Precision bombing

Precision bombing

Precision bombing is the desired skill of being able to bomb single buildings in a built up area, without causing any damage to the surrounding buildings, or the ability to place a bomb by air to within extremely accurate limits. Precision bombing was used by both the Allied and Central Powers during World War I. However, it was no longer widely used in World War II because it was ineffective, since to aim for a specific target, like a bridge or a factory, was very difficult. Therefore, the best that could be achieved was strategic bombing, in hopes that some significant targets might be wiped out. However, it inevitably brought civilian casualties.

"The following is an abridged transcript of a speech given by Dr. Richard P. Hamilton, SES, at Eglin AFB, for the USAF Air Armament Summit, on 26 May, 1999." [USGovernment|sourceURL=]

What constitutes precision: history

Precision has always been recognized as an important attribute of weapon development. The noted military theorist, strategist, and historian Major General J. F. C. Fuller, considered "accuracy of aim" one of the five recognizable attributes of weaponry, together with range of action, striking power, volume of fire, and portability.

Colonel Phillip Meilinger, the commander of the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Airpower Studies, has written:

:"Precision air weapons have redefined the meaning of mass... "

The result of the trend towards 'airshaft accuracy' in air war is a denigration in the importance of mass. PGMs provide density, mass per unit volume, which is a more efficient measurement of force. In short, targets are no longer massive, and neither are the aerial weapons used to neutralized them.

Seeking precision through accurate aim remains an important aspect of military power projection, but the historical record indicates that the best combination is, not surprisingly, the trained operator on a smart platform with smart sensors dispensing a smart weapon. Precision, it must be remembered, is a relative word, relative to the time period about which one is concerned. For example, in the summer of 1944, 47 B-29’s raided the Yawata steel works from bases in China; only one plane actually hit the target area, and only with one of its bombs. This single convert|500|lb|abbr=on. general purpose bomb represented one quarter of one percent of the 376 bombs dropped over Yawata on that mission. It took 108 B-17 bombers, crewed by 1,080 airmen, dropping 648 bombs to guarantee a 96 percent chance of getting just two hits inside a 400 x convert|500|ft|m|abbr=on. German power-generation plant; in contrast, in the Gulf War, a single strike aircraft with one or two crewmen, dropping two laser-guided bombs, could achieve the same results with essentially a 100 percent expectation of hitting the target, short of a material failure of the bombs themselves.

By the time of the Gulf War, the capabilities of "smart" airplanes dropping dumb bombs from low altitudes were sufficient to place an unguided munition within convert|30|ft|m of a target. However, Iraqi air defenses in the Kuwait theater of operations, characterized by large numbers of man-portable surface-to-air missiles and rapid-firing light antiaircraft cannon, simply would not permit such routine use of the low altitude operating environment. Operations from medium altitudes (15,000 ft. and higher) at longer slant ranges severely complicated bombing accuracy, particularly against targets that required essentially a direct hit to be destroyed, such as hangars, bunkers, tanks, and artillery. As one analytical study concluded:

Medium and high-altitude bombing with unguided munitions posed problems, even with digital smart platforms. Using smart platforms to deliver dumb bombs against point targets smaller than the circular error probable (CEP) may well require redundant targeting.

Precision weapons and national security decision-making

One of the greatest advantages of the precision weapon is the confidence that it can offer a decision-maker confronted with having to contemplate using force in circumstances where so-called "collateral damage" would be either unacceptable or call into question the viability of continued military action. Even in high-tempo, high-level-of-violence conflicts, attitudes towards both "enemy" and "friendly" (or "neutral") casualties have undergone a remarkable transformation since the days of the Second World War when, for example, a single air raid could kill tens of thousands of individuals and not raise any significant moral outcry. Increasingly, conflict scenarios involve the use of force in dense, population-heavy environments, where the negative publicity of misplaced weaponry could have profound implications for public opinion and policy.

Adding to this problem has been a generalized lack of appreciation of how warfare has changed since World War II. On the eve of the Gulf War, for example, critics of proposed military action posited scenarios where tens of thousands of Iraqis would be killed by largely indiscriminate air attacks that would "carpet bomb" population centers, particularly Baghdad. To give viewers some idea of what a "modern" air war might be like, commentators, ironically, ran footage of Berlin and other German cities after VE Day. In fact, of course, coalition leaders had no intention whatsoever of using such a level of force against an opponent, recognizing that, given the moral climate of the present day, this use of power simply would not be tolerated by the world community, or even the population of a coalition nation that engaged in such action.

