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Fantasy and Reality: 24 and the War on Terror

By Douglas Hanson

Jack Bauer is a fantasy figure of great appeal because of his singular focus on protecting America from the ravages of terrorism. We're rightly anxious, and we want someone who gets the job done. Jack throws the rule book out the window and does whatever it takes to kill our enemies.

Even if torture is not your cup of tea, you probably want field operatives and people in charge of our national security apparatus to be determined and relentless. It is, after all, only a television program and a fantasy. But fantasies sometimes seep into our understanding of reality, and down that path lies mental or national disaster

24 may reinforce popular myths about terrorist capabilities and our ability to counter them. Jack and 24 must not be relied upon for any knowledge of real world operations, and it should not overshadow our appreciation of the difficulty of the job ahead.

So in the spirit of good mental hygiene and national security, let me offer some caveats on the line between fantasy and reality when it comes to the actual technologies depicted in 24.

The Suitcase nuke

We are very unlikely to face a suitcase nuke explosion in Valencia or anywhere else, remotely like what 24 brought us in its fourth hour last week. The suitcase nuke threat has been wildly overplayed in both real intelligence estimates and in Hollywood.

We were told that the device exploded on 24 was of Russian manufacture. But that would have meant that the bomb would have consisted of not one, but several suitcases. Only the US has special atomic demolition munitions which have been manufactured in a simpler, one package configuration. The one detonated on 24 was obviously not a US device.

One thing that was correctly portrayed is that a "suitcase" nuke is designed to be fired outside the permissive action link (PAL) system. So, a lone terrorist could in fact detonate such a bomb. But obtaining one, assembling it and getting it to work is another story entirely.

A realistic explosion

Another problem is that the yield of one kiloton as stated for the device was a massive exaggeration; probably by a factor of ten, compared to what any real suitcase-category device could produce. According to Jane's, the standard US 155mm atomic artillery fired projectile (AFAP) had a yield of 0.1 kt - one-tenth the yield of the physically much smaller device used by the terrorists on 24. There was a newer version of the 155mm AFAP developed with an increased yield of up to 0.2 kt, but it was never fielded.

Therefore, a yield resulting in one kiloton in such a small package is well beyond the space and technological capabilities of even first world countries. As such, the explosion depicted in 24 and the casualty estimates of 100,000 - more casualties than Hiroshima suffered with a 15 kt bomb - are way off the mark. A suitcase nuke reflecting the power of compact US nukes would not be nearly as large.

For comparison, see this video of a rocket fuel plant explosion (The PEPCON explosion) which was estimated at 0.3 kt; that is, three times the yield of the 155mm AFAP. See for yourself that the picture takers were in a direct line of sight and lived to tell about it. The picture gives you some idea of the limited yield of these tactical devices.

The omniscient executive

The instantaneous communications and video links from tactical teams and the agents on the scene, sent up to the President, with supporting crossed-referenced intelligence analysis from CTU, makes for exciting TV, but that's about it. Such a system, and the experts to man it, would be the envy - the fantasy, really - of every national security decision-maker around the globe; good guys and bad guys.

If we really had anything like this, Jack Bauer and the CTU should have rolled up most of the terrorist groups way before the wave of terror attacks even started. And if we had this capability to react, would we use it to pre-empt?

Okay, I realize most people vaguely understand this fancy technological stuff really is fantasy, just like Star Trek. But there is a more subtle effect. Seeing this sort of capability reinforces the popular notion that a President and his staff always have perfect information upon which to make rapid decisions, and then push a button to make great and wonderful things happen.

The real people fighting the fight

The CTU technologies and the wizzardry of Chloe are the pipedream of techno-warriors and digitized command and control proponents, but we never seem to quite get there, except on TV. If were able to do this as depicted, we wouldn't need our hundreds of real Jack Bauers, Presidential advisors, or field generals.

As long as 24 continues to make the left apoplectic about taking out terrorists, it has redeeming social value, I suppose. I'll certainly watch it. And that is Hollywood's ace in the hole.

Our tough men and women are fighting the war on terror under conditions Jack Bauer, torture victim and inhabitant of hell that he may be, could never cope with. So who's the real super hero?

Douglas Hanson is the national security correspondent of American Thinker.

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