Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Flying Fortresses

In The Mask of Command (1987, R.R. Donnelly & Sons, Harrisonburg, VA), historian and Sandhurst instructor John Keegan wrote that Alexander the Great fought decisive battles with two principles in mind: that the enemy would betray where he most feared attack, thereby revealing vulnerability; and that Alexander would place himself at the head of the culminating attack at that point. Alexander put these principles into practice at the Battle of the Granicus, where the defending Persians had arrayed themselves on the high banks of a swiftly flowing stream. Alexander's commanders cautioned against making an opposed river crossing - conventional military wisdom to this day. However, from Alexander's point of view the enemy's trust in terrain features revealed a weakness of tactical ability. He led a mounted attack on the Persian cavalry, which broke and fled when forced back from the banks. This exposed the defending infantry to subsequent slaughter and resulted in a decisive victory for the Macedonians.

In modern times, great powers have tended to pour concrete where they are most vulnerable. Great defensive walls and chains of fortifications mark armed borders like lines of stranded seaweed mark the high tide. Defensive projects on this scale point to a defeatist streak, as with the French and their Maginot Line, or a dictator's bunker mentality, as with Hitler and his successive Walls, breached in succession. In the case of Stalin's USSR, it was certainly a bit of both.

When the Soviet Union felt itself vulnerable to strategic air attack from US heavy bombers, it poured staggering resources into a national defense network (see eDefense Online European Editor Michal Fiszer's article, Castles in the Sky). The belts of positional defenses around Moscow alone consumed more than the annual cement output of the entire Soviet Union, which was a very cement-oriented institution. Part of the psychological aspects of an offensive threat is to cause an opponent to over-commit or misdirect his attention and resources to defensive measures that won't really help him.

Allocating funds, resources, talent, and manpower to positional defenses rather than maneuver units suggests a weakness of tactical ability. It is hard to build a military that can be assembled, educated, equipped, and led to victory on a dynamic battlefield - very hard. It requires academies, training centers, industrial and technical excellence, research and development facilities, political leadership, and a free and open exchange of ideas. And it requires practice, practice, practice. Most anybody can build a big fort. And often, this is exactly what most everybody does.

The big problem with big defenses is that they present very particular nuts to be cracked. And given enough time and information, the brightest minds are likely to come up with a plan to crack any defense put in their way. Sometimes, subtle changes can have profound impact on the effectiveness of a defensive system, as demonstrated when the US switched to low-level penetration tactics by strategic bombers or introduced stand-off cruise missiles. Both of these relatively inexpensive offensive changes invalidated the expensive Soviet air-defense network and sent planners scrambling to develop more expensive fixes.

In the US, it's money rather than concrete that is being poured on the problem of securing the homeland. Consider the rapidly advancing proposal to equip US civil airliners with countermeasures against man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). Last year, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) selected two possible solutions - both laser-based countermeasures systems - for further study: one from Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems' Defensive Systems Division (Rolling Meadows, IL) and another from BAE Systems (Nashua, NH) (see DIRCM Systems Selected Under Counter-MANPADS Program). These two proposals are being studied under Phase II of the Counter-MANPADS program, with each company receiving approximately $45 million, on top of the $2 million each received under Phase I of the program. The two systems have just cleared their final design reviews and are entering flight-testing. As eDefense Online Senior Editor Brendan Rivers writes in his article, Counter-MANPADS Systems Enter Flight Tests, the real issue with such systems is not technical, but economic:

Even after the systems have been flight-tested, though, there still remain several questions regarding the equipping of civilian aircraft with electronic countermeasures.

First and foremost, how much will all of this cost, and who is going to pay for it? The DHS is mandating that the cost of whichever system is selected must be under $1 million per unit by the 1,000th unit, a goal both companies say can be met relatively easily. In fact, [Northrop Grumman Business Development Manager Jack] Pledger claimed that the Guardian system is "well under" the $1-million mark. However, this would only be by the 1,000th system produced, and the cost of the initial systems could be higher.

In addition, the US fleet of civilian aircraft numbers around 6,800. What about the 5,800 aircraft left after equipping the first thousand with countermeasures systems? The Rand Corp., in a study released on Jan. 25, said outfitting the entire US fleet with such systems is currently not cost-effective. The Rand study estimated the cost of equipping the entire US civil aircraft fleet at $11.2 billion, $9.2 billion of which would go towards just the procurement and retrofitting of the countermeasures systems on the aircraft. But installation costs are only the beginning. Furthermore, after the systems are installed, there would still be the cost of operating and support them, which the Rand study estimated at $27 billion through FY23, with annual costs in the neighborhood of $2.1 billion - nearly 50% of what the federal government spends on all transportation security in the US.

Even though we're becoming inured to multi-billion-dollar programs, this is still an enormous amout of money. What are we getting for this money? Security? Perhaps. Certainly, one argument is that money spent defending civil airliners against shoulder-launched infrared guided missiles would pay for itself if just one attack were to be thwarted. The insurance costs, damage to the airline industry, and rippled effects through the economy could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. On the other hand, having allocated the resources to protecting civil aircraft against the shoulder-fired threat, might the enemy merely select another high-value target that is not so well protected, or use a different weapon against aircraft that countermeasures can't stop, such as rocket-propelled grenades and small arms? It is also worth noting that helicopters and other aircraft equipped with countermeasures are indeed shot down from time to time.

Well-endowed nations such as the US tend to have blind spots when it comes to "high-concept" attacks by their enemies. Such high-concept attacks can employ a great many resources, such as the Japanese carrier-borne raid on Pearl Harbor, or comparatively modest resources, such as al Qaeda's strike at the Twin Towers and Pentagon using hijacked aircraft. In both cases, originality of planning and audacity of execution are "force multipliers" that enable a weaker power to deliver a staggering blow against a stronger foe. In both cases, the US enacted a number of post-horse-departure measures for securing the barn.

In equipping civil airliners with countermeasures, the US may or may not be making a prudent investment in security. Regardless, we should not be so complacent as to believe that civil aircraft countermeasures bars the barn door with the horse safely ensconced. Like a fort, resources spent on defending individual aircraft are resources that cannot be applied to attacking the enemy. One thing that keeps the fort-builders in business is a belief that the enemy won't have the wherewithal to figure them out. Most of the time, this is probably even true. But every now and again an Alexander comes along with a concept of how to kick those defenses in the teeth.


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