Weapons Systems Get a Test--and So Far, They Seem to be Passing


January 27, 1991|By David C. Morrison | David C. Morrison,David Morrison is national security correspondent for National Journal.

WASHINGTON — Washington. Last September, a foot soldier in Washington's large army of defense analysts made a frank admission in an interview about the Gulf crisis.

"I'm sure there's more than one person in town who, despite the horrors of war, would like to see this equipment exercised," he said. "There's a lot of questions about this stuff."

Four months later, early in the air campaign against Iraq, those questions would seem to have been answered with a resounding affirmation of high-technology warfare, American-style:

* Some 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired at air defense and command facilities, primarily during the first two days of Desert Storm. Defense officials claimed a 90 percent effectiveness rate for the Tomahawk in its baptism of fire.

* The Air Force has proudly displayed footage of the F-117A stealth attack plane neatly tossing laser-guided bombs through the doors of Iraqi Scud missile bunkers.

* As also seen on television, the Patriot PAC-2 anti-missile-missile has repeatedly knocked Scud missiles out of the skies over Saudi Arabia.

Coupled with surprisingly low U.S. and allied losses, these tours de force have given rise to a certain giddiness on the home front. But Washington still boasts legions of analysts armed with wet blankets to dampen the high-tech euphoria now bubbling up.

For one thing, full damage assessments are not yet available to military planners, much less to the public. "We don't yet know about the [actual effectiveness of] Tomahawk, as near as I can tell, except that they fired them," a Pentagon analyst thus cautions.

For another thing, inflated conclusions can easily be drawn; though large, Iraq's military is not the most sophisticated. A case in point is the exaggerated contention that the Patriot's prowess against slow, low-trajectory Scud missiles proves the efficacy of a "Star Wars" defense against swift swarms of Soviet intercontinental missiles.

"there is a general sigh of relief on the part of those who had doubts that a lot of this new stuff would work, at least for the air war portion," military analyst and author Jeffrey Record observes. But, "there are a lot of systems out there that have to be tested; the ground war has not gotten going yet. You have the Abrams [M-1 tank] and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Apache helicopter that have yet to be put through the ropes."

Analysts also warn against confusing high technology with grand strategy. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's game plan "is using strategy to offset our technological superiority," contends Georgetown University national security professor Steven L. Canby.

"If he had stood up and fought he would have lost his air force very fast and gotten nothing for it," Mr. Canby says. "But he is drawing out this war and forcing us to use very expensive missiles in a protracted way. Meanwhile, he has bought time, and time emboldens the Arabs in the streets and the protesters at home. Instead of looking good, I think we're beginning to look a little foolish."

Some perennial defense critics might also be feeling a bit foolish. Debate has too often revolved around flat assertions that this or that weapon will or will not "work." Typically, the issue is not that clear-cut. But it is no surprise that the public response to successes is a palpable sense of amazement that any U.S. weapon could possibly function as advertised.

This ingrained skepticism is not altogether unwarranted. The Air Force's $28-billion fleet of B-1B bombers, declared operational in 1986, after all, is sitting this fight out thanks to logistical and electronic woes.

But troubling technological teething pains can too often be mistaken for terminal illness. The daunting World War II-era B-29 initially suffered catastrophic engine failures, and 260 of the big bombers were lost in training accidents in the United States.

"The insider's view is that it is generally accepted that the U.S. makes the best-performing weapon systems in the world," Jacques S. Gansler, director of The Analytical Sciences Corp., an Arlington, Va. defense analysis firm, asserts.

But, he adds, "you want to be able, in the future, to continue these performance trends, but to do it cheaper and faster. Patriot is a fantastic weapon system, but it took a lot of time and a lot of money."

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