But, after being briefed on the air campaign plan for the Gulf War, coalition political and military leaders were very comfortable with the notion of using precision weapons in attacks deep in the midst of major cities, once they had been assured that the accuracies claimed for such weapons were realistic. On "opening night" of the Gulf War, for example, Baghdad was struck by two kinds of precision attackers: ship-launched cruise missiles, and air-launched laser-guided bombs. More recently, the extensive use of precision weaponry in the NATO air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, affirmed again that this kind of attack offers decision-makers an option to exert force in circumstances that, just two decades ago, they would not have considered possible.

Because of precision, decision-makers have a freedom to use military force closer to non-combatant-inhabited areas in an enemy homeland (or in enemy-occupied territory) than at any previous time in military history. They need not risk the broad-area "seeding" of bombs characteristic of earlier wars. In a strategic sense, this can act as a powerful deterrent to an aggressor who, in previous times, might well have felt that the misery of collateral losses engendered by conflict designed to overcome aggression would itself offer some shield or defense against potential action against him. In both a strategic and tactical sense, precision robs the enemy of the material wherewithal to make war.

Further, since a precision attacker has a higher probability of scoring a hit on a target than a non-precision attacker, there is less likelihood that a target will have to be revisited or repeatedly struck. While never as "surgical" as proponents might claim, nevertheless, precision attack offers clear advantages in reducing risk to attacking forces, another encouragement for its use in conflict situations. Additionally, for a nation unwilling to risk military personnel in delivering precision weapons to a target, the somewhat less precise but still highly accurate cruise missile is an acceptable alternative.

Even in cases where precision weapons are used, there is, of course, some risk of collateral damage and consequent public outcry. In the best-known example from the Gulf War, well-publicized attacks against bridges in downtown Baghdad, coupled with a precision attack against the Al Firdos command and control bunker that killed several hundred individuals using it as a shelter, generated a political reaction that included shutting down the strategic air campaign against Baghdad for ten days. More recently, of course, the well-publicized precision bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (as the result of an extraordinary intelligence failure rather than a failure of a weapon or the crew which dropped it) led to an international outcry, riots in Beijing, and serious international diplomatic repercussions between the People’s Republic of China and the United States.

Given the nature of precision weapon warfare, education of decision-makers as to their capabilities and limitations is critically important. (And, beyond this, it is particularly true for air warfare in general, for air power has some unique attributes and advantages, though, in one critically important respect, it is like other forms of military power: it should be used to achieve decisive effects, not as a means of merely sending signals or "feel good" sporadic blows). With the rapidly changing state of such technology, it is incumbent that military and defense organizations offer interested individuals opportunities to become acquainted with the broad capabilities of modern military systems. This is particularly true for precision weaponry, for such weaponry has already demonstrated that, in particular circumstances, cherished notions of how wars are to be fought and the enduring value of such military constructs as the linear battlefield are questionable at best or even archaic.

The leverage of precision weapons: historical experience through Vietnam

The precision weapon, within generalized boundaries, will perform roughly equally well in all circumstances, provided a target can be identified. Time scales may change and levels of effort may change, but the end result--a victory for the force making the best use of precision--is unlikely to change unless other factors (such as loss of national will, changing international support, "wild cards," etc.) enter play. The single most important factor is how well the decision-maker, both military and political, appreciates what precision weapons can and cannot accomplish, what mechanism or process has been established to assess the appropriateness of their use, and the rules of engagement that govern their use.

Historical experience with precision guided munitions dates back over fifty years; there is a considerable body of historical experience that suggests how precision weapons have dramatically transformed military affairs. The precision weapon era dates to May 12, 1943, when a Royal Air Force Liberator patrol bomber dropped a Mk. 24 acoustic homing torpedo that subsequently seriously damaged the U-456, driving it to the surface where it was subsequently sunk by convoy escort vessels. On September 9, 1943, a German Fritz-X radio-guided glide bomb dropped from a Dornier Do 217 bomber sank the modern Italian battleship Roma as it steamed towards Gibraltar. Two months later, an antishipping missile launched from a Heinkel He 177 sank a British troop transport with the loss of 1,190 American soldiers, one of the greatest of all maritime disasters. By war’s end, Germany and the United States had employed various proto-smart weapons in combat, including radio, radar, and television-guided bombs and missiles, against targets ranging from industrial sites to bridges and enemy shipping.

