July 22, 2003


From Slate:

In the short run, though, the [Billboard download] numbers are so modest that a well-coordinated effort by a band with a devoted fan base and at least one song for sale on iTunes, Liquid Audio, Rhapsody, or one of the other services included in SoundScan's numbers could theoretically push that song to No. 1. (The chart doesn't track file-sharing services like Grokster.) For that matter, a moderately influential Weblogger could probably pick a song at random from the current inventory, harangue his or her audience to buy it during a particular time period, and put in the Top 10.

Well, I don't think I'm influential enough for that, but I would say that if the electronic download chart numbers ever convinced, say, Curse Mackey to revive the *cough* Grim Faeries again, *cough* that would almost make shutting Napster down worth it to me.

Posted by BruceR at 01:43 AM

ON TWA 800

I meant to comment on this earlier, but I got distracted. Rand's site raised questions last week about TWA 800, and whether, as twa800.com and other conspiracy sites believe, the destruction of that jet could have been precursive terrorism. I don't think that case is easily made.

Of course, if you want to believe in government cover-ups, no evidence is sufficient to disprove the shadow government's responsibility for anything. But as a former member of an air defence unit, I thought I'd look at the purely technical facts that both "sides" in this debate stipulate to, and see if there's an air defence weapons system that could have brought down that plane under those conditions back in 1996. In other words, assume for the purpose of argument that we KNEW this was a terrorist missile attack... how could it have to have been carried out?

This much is pretty much universally agreed upon. TWA 800 was blown out of the sky by a massive explosion, sufficient to cut the power to both black boxes simultaneously, at 20:31 pm on July 17, 1996, while flying east out of New York, over water south of Long Island. The plane had been flying for 12 minutes, and at the time of the explosion was at 4,200m altitude and still climbing, with a forward airspeed of 685km/h. There was a Navy P-3 Orion in the close vicinity, along with other forms of surveillance, and so considerable evidence suggests the nearest surface vessel contacts were at least 5.0 km away from the point of detonation (the land was considerably farther), and were well to either side, making the plane a crossing target to our hypothetical missile unit.

The minimum slant range (6.5 km) by itself easily rules out any shoulder-launched or short range SAM solution, either heat-seeking or optical, even the Stinger. No, to get that kind of range you need a medium-range missile solution, which implies a fairly large and stable firing platform... we're not talking a rowboat here. Probably a large motor yacht or trawler, in fact.

To narrow it down further, you'd need to make a couple more assumptions. First off, the fact the missile was shot when it was still quite bright outside (contributing to the large number of witness accounts) would tend to rule out any solely radar-guided systems... given the easily visible signature of the firing unit, and the safe to assume idea that the terrorists wanted to escape, a radar-guided unit could have afforded to wait two more hours and get the cover of night to help with evasion. (It's also fair to say that any unusual radar emissions would likely have been detected by the P-3.) Also, any missile that caused a 747 to entirely cease functioning and then rapidly disintegrate would have to have significant explosive power... at least as much as one of the Standard SAMs that disintegrated an Iranian A300 airliner in 1988.

So what would the guidance mechanism be? Well, larger heat-seekers would seem to be ruled out... Chaparral could make the slant range, but its Sidewinder-sized warhead could never do that kind of damage. That leaves command and optically guided systems, including radar-guided systems that had an optical guidance backup system. Given those assumptions, only two missile systems in the world at the time really qualify. The American Hawk/I-Hawk, and its Russian counterpart, the SA-6/SA-11 system (in Russian naval service, the SA-N-7). No other missiles in the world at the time combined the deadliness, the fire-without-radar capability, and the performance envelope... Rapier doesn't have the range, Crotale and Roland and the SA-8 don't have a large enough warhead, SPADA is radar-only, etc.

Procuring a Hawk/SA-11 is not theoretically hard... they're ubiquitous, pretty much. The key would be fitting a large enough surface boat to house and fire at least one... fairly obvious modifications that would be detectable from a distance. These things are huge. You then have to postulate that this modified trawler was able to make its way to the States, fire its missile in broad daylight, and then escape without detection. You also have to accept that the missile itself was somehow previously rendered untraceable, as any part turning up in the wreckage would have otherwise clearly identified the initial purchaser, and provide a trail back to the group. You also have to accept that the terrorists were somehow able to surmount the training delta... firing an I-Hawk on backup optics and scoring a hit on a crossing target at the edge of visual range, even a 747, on the first try, would be Lee Oswald-lucky. You also have to accept that, having pulled this massively complex attack on the American homeland, that the terrorist organization responsible chose not to claim any responsibility or victory for it, and never attempted to repeat it again.

Too many assumptions for me, at this point. Of course you could always buy into the deep government conspiracy stuff, which if nothing else is non-falsifiable, and postulate that further evidence of the terrorist trawlers is being suppressed by a cast of hundreds to reassure the airgoing public or what have you (or alternatively, if you believe that sort of thing, that a USN ship or plane made a terrible mistake). But the burden of proof for any kind of "innocent" missile explanation, i.e., that this was just a SAM hit that has been mistaken for something else by the experts, is just too high to spend too much time thinking about.

(POSTSCRIPT: The twa800 site, before its founder's death, seemed to be leaning toward another explanation, involving an Iranian AIM-54 Phoenix refitted for passive radiation homing, on a civilian airliner's radio frequencies, as their "missile on the trawler." Suffice it to say that no such guidance system has ever been known to have been deployed on either a SAM or air-to-air missile, that converting an air-to-air Phoenix instead of a Hawk doesn't add anything to the equation other than dead certainty of the terrorists' state sponsor when the debris shows up. Only Iran ever bought the Phoenix.)

Posted by BruceR at 01:06 AM