Auditing "Precision" Guided Weapons

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, April 22, 2003 at 12:57PM :

Nature 422, 362 - 363 (27 March 2003)

Analysts seek proof of military precision


[WASHINGTON] Amid all the questions surrounding the second Gulf War, one thing is reasonably certain: great claims will be made for the new generation of guided weapons systems that the Pentagon is deploying in Iraq. For a group of sceptical physicists and defence experts, that represents a special challenge.

At outfits such as the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), these experts are gearing up to second-guess the Pentagon's assessment of its systems. It's a painstaking task, given the paucity of information that will fall into the public domain. But it's also one of considerable political significance. The US and British governments have stated that they want to defeat Saddam Hussein while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, and without destroying Iraq's economic infrastructure. Meeting those goals will depend crucially on the military's precision munitions working as advertised to hit accurately identified targets.

Defence analysts will also be looking at the performance of a new generation of Patriot missile interceptors, which are close cousins of the Pentagon's ballistic-missile defence system. After the last Gulf War, it took an MIT team led by physicists George Lewis and Theodore Postol two years to debunk the Pentagon's claim that the older Patriot missile system successfully intercepted most of Iraq's Scud missiles. This time, the independent and unwanted assessors are expecting more data from the larger number of reporters and film crews that the US-led coalition is letting in to cover the war. But they also fear that a clampdown on other public data could make their task more difficult. "I'm going to be looking at whatever I can get data on," says Lewis.

With Saddam Hussein's ruling party well ensconced in central Baghdad, the coalition's goal depends on 'smart' weapons finding their targets with pinpoint accuracy. Smart bombs generally fall into two categories, guided either by lasers or satellite. From a technical standpoint, the ability of these bombs to strike close to a prescribed target is reasonably well established, according to William Arkin, a Washington-based defence analyst.

What is far less clear is the quality of intelligence given to the weapons before they are fired, says Barry Posen, a professor of political science at MIT. During the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, the Pentagon claimed that precision munitions destroyed hundreds of Serbian tanks and armoured vehicles. But under closer scrutiny, it became clear that many of the weapons had hit decoy targets. "I think the verified claims in the end were no more than a few dozen," says Posen.

Press reports will be about the only way to assess the military's latest intelligence- gathering technologies, says Philip Coyle, a senior adviser for the Center for Defense Information, who spent seven years as director of the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation Directorate. By scrutinizing media coverage and the defence department's public statements, Coyle hopes to study the success of technologies aimed at telling smart bombs where to strike, such as the new computerized command and control systems, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Postol and Lewis, meanwhile, will be seeking clues about the performance of the Patriot missile interceptor. After the first Gulf War, the MIT team conducted a frame-by-frame analysis of 33 Patriot intercept attempts to determine the altitude, speed and outcome of each engagement. "We were able to get an enormous amount of information from the footage," says Postol. Their analysis showed that at least a third of the Patriots fired during the first Gulf War failed to destroy a Scud missile demolishing the army's initial claims of a 96% success rate for the system.

This time the MIT researchers plan to videotape hours of news coverage to track the latest generation of Patriot missiles, known as the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3). Unlike the original Patriots, which used explosives to blow up incoming missiles, the PAC-3 destroys warheads by the sheer force of its collision with them. This 'hit-to-kill' technology is also the basis of the first-generation US ballistic-missile defence system being built in Alaska, heightening interest in the system's performance. Already, the army's central command says that four Iraqi missiles have been intercepted by the PAC-3 system.

Some analysts complain that, even as the Pentagon opens up the battlefield to the press assigning some 500 reporters to US military units it is shutting down other data sources. Earlier this year, for example, the US administration began classifying missile-defence test data (see Nature 417, 777; 2002). John Pike, head of Washington-based, says that he used to use commercial satellite images to analyse military activity, but when US troops entered Afghanistan in 2001, the United States bought all of the images so that no one could access them. It is unclear whether the administration will follow a similar course during the present conflict with Iraq, he says.

"The data are getting worse and worse," says Arkin. Nonetheless, Lewis says that his team will continue to scour hours of news coverage to find hints about how weapons are performing. "It's more important than ever to do this because this administration has become so secretive," he says.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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