TECHNOLOGY

The missiles that fell

JOHN BARBER March 17 1986
TECHNOLOGY

The missiles that fell

JOHN BARBER March 17 1986

The missiles that fell

TECHNOLOGY

The conclusion was stunning in its simplicity. After a month-long study, U.S. air force investigators announced that the Jan. 22 crash of an air-launched cruise missile near Cold Lake, Alta., took place because of unexpected head winds. The resistance, said air force Maj. Alfred Harrop, had

caused it to run “out of gas.” But a second missile failure over the Beaufort Sea on Feb. 25 is still unexplained. That missile fell to earth immediately after its launch from a B-52-G bomber flying at 30,000 feet. But it is unlikely that either crash will have much effect on U.S. defence plans. The air force

has already deployed 1,176 of the 1,789 air-launched missiles it has ordered since 1980, at a cost of $2.4 million each. Those missiles, launched from bombers stationed at Strategic Air Command air bases across the United States, were designed to fly at treetop levels, where they would be invisible to conventional radar. But the expected emergence of Soviet radar systems capable of detecting the low-flying missiles may soon make the weapons obsolete.

Still, air force officials say that current cruise missiles are reliable. Harrop said that they have successfully completed 27 of their 32 flight tests— most conducted on a restricted test range in Utah. In Canada the cigarshaped missile has successfully flown only four times under its own power along the 2,500-km flight path from the Beaufort Sea to Cold Lake—selected because it closely resembles Soviet terrain. But only the most recent crash constituted a failure, said Harrop, because the missile launched in January had completed its assigned manoeuvres before it ran out of fuel.

But some critics say the missile is seriously flawed. One such critic is Michele Flournoy, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, an independent military research organization which advocates a strong military but has been critical of Pentagon spending. She says she doubts that the missile’s complex guidance system, developed in part by Litton Industries in Toronto, will ever work properly. The system helps the missile find its target by constantly comparing electronic readings of the terrain with maps stored in its computer. If the comparison shows the missile to be off course, the computer redirects it. But Flournoy said that such small discrepancies as snow on the ground can throw the system off, and that the constant corrections the system needs use up fuel and limit the missile’s range.

The missiles themselves may become outdated if the Soviet Union succeeds in developing radar that can detect them. U.S. military planners assume that technology is possible and they are currently working to develop it themselves. At the same time, the Pentagon is actively researching top secret “stealth” technology that would enable future missiles and aircraft to remain invisible to all radar. Flournoy says that the air force wants to acquire 1,200 missiles equipped with the new technology before the end of the decade. In that case, the missiles now flying over Canada could be outdated before they are even fully tested.

JOHN BARBER

IAN AUSTEN