Missiles antimissiles : rater la cible, c’est réussir le test

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Rater la cible, c’est réussir le test

« Oh, it’s hard to be a satirist these days », écrit Fred Kaplan, de Slate.com. Simplement parce que la réalité dépasse la fiction satirique au-delà de tout. Le dernier épisode : le tir d’essai d’un missile d’un croiseur de l’U.S. Navy, dans le cadre du programme du réseau antimissiles. L’essai n’est pas réussi (la cible est ratée) mais l’essai est déclaré comme un succès. La logique du Pentagone est : puisque tout a bien fonctionné à bord du missile intercepteur, c’est un succès. La cible n’a pas été atteinte ? Ah bon. Au pire, la cible pourrait être mise en accusation (on y pensera, tiens, ce n’est pas une mauvaise idée).

De façon plus bureaucratique, on nous dit ceci : « We just don't know why it [le missile] didn't hit. » Mais quelle importance puisqu’il reste l’essentiel et que l’essentiel est bien ceci : « I wouldn't call it a failed test, because the intercept was not the primary objective. It's still considered a success in that we gained great engineering data. » (Chris Taylor, porte-parole pour la MDA, Missile Defense Agency).

Il est difficile de trouver une meilleure indication pour nous informer que le monde washingtonien fonctionne aujourd’hui en plein virtualisme, qu’il ne s’agit pas de mensonge mais d’un monde à la place du monde réel. (Taylor, lorsqu’il parle, n’a certainement pas l’air de mentir. Il rapporte une conclusion de la bureaucratie de la MDA. Taylor est sérieux comme un pape, la bureaucratie idem.) D’ailleurs, quelle importance ? Le système antimissile, qui reçoit du Congrès plus de $9 milliards cette année, n’a aucune nécessité non-virtualiste. Tout le monde sait très bien que les missiles terroristes sont aussi nombreux et aussi menaçants que les WMD de Saddam. So what ?

[Cela admis, on admettra selon la même logique que ce cas nous présente un exemple presque parfait du fonctionnement du virtualisme. Le monde virtualiste est un monde totalement sophistique, qui utilise le sophisme non par erreur ou par accident, ou par vilenie ou machiavélisme, mais d’une façon systématique, par obligation et en toute bonne foi. Ce qu’on nous dit à propos de ce test d'interception rejoint l’exemple fameux du sophisme (un cheval borgne est rare, tout ce qui est rare est cher, donc un cheval borgne est cher) : pour que le test soit réussi il faut que le missile intercepteur fonctionne de bout en bout à la perfection, le missile intercepteur a fonctionné de bout en bout à la perfection, donc le test est réussi.]

Fred Kaplan, critique habituel du Pentagone, mais aussi Frank Spinney, réformateur célèbre des affaires du Pentagone, s’en donnent à coeur joie. Ci-après, nous publions :

• Le texte de Kaplan, du 20 juin.

• Le texte CNN, du jour précédent, nous annonçant le test “réussi”, sans vraiment s’étonner des conditions d’appréciation.

• Enfin, dernière publication qui fait un excellent commentaire pour le reste, le texte du site Defense & National Security, de Chuck Spinney. Le texte de Spinney est un commentaire d’un précédent texte de Kaplan du 23 mai, toujours sur le même sujet des essais du système antimissile, — tout s’enchaîne et permet effectivement au commentaire, naturellement satirique, de s’exercer. (Des extraits du texte de Kaplan du 23 mai accompagnent ce texte de Defense & National Security.)





On the defensive

It looked like a headline from The Onion, but it was from CNN and the story was real: “Missile Misses Target, Officials Call It a Success.” The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency had conducted a test the afternoon of June 18. A Standard Missile-3, fired from a Navy cruiser 160 miles off the Hawaiian island of Kauai, tried — but failed — to intercept a target missile that had been launched a few minutes earlier from the island’s test range. And so it seemed another setback had afflicted President Bush’s most cherished military program.

However, the Missile Defense Agency’s spokesman, Chris Taylor, saw the test differently. “I wouldn’t call it a failure,” he told CNN, “because the intercept was not the primary objective. It’s still considered a success, in that we gained great engineering data. We just don’t know why it didn’t hit.”

Oh, it’s hard to be a satirist these days.

Success from failure

The thing is, Taylor’s reasoning is common in the Pentagon, and always has been, for tests not just of the missile-defense program but of all weapons programs. It appears that the two missiles didn’t collide because the engine malfunctioned. In other words, by any serious measure, the test was an abject failure, regardless of how the Pentagon grades it.

Officials planning a test usually divide it into several discrete phases. If only one of the phases goes off successfully, and if the others at least yield some interesting data, then the test is marked down as a “success” or, if it was an almost (but not quite) total failure, a “partial success.” In the June 18 missile defense test, these phases would have included a) launching the test missile; b) detecting and tracking the target-missile in midflight; c) transmitting information about the target back to control panels on the ship; and d) intercepting the target missile.

