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Physics Body Concedes Mistakes in Study of Missile Defense


The world’s largest body of physicists admitted on Monday that a report it had issued seven months ago contained errors that downplayed the effectiveness of a novel plan for shooting down missiles.

The American Physical Society published the 54-page report in February. It assessed the general feasibility of thwarting missile strikes and concluded that a proposal that the USA use drones to shoot down North Korean missiles faced “very difficult challenges.” The group sent the report back to Congress and officials within the Biden administration as a part of the society’s long history of providing guidance on cutting-edge weapons to defense policy decision makers.

Three months later, in May, the group pulled the document from its website, saying in an internet note that the report was under review by its authors and can be “re-posted when available.” The note gave no reason for the withdrawal.

However the scientists who proposed the drone idea say the rationale was errors within the society’s technical evaluation of the concept, which the society acknowledged on its website Monday but has yet to detail or explain.

“The entire thing is outrageous,” said Richard L. Garwin, the lead scientist behind the proposal. Dr. Garwin, 94, has advised the U.S. government on problems with national security for greater than a half century. He also wields outsize influence within the scientific community because he’s credited with designing — at age 23 in 1951 — the world’s first hydrogen bomb.

He and the opposite proponent of the drone idea say they need Washington officials to have an impartial assessment of the plan as they consider improve the nation’s defenses against enemy missiles.

“It’s a possible system for the defense of the USA, and these persons are attempting to stop it,” said Theodore A. Postol, the opposite scientist and an emeritus professor of science and national security on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A group of 13 physicists and engineers wrote the February report. Its chairman was Frederick K. Lamb of the University of Illinois. The co-chairs were James D. Wells of the University of Michigan and Laura Grego of M.I.T. and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The private group, based in Cambridge, Mass., has often faulted antimissile defense as futile and destabilizing.

Academic and personal groups have long vetted claims of breakthroughs in destroying enemy warheads fired from the earth’s far side. The duty, one in all the toughest in modern warfare, is likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet. Members of the American Physical Society have repeatedly caught the Pentagon in errors, exaggerations and what look like outright deceptions.

Now, the physical society has been caught in its own error. It says the episode is a primary in its 123-year history.

Dr. Garwin and Dr. Postol’s antimissile plan zeros in on destroying North Korean missiles fired at the USA. After Pyongyang achieved a run of successful flight tests in 2017, American intelligence agencies described its intercontinental ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads as an emerging threat.

Based on the plan, American drones would loiter over the Sea of Japan. If North Korea began a nuclear attack, the drones would fire rocket interceptors that will track the fiery exhaust of the rising missiles and annihilate them.

If feasible, the concept is seen as superior to the normal missile defense method — shattering a missile’s incoming warheads as they race toward their targets. Experts agree that rising missiles are slower, easier to trace and much more vulnerable to attack.

In 2004, the Bush administration began deploying, in Alaska and California, a system of interceptor missiles that has a couple of half-hour to trace long-range warheads fired from North Korea. Even so, top experts say it has major shortcomings.

In contrast, the drone interceptors would linger relatively near enemy launchers. Dr. Garwin and Dr. Postol detailed their plan in 2017 and 2018 studies, prompting the Trump administration to look at the concept as a possible technique to thwart the brand new generation of more threatening North Korean missiles.

In 2020, the physical society began its own antimissile study. It checked out the feasibility over the following 15 years of each the old and latest approaches, including Dr. Garwin and Dr. Postol’s. It released its report in February.

The primary error uncovered by Dr. Garwin and Dr. Postol within the society’s report centers on the speed of their proposed interceptor rockets and thus how far they might must fly. The report’s diagram shows the carrier drones as having to loiter over North Korea’s mainland or a narrow strip of its coastal waters in an effort to knock out missiles fired at Boston, Latest York or Washington. In such locations, the drones might be shot down.

However the two scientists found that the study group had used the improper interceptor speed — lower than 2.5 miles per second as an alternative of the faster pace of greater than 3.1 miles per second. That error may appear small, however the military upshot was not. For an interceptor flight of 195 seconds, the baseline, the proper number was seen as moving the drones greater than 100 miles farther out to sea.

“It puts you deep contained in the Sea of Japan, where you’ll be able to loiter and take aim at your leisure,” Dr. Postol said. “Theirs puts you into an area where you’ll be able to’t operate.”

Soon after the report’s February release, Dr. Garwin and Dr. Postol began exchanging emails with the report’s authors, which The Times has reviewed. In them, the authors admit to mistakes and suggest corrections.

Frances Hellman, a physicist on the University of California, Berkeley, who’s president of the physical society, said that in late May and early June, it had privately notified key recipients about problems with the report, including staff members on the National Security Council and the Department of Defense, in addition to House and Senate armed services subcommittees.

But making public a corrected version of the report, she added, “may take a yr” from the time of its publication.

“We take the integrity of our reports extremely seriously,” Dr. Hellman said in an interview. But removing the errors, she said, is inevitably a slow process since it involves dozens of experts and society officials. “They need it to occur overnight,” she said of Dr. Garwin and Dr. Postol.

Dr. Lamb, the report committee’s chairman, said one snag within the revision was that the study group’s members are busy individuals who “committed time” to the report. “Now we’re in time beyond regulation,” he said. Dr. Lamb added that the job required enormous care. “The worst possible thing,” he said, “is to attempt to correct something and make one other mistake.”

Dr. Hellman, the society’s president, said that the group was searching for ways to higher handle such situations in the long run.

The long current delay “is just not dissimilar to the time it takes to correct a scientific paper,” Dr. Hellman added. “We’d like to make certain we’ve the science correct. This argues for more care, not less.”

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