Although not often thought of as a precision weapon, the various Kamikaze attackers that first appeared in the fall of 1944 functioned much like modern antishipping missiles, and thus can legitimately be considered a part of the precision weapon story. The Kamikaze was the deadliest aerial antishipping threat faced by Allied surface warfare forces in the war. Approximately 2,800 Kamikaze attackers sunk 34 Navy ships, damaged 368 others, killed 4,900 sailors, and wounded over 4,800. Despite radar detection and cuing, airborne interception and attrition, and massive antiaircraft barrages, a distressing 14 percent of Kamikazes survived to score a hit on a ship; nearly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank. As soon as they appeared, then, Kamikazes revealed their power to force significant changes in Allied naval planning and operations, despite relatively small numbers. Clearly, like the antishipping cruise missile of a later era, the Kamikaze had the potential to influence events all out of proportion to its actual strength.

The need to destroy precision targets such as bridges had driven development of rudimentary guided bombs in the Second World War, and Korea accelerated this interest. In Korea, Air Force B-29's dropped the Razon and the much larger and more powerful Tarzon guided bombs on North Korean bridges, destroying at least 19 of them. The disappointing Korean bridge-bombing experience stimulated the Navy to pursue development of the postwar Bullpup program, the first mass-produced air to surface guided missile.

Accompanying this interest in antisurface warfare, was an equivalent drive to develop precision air-to-surface and surface to surface weapons for antishipping roles. In particular, the Soviet Union pursued development of such weapons as a means of countering the tremendous maritime supremacy of the Western alliance during the Cold War. One of the most significant events in the history of precision weaponry occurred on October 25, 1967, when the Israeli destroyer Eilat, patrolling convert|15|mi|km off Port Said, was sunk by four Soviet-made Styx antishipping missiles fired from an Egyptian missile boat, killing or wounding 99 of its crew. The sinking of the Eilat had profound impact; one surface warfare officer remarked that "it was reveille" to the surface Navy." One senior American naval officer called the potential Styx threat his "worst nightmare."

The Soviet Union's alarming investment antiship missiles stimulated a tremendous investment in countermeasures. It influenced the purchase of the Grumman F-14A Tomcat, as well as more advanced airborne and surface early warning radars and fire control systems, and new gun and surface to air missile systems. But despite such corrective measures, the problems posed by newer generations of weapons continue to confront naval planners in the present day. Indeed, it can be argued that, at best, defensive measures have kept up with the threat, not surpassed it.

As the antishipping missile transformed war at sea, the advent of the laser-guided bomb revolutionized precision land attack, for it could function with an average circular error of less than twenty feet from the aim point. With this kind of accuracy, the need to operate mass flights of aircraft against a single aim point at last disappeared; it was as revolutionary a development in military air power terms as, say, the jet engine or aerial refueling. Even more significantly, an aircraft dropping a laser-guided bomb could drop it from outside the majority of an enemy's air defenses, thus further reducing the likelihood of incurring losses to enemy defenses. The modern precision weapon era may be said to have begun in May 1972, when laser-guided-bomb-armed McDonnell F-4 Phantoms perfunctorily took down the Paul Doumer and Thanh Hoa bridges in North Vietnam, as part of a larger campaign that shattered North Vietnam’s invasion of South Vietnam in the spring of that year.

Precision attack in the Gulf War

The first Gulf War showed how radically precision attack had transformed the traditional notion of running a military campaign and, especially, an air campaign. On opening night of the war, attacks by strike aircraft and cruise missiles against air defense and command and control facilities essentially opened up Iraq for subsequent conventional attackers. Precision attacks against the Iraqi air force destroyed it in its hangars, and precipitated an attempted mass exodus of aircraft to Iran. Key precision weapon attacks against bridges served to "channelize" the movement of Iraqi forces and create fatal bottlenecks, and many Iraqis, in frustration, simply abandoned their vehicles and walked away. Overall, postwar analysis indicated that Iraq's ability to move supplies from Baghdad to the Kuwaiti theater of operations had dropped from a total potential capacity of 216,000 metric tons per day over a total of six main routes (including a rail line) to only 20,000 metric tons per day over only two routes, a nearly 91 percent reduction in capacity; all others (including the railroad) had essentially been destroyed. What shipments did occur were haphazard, slow, and carried in single vehicles that were themselves so often destroyed that many Iraqi drivers simply refused to drive to the KTO. This destruction had taken place in an astonishingly short time; whereas, in previous non-precision interdiction campaigns, it often took hundreds of sorties to destroy a bridge, in the Gulf War precision weapons destroyed 41 of 54 key Iraqi bridges, as well as 31 pontoon bridges hastily constructed by the Iraqis in response to the anti-bridge strikes, in approximately four weeks.

