Nova's 'Killing Machines' offers cautionary tale about a Mideast war


November 13, 1990|By Michael Hill

A topical and timely edition of PBS' Nova series tonight gives a glimpse at the way our side plans to fight a war in the sands of the Mideast. The idea is not to use men, but to rely on microchips and lasers and radar beams and such.

"The Killing Machines," the hour that will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 8 o'clock, focuses on the Iraqi situation -- updated for all but the latest troop buildup -- as it provides an introduction to these devices that hang out there on the cutting edge of destructive technology.

Then it asks a simple question -- will they work? The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple.

Oh, it is to novelist Tom ("The Hunt for Red October") Clancy, who comes across as a grinning propagandist for the techno-weapons industry. In his books, these complex devices always work perfectly.

And for certain of the military personnel involved, some of whom act like kids on Christmas when they get their hands on the latest wrinkle in weaponry, there is no doubt that we can out-computer a country like Iraq.

But others interviewed, a variety of military experts including retired generals, are not so certain.

The devices in question are mainly the so-called smart missiles. They get that description because they don't just head where they are aimed and then explode on contact. They are able, using one system or another, to find a target they are supposed to hit and go for that.

And, in controlled tests, they do just that and millions of dollars idefense contracts follow.

But, if they'll do it in combat isn't clear. For one, whether they seek out the heat of exhausts or images provide by radar or TV, the missiles cannot tell friend from foe.

For another, they are only as good as the information they are given by the humans who are running them. And in a fire fight, accurate information is often a scarce commodity. Look at what happened when one of the Navy's most technologically-advanced ships, the Vincennes, shot down an Iranian jetliner.

Not only is it problematical how well these smart weapons will work in the confusion of combat, it's not even certain how many will make it to the battle given the high level of maintenance they require.

It is clear, as "The Killing Machines" points out, that when the Mujadeen fighters in Afghanistan were equipped, by the United States, with one of the simplest of the smart missiles -- the shoulder-launched Stinger -- they were able to neutralize the technological advantage of the Soviet Union's forces and eventually drive them from the field.

And it's also clear, as this Nova reports, that in simulated tanbattles at a fort in California, the coherent strategy of the side representing the Iraqis has rolled over the confused techno-defenses of the U.S. forces.

If this sounds familiar to viewers who have followed television coverage of the U.S. military, it might be reminiscent of a segment in "The Defense of the United States," a five-hour CBS project in 1981 which reported that in simulated dogfights the less-technologically-advanced fighters blew away the latest in radar and smart missiles on the newest planes the Navy was then producing. Chained to their radar and the demands of their weapons, the pilots of the new planes didn't have the flexibility to adapt to the tactics used by their opponents.

But, billions of dollars later, most of it spread to defense contractors in congressional districts across the land, our armed forces maintains its faith in pushing for the highest in technology.

The bottom line on "The Killing Machines" is that, as much as Clancy and company might wish that modern warfare would be an abstract chess game fought with computer chips and cathode ray tubes, once these smart weapons have done their job and knocked out the enemy's big equipment, a war in the Mideast will come down to men fighting men on the ground.

And, as one expert says, that's the type of war the American public doesn't like, "one with a lot of body bags."

Combined with the program that follows Nova -- the second installment of a six-hour documentary on what happened the last time America joined an international force to repel an invasion in an faraway land, "Korea: The Unknown War" -- PBS tonight offers a cautionary tale for our troubled times.

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