Why we can't stop terrorists and
How future attacks may be more dangerous.
The attack on New York and Washington D.C. was carefully thought through. It avoided all the usual defenses by using novel tactics. For example, there need have been no breaches of airport security: unarmed ticket-holders got on airplanes. They needn't have had even the simplest of physical weapons: A bomb threat suffices. Their weapons consisted of a plan and the will to carry it out. This particular tactic is unlikely to be repeated, we don't need to guard against it. It is the next plan we must defeat in advance, but it may be impossible.
There are avenues of attack available to relatively poor, armyless terrorist groups that are both more lethal -- far more lethal -- and harder to defend against than the horrifying crashing of passenger-laden airliners into buildings. One such path became real on South Uist Island in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland in the summer of 1998. On that blustery day, a group of men huddled around a van, jacketed against the 25-knot wind. The persistent whistling of the gale would cover any sound the aircraft's engine might make; they would see it-if they saw it at all-before they would hear it. And it was already overdue on a potentially historic flight.
The small, single-engine aircraft was attempting the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Brown and Alcock were the first to fly across the Atlantic; they shared in piloting their Vickers Vimy. Lindbergh earned fame by doing it with one pilot. This plane was flying itself from one side of the ocean to a particular spot on the other side with no pilot at all: "We" had become "It". Instead of a compass and stars to steer by, it had a microprocessor and a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. The men who had built the craft were interested in meteorological research, but if they succeeded, they would also unwittingly demonstrate the futility of president Bush's National Missile Defense program (NMD), as well as any anti-terrorism measures except direct spying within the terrorist organizations. Just as the Germans easily drove around France's Maginot line, an impenetrable thicket of defensive bunkers, this small plane would barely be noticed, much less brought down, by anything the Defense Department has in its armamentarium.
It is not unprecedented for small planes to penetrate where bombers cannot go. In 1987, Mathias Rust was able to land a small Cessna on the Kremlin's Red Square by flying low enough not to trigger Russian defense warnings (the Cessna is made of metal, with a solid radar signature). Inexpensive, two-person kit aircraft of even smaller sizes are available today, built with fabric-covered wooden frames and tiny one- or two-cylinder engines. They do not have the kind of radar signature that the military associates with an attack, and it is not difficult to apply some stealth techniques to diminish their radar visibility further. Compared to a jet, their infrared emissions are negligible; heat-seeking detectors would not see them. And these tiny airplanes look anything but threatening - scramble some jets after an intruder; will they be looking for a rag-covered homebuilt?
Yet, put a suitcase-size atomic bomb in one of the seats and you could wipe out a city with a home-built, low-tech aircraft. I note that Pakistan has the bomb and supports the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban protect Osama bin Laden. No bomb? Carry a few pounds of Sarin nerve gas. But the range of these planes is limited. The pilot is a liability.
The plane that was struggling across the Atlantic was the brainchild of the Insitu Group, led by Dr. Tad McGreer. Named "Laima" after the Latvian goddess of good fortune, it was small and, by Defense Department standards, cheap. Light enough at under 30 pounds to be held up by one human arm, it used a wing manufactured for a model glider. In fact, many model airplanes are larger and heavier. You can loft a small atomic bomb with readily available model aircraft engines.
The Laima should have taken about 26 hours to make the flight. During that time it would not transmit or otherwise give away its presence. According to the plan, it would use up 1.5 gallons (cost: under $4 as I write) of gasoline during its trip of slightly over 2000 miles. An autonomous bomb-carrier would need about 10 gallons to go across any ocean. A modern jet costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and an intercontinental missile a comparable amount. Laima had been built for under $10,000. The infrastructure required for aircraft and missiles includes airfields and missile control centers, which also cost hundreds of millions. A 100-foot-long stretch of road or farm field-or a small boat with a catapult-would serve to launch Laima. It is an example of what is called in military lingo an "asymmetrical weapon", cheap to deploy, costly to defend against or lose to.
Except for the bomb itself, there is nothing esoteric or hard to buy; and, as the world learned in a Japanese subway, it is easy to make nerve gas. Anybody can sign on to the Internet and purchase a GPS unit with a computer interface. Tiny computers are commonplace. Servos powerful enough to operate the controls are racked up in rows on model shop shelves. A hot high-school programmer could write the code, and because an A-bomb or nerve gas doesn't have to be delivered with precision, the GPS and a few hobby-store gyros can handle the piloting.
For a million dollars - peanuts in terms of military spending - you could build a hundred bomb carriers. And you could construct one it in a building the size of a one-car garage, using the simple tools that any model plane and electronics enthusiast owns. That's the kind of site that spy satellites can't identify. The finished plane readily fits inside an ordinary van. During construction or launch, there's nothing to tip off an enemy that something is afoot.
If 100 deadly Laimas were launched nearly simultaneously, it would be impossible to find them all - even if you knew that they were on their way. The first sign of their arrival would be a mushroom cloud or people keeling over. The Insitu Group launched four planes, of which only one made it. With experience, I'd expect the success rate to grow higher, but even if only 25 of the 100 aircraft succeeded in flying to their targets in the US, the effect could be devastating. Instead of buildings crumbling, large portions of cities would be laid to waste. Instead of casualties in the thousands, survivors would learn that hundreds of thousands had perished.
It is hard to conceive of an effective defense against such attacks. Flying at 1,000 feet altitude, they are invisible and inaudible from the ground. Programmed to fly in circles over a city after arrival, then waiting until a chosen moment, they would explode simultaneously, giving no warning. There would be little trace of their origin, and no way to track them back to their source as you can with missile trajectories.