In the Gulf War, only 9 percent of the tonnage expended on Iraqi forces by American airmen were precision munitions. Not quite half of this percentage--4.3 percent--consisted of laser-guided bombs, credited with causing approximately 75 percent of the serious damage inflicted upon Iraqi strategic and operational targets. The remaining precision munitions consisted of specialized air-to-surface missiles such as the Maverick and the Hellfire, as well as cruise missiles, anti-radar missiles, and assorted small numbers of special weapons. It was, overall, the laser-guided bomb that dominated both the battlefield, the counter-air campaign against Iraqi airfields, strikes against command and control and leadership targets, and the anti-bridge and rail campaign. As the Gulf War Air Power Survey concluded,

" "Against point targets, laser-guided bombs offered distinct advantages over "dumb" bombs. The most obvious was that the guided bombs could correct for ballistic and release errors in flight. Explosive loads could also be more accurately tailored for the target, since the planner could assume most bombs would strike in the place and manner expected. Unlike ‘dumb’ bombs, LGB’s released from medium to high altitude were highly accurate. . . . Desert Storm reconfirmed that LGB’s possessed a near single-bomb target-destruction capability, an unprecedented if not revolutionary development in aerial arfare." "

In particular, the advent of routine around-the-clock laser bombing of fielded enemy forces in the Gulf War constituted a new phase in the history of air warfare. These attacks were not classic close air support, or battlefield air interdiction, but, instead, given the level of accomplishment over time, went far beyond the levels of effectiveness traditionally implied by such terms. Indeed, the vast majority were made in the 39 days prior to the ground operation when the coalition's land forces were, for the most part, waiting for their war to begin. Yet the Iraqi army was, in effect, mortally wounded in this time. These attacks, against Iraq's mechanized formations and artillery, can best be described as a form of strategic attack directed against unengaged but fielded enemy forces, what might be termed DEA: "Degrade Enemy Army." The combination of laser-guided bombs from F-111F's and F-15E's, together with Maverick missiles using imaging infrared thermal sensors fired by A-10's and F-16's were devastating, as were laser-guided bombs from British Tornadoes and Buccaneers, and AS-30L laser-guided missiles fired from French Air Force Jaguars. Particularly deadly were F-111F night "tank plinking" strikes using convert|500|lb|abbr=on. GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. On February 9, for example, in one night of concentrated air attacks, forty F-111F's destroyed over 100 armored vehicles. Overall, the small 66-plane F-111F force was credited with 1,500 kills of Iraqi tanks and other mechanized vehicles. Air attacks by F-15E's and Marine A-6E's in the easternmost section of the theater averaged over thirty artillery pieces or armored vehicles destroyed per night.

Once attack helicopters attached to surface forces entered battle, they demonstrated that such results were not limited to fixed-wing attackers. At sea, Royal Navy and U.S. Navy helicopters destroyed numerous Iraqi small boats and military craft; fourteen of fifteen British Aerospace Sea Skua antishipping missiles launched from Westland Lynx helicopters hit their targets, a hit rate of over 93 percent. French, British, and American gunships destroyed numerous Iraqi mechanized vehicles. McDonnell AH-64A Apache crews of one U.S. Army aviation brigade destroyed approximately fifty Iraqi tanks in a single encounter. Another Apache unit scored 102 hits for the expenditure of 107 Hellfire missiles, a hit rate of better than 95 percent. (Overall, Apache gunships destroyed nearly 950 Iraqi tanks, personnel carriers, and miscellaneous vehicles).

The reaction of Iraqi forces to direct precision air attacks indicated that the traditional powerful psychological impact of air attack had, at last, been matched by the equally powerful impact of actual destruction. What can be identified can be targeted so precisely that unnecessary casualties are not inflicted upon an opponent. In short, war, the great waster of human life, is now significantly more humane. Increasingly, war is more about destroying or incapacitating things as opposed to people. It is now about pursuing an effects-based strategy, rather than an annihilation-based strategy, a strategy that one can control an opponent without having to destroy him. Further, in the precision engagement era, what has changed most dramatically has been the time scale and level of effort required to achieve decisive effects over an opponent. Today, planners are far less concerned about the number of sorties required to destroy a target; rather, they emphasize the number of targets destroyed per sortie as the metric that must be considered.

