Thursday, September 05, 2002

The Army's new toys are so exotic that they look like something out of a comic book. They're designed to --- an MIT professor has recently apologized for submitting a grant proposal in which a well-reviewed comic was used without credit as clip art. But, via Brad DeLong, here's a useful reminder that high-tech systems are not immune to low-tech guile.

The setting: a joint British-American naval exercise before the Falklands war (yes, things may have improved since) in which an American carrier group centered around the USS Coral Sea was opposed by British Admiral Sandy Woodward, with a fleet of eight ships, only one of which was actually capable of doing serious damage to the carrier. That ship had to get through the defenses of the entire carrier group, with numerous ships whose sole function is to sink any real threat before it gets to the carrier. Nothing to do but just head inwards towards the carrier, from a hopefully unknown position, and hope for the best. And, oh yes, this:

The dusk faded to darkness and I ordered every light in the ship to be switched on, plus as many extras as we could find. I intended that from any distance we should look like a cruise liner -- from the bridge we looked like a floating Christmas tree.

We barrelled on through the tense night, in toward the USS Coral Sea, listening all the time to the International Voice radio frequencies. Sure enough, eventually one of the American destroyer captains came on line, asking us to identify ourselves. My in-house Peter Sellers imitator, already primed for the job, replied in his best Anglo-Indian: 'This is the liner Rawalpindi, bound from Bombay to the port of Dubai. Good night, and jolly good luck!' He sounded like the head waiter at the Surbiton Tandoori. But it was good enough. The Americans, who were conducting a 'limited war', were rather obliged to believe us and let us through while they thought about it. Vital minutes slipped by until we were eleven miles from their carrier, with our Exocet system locked on to her. They still thought are splendid display of lights was the Rawalpindi on her innocent business.

Doubt, however, began to enter their minds. And the signs of confusion were revealed when the carrier's escorts got over-excited and two of their big destroyers managed to 'open fire' on each other, over our heads. We could hear the glorious uproar on the radios. Then one of my officers calmly called the carrier to break the appalling news to Tom Brown that we were now in a position to put his ship on the bottom of the Indian Ocean and there was nothing he could do about it. 'We fired four Exocets twenty seconds ago,' he added for good measure, knowing this gave them about forty-five seconds to hit the deck...

Woodward noted in the post-mortem of the exercise, that he wouldn't likely have tried such tactics in a real war because, as he puts it, "our own particular brand of carefree 'cheekiness' was undoubtedly born of the unarguable fact that we knew that we weren't really going to be sunk no matter what happened, were we?" Extending that logic to forces that employed the "shoe bomber" is left as an exercise for the interested reader.


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