Smart Bombs and Linear Thinking Over Yugoslavia

By J. J. Patterson VI

Enter the myth of the surgical military operation. Politicians would like nothing better than to believe that our superior technology allows us to conduct strikes in which the aggressors (formerly known as the enemy) can be struck with absolute precision, with no risk (except that inherent in everyday military training exercises), and little or no danger to noncombatants. In my limited combat experience, however, there is nothing surgical about a bomb and there is nothing sterile about a military operation. Surgeons heal people; warriors kill them. Anyone who can't stomach that basic truth shouldn't play with weapons.

Given this mindset, here is why it is both faulty and dangerous. First is to debunk the theory that PGMs pose less risk to noncombatants. Precision-guided munitions—whether guided by laser energy, data link, or on-board global positioning system (GPS) receivers—depend upon delicate equipment and a sophisticated manipulation of geometry and tactics to perform as advertised. If any of that equipment fails, if the geometry or tactic was planned poorly or executed incorrectly, or if the air crew supporting the weapon (in the case of a laser-guided bomb [LGB]) is forced to take evasive maneuvers for self-preservation during the weapon time of flight, the weapon goes stupid and a stupid PGM is far less accurate (and far more unpredictable) than a properly delivered dumb bomb.

In a theater with climatological conditions that include frequent and unpredictable cloud cover, the unobstructed line of sight required between a laser-guided bomb, in particular, and its designating source (the releasing aircraft or another aircraft in this type of operation) is far from guaranteed. Since many of the weapons being employed in Yugoslavia are laser-guided bombs, the collateral damage from NATO strikes of late should hardly be surprising.

Are the air crews to blame when precision-guided munitions miss? Rarely, because even when a weapon solution is valid at release, a single unexpected cloud in the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) field-of-view can cause an LGB to hit miles off target in certain delivery profiles. Dumb bombs or unguided weapons whose delivery solution is valid at release, however, will be valid at impact. Never once in my career have Newton's Laws failed me in this assumption. Sure, there are many factors (primarily winds) that may prevent the weapon from hitting the desired aim point, which give it a larger theoretical CEP than a perfectly guided PGM, but perfectly guided PGMs are the stuff of defense contractors' brochures and carefully orchestrated weapons tests, not the reality of chaotic combat.

Want another good reason not to use PGMs with reckless abandon? We don't have that many! They were never intended, at least not doctrinally, to be what we call level-of-effort weapons. They were reserved for those targets that, by virtue of small size, limited vulnerable area, or required penetration, could not be tackled by our real day-to-day weapons: dumb bombs.

Why, you ask, does it matter? Because of a thing called economy of force. PGMs are expensive, which explains why we don't have many. Defense spending isn't what it used to be. Taxpayers can look forward to spending the promised post-Cold War peace dividend replacing our depleted PGM stockpiles.

Many of the PGM targets in Kosovo are worth less in pure cash value than the $12,000 Paveway II laser-guided bomb kits used on the weapons we're expending on them. That is real attrition warfare: outspend the enemy, either in terms of lives or equipment. That is not a strategy espoused by the U.S. military, for obvious reasons. As Pyrrhus said under similar circumstances, "Another such victory, and we will be lost."

Lieutenant Patterson , an F-14 radar intercepts officer, is an instructor at Strike Weapons and Tactics School Atlantic, Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia.



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