Deliberate force: reaffirmation of the Gulf experience

Nor was the Gulf War an isolated example. From August 30 through September 14, 1995, for the first time in its history, NATO forces engaged in combat operations, against Bosnian Serbian forces in the former Yugoslavia. A total of 293 aircraft based at fifteen European locations and operating from three aircraft carriers flew 3,515 sorties in Operation Deliberate Force, to deter Serbian aggression. Somewhat less than 700 of these sorties targeted command and control, supporting lines of communication, direct and essential targets, fielded forces, and integrated air defenses. A total of 67 percent of all such targets engaged were destroyed; 14 percent experienced moderate to severe damage, 16 percent light damage, and only 3 percent were judged to have experienced no damage.

In contrast to the Gulf War, the vast majority of NATO munitions employed in the Bosnian conflict were precision ones: in fact, over 98 percent of those used by American forces. American forces employed a total of 622 precision munitions, consisting of 567 laser-guided bombs, 42 electro-optical or infrared-guided weapons, and 13 Tomahawk Land Attack cruise missiles. American airmen dropped only 12 "dumb" bombs. Precision weaponry accounted for 28 percent of NATO munitions dropped by non-US attackers. Sorties by Spanish, French, and British strike aircraft dropped 86 laser-guided bombs, and French, Italian, Dutch, and United Kingdom attackers dropped 306 "dumb" bombs. Overall, combining both the American and non-American experience in Bosnia, there were 708 precision weapons employed by NATO forces, and 318 non-precision ones; thus precision weaponry accounted for 69 percent of the total employed in the NATO air campaign. Combined statistics of American and NATO experience indicate that the average number of precision weapons per designated mean point of impact (DMPI) destroyed was 2.8. In contrast, the average number of "dumb" general purpose bombs per DMPI destroyed was 6.6. The average number of attack sorties per DMPI destroyed was 1.5.

As a result of NATO’s first sustained air strike operations, all military and political objectives were attained: safe areas were no longer under attack or threatened, heavy weapons had been removed from designated areas, and Sarajevo’s airport could once again open, as could road access to the city. More importantly, the path to a peace agreement had been secured. In total, for an overall expenditure of approximately 64 weapons per day--69 percent (44) of which were precision weapons--NATO forces achieved their military and political objectives. The leverage that this weaponry gave over Balkan aggressors and the recognition of what precision air attack means to decision-makers in the modern world was enunciated by former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke after the conclusion of the campaign and the settlement of the Dayton Peace Accords:

"One of the great things that people should have learned from this is that there are times when air power--not backed up by ground troops--can make a difference."

The key, of course, is in the targeting, for air power is like other forms of military power projection in one important regard: namely, to achieve best effect, it must be used overwhelmingly, as part of a well-thought-out strategy, and not merely as a tool of diplomatic signal-sending. Put another way, if the foe is targeted effectively, the foe will get the message. This has been, of course, one of the great concerns we have seen in the current air campaign over Yugoslavia and Kosovo, namely whether the air effort being expended is consistent with what prudent use of air power teaches us from the past.

Holbrooke's statement hints at one of the major effects of precision, namely that the traditional notion of massing a large ground force to confront an opponent, particularly on a "field of battle" is now rendered archaic. To a degree, throughout military history, the span of influence of ground forces was always spreading out the battle area at the expense of "mass." As the zone of lethality an individual soldier could command increased, the spacing between soldiers expanded as well. But the precision attacker overcomes the expansion of the linear battlefield by exercising the ability to undertake individual targeting at ranges far in excess of even the most powerful artillery. Thus airplanes, "smart" ballistic missiles, or cruise missiles, launched hundreds of miles away from a front-line, can then pass beyond that front-line for a distance of hundreds of miles more before targeting some key enemy facility or capability that directly influences the success of enemy operations at the front itself. This is true flexibility, of a sort again unknown to previous military eras. Further, it speaks to a changing paradigm in warfare: from the classic infantry-armor paradigm to a paradigm emphasizing remote fires: air and artillery.

Precision attack versus light infantry

As hinted by the Balkan experience, both in 1995 and in 1999, the advantages of precision attack are not limited to what might be termed "traditional" encounters between massive deployed forces possessing large and vulnerable weapons such as ships, tanks, and vehicles. Indeed, recent examinations of air power applications against light infantry in typical Third World crisis conditions indicate that precision offers very high leverage whether one is dealing with a mechanized force, a guerrilla-type army in a wooded or jungle environment, or, even, an individual urban sniper à la Sarajevo. The combination of new and enhanced sensor technology, coupled with information exchange between targeting systems and strike aircraft, helicopters, or smart missiles, can defeat threats that, in previous times, were considered too difficult to thwart without greatly widening a war effort.

