Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Comet Wars

I don't know about you, but this story fired my imagination. It is the stuff of which science fiction movies are made.

My first reaction was sheer awe. But my second reaction was, "Hmmm, I guess Star Wars wasn't such a completely ridiculous idea after all." And in this case, I'm not talking about the movie.

Before I get a million, "You've got to be kidding, you idiot!" comments, let me just say that I Googled "Star Wars Reagan" and came up with about a million hits, the first twenty of which I checked out, and all were totally negative about the program. The technical and financial problems seem, to say the least, formidable (although I wouldn't consider Frances Fitzgerald to be an objective judge of this particular situation).

The purpose of this post is merely to state that I wonder whether the comet probe success has any relevance to the task of missile interception.

Already, though, Star Wars hasn't been a total loss. See this for the story. Since the BBC said it, you know it must be true; they wouldn't be giving the program credit for anything if it hadn't been fully earned.


At 12:28 PM, July 05, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

Hit a comet, hit a missle, or so my old Granny used to say.

At 1:07 PM, July 05, 2005, Blogger WichitaBoy said...

You can't please all the people all the time.

At 3:24 PM, July 05, 2005, Blogger Tom said...

On the question of whether Deep Impact's technology validates or helps "Star Wars". The two problems, from strictly a technical perspective, are actually very different (more on that in a second).

Nonetheless, certain specific elements of Deep Impact's technologies are very applicable to knocking a missle down. For instance, the scene analysis used on the Impactor just before the final course adjustment -- one could easily imagine applying similar technology in the terminal phases of an anti-missile device. Even the notion of a separate fly-by and impactor might be a useful one in an anti-missile device (especially one with several "impactors").

But the problems really are, at a high level, much different. The target comet was on a path that was well known for years ahead of time; only a short time is available to compute the path of a missile and its warhead. There's no doubt about the comet's identity, and it doesn't use decoys; a missile defense system has to first figure out whether something is a missile (and not a failed satellite launch, for instance) and even then the missile may well use decoys. The comet's path is fixed; a missile may undertake deceptive maneuvers. And so on.

In many ways hitting the comet is simple by comparison. By these comments, I do not mean in any way to detract from the accomplishment of the Deep Impact team -- I think they accomplished something quite magnificent, a wonderful example of how we should be spending our dollars in space exploration (as opposed to, say, a nearly useless International Space Station).

At 8:21 PM, July 05, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Can't let this go without a comment on the so-called politics of missile defense.

Although a grunt by nature and nurture, I had the misfortune to spend a year in Air Defense--Nike Hercules, to date myself--and I knew a good bit about the situation.

I was able, therefore, to follow the discussion with some modest technical familiarity.

In meetings, I would describe the facts, referring to my background. It was fun. Inevitably, I was called vile names.

Liberals. Gotta love'em. Why, I don't know. Or maybe I don't.

At 6:22 PM, July 06, 2005, Blogger jaed said...

(Just a note: if I were seeking objective information, or a broad spectrum of opinions, on strategic missile defense, I probably wouldn't do it by googling the most famously derogatory term for the concept. Some pro-SDI'ers have picked up the term "Star Wars" in the years since it was introduced, but it's still more likely to be seen as part of a denunciation of the whole idea than not.)

At 8:16 PM, July 06, 2005, Blogger Brian H said...

My sense is that meaningful interdiction of a massive sophisticated missile attack is impossible. But chasing the impossible is likely to spin off quite a few useful technologies, though the cost per is still going to be astronomical.

Deterrence of small time players like NK is worthwhile, of course. But my druthers would be to solve NK itself, rather than its missiles.

At 8:51 PM, July 06, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Brian. Suppose we solve NK and discover its missiles are elsewhere?

The point of a defense against a massive attack is not to put us in a bowl impervious to any warhead at all, but to make an adversary unsure if he could decapitate us prior to our launching our massive attack. It supports deterrence. If an enemy thinks he can get away with something, it becomes necessary to prove, by war, that he can't. Better he not believe it in the first place. So, while Russki warplanners might be inching toward the conclusion that they can overwhelm our command and control and decision-making capacity in the first attack, adding a defense system into the mix makes their conclusions more tentative. Less likely they'll try something we'd all regret.
Doesn't mean we won't be hurt. Does mean they will be. Means they know it, which is the important thing.
Since we approaching the point at which non-state actors may well have missiles like the NK's recent ones, or some version of the SS20, we have a problem. If something comes at us from the Kamchatka peninsula--which, we can presume, is only lightly controlled by Russia--which country do we turn to glass? From the desert near the intersection of the borders of several Middle Eastern countries? From a ship in the Sea of Okhotsk? Knowing we may hesitate, would a terrorist try something? He'll be gone, at any rate, by the time the thing takes off.
We're passing the point at which deterrence is the only solution.

At 12:54 PM, July 09, 2005, Blogger Michael B said...

Frances Fitzgerald's "Way Out There ..." is out there with the immense corpus of leftist presumption and propaganda on any number of topics. Soviet archives, opened since Fitzgerald's sendup have revealed the following:

1) She stated Soviet ICBMs posed no 'first strike' threat. They did.

2) She states Russian military spending had been frozen at 1976 levels. Hardly, they escalated dramatically, a good deal of it targeted at client states and insurgencies in Central America.

3) She indicates the Soviets themselves did not deploy a natl. defense system. They did, of dual purpose (offense/defense), nuclear tipped missiles.

4) She indicated Soviet military spending was only a modest part of overall GDP. In fact it reached well over 30%.

5) She indicated the Soviets did not have a massive civil defense and war recovery plan in place. They did.

6) She indicated the Soviet's SDI effort was virtually non-existent or that it never really produced anything of substance anyway. Wrong again, and again according to Soviets records, not ours.

7) She claims the Soviets never took SDI all that seriously, they very much did, and this as well is verified in Soviet archives. From a review of Peter Schweizer's "Reagan's War: The Epic Story of His Forty Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism," published in Reason Magazine:

At arms summits, Gorbachev frantically offered increasingly gigantic cuts in strategic missiles -- first 50 percent, then all of them -- if Reagan would just abandon SDI. Schweizer, mining Soviet archives and memoirs still unpublished in the West, shows that Gorbachev’s fears echoed throughout the Politburo. SDI "played a powerful psychological role," admitted KGB Gen. Nikolai Leonev. "It underlined still more our technological backwardness."


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