The system passed a) through c) with flying colors. Three out of four isn’t bad. Call it “success.” That’s what happened, even though the point of missile defense is to intercept missiles. In fact, the specific aim of this test was to assess a new solid-state engine for the interceptor’s guidance system. It now appears that the two missiles didn’t collide because the engine malfunctioned. In other words, by any serious measure, broad or narrow, the test was an abject failure, regardless of how the Pentagon grades it.

“This happens all the time,” one Pentagon official told me with a sigh. “It’s incredible.”

A long shot

Just recently, the Air Force tested a new type of air-to-air missile for its F-22 stealth fighter plane. The missile missed its target by a long shot, but its firing mechanism worked, so the test was counted as a “success.”

The problem with this practice is that, when it comes time to decide whether to move ahead on a particular weapons program, an assistant secretary or deputy chief of staff, not having time to study the raw test data, will look at the summary report. The sheet will say, “Eight successes, three partial successes, one failure.” That will seem pretty good, and the program will graduate to the next stage of development. At some point, the flaws might get ironed out in the field, but at great cost, not only financial but — if the weapon has to be used on the battlefield in the meantime — strategic and human.

Of course, the Pentagon’s standard of success in testing is not entirely ridiculous. In the early stages of a weapon’s R&D, especially if the program involves advanced technology, there is real value in learning practically anything about its performance. If one part of the test fails but the other parts work fine, it might legitimately be called a success. However, President Bush plans to start deploying the missile-defense program in the fall of 2004. In order to do so, he formally abrogated the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty. He has requested, and Congress has approved, $9.1 billion for the program next year, and he plans to ask for more than $10 billion the following year. Either the tests should be judged by the standards of an advanced program, or the program should be scaled back to what it really is, despite its advocates’ fervent efforts: an interesting but still quite primitive research project.

Fred Kaplan, Slate.com, 20 juin 2003



Missile misses target, officials call it a success

(CNN) --The Missile Defense Agency conducted a missile defense test over Hawaii Wednesday, and while the warhead did not strike the target, officials said they still considered the exercise a success.

“I wouldn't call it a failed test, because the intercept was not the primary objective,” said Chris Taylor, a spokesman for the MDA. “It's still considered a success in that we gained great engineering data. We just don't know why it didn't hit.”

At 1:15 p.m. (7:15 p.m. ET), a target was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Taylor said. About two minutes later, a standard missile-3 (SM-3), the developmental missile for the Aegis program, was launched from the USS Lake Erie, about 160 nautical miles off the coast of Kauai, he said.

“All of the stages separated and the kinetic warhead tracked the target, but did not intercept the target,” Taylor said.

Three previous flight tests were successful, Taylor said, but they used an earlier version of a system to control the warhead's aim and maneuvering. Information from the earlier tests was used for a new design of the system, which was used in Wednesday's test, the Defense Department said.

Taylor said part of the missile's navigation and guidance control did not work in the test, but “we obviously don't know exactly what went wrong.”

The MDA and the Navy manage the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Program, and Raytheon Missile Systems is the prime contractor for the SM-3 missile, the Defense Department said.

The MDA program came under scrutiny earlier this month from two Democratic senators who said the agency is in danger of getting off track, and its efforts impaired, because of President Bush's order for the Pentagon to begin fielding a missile defense capability by 2004.

Sens. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, examined a General Accounting Office report that showed the MDA was starting system integration with “immature technology and limited testing.”

Levin said the report showed that the administration's planned missile defense system will not be fully tested or proven to work under realistic conditions.



Triumph of Medieval Scholasticism

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” — James Madison, from a letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822

Few would argue with the proposition that the replacement of medieval scholasticism 400 years ago with the scientific method unleashed major advances in the human condition.

That triumph of facts and reason over interests and faith rests on the invention of a self-correcting cybernetic process known as the modern scientific method. Science can be thought of as a process of Observation-Hypothesis-Test. According to the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper, the essence of scientific proof is TESTING under the Principle of Falsification. That is, an hypothesis can not be proven to be true, it can only be proven to be false by banging its predictions against the real world.

For a scientific hypothesis to have meaning, therefore, it must be constructed in such a way that it is possible to falsify it by rigorous testing. Under these logical conditions, any test that confirms a hypothesis establishes ''truth'' on a conditional basis only. The conditional truth is always subject to further testing, elaboration, or possible falsification. The result is a gradually expanding edifice of conditional truth punctuated on rare occasions by stunning shifts in world views, known popularly as scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts, to use a much abused term.

The Michelson-Moreley Experiment in the late 19th Century is perhaps the most spectacular example of punctuated epistemology in action; it falsified the Newtonian world view, which was previously accepted as being true, and helped to open the door to Einstein's new world view. Under the Principle of Falsification and the Theory of Conditional Truth, science and the evolution of knowledge can be thought of, paradoxically, as a creative search process for identifying what does not work.

