Pentagon Pinheads
Jude Wanniski
August 23, 2000


To: Rep. Curt Weldon [R-PA]
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Defending our fleets???

The exclusive WND story by Chris Smith, “Russian missile scandal prompts Hill 'outrage',” which quotes you as being the Hill fellow who is outraged, is one of the most incredible stories of Pentagon incompetence I have ever read. There seems to have been knuckleheadedness at several levels of decision-making and I of course agree with you that there should be full-scale congressional hearings to review the process that led to this state of affairs. Here is my understanding of what has happened:

1. The Russians possess a supersonic missile called the “Sunburn,” which seems to be the best in the world for the purpose of skimming along the ocean and blowing up an aircraft carrier. They developed these before the Cold War ended almost ten years ago.

2. Our fleets need to be able to defend themselves against such missiles, which means they need to be able to develop anti-missile systems and then practice shooting them down.

3. In 1993 and then again in 1995 the Russians proposed to sell us 100 Sunburn missiles, cheap, in order to get the hard currency at a time when they were in desperate straits. We could then use the Sunburns for target practice, minus their warheads, of course.

4. The Pentagon began the process which might lead to the purchase of what you now call “the greatest threat today against the U.S. Navy.”

5. The process was interrupted when someone in the Pentagon decided: “Why buy from the Russians what we can build ourselves?” A contract was given to Boeing/McDonnell Douglas to build a “target” missile from scratch. The contractors said they could always “upgrade” the target missile to achieve the capabilities of the Sunburn.

6. The contractors now have acknowledged that their target missile “from scratch” does not perform according to requirements.

7. Meanwhile, the Russians have sold the Sunburns to the Chinese, along with a Russian-made destroyer upon which they are mounted. There are said to be plans for eight more destroyers.

8. The Pentagon now wants to go back to the Russians and buy the Sunburn from them. According to the WND report, you have expressed doubts about this.

The report also says you are not alone in your evaluation of the Sunburn: “In July 1999, Jamestown Foundation defense analyst Richard Fisher wrote an evaluation of the Russian-built Sunburn missile being sold to China. According to Fisher, the U.S. Navy cannot stop the Sunburn. ‘The Sunburn anti-ship missile is perhaps the most lethal anti-ship missile in the world,’ wrote Fisher in a review of the Chinese navy. ‘The Sunburn combines a Mach 2.5 speed with a very low-level flight pattern that uses violent end maneuvers to throw off defenses. After detecting the Sunburn, the U.S. Navy Phalanx point defense system may have only 2.5 seconds to calculate a fire solution -- not enough time before the devastating impact of a 750-lb. warhead.'"

The WND story says the Chinese Sunburns on their single Russian-built destroyer are “nuclear-tipped.” There is no reason to believe that is the case, but it is enough to know they could be. It would not be necessary for China to take out an aircraft carrier with a “nuclear-tipped” warhead when a conventional warhead would be enough to do the trick. We remember the problems the Brits had with the French-made Exocit missile in the Falkland Islands war. The real stupidity of the Pentagon decision to build a target from scratch instead of buying the real thing from the Russians is that we could have prevented the Chinese from acquiring the missiles, not for target practice, but to take out our fleet. No?

Gordon Prather, who was deputy assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan years and is now a WND columnist, surmises that the Clinton Pentagon was thinking of developing a competitor to the Sunburn which could produce megabucks via sales of the upgrade. Upgrade? Who would want to buy the most effective killer of Aircraft carriers when for all practical purposes we have the only fleets? The highest priority should have been how to protect the fleet. Now the fleet must look down the nose of the Chinese Sunburn and know it could not stop it.

I really do hope you hold hearings to find out exactly how these decisions were made, Congressman, although I suspect the Military-Industrial Complex would find some four-star schmoe to take the fall when a lot of military folk and contractors were overwhelmed by the gravy train.