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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Chicago Tribune Company March 20, 2003

Higher-tech bombs still not perfect; Improvements cut friendly-fire risk

By Douglas Holt, Tribune staff reporter.

The 2,000-pound, precision-guided bomb, dropped from a B-52 cruising over Afghanistan in December 2001, squarely hit the target. The only trouble was, a faulty battery or human error gave the bomb the wrong coordinates, directing its fearsome blast atop American and allied forces.

"He gave the wrong grid, and we got bombed," said Special Forces Capt. Jason Amerine, referring to a combat controller who was trying to use a global positioning system to direct the bomb to a Taliban hideout.

It was the deadliest "friendly fire" incident of the Afghanistan war, killing three Americans and, according to Amerine, 23 friendly Afghan fighters.

And at the beginning of a new war against Iraq, the accident--which remains under investigation--serves as a powerful reminder of the limitations of high-tech weaponry. As the U.S. military seeks to destroy Iraqi defenses without leveling cities and infrastructure, commanders will be relying heavily on precision-guided bombs for the pinpoint accuracy they were intended to have.

But at the Pentagon on Wednesday, a top war strategist said a certain percentage of bombs--even those guided by lasers or satellite signals--will probably go off course.

Another senior official said it is not unusual for 1 in 10 precision bombs to veer off course. Reasons for such errors include fins, the airfoil that provides directional stability, that fail to deploy; a guidance system power failure; or an intelligence error, such as when U.S. bombers in 1999 accidentally struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Outdated maps showed it as a Serbian military building.

"When you employ military force, collateral damage is going to incur, unintended damage is going to incur and, unfortunately, and as tragic as it might be, civilians ... who are not targets, will be killed in the operation," said Col. Gary Crowder, the chief of strategy at Air Combat Command, which is responsible for all Air Force warplanes.

In Afghanistan, the concept of troops on the ground dialing in bombing targets was tried in combat for the first time. Troops this time will have the benefit of better training, experience and equipment to minimize friendly fire, accidentally bombing non-military buildings and creating civilian casualties, he said.

"Many of them got that equipment for the first time when they were out in the field," he said. "The Air Combat Command has spent literally millions of dollars over the last year to get the best possible equipment to our combat controllers in the field so that they have the opportunity not only to have the best equipment but to train with that equipment well prior. So we have worked on solutions to those challenges."

Military planners say war in Iraq will showcase a revolution in bombing accuracy and efficiency that has been building for decades.

In the Persian Gulf war, U.S. warplanes attacked Iraq's air defenses in sequence--early-warning radar, followed by air defense operations bunkers then airfields and surface-to-air missile sites--before targeting Iraqi leadership palaces and command centers.

This time, with many more accurate weapons available and years of intelligence work that has developed a list of 50,000 or more potential targets in Iraq, the leadership may be attacked about the same time that communications, transportation and air defense targets are bombed, Crowder said.

In fact, the cruise missile and air attacks that took place Thursday morning in Baghdad were aimed at elements of Iraqi leadership.

"You could actually now attack the enemy as a system and work toward trying to achieve systemic collapse," Crowder said.

In 1991, Desert Storm was considered revolutionary. More targets were struck in the opening day of the war than by U.S. bombers in 1942 and 1943 combined.

Now, U.S. warplanes may drop 10 times as many precision bombs and missiles when the full-scale air campaign begins in Iraq as it did to open the 1991 war.

Only 300 to 400 precision weapons were dropped in the 1991 war's first day, suggesting that at least 3,000 could obliterate their targets in the first waves this time.

The goal is a quick, decisive victory.

"I think the effect that we are trying to create is to make it so apparent and so overwhelming at the very outset of potential military operations that the adversary quickly realizes that there is no real alternative here other than to fight and die or to give up," Crowder said.

Nonetheless, an extraordinary amount of effort has gone into selecting targets of military value while attempting to mitigate the risks of civilian casualties or damage, Pentagon officials said.

Military strikes will try to avoid schools, mosques, civil buildings that have no military value and non-governmental aid agencies, officials said.

But often the line between a military target and a civilian facility gets blurred, such as a television station Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might use to communicate with his people. If a weapons systems is placed in a residential neighborhood, military planners might seek to do the job with a Hellfire missile with a 40-pound warhead rather than a 2,000-pound bomb.

Computer software, including one known as "bug splat," helps planners predict the butterfly-shaped zone where a bomb's shrapnel is likely to go.

But sometimes the calculations predict some civilians are likely to be injured or die.

"The reality is that these are very, very tough decisions that the senior military leadership has to make," Crowder said. "There is no magic number that says five [civilian casualties] is acceptable, six is not."


GRAPHIC: GRAPHICGRAPHIC: Spy satellites play vital role in selecting targets; Satellite imagery capabilities; Sources: Rand Corp; Gyre.org; Prof. Bill Artel, U.S. Navy War College; Space Imaging; Globalsecurity.org; "The Technological Arsenal"; Federation of American Scientists; Jonathan's Space Report.; Chicago Tribune/Keith Claxton, David Constantine, Rick Tuma.; - See microfilm for complete graphic.

Copyright 2003, The Chicago Tribune Company