Peace on Earth, with bet­ter tech­nol­ogy

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE -

“To change any­thing in the Navy is like punch­ing a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left un­til you are fi­nally ex­hausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was be­fore you started punch­ing.”

— Franklin Roo­sevelt, 1940

san diego» hat the for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of the Navy said is de­scrip­tive of the en­tire mil­i­tary. Each ser­vice’s cul­ture, and in­ter­ser­vice ri­val­ries, and bu­reau­cratic vis­cos­ity are re­sis­tant to re­form. Which is why the next sec­re­tary of de­fense, re­tired Ma­rine Corps Gen. James Mat­tis, has the most dif­fi­cult man­age­ment chal­lenge in Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment.

He comes from a ser­vice whose core mis­sion, small-unit com­bat, in­volves con­flict at its most gran­u­lar. He will now rely on com­pa­nies like Gen­eral Atomics here, whose busi­ness is lever­ag­ing tech­nol­ogy to pro­duce max­i­mum po­ten­tial mil­i­tary lethal­ity with min­i­mal costs.

The pres­i­dent-elect ar­dently ad­vo­cated sub­stan­tially in­creased de­fense spend­ing, and just as ar­dently fa­vors un­re­strained en­ti­tle­ment spend­ing. For about $500,000 in ex­pen­di­tures, the 9/11 at­tack­ers did over $2 tril­lion in dam­age to the United States and the world econ­omy. The linked phys­i­cal and cy­ber in­fra­struc­tures of com­plex so­ci­eties are vul­ner­a­ble to such asym­me­tries. Gen­eral Atomics’ sci­en­tists toil to re­dress this im­bal­ance with, for ex­am­ple, the Preda­tor and other re­motely pi­loted air­craft (RPAs).

But they bris­tle at the word “drone,” which they think falsely sug­gests mind­less­ness on the part of air­craft that per­form three “ISR” mis­sions — in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, re­con­nais­sance. RPAs can hover for 40 hours over a Mid­dle East tar­get and de­liver, with Hell­fire mis­siles, a mu­ni­tions pay­load equal to an F-16’s. The “fast movers” — F-16s and the like — must re­fuel com­ing and go­ing from the Gulf, and most have re­turned to their car­ri­ers with­out ex­pend­ing their or­di­nance. A Reaper, an­other type of RPA, can de­liver what an F-35, the most ex­pen­sive fighter air­craft, can. The Reaper is only half as fast, but is speed — avi­a­tion’s ex­pen­sive goal since World War II — so im­por­tant? An in­creas­ing amount of the Reaper’s and the F-35’s work, in­clud­ing sens­ing and jam­ming, is done at the speed of light, which is roughly 560,000 times faster than the F-35’s air­speed.

RPAs, which have logged more than 4 mil­lion flight hours look­ing, lis­ten­ing and at­tack­ing, can dis­cover what the en­emy is plan­ning and do­ing, and can de­liver pre­ci­sion strikes with min­i­mal col­lat­eral dam­age. They could have been an in­ex­pen­sive and low-risk way of in­ter­ven­ing in Syria by en­forc­ing a no-fly, no-move­ment zone that would have pro­tected Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s en­e­mies and vic­tims.

But be­cause RPAs are un­manned, they clash with im­por­tant com­po­nents of the mil­i­tary cul­ture. Ma­rine jets from Mi­ra­mar Air Sta­tion roar over Gen­eral Atomics, mak­ing what has been called “the sound of free­dom,” but some sci­en­tists here call it the sound of ob­so­les­cence.

The Navy is us­ing high-pow­ered elec­tro-mag­netic en­ergy to re­place steam cat­a­pults to launch 80,000-pound air­craft off car­ri­ers with less stress on the planes, and hence less main­te­nance ex­penses. Now the Navy is ac­quir­ing rail guns that use such en­ergy to fire 15- to 25-pound, 18-inch pro­jec­tiles at 5,000 miles per hour. They hit with the im­pact of a train slam­ming into a wall at 100 miles per hour. The high-speed, hence high-en­ergy pro­jec­tiles, which cost just $25,000, can rad­i­cally im­prove fleet-pro­tec­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties: A bar­rage of them could counter an en­emy’s more ex­pen­sive anti-ship mis­siles.

The daunt­ing chal­lenge posed by de­fense against the pro­lif­er­at­ing threat of bal­lis­tic mis­siles is that it is pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive to be pre­pared to in­ter­cept a swarm of in­com­ing mis­siles. New tech­nolo­gies, how­ever, can rev­o­lu­tion­ize de­fense against bal­lis­tic mis­siles be­cause small, smart pro­jec­tiles can be in­ex­pen­sive. It takes 300 sec­onds to pick up such a launched mis­sile’s sig­na­ture, the mis­sile must be tracked, and a vec­tor cal­cu­lated for de­fen­sive pro­jec­tiles. A sin­gle 25-pound pro­jec­tile can dis­pense over 500 three-gram tung­sten im­pactors and be fired at hy­per­ve­loc­ity by elec­tro­mag­netic en­ergy. Their im­pact force — their mass times the square of their ve­loc­ity — can de­stroy ex­pen­sive mis­siles and mul­ti­ple war­heads.

Mat­tis will be try­ing to take con­trol of the of­ten un­con­trol­lable Pen­tagon, with its in­ter­ser­vice ri­val­ries and in­tri­cate prob­lems of match­ing slowly de­vel­oped weapons to rapidly metas­ta­siz­ing threats. The good news, such as it is, is this:

The na­tion just ex­pe­ri­enced a rau­cous pres­i­den­tial cam­paign dur­ing which there was si­lence about the cri­sis of the en­ti­tle­ment state — an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion’s pen­sion and health care en­ti­tle­ments swal­low­ing gov­ern­ment re­sources, with alarm­ing na­tional se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions. But tech­nol­ogy, pur­sued de­ter­minedly, has the po­ten­tial to make peace through mak­ing de­ter­rent strength less ex­pen­sive. E-mail Ge­orge F. Will at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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