The proposed missile defense depends on satellites detecting the launch plumes of the enemy missiles. While the Reagan-era system was based on laser-equipped satellites, the current version depends on Raytheon's "Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle" (EKV). Not much larger than Laima, the EKV is about 40 inches long, 7 or 8 inches in diameter, and weighs a bit over 120 pounds. It is a blind chunk of metal intended to destroy enemy missiles by colliding with them; it carries no explosives. Using it is like throwing high-tech rocks; only a direct hit will do. A massive, costly, three-stage rocket launches the EKV. At the high speeds space vehicles move, even a glancing blow is effective, but EKVs have failed most tests to date, and may be easy to decoy away from their real targets. Because they are designed to work only in the airless void of space, they are useless against atmospheric cruise missiles... or model planes.
It is counter-intuitive, but the better the anti-missile missiles work, the less useful they tend to be against belligerent countries. If the anti-missiles are nearly perfect, then potential enemies will realize this and not choose ballistic missiles to attack the United States or its allies. In other words, it would encourage or force them to adopt alternate strategies, assuming that terrorists have not gotten to the idea first. The Bush administration has likened the NMD program to automotive seat belts - you put them on every day knowing that they increase your safety, while hoping that they will never be necessary. The analogy is false: Road hazards do not change their tactics to defeat the protection offered by the seat belts. There is no value to a protective measure when it can be outmaneuvered by a threat that is aware of how the defense works.
Terrorist attacks are in many ways more of a threat than inter-country warfare. If the many arguments against the NMD convince the American Congress to abandon it (the President being immune to rational thinking on the subject), can an enemy take advantage of the lack of an anti-missile defense? Probably not: There has been an irrefutable and horrific preventive for many years now. With respect to Russia it is the aptly named MAD strategy: Mutually Assured Destruction. For an opponent unable to loft missiles by the hundreds, the announced response to a missile attack should be YAD: Your Assured Destruction. The attackers cannot prevent the US from tracking the missiles paths back to their launch sites. They cannot hide, and cannot survive.
Even jet-powered cruise missiles are less of a threat than the overgrown model planes terrorists might use. Cruise missiles have large infrared and radar signatures and a limited range. To get close enough to the USA to launch a cruise missile, an enemy would have to use Cuba, Mexico, Canada, or a large and visible ship or a vastly expensive submarine. By contrast, Laima-sized missiles are so small and fly so slowly (the Laima droned along at 75 mph) that a modern jet interceptor would find it hard to see them. Interceptors fly too fast and go by a tiny target too quickly to see them - even in the daytime. Years ago, I flew a kite with a radar reflector to a height of a thousand feet or so. The tiny, aluminum-covered reflector was designed to return a signal as strong as that from a passenger jet. My flying site was near a naval air station, and within a half hour of launching the kite three jets were circling downwind of my location. The next day, the Navy called our model airplane club, and asked if we had had any planes flying near the base. The time they mentioned was precisely when I had been flying the kite.
The sponsors of the Insitu Group's effort were international: Environmental Systems and Services (from Australia), the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the University of Washington, Boeing, L-3 Communications, and the US Office of Naval Research. Small, inexpensive, remote- and self-piloted vehicles have not been ignored by the American military; hot items these days are tiny aircraft a few inches across which can carry video cameras and other sensors into a battle zone. But the Laima and its kin interest the military primarily for their potential to collect weather information. Even on this test flight, Laima had been recording weather parameters as well as data on its own systems.
On South Uist Island, the chilled group had been waiting since the early morning, hours before the scheduled landfall of the drone. Tailwinds could bring it in early. Headwinds would cause delay. Anxiety was exacerbated by the three previous failed attempts. With luck, somewhere out over the Atlantic, the 1.2-cubic-inch-displacement motor was still whirring, the gyros keeping the wings level, the fuel not lost to an over-rich engine setting or a vibration-induced leak.
At about 1 p.m., the landing team received a weak signal from Laima! After a few minutes of frustrating silence, the signal reappeared. This time, telemetry told them that all was well and when the GPS indicated that the plane was overhead, human eyes got the first glimpse of it since it had vanished into the air over the North American continent. Switching over to manual control, the plane was landed undamaged. Having no wheels, it smoothly and softly slid its belly on the grass. Laima was in one piece, and it was also damp, having passed through between 8 and10 hours of rain.
Along with grass stains and minor scratches, Laima had accumulated world records. It was the smallest plane to have ever crossed the Atlantic. It was the first unmanned plane of any size to have done so. It was a harbinger of the future of over-ocean meteorological research. Next, they plan to cross the 5000 miles of the Pacific, spanning a distance equal to that from, say, North Korea to Seattle.
Years ago, the far-seeing scientist Vannevar Bush pointed out that our seaports were vulnerable to a sneak attack by means of small boats, indistinguishable from pleasure craft, carrying atomic weapons -- today he might also wonder if UPS and Fed Ex check shipments for atomic weapons. But because of Liama, we now know that every point in the world is vulnerable to a low-tech attack, which need give no evidence as to its origin. A model plane has demonstrated the foolishness of trying to build a Maginot line in the sky, and that we will ever be defenseless against many forms of terrorist attacks.
The Laima is on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Data, videos, and pictures are available at www.insitugroup.com
By Jef Raskin
8 Gypsy Hill / Pacifica CA 94044