Information Warfare: It Looked Good On Paper, and Better in the Papers

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April 6, 2006: When new weapons come on line in another country, many people tend to seize on one characteristic of the system that stands out, whether or not it is relevant to the system's mission. This leads to misleading reports about what the new weapon can really do. The fact is, hype about weapons can often exceed their actual performance. This tends to cause problems, not only because intelligence services are going to try to find out what the real deal is, but also because they engender panic. Rampaging pundits draws the attention of politicians. Often this hype occurs because the United States doesn't have a similar weapon in service.

Perhaps one of the more recent cases of a weapon being hyped is the Russian Shkval, a rocket-propelled super-cavitating torpedo. On paper, it looks deadly - with its high speed (360 kilometers per hour), and its nuclear warhead (which could destroy even a carrier). However, a closer look reveals that this system has several Achilles' heels. First, it is unguided. This means that even with it going at a kilometer every ten seconds, the submarine that fires it is going to have to get close to the target. This leads into problem number two for anyone using Shkval. A five-kiloton nuclear warhead detonated underwater creates shockwaves that will cause damage to a submarine that gets too close to the detonation point. One kilometer is well within that range. In other words, if a submarine fires a Shkval at a carrier, it might get the carrier, but will probably be seriously damaged in the effort. For the United States, which used the Mk 48 ADCAP from very quiet submarines, a system like Shkval is more trouble than it's worth.

Another one of these hyped weapons is the SS-N-22 Sunburn. It is fast (top speed of Mach 2), with a big warhead (700 pounds of high-explosive), a range of 120 kilometers, and has the ability carry out terminal maneuvers to throw off a ship's last-ditch defenses. However, in this case, again, there is part of the story that is untold. The missile flies as low as 23 feet over the surface of the ocean. That is not a problem on a calm day, with little or no wave action. But in a storm, that low flight altitude means that the missile could hit a wave and fly out of control (or detonate before it reaches the target). The room for error decreases even more when one considers the terminal maneuvers. Plus, it is out-ranged by the Harpoon, which has a range of 140 kilometers (other versions have even longer range - up to 315 kilometers). The Sunburn might be a nice weapon, but its launch platform has to come within range of an American ship's anti-ship missiles for the Sunburn to even have a snowball's chance in Miami of hitting its target.

This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s, the object of panic was the MiG-25 Foxbat. Many pointed to its high speed (3,000 kilometers per hour), and wondered if it was unstoppable. A closer look soon revealed that the plane had electronics at the level of the 1950s, and it had short range. The plane it was designed to counter, the B-70, never entered service. This was a plane stuck without a mission. Try convincing the panic-stricken politicians of that.

The MiG-25 has had only one confirmed kill in its service - and that was fratricide. Syria claimed one of its MiG-25s claimed to have shot down an Israeli F-15. On the other hand, at least 17 have been confirmed as having been shot down by opponents. When people talk about new "wonder weapons", most of the time, it is just hype, and these systems often fall short in combat. - Harold C. Hutchison ( haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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