Thursday, February 06, 2003

Iraqi Cruise Missiles/Kamakaze Robots

Here's a question for Steven Den Beste and the other amateur tacticians on the net.

I thought the most interesting part of Powell's speech was his discussion of Iraqi experiments with unmanned planes.

According to Powell, the Iraqis have developed small unmanned planes that can fly on autopilot. The US recently watched Iraq test one of its models - the plane was able to fly for 500 kilometers (311 miles) in a roughly rectangular 5 mile by 8 mile "racetrack" course that included several turns. The Iraqis also have the technology to use these planes to spray bioweapons or nerve gas.

My questions:

1) Does anyone know if this is a picture of an actual Iraqi "unmanned arial vehicle" or just an example of the size of the planes the Iraqis are now using?

2) An unmanned light plane that can fly with precision over a distance of 300 miles starts to sound like a rough functional equivalent of a cruise missile (although I assume cruise missiles can fly faster and more precisely, and are a little easier to launch). Let's assume for a moment that Saddam has a significant number of these things - somewhere between 20 and 200. What does that do to our military planning. My rough guesses:

a) Novelty I hate to see the other side introduce a novel weapon in any conflict. (The loss of the Sheffield and the WTC towers themselves are immediate examples, and history is full of them). The presence of a new weapon introduces uncertainty, which means more risk for our troops and surrounding civilians. That said, I assume we have plans to control the risks.

b) Guidance The Iraqis will have a heck of a time guiding the things. We will be knocking out their radio broadcast stations early, and they won't have access to the global positioning system. I think it's likely that these things will be on full autopilot for the whole flight, which means they probably won't be accurate enough to hit moving targets such as ships or soldiers. (In other words, they will be a lot more like V2's than like cruise missiles). That said, if there are US airbases or tempting civilian targets within range, I can see Saddam using them.

c) Defense If we've known about the test flight for a while, I assume we've warned our allies and the surrounding nations. Even if Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel don't fight, they will have their fighters scrambled waiting for one of these things to come over the horizon, and the farther they have to fly, the more warning we will get. (I don't like to be machiavellian, but if at least tepid cooperation is the price of access to US/UK advance warning radars, it could be one of the factors Turkey's move towards supporting the US).

Assuming that we can disable radio control, these things won't have an serious evasive capability. Their best bet would be to run low and fast, and hope that they are light enough to have a negligible radar profile. I'd be very interested to know how fast these things can go. Theoretically, an unmanned plane is potentially superior to a manned plane, since it can take more accelleration or centrifigual force than a manned plane can. However, if Iraq was unsuccessful at developing an unmanned combat plane, it probably doesn't have a high performance plane of any kind.

c) Signalling Aside from the gigantic smoking gun that these planes represent, I wonder if Powell was deliberately telling the Iraqis that we would be prepared for these things. I think it's safe to assume that he was.

Update: I think it's safe to assume that Den Beste is right that I meant the V1, not the V2. (Lesson: find a link for everything, which will teach you to check your facts.)