Engineering is a similar self-correcting search process, but in this case, it can be viewed as a trial-and-error process of Observation - Design - Test. The emphasis on design gives engineering a slightly different motivating force, even though its method is the same as that of science. In contrast to science, Engineering can be thought of as a creative search process for what works in the sense of combining existing scientific principles (conditional truths) and technologies into new products that satisfy or create human needs. Engineering can be thought of as the practical application of the scientific method, where a ''design'' replaces a hypothesis. The principle of falsification takes the form of realistic testing of a prototype design. Once this approach determines a design that is viable in the real world, production resources can then be committed with relatively low economic or performance risk.

Tests that are biased to prove success violate the principle of falsification and the self-correcting essence of the scientific method. In the case of science, the result is quackery. In the case of engineering, problems get suppressed and products go into production prematurely with major design flaws, with the end result being products that don't work or incur excessive costs to make them work.

So, engineers use the self-correcting scientific method to evolve new and useful product designs at an acceptable cost. They do this by synthesizing and debugging a sequence of increasingly comprehensive experimental prototype designs. In short, engineers discover what works by a search process that fixes things that do not work. This tinkering process is not just technological; it also includes tests related to management, production economics, and market research as well as anything else that defines what works in the real world (including, perhaps, a testing of the designer's faith that a novel product will create a new market, as happened in the case of the invention of snowmobile)

Classical prototyping can also be thought of as a decision-making strategy for reducing technical and economic risks while preserving management's freedom of action to terminate the effort, should testing reveal a product design to be fundamentally flawed or its costs are unaffordable.

The decision maker’s goal is to have the engineers work the bugs out of a design before a decision is made to commit substantial resources to its factors of production (manufacturing engineering, specialized machine tools, unique factory facilities, a network of supplier relationships, and the hiring of production workers). Production engineers should work closely with design engineers during a prototype's design phase to insure the final product can be produced efficiently and economically. Moreover, as more detailed information flows out of the design and testing activities, production engineers should begin planning for an orderly transition to production by continuously refining their plans for factory layouts, machine tools, worker skills, sub contractors, etc. But under a classical prototyping strategy, the decision to commit resources to production would be deferred until rigorous testing demonstrated the product met its specifications.

The iron logic governing a classical engineering process is that any decision to commit more resources to an ongoing design effort must be justified by the demonstrated performance in prototype tests to date. In the end, ruthless testing of the final product in the competitive market or the battlefield will be the ultimate arbiter of success or failure of life or death of what really works. Prototyping can also be thought of as the engineering way of realistically preparing to meet that ultimate test. (Students of evolutionary biology will recognize immediately that this kind of tinkering and testing of prototypes is also nature's way of evolving new designs that work in the real world—what surprise, a living process follows the pattern of life!.)

Viewed from these slightly different but overlapping perspectives, the roots the engineering process all lie in the fertile soil of the scientific method evolved by Bacon, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and their successors, as well as by the natural processes in evolutionary biology. At the heart of this method is the theory of conditional truth revealed by testing and the principle of falsification.

While the scientific method of searching for truth in the material world has contributed much to Western Culture over the last 400 years, the theory of conditional truth has always been viewed as anathema by certain primitive religious sects, fortune tellers, swamis ... and the power brokers or lobbyists or so-called transformationists in the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex (MICC).

For those or you who may be wondering why I have included the courtiers of Versailles on the Potomac in a medieval milieu that that includes religious swamis and fortune tellers, I urge you to read Fred Kaplan's essay on the intellectual conditions (really, the triumph of interest and faith over facts and reason) predicating the collective decision to deploy the ballistic missile defense system before it is realistically tested [see Reference 1 below].

For those readers who might wonder why our political process would risk our national treasure on an irrational edifice with this kind of spooky intellectual foundation—I would urge you to consider the possibility that a medieval scholasticism of a Buy Before You Fly procurement strategy (and accounting chaos) makes perfect sense to the courtiers of Versailles, because they make and benefit from decisions to risk other people's money (and spill other people's blood).

At least Plato's Cave would have been a comfortable residing place for the post-modern world of the neo-Kantian anti-mind.

Chuck Spinney, Defense & National Security, 23 mai 2003



Fred Kaplan, Slate, May 22, 2003


« Buried within the five-page statement—the usual litany of prospective threats and strategic rationales—are these two sentences:

» “The United States will not have final, fixed missile defense architecture. Rather, we will deploy an initial set of capabilities that will evolve to meet the changing threat and to take advantage of technological developments.”


» For the administration to start deploying a missile defense system before devising architecture is no different from a construction firm starting to hammer nails, put up joists, and lay out a roof before knowing the style or size of a house.


» ... the Pentagon has, without explanation, canceled nine of the 20 missile defense tests it had planned to conduct between now and 2009...

» For the first time, an interceptor was to have been fired at a missile along the same flight path as that of a missile launched from North Korea. Incidentally, it's not as if the program's test record has been so smashing that its managers can afford to relax their standards-five hits out of eight tries, none of them involving multiple targets, decoys, or realistic trajectories.


» Sen. Levin, who is oddly the only Democrat who has made a serious go at challenging Bush's rush to deploy this thing, put the matter in better perspective: “The decision to field an as-yet-unproven system has been accompanied by a decision to eliminate or delay the very testing that must be conducted to show whether the system is effective.” »



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