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During the Persian Gulf War of 1991 a new class of weapons made its debut and presaged a revolution in military affairs. Although precision-guided munitions (PGMs), ranging from laser-guided bombs to Tomahawk cruise missiles, represented only a fraction of the total ordinance used in Iraq, the effect they had was electric. The television footage of a bomb dropped from more than 6 miles above descending onto its target and hitting with absolute precision was at once fascinating and jarring. The Gulf War demonstrated the power that precision aerial attacks possessed. The accuracy and lethality of air launched munitions during the Gulf war was in sharp contrast to the relative crudity of aerial bombing during World War II.
In Iraq and later in Kosovo, precision-guided munitions (PGM) demonstrated their capabilities. The US waged a type of warfare in these campaigns that was markedly different from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The US is still coming to grips with the implications of the new type of warfare it has released. The development of accurate precision-guided munitions was not revolutionary, but an evolutionary process that took the course of half a century. Today most precision-guided munitions can be classified by their guidance or propulsion systems. Precision-guided munitions affect the military in three areas. First precision-guided munitions have challenged time-honored traditions of mass. Second, precision-guided munitions have unique information needs. Finally, the capabilities of precision-guided munitions have significant implications on acquisitions policy. Regardless of whether or not precision-guided munitions are part of a larger revolution in military, the implications of precision-guided munitions for the US military are significant.
Historical Evolution of Accuracy
Ever since man first threw stones at their fellow men, the elusive goal of killing one’s opponent from a distance, with absolute precision has been a holy grail of warfare. Weapons such as bows and arrows, rifles, and artillery, were all designed for increased lethality at longer distances, with less risk to the operator. PGMs provide just that capability; that is the capability to put ordinance on target with precision at long ranges. Precision has always played a role in warfare. Whether it was marksmanship with bow or rifle, the ability to place a projectile on target contributed greatly to victory. PGMs were designed with just that function in mind.
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During World War II bombs were not very accurate at all. All bombs dropped during that conflict were what we would call today “dumb bombs”. One study of British strategic bombing of Germany indicated that of the Royal Air Force (RAF) bomber crews who had thought they had hit their target, only a third had gotten with five miles. The number of bombs needed to destroy a single target often numbered in the thousands. In order to destroy one eighteen-by-thirty meter building, close to 10,000 bombs would have to be dropped. The circular error probable (CEP), that is the radius from the desired point within which 50% of dropped bombs would likely land, of a Norden bombsight, perhaps the best of such devices deployed in the war, was over a kilometer. As such, rather than a one bomb, one target mentality, the Allies depended on massive fleets of bombers to drop a huge number of bombs, essentially compensating for their lack of precision with sheer volume. That was the only way to be reasonably sure that a target was destroyed. Even still, strategic bombing was limited to relatively large targets.
Although the technology of bombsights gradually improved over time, the fact was that dumb bombs remained rather dumb. During the Korean conflict CEPs remained well over 300m and gradually progressed to 100m by the time of the Vietnam conflict. There were no significant advances in munitions technology until the later stages of the Vietnam conflict. The reduction in CEP was primarily due to better aircraft. The US did have some PGMs in their inventory, such as the Sidewinder heat seeking missile and the Sparrow radar guided missile, however these PGMs were designed for dog fighting, not bombing. Perhaps because nuclear weapons were the driving force behind military policy in that time, precision fell to the wayside in favor of megatons of power.
However this changed in the Vietnam Conflict. Constrained in its use of nukes, Air Force experienced great difficulty in hitting high value targets, such as bridges, power generators, and critical nodes. In one case, the US sent hundreds of sorties and dropped thousands of pounds of ordinance against the Thanh Hoa Bridge. The end result was that very few bombs landed even near the intended target, and that US lost many pilots and aircraft. The dismal failures of airpower spurred on the development of laser-guided bombs (LGB). When applied near the end of the conflict, US forces managed to destroy the bridge with only 4 aircraft and a handful of LGBs. This was in stark contrast to the massive numbers of planes and bombs that previously had failed to significantly damage the bridge.
