THE BLOG

The Human Factor

03/12/2015 07:28 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Back in 1988, a U.S. warship fighting Iranian gunboats in the Persian Gulf mistook an Iranian civilian jetliner for an attacking Iranian F14 fighter plane and blew it out of the sky with a heat-seeking missile killing all 290 persons aboard.

The U.S. was quick to accept blame and apologize, but our apology did not in the least mollify the Iranians who then as now were eager to believe the worst about our intentions and conduct. We may have put that event away and forgotten about it, but the Iranians have not forgotten it and are not likely to in the foreseeable future.

Left unanswered was why and how the Vincennes mistook the bulky, wide-bodied Airbus A300 for a sleek, supersonic F14 fighter plane barely a third the transport's size. The answer I am sure was the same as for some other recent air disasters that seem to occur with increasing frequency these days -- the human factor. Modern aircraft are equipped with the latest razzle-dazzle technologies that are generally designed to prevent disasters from happening, and yet somehow the disasters keep coming. In air travel as in every other form of human endeavor, it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of human error.

When I was head of the Signal Corps, I spent many sleepless nights worrying about the security of our nuclear arsenal and the potential for inadvertent disasters. At any given time, we have supersonic bombers airborne with nuclear weapons ready to launch attacks if the order comes, and numerous crews on the ground at missile silos around the clock ready to do the same. We, of course, have failsafe systems in place to guard against an accidental launch, but there really is no such thing as a failsafe system where humans are concerned.

In this digital age, we must also worry about hackers compromising our most secure communications. The primary motive of most hackers is to merely steal money, but there are others there out with far more sinister motives. The potential for disaster is disconcerting.

We are placing far too much trust and reliance in technology. Despite all of our advances in artificial intelligence, the most powerful computer we know of is the human mind. I have read that experts say that most of us barely use perhaps a third of our mental capacity. I am concerned that our increasing reliance on technology will serve primarily to reduce that level of output. Why bother to engage in rigorous study of complex subjects when all you have to do is push a few buttons on a machine?

But there is no system or technology that can eradicate the potential consequences of human error or subversion. Fuzzy thinking is the real enemy. We need people with active minds, vast reservoirs of knowledge, sound values and good judgment fully alert at every post around the clock. That is a tall order made ever tougher by our excessive reliance on technology.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.