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Precision Strike Weapon Advances Create Mythology of Infallibility

Associate Editor

Without question a great strength of the U.S. military is its precision strike capability, enabled by costly, high-technology weapon systems and powerful information management tools. That strength has birthed a new mythology in which precision-guided munitions (PGMs) are perceived to be as mighty as Zeus’ thunderbolts. But what is the real story about the limitations of these wonder weapons?

Although they are called “smart bombs,” PGMs are only as good as the target data provided to their guidance control units. One myth is that satellites and other high-flying sensors that provide the information see everything in detail.

A space shuttle radar-mapping mission flown in February 2000 provided the National Geospatial Agency (then called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency) digital terrain elevation data, level two, covering the Earth from 80 degrees south latitude to 84 degrees north latitude.

The radar data made obsolete topographic line maps, with precision imagery roughly equal to a 1:50,000-scale map. The shuttle’s data could be used to show military maneuvering forces lines of sight, as well as 3D “fly-throughs” for aircrew training.

In 2001, however, air and land forces still fought their way into the Afghan highlands with grossly inaccurate maps. At training ranges in the United States, air and land forces continue to use maps with variation in detail that can result in ordnance falling more than half a mile away from specified aim points.

Provided good quality data, the technologies in PGMs’ guidance control units are capable of breathtaking feats. In 1999, two Block III Tomahawk Land-Attack Missiles (TLAMs) struck the Yugoslavian interior ministry police intelligence office in Pristina, Kosovo. The attack devastated the offices, but left the building largely intact and caused little collateral damage to neighboring civilian structures.

The challenge is finding the target and the specific aim points that will yield desired effects. Randy Bigum, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for strike weapons, said, “Probably the weakest area is knowledge — finding the targets. The find, fix, target and track problem” is a significant challenge for air and land units. “The military is hurting in its ability to discover targets; there is a lot of work to do there.”

On the ground, maneuvering forces are impeded by complex terrain, limiting line of sight and general situational awareness. Air forces too have limited solutions, in their low-density, high-demand intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, such as the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System or satellites.

There are few of these platforms and those brought to a battle operate at high altitudes, covering a wide swath of ground but at too low a level of detail to support maneuvering forces’ close quarters battle.

The Department of Defense and industry are investing in smaller and more persistent unmanned ISR systems, according to Jon Jones, vice president of Raytheon Missile Systems. These systems could work closely with maneuver forces, aiding air strikes and battle damage assessment.

The Price of Precision Strike

How much does all of this cost? At the upper end of the spectrum, a TLAM costs about $874,000. The Navy’s fiscal year 2005 budget request includes more than $256 million for 293 Block IV TLAMs. Raytheon produces the TLAM series.

On average, each Global Positioning System-guided Joint Direct-Attack Munition (JDAM) costs almost $23,000. The Navy’s fiscal 2005 budget request includes $151.2 million for 6,620 JDAM units. Boeing produces the JDAM, which is used by the Air Force as well.

Cost varies widely among types of semi-active laser-guided bomb units (GBU). Per unit, the GBU-10 2,080-pound weapons cost $26,000; the GBU-12 600-pound weapons cost almost $11,000; and the GBU-16 1,090-pound weapons cost $178,000. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are under contract to produce GBU kits.

According to a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), during Operation Allied Force in 1999, Navy ships launched 450 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Air Force B-52 bombers launched 90 conventional air-launched cruise missiles, which cost almost $2 million each. Assuming that each tactical aircraft sortie included an average of two PGMs, CSBA estimated that coalition strike planes released $520 million worth of ordnance of various types during the 11-week campaign over Kosovo.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, 2001 and 2002 in Afghanistan, the Navy launched 100 Tomahawks. Coalition strike planes flew almost 9,000 attack sorties, loosing more than $500 million worth of ordnance.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the $62.6 billion fiscal 2003 supplemental spending request included up to $3.7 billion to replenish weapons expended during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Another myth about PGMs is the infallibility of their hardware. Lasers, for example, are easily disrupted by atmospheric conditions such as clouds, fog and smoke. Laser-guided bombs also are sensitive to the laser’s angle of deflection. If that angle is too steep the pilot cannot achieve an adequate lock and release his weapon.

A laser target designator has a pulse-reflective frequency code; each one is like a fingerprint. There may be four or five different laser target designators in use on the ground at any given time.

Using the code the forward air controller provided him, a pilot punches the code for a particular laser target designator into his weapons computer. Once released, the GBU homes in on the specific code reflecting off a given target. Without accurate frequency code information, the weapons will not find their intended targets.

Some of the limits of GPS as a weapons guidance system emerged during Operation Iraqi Freedom. While GPS-assisted inertial guidance systems are undeterred by the weather, or battlefield obscurants, they are vulnerable to spoofing or jamming. Pentagon researchers are funding the development of secure, anti-jam GPS systems.

Considering warhead technology, the point of diminishing return may have arrived. Increasingly, close air support and certain strike missions call for surgical precision beyond the capabilities of heavy weapons, especially in urban environments.

Programs such as the Small Diameter Bomb are illustrative of the trend toward smaller, less expensive weapons with tighter target-location error — the average radius within which an impact is expected to occur.

Anecdotes, such as the attack on the Yugoslav police headquarters in Pristina, reinforce the general perception of precision strike as a capability akin to surgery. The truth falls wide of that mark, but interpretation depends on one’s perspective.

A 2,000-pound JDAM blasting into the earth 200 meters from its desired point of impact looks like surgery compared with the Ploesti, Romania, oil field raid, Aug. 1, 1943. One hundred seventy-seven U.S. Army Air Force Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers took off from Libya. Their target was the refinery complex that supplied 60 percent of Nazi Germany’s strategic petroleum reserve.

What was supposed to be a surprise, precision raid was tracked from Bulgaria by Axis radar. As the flying boxcars zoomed into their attack runs, Romanian air-defense artillery caught them on the deck. Some of the time-delay fuzed bombs dropped by lead ships in the formation detonated under planes further down the line. The raid cost 54 B-24s and 532 men their lives.

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