Today, lets look at military technology and the Persian Gulf. The column's subtitle might be, "Little fast stuff versus big strong stuff." There is talk that President Bush may order naval forces in the Gulf to attack Iran. What would happen if he did?
I don't know what armament Iran has, but the technological aspects are as follows: Critics of the American military often say that the Pentagon relies too much on technology, and that the technology "doesn't work." In fact it usually does work, and works very well — for what it was designed for.
For example, a carrier battle group is a phenomenally complex amalgam of nuclear propulsion, advanced radar, aviation, engines, on and on, with many complicated ships communicating with each other in complex ways.
Sometimes I think it shouldn't work: too intricate.
But in fact it does work — at what it was designed to do.
It was designed to fight the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Note that the structure is that of 1945 — carrier as centerpiece and source of striking power, anti-aircraft ships to protect the carriers, and so on. The technology is astronomically better, but it's the same Navy.
Now, how does a comparatively backward country like Iran, certainly having nothing resembling either the wealth or the technical virtuosity of the United States, try to fight such a fleet? Talk to candid naval officers (I have) and they will tell you that their nightmare is a swarm of supersonic, stealthy cruise missiles, especially if fired at short range. The Russian Sunburn missile is most mentioned today, though there are others.
A well-designed missile can skim over the sea at very low altitude, at supersonic speeds, with intelligent guidance on board to choose its target. They are intended specifically to attack an advanced naval force. The Sunburn represents Russia's recognition that nobody can match the U.S. Navy ship for ship, but any country can buy cruise missiles.
In the kind of open-ocean war for which the Navy is really intended, the carrier's aircraft could try to destroy an enemy before it got close enough to launch such missiles. In the Persian Gulf, ships necessarily are so close to land that reaction time would be very short. Much would depend on the Navy's knowing where the missiles were and destroying them before they could be launched — which is very iffy.
Note that today's warships seem to be designed on the principle that they will not be hit. Going aboard a WWII battleship such as the USS Iowa, BB-61 is like entering a multiroom vault. Today's ships are far more delicate.
Several points are of note here. First, the technology of small things advances faster than that of large things. Designing a better cruise missile takes little time, but designing a new fighter can take 20 years. Second, advancing technology favors the missiles.
Powerful computers fit in a cigarette pack and the components sell for not much at Radio Shack. Video cameras the size of a lipstick cost almost nothing.
Global Positioning System receivers go for a hundred bucks at mountaineering stores. Radar isn't so off-the-shelf available, but hardly impossible. In short, any advanced country can build cruise missiles as commodities.
The Navy, not being stupid, knows all of this in studied detail. Yet no major missile-vs-warship battle at close range has been fought. It's unknown territory. If it ever happens, it will be interesting.