During the interim period between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Gulf War, neither extensive research and development nor wide scale procurement of laser-guided bombs occurred. Significant monies did go into the development of the Tomahawk cruise missile, the Maverick missile, and other precision-guided missiles. The Gulf War was the stage in which LGBs, Maverick, and Tomahawk all made a name for themselves and the idea of precision strike warfare first entered the public arena. Only 4.3% of total tonnages of munitions dropped were LGBs or other PGMs, however they inflicted approximately 75% of serious damage on Iraqi targets.
Yet the effectiveness of LGBs was several orders of magnitude greater than contemporary dumb bombs, as was clearly demonstrated during the Gulf War. Not all PGMs hit their targets, however the majority did. During the Gulf War, the international news media showed footage of Tomahawk cruise missiles flying errant, with one even wandering into Iran. However these were the exceptions not the rule. PGMs during the gulf war were not 100% accurate, however their accuracy was two orders of magnitude greater than what their World War II counterparts could offer.
During the Kosovo campaign, the effectiveness of PGMs was reaffirmed. Building upon the astonishing success of PGMs during the Gulf War, American forces put a remarkable 97% of ordinance dropped on target. Contributing to this success was the introduction of a second generation of satellite guided PGMs. A debate rages on whether or not the US actually destroyed many Serbian tanks, but that debate is somewhat irrelevant. However, the amount of damage caused was more a reflection of intelligence than it was of the accuracy of PGMs. During the entire air campaign, the US managed to hit almost everything it aimed at, even if they aimed at the wrong thing. US PGMs had evolved to the point where their CEP was well within the blast radius of their payloads. Thus for the majority of PGMs deployed, the US could be reasonably sure that the intended targets would be destroyed. Air power had come a long way from the days of World War II.
Types of PGMs
The Department of Defense defines PGMs as “s weapon that uses a seeker to detect electromagnetic energy reflected from a target or reference point, and through processing, provides guidance commands to a control system that guides the weapon to the target.” All PGMs have onboard systems that allow them to make in-flight corrections to ensure that they arrive at the point where they were aimed at. Unlike dumb munitions, PGMs can make adjustments for unforeseen variables after deployment. This is the key to their accuracy.
The US possesses many different types of PGMs in its military arsenals. Most fall into either of two categories. The most numerous and least expensive PGMs in the US arsenal are guided bombs. There are two primary types of precision-guided bombs. The older and more numerous variety are laser-guided bombs. The newer satellite guided bombs made their debut during the Kosovo air war. Aircraft deliver all the bombs in the US inventory. However not all missiles in the US arsenal are air deployed. US precision missile systems are divided into two classes based upon range and speed. Shorter, faster air to ground missiles are carried by aircraft. Longer ranged and slower cruise missiles can either be deployed from large bombers or from naval or ground launchers.
The laser-guided bomb (LGB) is a relatively simple device, consisting of a computer control group (CCG), guidance canards on the nose sections, and a rear wing assembly to provide lift. As the bomb is dropped, the CCG would home in the target illuminated by the launch platform’s designator, constantly recalculating its course from variables such as wind speed, velocity, and distance. The CCG would then adjust the course of the bomb by using its guidance canards to shift the flight path. This process brought down CEP dramatically. The entire system was attached to a series of already existent dumb bombs, resulting in a low per unit cost of around $25,000. However the LGB was limited in its capabilities in that it did not function well in overcast, dusty, smoky, or debris-ridden environment. LGBs also require a direct line of sight and constant laser illumination, either by the launching aircraft or from nearby ground forces. LGBs were not fire and forget weapons and thus exposed their launch platforms to potential enemy fire. However their increased accuracy compensated for this drawback.
LGBs had their drawbacks, and in the climate of increasingly effective ground based air defenses, these drawbacks could prove fatal to a pilot. The introduction of a second generation of more effective PGMs offer to solve many of the drawbacks of LGBs. Unlike their predecessors which often could not be used in bad weather or could not be fired from far away, or required pilots to guide them to their targets, exposing crews to hostile far, the satellite guided bombs were accurate and were fire and forget. Currently the only satellite-guided bomb in the US inventory is the joint direct attack munition (JDAM).
