Murphy's Law: What Is The Most Realistic Reality


August 8, 2012: Increasingly, over the last half century there has been a culture clash among weapons developers over how to test the new stuff. The problem revolves around the question of what is the most realistic reality. Put another way, how do you go about providing really accurate testing of what the new weapon will do when encountering a real opponent.

The problem is an ancient one but let us keep the examples less than a century old. At the start of World War I in 1914, there were two types of artillery shells. One was high explosive. The other, more expensive to build and theoretically more effective, was shrapnel. This type was like a shotgun shell. It exploded in the air and sprayed the ground below with metal balls. Tests had shown that these balls would penetrate wood boards set up to represent troops. Because of the expense less than half the shells used were shrapnel. The need for more artillery shells and the high cost of shrapnel shell led to it being largely replaced by the less effective high-explosive.

Later came a startling revelation. In the 1930s, a group of American technicians were setting up some shrapnel shells for a test and one shell exploded prematurely, peppering some of the people with the "lethal" metal balls. They all survived. Further investigation revealed that human skin, muscle, and bone were far more resistant to the metal balls than wood boards. World War I combat surgeons, when questioned, remembered that they had never seen a penetration wound caused by shrapnel balls. There has never been much official note made of this very humane weapon during or after war.

During World War II there was much more of this. Often it was technology that engineers and staff officers thought would be very important but then failed when encountering reality. One example was the gun stabilizer on the American M-4 tank. This revolutionary new device would allow the main gun to fire accurately while the tank was moving. In combat, crews found that it was not reliable enough, it was difficult to operate, and it ran down the battery quickly. It was rarely used.

During the Vietnam War many items of "brilliant new technology" were sent off to the combat zone, where the gear and the developers got a reality check. This continued after Vietnam. But Vietnam experience made developers a bit more cautious and questioning and this sometimes paid off. For example, during the 1980s, the CIA got a largely intact Russian anti-missile flare system from a Russian warplane that had crashed in Afghanistan. This was given to American aircraft technology experts for examination. The flare system was actually put back into service and tested. Then it was discovered that the Russian flares were of uneven quality and this turned out to be a big deal. When tested against the latest American heat seeking air-to-air missile, which was designed to avoid these flares and go for the aircraft, the Russian flares fooled the American "flare detector". That was because the "flare detector" had been tested using American flares which were manufactured to more uniform standards than their Russian counterparts. If a flare did not match what the flare detector had been programmed to recognize as a flare, the missile went for the Russian flare, thinking it was an aircraft.

Poor manufacturing standards by the enemy again embarrassed the Americans during the 1991 Gulf War. The U.S. Army sent Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems, that had been modified to knock down Russian designed SCUD ballistic missiles, to defend Saudi Arabia. Iraq had hundreds of SCUDS and fired some of them into Saudi Arabia. The Patriot anti-missile capability worked, sort of. The Patriot was designed to detect and destroy an incoming SCUD. But the Iraqis had modified their SUCDs (by lengthening the missile to carry more fuel and have a longer range). This was done in a crude fashion and when the SCUD came down it often came apart so that the intact warhead was often accompanied by other parts of the missile (the engine and lengthened fuel tanks). This, in effect, provided decoys as the Patriot radar could not tell the difference between the SCUD warhead and other missile parts. Sometimes the Patriot missile shot down an empty fuel tank instead of the warhead. The Patriot anti-missile system developers had not paid attention to this problem and lives were lost as a result.

People, especially weapons developers, keep forgetting that you have to develop weapons for use against a foreign enemy, not other Americans. The truth comes out on the battlefield and by then it’s too late for a lot of U.S. troops who get killed because of the willful ignorance.





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