Psychoanalysis is a neat word, which we have been shamelessly using as psychobabble. It is actually the name of a treatment for mental disorders, the so-called “talking cure.” We will continue to shamelessly misuse it, but Putin’s concerns, and those of the Russian “Elite”, can be categorized as
- Systems of thought
The attitudinal component really does have a psychoanalytic twist. But, as Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” The Russians have real concerns, feeding on what we might consider their paranoia, but which might not be dismissed as such by a neutral observer. The ABM system is such an issue.
It is confusing to us, because the ABM system, as currently designed, claims effectiveness against only the most primitive ICBM systems, as threatened by North Korea, and possibly Iran. Theodore A. Postol, an MIT professor, has been a persistent critic of missile defense systems of all sorts. His recent analysis of the Iron Dome is discouraging, but very relevant. It will be used here as part of a plausibility argument that the ABM system, as currently constructed, is futile. It is the futility that makes the Russians see a Trojan Horse.
My own mental lethargy, and love of gadgetry, including many of the gems of the U.S. defense industry, had me looking away for a long time. I would love nothing better than a working ABM system. And the THAAD impactor, which relies on the kinetic energy of direct impact with the incoming missile, is environmentally clean (cue the smiling family, with babe in arms, on a sunny, immaculate suburban lawn, looking upwards into the flawless blue sky, as a THAAD impacts a North Korean 20 kiloton warhead some 80 miles up.)
There was also the possibility, based on confidence in the brains of DoD, that, somehow, the THAAD team had managed an end-run around Postol’s logic, but after watching the Zumwalt destroyer fiasco, and a few similar things, I concluded that, as intelligent as the individual stars of DoD may be, the organization shrouds their insights with group-think. So Professor Postol must be taken seriously. Since I have worked in this technology area, I understand Postol’s logic, with an extreme regret that I cannot refute.
The argument against the ABM is based on energy. You might want to revisit Catastrophe Theory for Dummies Part 2, which examines the problem of balancing a broomstick. It is a very simple example of a problem which cannot be solved — unless you have an infinite amount of energy to spend.
The argument can be dumbed down by presenting pieces of the problem separately. The reader should intuit that the difficulty of the problem is the product of these considerations:
Because the THAAD has to impact the warhead, it has a hard problem, while the warhead has an easy problem. The THAAD has to be where the warhead is. That is a very specific place. The warhead simply has to be where the THAAD is not. To the nonspecialist, this might seem easy. Simply compute the trajectory of the warhead, which in the vacuum of space can be perfectly known, and make the THAAD very precise. In other words, design the system to hit a bulls-eye, and success is assured.
In physics, one typically choses to consider the problem within a particular volume. Let’s make this one kilometer on a side. Let’s assume that it’s a “done deal” that the interceptor can get within this cube. Let’s also assume that the warhead and interceptor are each half meter volume. Less than one in a billion configurations represent an impact.
The warhead has two times a billion choices of places-to-be. It’s like managing to avoid, in a big city, someone who is looking for you with uncertain information. A radar “return echo” is a fuzzy cloud. By looking at multiple echoes, employing a multiplicity of tricks, we can winnow down the cloud, but we can’t make it a clear image, any more than than your seeker can see clearly in a crowded avenue. Until you’re on top of your quarry, when it might be too late. Although the THAAD has its own “seeker” imagers, the closer it is, the more energy is required to account for what it now knows.
Perhaps, aiming a gun, you’ve felt it shake in your hand. A shake is also present in missile systems, where it is called “noise.” Noise in the sensors, ring-gyros, thrusters, actuators, sloshing of fuel, buffeting of wind, airframe vibrations, flexing of the structure, etc. Even if the position of the target can be perfectly known, the designers of the interceptor struggle. For a Qassam rocket, the only struggle is to pull the string that lets fly the spring that ignites the cartridge . It has no guidance at all. Yet, if Postol is to be believed, it gave Iron Dome a lot of trouble.
The THAAD impact interceptor is the most sophisticated ever designed, with a maximum intercept altitude of 90 miles. It has a huge number of thrusters, apparently in effort to reduce impulse noise. As far as I know, it has been tested only against the proposed North Korean threat, which is modeled as a compact object on a ballistic trajectory. But what if the warhead is not ballistic? The Kármán line, at 100km, is approximately the edge of space. But the way it is defined does not mean that aerodynamics is absent above that altitude. It means only that there is not enough lift to fly an airplane.
North Korean rockets are presently garage-shop jobs. But what if they get a little more advanced? To defeat the ballistic model, all they have to do is add some drag, trailing some junk out the back held by a cord. Or they could head over to Dick’s Sporting goods, and buy one of these. Pitching balls out the front or back, utilizing conservation of momentum, they only have to buy a few feet per second of delta-V. By example, in the Gulf War, the Patriot missile was defeated by SCUD missiles so badly constructed, they broke apart in flight, defeating the ballistic hypothesis.
The THAAD is far more sophisticated than the Patriot. It’s so good, I don’t know what they could do to make it better, though the thrusters are so numerous it is reputed to be a maintenance nightmare. It may be out of tricks for the future. Except for one. And the Russians know this.
On July 19, 1957, five Air Force officers and one photographer stood directly beneath a 2 kiloton weapon detonated 18,500 feet above their heads (Amazing video. Watch them break out the cigars.) From the point of view at the time, and still a plausible trade-off today, they suffered no ill effects. The purpose was to prove the safety of the Bomarc interceptor missile, and the Genie air-to-air missile against Soviet bomber formations. If the THAAD kinetic impactor design were to be replaced by a nuclear design, the basis could be a modification of the W-54 warhead, either for greater yield, or with a shaped charge.
With a nuclear punch, the THAAD no longer has to be in the same place at the same time as the incoming missile. The goal becomes some practical, achievable fraction of a cubic kilometer. With a nuke, it can also handle a few decoys.
The Russians know all this. To them, the current ABM system is a Trojan horse for one which which actually works. This is why they proposed that the ABM radar now located in Poland be located in Russia. This proposal is reauthored by the Arms Control Organization.
So why didn’t we take them up on this? Is it because their dissident journalists meet unfortunate ends? Or that they still dispatch Mercader-ish assassins to the West for “wet work?” Or the scale of symbiosis between government and organized crime? Is it just historical “bad luck?”
Or is there a fundamental size limit to human empathy, which implies an upper limit to cooperative politics?