The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 63.0°F | Fair

Radar can detect cruise missles

To the Editor:

I would like to clear up an error made by Joseph Shipman in his column ["Star Wars will protect ICBMs," March 19]. Shipman states that Star Wars can't defend civilian populations because of the threat from cruise missiles. In particular, cruise missiles fly too close to the ground to be detected by radar. This is not the case.

Although ground based radar has difficulty detecting low flying aircraft, airborne radar, which "looks" down toward the surface, is quite capable of detecting and tracking cruise missiles. This type of radar has been in use for several years aboard AWACS aircraft.

Recently the air force lent AWACS aircraft to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency for use in their "drug offensive" in the southeastern United States. Drug smugglers use low flying aircraft to try and escape detection when bringing drugs into such areas as Florida. The DEA's drug offensive was quite effective at curtailing the flow of drugs by air into that part of the country.

In fact, AWACS radar systems are able to track automobiles traveling on highways, and require special software to keep them from being displayed. Space based radar with sufficient resolution would also be capable of tracking low flying objects.

The main difficulty with defending against cruise missiles is not the detection, but rather the destruction of the missile. Any space based laser or beam weapon would have to propagate through the atmosphere, including the dense lower layers. Since laser and particle beams disperse in the atmosphere, the difficulty lies in focusing the beam on the target. In addition the atmosphere would absorb a significant portion of the beam's energy before it could reach the target.

The extent to which these problems can be overcome is not clear because most research in this area is classified. However, one of the currently proposed methods for Star Wars is to use ground based lasers whose beams are reflected by precision mirrors placed in orbit. This would require a solution to the above problems of dispersion and energy absorption. If such a system is being proposed then there has probably been some headway made in solving these problems.

Either that or someone is very optimistic. Since the material is classified there is no data for deciding which of the two is correct. It is therefore unreasonable to assume at this point that Star Wars cannot defend against cruise missiles.

One point made by Shipman is correct, although arrived at for the wrong reason. The point is that Star Wars will be used to protect ICBMs. Any military strategy requires that offensive weapons be protected, otherwise their usefulness is greatly impaired.

The question as to whether or not Star Wars will provide the same level of protection to population centers as it does to ICBMs will most likely be decided by politics and not technology. At this point I neither advocate nor reject the eventual deployment of space based defensive weapons as there is insufficient information to determine their cost, efficacy, or political implications.

If Star Wars is ever deployed it will be up to us, the voters and taxpayers, to ensure that its protection is extended to population centers.

Earl Waldin G->