One of the blogs I follow pointed me to a U.S. News & World Report article from February 25 in which their reporter, Anna Mulrine, spoke with Randall, M. Hendrickson, the captain of the U.S.S. Lake Erie (CG 70), following the shootdown of USA 193, the failed NRO satellite. It’s a good article, and I learned a number of things from it, so I encourage you to read it. But… (you saw that coming, didn’t you?) I cannot help make a few comments on the reporting and copyediting behind the article. Some of this is pedantic, but bear with me.
First off, the opening line of the article describes Hendrickson stepping “across the deck… to a bank of ballistic missile launch tubes.” The Lake Erie’s launch tubes do not fire ballistic missiles. The array of launch tubes is called a Vertical Launch System (VLS) and the Lake Erie has two sets of 61 tubes, armed with an array of Standard surface-to-air missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles, Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles, and ASROC anti-submarine missiles. None of these weapons are ballistic missiles, using definitions that date to the first ballistic weapons used by Germany during World War II. This is not new stuff.
Next, Mulrine writes: “Hendrickson points out where the flames shooting from the missile’s afterburners have singed the ship’s bell during takeoff.” The missile in question is a RIM-161 Standard SM-3 built by Raytheon. At launch, it is powered by an Aerojet Mk. 72 solid-fuel rocket. Rockets do not have afterburners, which are built into some jet engines as a means of increasing thrust by injecting fuel into the airstream following its exit from the turbine. Afterburners have been in use since the late 1940’s (e.g., the Westinghouse J34), and thus are also not new or complicated technology to comprehend.
Finally, a copyediting gaffe. In Hendrickson’s comments under the header “Stressing”, USN&WR writes “existing standard missile technology.” The Standard here that Capt. Hendrickson mentions is the specific family of missiles built by Raytheon, i.e., Standard missile technology. Curiously, in the caption to the accompanying AP photograph of the launch, the missile is referred to with the proper capitalization.
These things are not a big deal. I know that. Yet lapses like this remind me how often military and national security issues are handled by people who do not know very much about what they are writing. That is not to say that Ms. Mulrine does not address most of the larger issues well — I think she did. I wish she had asked, “What does it feel like to blow billions of taxpayer dollars out of space?” but that’s not a discrete question. Nonetheless, these mistakes suggest to me that USN&WR is not on top of this story and this area of news. Perhaps I am being unfair to Ms. Mulrine, and the lapses were all introduced in the course of copyediting, but this article shows a lack of attention to detail that makes me nervous. If comparable issues appeared in articles about Obama’s ethics or Clinton’s tax records, I believe the letters page would be filled with people complaining. Just because some military technology seems obscure is not an excuse for errors in reporting and editing.