Even light infantry forces generate by their operations and equipment a variety of detectable signatures--visual, chemical, infrared, electromagnetic, radar, and acoustic--that render them vulnerable to a range of active radar sensor systems (such as synthetic aperture, moving target indicator, and foliage penetrating radars), and passive air (and air-deployed ground-based) sensors (such as low light level TV, thermal imagers, multispectral analyzers, engine electrical ignition, and magnetic field detectors). These signatures betray the location and, indeed, strength of enemy forces, enabling targeting systems to then direct air attacks against them.

The capabilities of new detection systems are remarkable by the standards of previous conflict. One countersniper ballistic analyzer, the Lifeguard sniper location system developed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, detects a sniper's bullet after the round has been fired, analyzes its flight path, and then establishes the bullet track back to its point of origin, all virtually instantaneously, and with an accuracy of within convert|2|ft|m of where the sniper is actually located. If multiple analyzers are present, this track can be refined to within one inch. With this capability, even a sniper operating in the midst of a crowded urban environment is not immune to reprisal--for example, a helicopter gunship firing its cannon on precise coordinates, or a strike aircraft releasing a laser-guided soft and lightweight sticky foam bomb that could burst in a room and kill or disable a sniper without damaging or endangering the surrounding structure or building inhabitants.

Future directions in precision weapon development and use

The fusion of detection, tracking, and targeting technologies and methodologies; responsive command and control capabilities; and then the availability of precision munitions offers tremendous leverage in military affairs. To give a "real world" example of this, during operations over northern Iraq in late December 1998, a flight of F-15E Strike Eagles received warnings from their on-board defensive systems that they were about to be fired upon by Iraqi air defense forces. As they took evasive action, two SA-3 missiles were fired at them, and a third a minute later. The flight commander called back to the combined air operations center (CAOC), requesting approval to attack the offending site and two others that could likewise attack the planes. The CAOC radioed immediate approval. F-16CJ’s fired HARM missiles at the two threatening sites, while three F-15E’s dropped a total of six convert|500|lb|abbr=on. GBU-12 laser-guided bombs that "shacked" the radar and optical tracking units, and the command and control van. In sum, the site was destroyed even as the smoke trails of the three SAM’s it had fired still lingered in the desert air.

As good as this is, it is not unreasonable to expect that, in the future, a core competency of an advanced air force will be the ability to provide precision strike, with accuracies less than two meters from an aim point, to any point on the globe within, at most, several hours. Complementing this, of course, will be the ability to find, fix, track, and target anything of significant military value. As sweeping as the latter statement seems, the advanced air forces of the world are very close to possessing such capabilities even at this time.

As technology changes, the nature of the precision weapon will change as well. Increasing standoff engagement ranges is vitally important, as a means of evading ever-changing ground defenses and air threats; the current JSOW and JDAM are but first steps to even more advanced systems. Already, a long-range forecasting study by the United States Air Force has identified precision weapon concepts achievable over the next ten to thirty years that include advanced cruise missiles to conduct electronic countermeasures attacks, autonomous miniature munitions to stop invading armies, hard-target munitions and robotic micro-munitions to attack deeply buried hard targets, hypersonic missile concepts (on the order of 5 km/s.) to strike rapidly and at long range, and precision thermoflux weapons generating long-duration very high temperatures to destroy chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. Aircraft dispensing such weapons will increasingly become multipurpose "battle" aircraft, capable of being applied to multiple long-range power projection tasks.

Intelligence, sensor development, and targeting are now of even greater importance than at any previous time. Precision weapon employment requires intelligence of a sufficiently high order to enable a desired mean point of impact to be established on an individual target. In an era where, increasingly, military planners speak of conducting "information warfare" against an opponent, the connection between intelligence, sensor suitability, targeting, and combat operations is obvious. No less significant is the importance of bomb damage assessment. This was, together with intelligence collection and analysis, one of the most controversial aspects of the Gulf War. Bomb damage assessment relates directly to campaign assessment and to issues such as scheduling revisits to targets not considered sufficiently damaged. Failures in the intelligence and BDA process almost derailed the Gulf war air and land campaigns, and caused serious concerns in the minds of policy-makers as to whether their goals were being met. Insufficient intelligence, and poor intelligence review mechanisms can have disastrous results.

