Strike Weapon Advances Create Mythology of Infallibility
By HUNTER C. KEETER
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
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