclear destruction," but it can't. The George C. Marshall Institute recently estimated in a study done for congressional SDI supporters that the whole SDI system could stop at best 90 percent of incoming ballistic missiles--and that assumes the Soviets won't do much to up the chances their missiles will get through. The more thoughtful Star Warriors say 70 percent. Yet if only 10 percent got through, that would still be enough to obliterate us. Those are the unjust mathematics of the super-power nuclear age. The attacking side can be incredibly sloppy, lose even 95 percent of its outgoing weapons and still destroy its opponent.

But even if we stopped every single ballisticmissile, how would we escape destruction by planes alone? Anf if we go on funding SDI, why should we assume that the Soviets won't just make this part of their arsenal even tougher?
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Title Annotation:the history of defensive weapons shows why Star Wars won't save us
Author:Hammer, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1987
Previous Article:Warning: the Surgeon General may be good for your health.
Next Article:Futures shock.

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