The story of Iraq’s robust nuclear weapons program offers one case in point, and the recent bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade offers another. Prior to the war, failures in intelligence gathering meant that the Hussein regime had applied an astounding level of effort to developing weapons of mass destruction that was utterly unknown to the international community. Immediately prior to the war, only two nuclear targets had been identified in Iraq, one a uranium mine and the other the massive [ Al Tuwaitha nuclear complex] . During the war, targeteers identified seven other sites subsequently attacked. But after the war, inspectors learned that Iraq had, in fact, no less than ten major nuclear research facilities; eight uranium mining, production, processing, and storage sites; twenty-four uranium enrichment sites; nine weaponization sites; and seventeen other sites devoted to supporting Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. In sum, what had been known had been targeted and much had been destroyed, but there was simply much more that was unknown and, thus, escaped attack. More recently, as mentioned previously, we have seen how egregiously bad intelligence can compromise the value of precision attack, namely the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which stemmed from an appallingly bad "team effort" failure. Precision weapons, in short, are only as good as the intelligence that governs and guides their use.

The profusion of advanced sensor and intelligence gathering and exploiting platforms--space-based assets, UAVs, manned airborne systems, for example--offer the hope that many of these problems will be overcome. But it is a continuing challenge, lest failures of understanding prevent the fullest possible exploitation of the precision weapon capability now available to military forces, as well as that which will become available in the near future. Sensor development has been key to the evolution of practical precision weapons, and interest in sensors, particularly those that can penetrate foliage, penetrate adverse weather, and, literally, see through the fog, haze, and smoke over a target area, is high. Fusing passive and active sensors into working architecture involving space-based systems, standoff airborne systems (such as JSTARS), unmanned air vehicles, unattended ground sensors, ground and airborne command and control systems, and aircraft carrying precision weapons is a key requirement now and will obviously grow in importance in the future.

Targeting offers its own particular challenges for appropriate precision weapon use. Traditionally, targeteers have emphasized the systematic destruction of a target list; in the precision weapon era, there is far greater opportunity to target key nodes of a system for destruction, thus obviating a need for greater military effort, multiple strikes into high-risk areas, etc. Obviously, to accomplish this requires, again, the closest possible connections between the targeting and intelligence communities. Targeting also has to examine the appropriateness of precision guided munition use against a particular target. Some targets, especially those covering large areas such as warehousing, truck parks, large industrial plants, and army formations in the open, where issues of collateral damage are not a concern, may well be more suitable for attacks by aircraft carrying large numbers of dumb bombs, area denial munitions, cluster munitions, fuel-air explosives, and the like. This is particularly true of troop formations, where the shock, noise, and dislocation of air attack has essentially a paralyzing and demoralizing effect upon troops all out of proportion, on occasion, to the actual physical destruction achieved. In the Gulf War, for example, the most feared attacker by Iraqi forces was the B-52, a large capacity dumb-bomb-dropper capable of dispensing up to convert|38250|lb|abbr=on. of ordnance.

Though there is a continuing role for the dumb munition, as the above indicates, the reshaping of military affairs that has been wrought by the precision munition will increasingly dominate logistical and strategic planning issues. Small numbers of airlifters can bring precision weapons into a crisis region, generating levels of force projection that cannot be matched by older (and slower) forms of logistical resupply (such as so-called "fast" sealift) bringing weapons more suitable to the conflicts of old, such as tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, or large masses of infantry.

Though precision weapons deployed from aircraft, helicopters, battlefield missile systems, and ships and submarines off-shore, undoubtedly offer a degree of leverage in warfare previously unknown, their cost is a serious concern, and one that must be addressed. Cost trends in precision weaponry is likely to force an evolutionary "survival of the most capable for the least cost," particularly for those military services with scarce acquisition funding. (Such considerations in the United States killed the Aquila battlefield UAV in the 1980’s, and, more recently, the Tacit Rainbow and Tri-Service Stand-off Attack Missile (TSSAM) efforts). For example, by the year 2010, the U.S. Army’s Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) will constitute but one-half of one percent of the total American munitions inventory, but will account for 28% of the total cost of that inventory. Whether such a system is thus, in fact, a suitable system for mass production is a serious question, given cheaper and more effective long-range power projection options. Looking at the air warfare case, the overall reliability and costs associated with piloted systems have traditionally been less than the costs associated with operating purely unmanned weapon systems. A case in point is that of the cruise missile, which carries a small and non-penetrating warhead and which is, once launched, incapable of being retargeted. The cruise missile does not endanger a human operator, and thus may be perfectly suitable for operations where a nation is unwilling to accept the risk of having personnel caught and interned. However, it lacks the survivability and flexibility of an aircraft carrying far more precise, larger, and penetrating laser-guided bombs, which can attack multiple aimpoints on a single pass. Additionally, there are the tremendous cost penalties associated with using such missiles, which can cost many times the cost of a precision guided bomb (for example, a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile is sixteen times more expensive than a GBU-27 laser-guided bomb). In the Gulf War, for example, the total cost of the approximately 2,000 tons of laser-guided bombs dropped by the F-117A force was roughly $146 million; that same tonnage in Tomahawk Land Attack (TLAM) cruise missiles would have been $4.8 billion. Accepting for the purposes of argument that a ton of explosives delivered by a cruise missile is equivalent in military effect and significance to a ton of explosives delivered by other forms of precision weaponry, to replace all of the smart weapon tonnage delivered by the United States in the Gulf War (approximately 7,400 tons) would have required nearly $18 billion in TLAM missiles. Clearly finding the right mix of all such weapons—cruise missiles, precision guided missiles and bombs, and so-called "dumb" bombs—is (and will continue to be) a key challenge for defense planners and decision-makers.

