Thursday, February 22, 2007

Testing Star Wars

It's times like this that I actually have to force myself to look in a dictionary to reassure myself that "Conservative" isn't a synonym for "idiot".

Taylor Dinerman, writing for Pajamas Media, has an exclusive story of President Bush's alleged plans to build an orbital battle station, and the dastardly, treasonous plans of the Democrats to ... test the missile defence technology before deployment.

Shock horror gasp!!!

Democratic leaders are poised to gut America’s missile defense - at the same time North Korea and Iran are testing long-range missiles that can strike the U.S. and its allies, including Israel, Japan and Britain.

[Emphasis in original.]

Yes folks, you saw it here. The party of "fiscal restraint" (ha ha!), the Republicans, intend to spend possibly hundreds of billions of dollars deploying military technology that has never been tested, and Dinerman considers this not only a reasonable thing to do but a good thing.

Certainly testing sounds reasonable. Why not make sure the stuff works before blowing billions on it? But the testing fixation ignores that, like software, most successful weapons systems are best debugged after being deployed.

As anyone in software development will tell you, that is completely false.

Of course, some companies have made money by skimping on testing and using their customers as inadvertent guinea pigs and testers. Buggy releases of software are very common. But while the worst culprits may be guilty of inadequate, half-hearted testing, even they don't release software with no testing. "It compiles? Quick, ship it!" is just a joke, it doesn't really happen.

One can often get away with inadequate testing in software. The consequences of your word processor crashing or your Internet browser using the wrong size for text is not particularly dire. But when your untested missile defence system shoots down a passenger plane over Texas instead of a nuclear missile heading for New York, people tend to complain.

Dinerman misrepresents the historical situation, claiming that Britain's 1940s air defences had never been tested. Of course, they had never been tested in combat until the first time they saw combat, but to say they had not been tested is ludicrous. Does Dinerman really think that the British anti-aircraft guns had never been test fired to see if they would hit what they were aimed at? Dinerman is completely wrong: the British air defences had a long and rigorous testing program, not only leading up to the war but through the war. See, for instance, the book Sigh for a Merlin which describes the career of test-pilot Alex Henshaw:

Thousands of Spitfires were tested and manufactured at this site throughout the war, by the end of which 37,000 test flights had been made...

or the BBC's "People's Museum":

We all know the story of the dashing fighter pilots but we rarely hear about the test pilots. Testing a newly designed plane was a highly dangerous task and a huge responsibility, and it was thanks to these men that the Spitfire became the plane it was.

Dinerman's understanding of the purpose of testing has cause and effect completely backwards:

Yet test failures are a normal part of the development process of any weapon system. Consider the M-1 tank. Its early tests were riddled with failures, yet now it is one of the most effective tanks in the world.

Rather than the M-1 being so effective despite the test failures, it is effective because of the test failures. All the major bugs were ironed out before combat. Imagine if Dinerman got his way: the first time bugs in the M-1 were discovered would have been when they were under attack. Trust me, the last thing you want to discover in full combat is unexpected bugs.

I could spend another few thousand words going through Dinerman's article, point by point, but of more interest is the comments -- by my estimate, something like fifteen times as many words written by readers than in the article itself.

What strikes me as significant about the comments is the amount of with fear and hate (not to mention a lot of wishful thinking and ignorance) they display. Just a few examples:

[Ed: They're in a race? Like, "First one to destroy the Damn Yankies wins a medal"?]

"If a city goes up in a nuclear cloud, I sure hope it's a 'blue' one."

"Yes, I'm Christian, and I think war is good. Watch youselves, you better believe I'm counting the 'aye' votes in the rush to Armageddon."

"Peace is not the absence of hostility but is what is achieved through complete and absolute victory."
[Ed: The USA and the UK (or Canada if you prefer) are at peace, and have been for almost 200 years. There was no "complete and absolute victory" the last time they were at war, the War of 1812. [1]]

"The future election map resulting from their [the Democrats] folly will eventually look like this: No blue states. Six red states. Forty-four blackened and smoldering states."

My nomination for "Spoke Too Soon Award" of the year goes to Ralph Drury, for his comment written on December 1 2006:

... nobody but the good ol' US of A has the technology to have even the remotest chance of hitting any orbiting body. China today would have a difficult time even hitting Los Angeles, let alone a moving target 1,000,000's of times smaller and alot further away.

On January 11 2007, China made a successful test of an anti-satellite missile by destroying one of their aging satellites in orbit.

Thanks to Mokka mit Schlag.

[1] (And the White House burned burned burned...) Back

1 comment:

Metro said...

Hey, Vlad:

Just stumbling on off the weird wide wob. Your posting date (three days into my future) seems odd, but perhaps you have a TARDIS concealed somewhere. In cyberspace all things are plausible ...

There have been tests of the US Missile Defence System. In those tests, the interceptor hit (not "disarmed" or "rendered harmless"--an important distinction when discussing nuclear-tipped ICBMs--) its target about 50% of the time.

That doesn't sound bad. After all, faced with "nukyuler" annihalation streaking at you at several thousand kilometres per hour, who wouldn't take a 50% bet on survival?

Only, there's a problem. In those tests, the target missile carried a homing device which broadcast its position continually to the interceptor.

That is, with a target that screamed "Oh! Oh! I'm over heeeeree! Oooh, you're getting warmer, warmer ..." the interceptor managed to hit it half the time.

No word on how it would do with ground-contour-hugging, sub-radar missiles that might happen to be scattering chaff and electronic countermeasures all the way to the target.

Pyjams media is the internet equivalent of FOX, and about as credible.