The 'black box' danger of dismissing Russia's 'wonder weapons'

Have the Russian armed forces fielded working laser weapons? Maybe, maybe not. The news blared forth from a recent TASS story recounting an interview with Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov. “Starting from last year,” he declared, “laser systems have been entering service.” The defense-industrial complex has made such strides that Russian forces can now eliminate targets “within fractions of a second.” No longer are lasers the stuff of science fiction, crowed Borisov. Battlefield directed-energy weapons are “today’s reality.”

Such claims could be nothing more than propaganda, but they are plausible. Lasers are in service in some militaries; why not Russia’s? In fact, the U.S. Navy deployed rudimentary shipboard energy weapons fully four years ago. Engineers installed one aboard USNS Ponce, the navy’s “interim afloat forward staging base” in the Persian Gulf. Military commanders authorized the Ponce crew to use it to defend themselves against small surface craft or drones that might come against them.

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Challenges remain. Weaponeers are working to boost lasers’ power output from about 30 kilowatts, the figure for the Ponce gun mount, to about 100-150 kilowatts. Augmenting the output would open up new vistas, letting gunners engage a wider array of targets. Bringing down hostile missiles — the paramount goal — would demand a further boost to around a megawatt. That’s a thirtyfold increase, even leaving aside attendant challenges such as how to cool off the barrel after firing, focus the beam enough to do its destructive work, and cope with weather that attenuates or scatters the beam.

But the principle has been proven: laser weaponry is whimsy no more. If American engineers can field a working directed-energy weapon, Russia — a society known for scientific education, research and development since Soviet days — may have done so as well. Russians excel in niche technologies such as submarines and air defense. They may have solved lingering problems at the edges of laser technology as well. Conceivably they vaulted ahead of the U.S. defense-industrial complex, the first mover in the field.

So Western intelligence services must not dismiss Borisov’s words as bombast.

Those who gather and evaluate information about foreign militaries encounter such ambiguities and doubts all the time. Strategist Edward Luttwak points out that military hardware remains a “black box” to outsiders until used in combat. The look of a weapon or sensor hints at what it can do. But in this high-tech age the innards — software, artificial intelligence, whatever — are what determine how the system performs when pitted against an enemy intent on defeating it.

After all, battle is the arbiter of what martial technology can do. Not even a weapon’s inventor or user knows for sure how it will fare when subjected to real-world stresses or enemy countermeasures. In 1991 we weapons specialists breathed a sigh of relief when the Tomahawk cruise missile, which underwent rigorous testing during the 1980s, flew off as designed and struck Saddam Hussein’s army. You just never know with gee-whiz armaments.

But these are material obstacles to estimating another country’s military capability. They’re easy. Analysts of foreign military technology confront two human hazards that could prove even more troublesome. One, the potential foe — their object of scrutiny — may mislead them consciously or inadvertently. Or two, they may mislead themselves.

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Opponents, that is, may exaggerate their scientific and industrial prowess, or they may deliberately deceive. Potential foes — in particular, authoritarian states — have an incentive to hype their capabilities while concealing weaknesses. Moscow long has thrived on “maskirovka,” or deception. On keeping rivals guessing about its capabilities and intentions, in other words.

Why would Secretary Borisov tout a substandard or nonexistent capability? For one thing, Moscow could generate a sort of virtual deterrence. If it fooled prospective antagonists into thinking Russian commanders could incinerate hostile forces within seconds, Moscow would stand a good chance of deterring antagonists from doing things it wanted to forbid. It might also coerce them into doing things they were loath to do.

Whether the weapon merits its hype is a secondary matter. The black box could exert strategic or even political influence whether it works or not. So Russians have cause to exaggerate technological progress.

Meanwhile, intelligence services may self-deceive by succumbing to bias. Biases refract reality. One result? Dominant powers such as post-Cold War America commonly denigrate rising challengers. For example, novelist Ernest Hemingway upbraided the interwar U.S. Navy for its “pushover psychology” vis-à-vis imperial Japan. Recalled Hemingway: “Everywhere I heard what we would do to those little monkeys when the day of the great pushover came. One cruiser division and a couple of carriers would destroy Tokyo; another ditto Yokohama.”

Surely, believed U.S. intelligence analysts, an outmatched Japan never could build a torpedo able to sink American battleships in Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters. Torpedoes run deep. Yet the Japanese did devise such a weapon. Navy officers discovered their mistake on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese aviators unleashed the Long Lance torpedo to deadly effect.

Pearl Harbor debunked the pushover psychology in graphic terms. Intelligence services must beware such snobbery when sizing up opponents. It has real-life repercussions.

The temptation to pooh-pooh Russian accomplishments is doubly seductive today. Back then, Japan was a rising power with victories over imperial China and Russia to its credit. Overlooking Japan was bad enough. But Russia is the descendant of the Soviet Union, a defeated foe. American military folk mock the Soviet military, as though it was never a serious adversary. It was a serious adversary. Yet the afterglow of victory in the Cold War colors attitudes toward Russia today.

Past failure does not rule out future success.

To manage their biases and buffer against deception, analysts should cultivate an attitude of studied ambivalence. When Moscow trumpets lasers, stealth aircraft armed with hypersonic missiles, or “supercavitating” torpedoes that swim through the water at breakneck speed, Russia-watchers should refuse to take its claims at face value. Russians are not superhuman. But Russia-watchers should also consider the possibility that — like Japan — the opponent has fielded a wonder weapon. It happens sometimes.

Americans, then, should neither accept Russian chest-thumping at face value nor reject it as fake news. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz teaches that a combatant must “guess” at its adversary’s strength and resolve. Countless variables go into such analyses. Clausewitz proclaims that so many guesses feed into intelligence assessments that the process defies the gifts of a Sir Isaac Newton.

If the father of physics couldn’t get the guesswork right, how can we mortals? And yet informed guesswork is better than the alternative. Let’s hop to it.

James R. Holmes is J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of “Red Star over the Pacific.” The views voiced here are his alone.