Killing Machines reviews


Even ‘Smart Weapons’ Need a Human Touch

November 13, 1990 | Walter Goodman

“Killing Machines,” tonight’s report on “Nova,” targets some of the weapons that American troops in the Middle East will rely on if they are ordered into battle. Known in the trade as “smart weapons,” they use electronic sensors and computer brains to do the job of destruction faster and more accurately than conventional guns and bombs. Most have never been tried on the battlefield.

The hour, at 8 on Channels 13 and 49, is filled with tests and simulations, accompanied by explanations of how the new weapons have revolutionized military tactics and warnings that they will not take the blood out of war.

Viewers see the first successful test of the Amraam missile, which is supposed to be able to shoot down four enemy planes simultaneously, with little risk to the American pilot, since he never gets within glimpsing distance of his prey. Unfortunately, in the test before the one that the Air Force permitted to be shown, the Amraam missed all four targets. The question is, will it do its job as well in battle as it does in the new test?

The Apache helicopter seen in action here would also be an important element in what the narrator calls “the few against many strategy.” An Army colonel promises that with 18 Apaches, which use computer-driven weapons while flying at 200 miles an hour at treetop level, he could destroy an enemy regiment of 150 tanks. That, too, remains to be seen.

Dr. Jasper Lupo, who actually has the title of director of smart weapons in the Defense Department, tells of work on a robotic killer that goes out hunting on its own, fires only if a target is found and then returns. He says such devices, which may be available in this decade, could be particularly useful against a training site for terrorists.

One big problem with all the spinoffs from science fiction is that they require an army of technicians to keep them operating. Another is that they are so easy to come by these days from arms merchants, whose sales pitches are relayed here. Many of the Stinger missiles that helped the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight off the Russians wound up in Iran. Given the assistance that Iraq received from the West during its war with Iran, the Iraqis too may have some surprises up their burnooses. So in any war, our smart missiles could be confronted by their smart missiles.

Still another problem is that even at its best, a smart weapon cannot tell its operator whether the blip or dark mass or hot spot it homes in on is in fact an enemy plane or ship. A retired admiral warns that the information that has to be fed into the new weapons is not always as dependable in the rush of action as it is during testing. Yet a decision has to be made fast, before the supposed enemy can make use of its long-distance missiles. The program recounts the events of July 3, 1988, that led the captain of the missile cruiser Vincennes to order the shooting down of what turned out to be an Iranian passenger jet carrying 269 people.

Gen. John R. Galvin, the NATO commander, warns that “the hand of man better be in the battle, or else things could go terribly wrong.” But the program leaves the message that no man can always be smart enough to control the smart weapons at his fingertips.

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‘Nova’ Uncovers the Doubts About U.S. ‘Smart’ Weapons

November 13, 1990 | Robert Koehler

With the Bush Administration’s new strategy of doubling U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf in order to display an offensive stance toward Iraq, fresh attention is being focused on the heart of U.S. military might: The high-tech, “smart” weapons that were so much a part of the expensive military build-up during the ’80s.

Many Pentagon strategists consider this computerized arsenal the ace-in-the-hole against a less-developed power like Iraq, but as the ultimate test for these weapons may be fast approaching, doubts are emerging about them as well.

The KCET/Nova co-production, Killing Machines, raises the most sobering questions yet.

During the height of the Cold War, tank-heavy Warsaw Pact armies compelled outmanned American-led NATO forces to digitize the battlefield, ushering in high-precision missiles, planes and tanks. Quality over quantity, as the military mantra went.

But as with every technological development in weaponry (the report shows author Tom Clancy comparing the new machines to the repeater rifle of the 19th Century), arms trade expands, and your customer today may be your enemy tomorrow.

Nowhere is this more stark than with Iraq, although “Machines” fails to track how Western Europe and the United States helped feed Saddam Hussein’s own machine. It does, though, show how a Third World guerrilla force in Afghanistan, using a basic smart weapon like the Stinger anti-aircraft gun, blew the Soviet superpower out of the sky. Smarter, cheaper, more compact weapons have democratized military power: A superpower may no longer be so super.

Producer Mitchell Koss strives for balance, but somehow the several critics of smart weapons–including Adm. Eugene Carroll and defense consultant Donald Mayes–come through louder, for several reasons.

The weapons remain untested in a real war and may not work. Mock U.S.-Iraq battles staged in the Mojave Desert have Iraq winning. Footage shot on-board the high-tech U.S.S. Vincennes when it accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane dramatize the danger of looking at an enemy on a radar screen rather than with your own eyes. The human factor behind the machine may be our own worst enemy.

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Nova’s Killing Machines offers cautionary tale about a Mideast war

November 13, 1990 | Michael Hill

A topical and timely edition of PBS’ Nova series tonight gives a glimpse at the way our side plans to fight a war in the sands of the Mideast. The idea is not to use men, but to rely on microchips and lasers and radar beams and such.

The Killing Machines focuses on the Iraqi situation — updated for all but the latest troop buildup — as it provides an introduction to these devices that hang out there on the cutting edge of destructive technology.

Then it asks a simple question — will they work? The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple.

Oh, it is to novelist Tom (“The Hunt for Red October”) Clancy, who comes across as a grinning propagandist for the techno-weapons industry. In his books, these complex devices always work perfectly.

And for certain of the military personnel involved, some of whom act like kids on Christmas when they get their hands on the latest wrinkle in weaponry, there is no doubt that we can out-computer a country like Iraq.

But others interviewed, a variety of military experts including retired generals, are not so certain.

The devices in question are mainly the so-called smart missiles. They get that description because they don’t just head where they are aimed and then explode on contact. They are able, using one system or another, to find a target they are supposed to hit and go for that.

And, in controlled tests, they do just that and millions of dollars idefense contracts follow.

But, if they’ll do it in combat isn’t clear. For one, whether they seek out the heat of exhausts or images provide by radar or TV, the missiles cannot tell friend from foe.

For another, they are only as good as the information they are given by the humans who are running them. And in a fire fight, accurate information is often a scarce commodity. Look at what happened when one of the Navy’s most technologically-advanced ships, the Vincennes, shot down an Iranian jetliner.

Not only is it problematical how well these smart weapons will work in the confusion of combat, it’s not even certain how many will make it to the battle given the high level of maintenance they require.

It is clear, as The Killing Machines points out, that when the Mujadeen fighters in Afghanistan were equipped, by the United States, with one of the simplest of the smart missiles — the shoulder-launched Stinger — they were able to neutralize the technological advantage of the Soviet Union’s forces and eventually drive them from the field.

And it’s also clear, as this Nova reports, that in simulated tanbattles at a fort in California, the coherent strategy of the side representing the Iraqis has rolled over the confused techno-defenses of the U.S. forces.

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