The ongoing revolutions in aerospace and electro-optical technology will undoubtedly continue to shape the future evolution of the precision guided munition, nowhere more so than in efforts to overcome current limitations on precision weapon use imposed by weather conditions. Two notable development efforts designed to produce acceptable accuracies in bad-weather conditions are the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), and the Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), both of which employ Global Positioning System satellite navigation terminal guidance as their primary means of achieving precision. Both JDAM and JSOW will generate their own families of precision munitions, with widely varying warhead and mission options (ranging from penetrating hard targets to dispensing submunitions in antiarmor attacks) and JSOW even offers a powered variant that renders it, in effect, a small cruise missile. Already, JDAM’s outstanding performance in the Kosovo crisis already has met, and perhaps even exceeded, the expectations of its creators.

Precision weaponry and the revolution in military affairs

In recent years, much has been made about the so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs," and whether, or not, an "RMA," in fact, really is underway. If one truly considers the implications of precision attack, it is clear that precision weapons, when coupled to the other great revolutions of this aerospace century, have transformed warfare, and, as a result, the question is not really one of "Does an RMA exist?" but, rather, "When did it begin, and what are its implications?" Tied to this, of course, are equally-surprisingly persistent questions about the use and value of air power, now more accurately considered as aerospace power. If nothing else, given the record of precision air power application, aerospace power advocates should not still have to spend as much time as they do arguing the merits of three-dimensional war and the value of precision attack to it. Modern joint service aerospace forces offer the most responsive, flexible, lethal, and devastating form of power projection across the spectrum of conflict, employing a range of aerospace weaponry such as maritime patrol aircraft, attack and troop-lift helicopters, land-based long-range aircraft, and battlefield rocket artillery systems. Service-specific aerospace power can often be formidable and, as such, over not quite the last ninety years, has transformed conflict from two dimensional to three dimensional, and has changed the critical focus of conflict from that of seizing and holding to one of halting and controlling.

In this regard, it is worth quickly reviewing a few salient points from the military history of this century. Within roughly a decade of the first flight of an airplane, aircraft were having an occasionally decisive effect on the battlefield. Within four decades, a nation—Great Britain—secured its national survival through air warfare. By the midst of the Second World War, three-dimensional attack (from above and below the surface) had become the primary means of sinking both vessels at sea and destroying the combat capability of armies on land. In fact, for the United States, this trend of inflicting losses and material destruction primarily through air attack continued into the postwar years for Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Bosnia, and other, lesser, contingencies. In particular, air attack directed against land forces has been especially powerful in blunting and destroying opponents on the offensive, whether in older experience--such as confronting Rommel in the Western Desert, or Nazi armored forces trying to split the Normandy invasion at Mortain, or at the Bulge (where German commanders credited Allied fighter attacks on fuel trucks and supplies as being the decisive factor in halting their drive), in the opening and closing stages of the Korean War, and confronting the 1972 North Vietnamese Spring Invasion--or, more recently, in destroying the Khafji offensive of Saddam Hussein in 1991. NATO’s reliance upon air power in the present Balkan crisis should not be surprising, for, from the very earliest days, the NATO alliance saw air power as the linchpin of Western military strength, and the necessary off-set to the Warsaw Pact’s huge military forces.

Given its historical underpinnings, we should not be surprised that the revolution in warfare that has been brought about both by the confluence of the aerospace and the electronic revolutions, and by the off-shoot of both—the precision guided munition--is one that has been a long-time coming, back to the Second World War, back, even, to the experimenters of the First World War who attempted, however crudely, to develop "smart" weapons to launch from airships and other craft. Used almost experimentally until the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict, the precision weapon since that time has increasingly come to first influence, then dominate, and now perhaps to render superfluous, the traditional notion of a linear battlefield.

ee also

* Laser guided bomb
* Precision-guided munition


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