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BMD Focus: The Test Of Reality

But it is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss the problems that the hardware people have long warned about, and these days Congress is listening too

Washington, (UPI) July 26, 2005
Aerospace engineers privately complain that the Bush administration is making the same mistake in its high-tech programs that the Soviet Union made in so many of its own.

The same complaints have circulated for a long time and become so familiar that they seldom make it out of the letter pages in a few specialized journals. Reporters and politicians have, therefore, long disregarded what they perceive as the habitual grumbling of hardware people. After all, engineers are expected to grumble that no one understands them the same way farmers are expected to always grumble about the weather.

Also, over the past 20 years the Information Technology Revolution has boosted the prestige of software engineers at the cutting edge of American research and technology. Consequently, that of the old fashioned rocket men -- the hardware engineers who design and build the big dumb boosters and new interceptor missiles that carry the wonder-working electronic technology -- has diminished proportionally.

But it is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss the problems that the hardware people have long warned about, and these days Congress is listening too. Two new reports from the heart of the military -industrial complex and the Bush administration itself in the past few weeks have given official sanction to what hardware engineers have long warned:

Setting artificial timetables and deadlines for political reasons and then pushing industrial plants and engineers far too hard in developing new technology repeatedly backfires, the reports concluded. Many extra mistakes that should be avoidable are made, and programs take vastly longer and cost far more as a result.

As reported by UPI last week, on July 12 the administration's own Government Accounting office issued a statement by Robert E. Levin, director of the Acquisition and Sourcing Management division of the GAO, titled "Space Acquisitions: Stronger Development Practices and Investment Planning Needed to Address Continuing Problems." It explicitly confirmed many of the long-standing engineers' gripes about the unrealistic and impractical demands routinely made of them in major military aerospace programs.

On March 31, an earlier report commissioned by the Pentagon's own Missile Defense Agency came to a remarkably similar conclusion. It warned MDA director Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering III that the ground-based ABM interceptor program being deployed in Alaska and California was bound to suffer additional test failures and might not function properly at all if its testing regime was not revamped and made a higher priority.

This independent review team found that development of the Alaska-California ABM system, which is intended to protect the United States from long-range ballistic missile attacks from rogue states, had been driven by a White House schedule rather than performance benchmarks.

There is a remarkable familiarity in such warnings for Sovietologists who covered the long-term decline and implosion of the Soviet Union and of Moscow's once-legendary research and engineering sector.

Again and again, throughout Soviet history but with increasing seriousness and consequences in the long twilight of President Leonid Brezhnev, political leaders decreed that research projects must be rushed to triumphant conclusions within a year or five, to meet the arbitrary requirements of some Five-Year Plan, or to provide a cause of celebration for the next May Day or revolutionary anniversary.

The results were always the same: Testing of components and integrated systems were skimped or skipped entirely; programs failed miserably, often with spectacular rocket explosions or crashes of aircraft because some or even many key components had never been adequately tested, and over-ambitious, immature technologies were developed at breakneck speed when their long-term viability had never been credibly tested.

Ironically, the testimony of Pedro "Pete' Rustan, the widely respected director of the Advanced Systems and Technology at the National Reconnaissance Office to the House Armed Services Committee on July 12 could have been taken straight from the devastating assessments of Soviet political micro-management of Moscow's aerospace programs at the height of the Cold War. Rustan identified 10 profound problems that have been crippling U.S. military aerospace programs with increasing severity, and all of them could have been taken from Soviet history

In particular, he condemned what he called "overly detailed requirements from the stakeholders (in the Department of Defense and successive administrations) with little flexibility" and "proceeding to acquisition before proper technological maturity."

During the stunningly successful "first 30 years of the space program, we built capability-driven systems that provided the best that our advanced technology could offer,' Rustan testified. "During the last 15 years, however, we have swung the pendulum to the other extreme by collecting overly broad requirements sets that our space systems should meet."

Also, he said, "Enthusiastic stakeholders and space program mangers often advocate and start programs to build a spacecraft before the critical technologies have been matured." Therefore, "We often have to spend years developing the technologies" that the over-ambitious initial plans had taken for granted were there when they were not.

The root of the problem appears to be that political enthusiasts for super-high-tech ABM and space defenses often appear to have no serious background in physics or engineering.

More often than not the technical advisers they heed come from Silicon Valley and the world of Virtual Reality, where happy endings can be guaranteed, rather than the unfashionable hard-hat world of physical engineering where the unforgiving limits imposed by metal stress and melting points or rocket fuel propulsion capabilities cannot be massaged or manipulated to guarantee the required solution within some arbitrary period of time.

None of this is to say that some effective ABM defense system is impossible or cannot be deployed in the foreseeable future given sufficient funding, resources and political commitment.

But it does mean, as the new reports have warned, that the long-established verities and principles of systematic testing and step-by-step progress cannot be ignored or rushed as they have been so often.

The more that happens, the more danger there will be, as Theresa Hitchens, director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, a liberal think-tank, told UPI, of a "rush to failure." Then, when ABM systems are tested in America's most dangerous hour, when enemy nuclear-armed ICBMs are winging their way to incinerate U.S. cities, they may be faced by missile systems that lacked the most crucial components testing.

Air Force Gen. Obering has assured public critics and congressional skeptics that the MDA has accepted and internalized the findings of the independent review team panel and that the revived program of ABM testing now scheduled to start in September or October this year will heed the warnings.

One can only hope he is right: Behind the bewildering acronyms and bureaucratic double-talk, the lives of scores of millions of Americans may ultimately hang on how well the wonder technology actually works in the real world, as opposed to the cozy fantasies of computer screens. Like the Soviets before us, our leaders will eventually learn that ambitious high-tech dreams ultimately have to be tested in the "real world."

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Missile Politics On The Northern Flank
Washington, (UPI) July 26, 2005
Bush administration leader have long been frustrated by the long-established wall-to-wall consensus among Canadian political leaders against joining the U.S. ballistic missile defence program, but that has started to change.

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