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VOICES : For the Defense

May 03, 1987|Gregg Easterbrook | Easterbrook is a contributing editor to Newsweek. His novel, "This Magic Moment," was recently published by St. Martins

WASHINGTON — Moammar Kadafi is alive today because lasers and high-tech target sensors on four of the nine U.S. Air Force FB-111s sent to attack his compound in April, 1986, broke down--causing the planes to withdraw without releasing their "smart" bombs. And of the five planes that did deliver, none scored a direct hit.

Considering that the raid was made after long preparation and against a Third World target, this might have given Pentagon officials pause. Instead, the Air Force will invest billions of dollars in the technology--and assume it can demolish Soviet forces offering more resistance.

The initiative, referred to as "deep strike," involves adapting Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters into electronics-laden tactical bombers similar to FB-111s. The resulting $45-million F-15E "Strike Eagles" and $20-million A-16s (no nickname yet) would stage ground attacks behind enemy lines. This specialty is vital to the Air Force in its battle against a menacing foe--the U.S. Army.

In military lingo, what we attempted to do to Kadafi was "interdict" him. "Interdiction" means destruction of a precisely chosen target deep in enemy territory. This terminology is the focal point of an inveterate Pentagon turf squabble.

Since the Air Force's creation in 1947, it has maintained that interdiction of targets, such as supply depots, is the best way to assist troops. The Army counters that "close air support"--attacks at the battle front--is more important. Pentagon debates on this are endless. Damage to rear-area targets can cost dearly: If, for example, interdiction aircraft hit a shipment of spare tank parts, in a week the opponent's tanks may wheeze to a halt. On the other hand, close-air attacks save U.S. lives right away and may determine today's battle, not next week's.

Were funds unlimited, a military tactician would want plenty of deep-strike power. But even in the Reagan era defense funds are limited. Interdiction aircraft cost much more than close-support aircraft, and provide speculative gains, so cost-effectiveness is dubious. At $5-million each, the F-15E and A-16 target sensors alone cost nearly as much as an A-10 close-support airplane.

In turn, because the Air Force shows little interest in providing close support for troops, the Army must invest in attack helicopters--both costlier than comparable airplanes ($10 million for the Apache anti-tank helicopter, versus about $7 million for most A-10s) and more vulnerable. The Army is now contemplating an Apache successor, LHX, perhaps a classic "worst weapon money can buy"--more tailored to contorted committee requirements than the battlefield.

Go-ahead decisions for the A-16, LHX and the $5 million sensor (called Lantirn) are due soon; they number among the most important procurement questions of 1987. Some background on the interservice wrestling will point toward alternatives that could save money and improve effectiveness.

Air power advocates of the 1930s and early 1940s focused on winning approval for long-range planes that could strike inside enemy territory--interdiction. It had two strong attractions. First, the potential of shortening a war by crippling the enemy's industrial base. Second, allowing Army air-power advocates to escape the clutches of the land-oriented generals.

The chief reason interdiction has never produced the stunning results expected is that almost all bombs miss. A bomb missing a factory (or a madman's tent) by 100 feet may cause no militarily significant harm; unless even a good-sized bomb comes within about 15 feet of a tank, the tank will not be destroyed. When the Air Force came into being, the service ordered its tactical goals as: 1) air superiority, 2) interdiction, 3) support of the Army. From 1947 to the mid-1970s, as the Air Force built many planes for the first two roles, it did not design a single close-support aircraft.

Meanwhile a sort of truce signed by top military officials when the Air Force was created, known as the Key West agreement, effectively barred the Army from operating "fixed wing" combat aircraft. So it invested in "rotary wing" aircraft (helicopters). Even if these were frighteningly vulnerable, at least when an Army field commander called for help, they would come. The Air Force might be preoccupied.

Once it chose interdiction as a priority, the Air Force began a quest for precision delivery systems to solve the missed-target problem. The first of them appeared in the 1960s on the FB-111: A system called terrain-following radar, known to skeptics as terrain-merging radar.

Terrain-following radars scan the ground ahead, generating an image that pilots use to avoid hills and obstacles as they fly low behind enemy lines, avoiding detection until the target is in sight. In tests, this is the cat's meow. But tests are often over the Southwest desert, where hills and obstacles are few, and without opposing fire, meaning pilots are not distracted.

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