The JDAM kit is very similar to the LGB kit, in that both have a seeker attachment and a tail assembly. Unlike the LGB, the JDAM is an all weather weapon, unperturbed by harsh climatic conditions. Its guidance is provided by a combination of GPS and INS, resulting in CEPs of only 9.6m. Steering was much like the LGB, however the point of reference was not a laser beam, but a set of GPS coordinates. This type of satellite guidance required no further intervention on the part of the platform after the JDAM had been launched. The fire-and-forget capability allows a platform to deploy the JDAM and move on to other targets or avoid enemy fire. Moreover the GPS system works well regardless of weather and fixes the climatic limitations of older LGMS. Another high point of the JDAM is its relatively low cost. While initial DOD requirements stated that the system had to cost no more than $40,000 per unit, the real cost turned out to be half that amount.
The DOD defines cruise missiles as a “guided missile, the major portion of whose flight path to its target is conducted at approximately constant velocity; depends on the dynamic reaction of air for lift and upon propulsion forces to balance drag.” A cruise missile is basically a robotic airplane with a warhead. Cruise missiles were initially developed to deliver nuclear payloads over long distances. However the capability to hit distant targets with a nuclear warhead could also be used to deliver a conventional payload.
The Tomahawk cruise missile, along with its Air Force counterpart, the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), was the first truly reliable long-range PGM. The Tomahawk family of cruise missile had a range of 1100 km and offered the US extremely long range precision striking power since its adoption in the 1980s. The Tomahawk uses a combination of terrain matching radar and estimated Time of Arrival (TOA) controls to guide it to its target. Newer models supplement these systems with GPS, however Tomahawks were still very accurate without GPS systems. The Tomahawks long range and accuracy made it ideal for long strikes against high-risk targets and in roles where the US does not wish to risk losing a pilot.
The retaliatory strikes against Osama Bin Laden in the Sudan and Afghanistan were orchestrated solely with cruise missiles and did not put a single pilot’s life at risk. Because of its advanced capabilities, the Tomahawk missile is an expensive system, costing approximately $1.4 million per missile. The high expense limits the utility of the weapons somewhat. The Tactical Tomahawk variant, due to be fully operational by 2003, cuts that cost to $575,000 per unit, which will make large usage of Tomahawks more cost effective. A derivative of the Air Force’s ALCM is the CALCM. The CALCM is basically an ALCM with a non-nuclear payload. CALCMs used a navigation system that was very similar to the Tomahawk. It offered much the same capability of the Tomahawk to Air Force bombers such as the B52 Stratofortress, B1B Lancer and the B2 Spirit.
Ground Attack Missiles ,
The US uses a variety of other missiles that do not have the range of most cruise missiles. These missiles fill a variety of roles from attacking enemy ground forces to hitting enemy buildings. The AGM-65 Maverick also proved effective during the Gulf war. With a range of in excess of 25 km and a velocity of 1150 km/hr, the Maverick proved extremely devastating to Iraqi armored vehicles during the Gulf War. The Maverick missile used either TV/electro-optical, imaging infrared, or laser guidance to direct the missile to its target. Many of the images of missiles steering towards their target that were seen on CNN were obtained from Maverick missiles. One weakness of all three variants of the Maverick is that they are of limited use, much like the LGB, in poor weather conditions. Despite these weaknesses, the Maverick helped make US aircraft devastating anti-vehicle platforms.
The US also uses a variety of missiles to attack enemy buildings. The US first used the SLAM-ER missile, however the newer Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) has since replaced it. The JSOW, using the same GPS/INS guidance combination, first entered service in 1998. The JSOW replaced all other medium range missiles with a range between 24-64 km. The Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) is a longer ranged version of the JSOW and uses the same guidance system. The JASSM has a range of over a 100 km and is expected to supplement the Tomahawk cruise missile.
The commonalities in guidance systems between the JASSM, JSOW, and the JDAM are no irregularity. Given the good performance of the JDAM during the Kosovo campaign and the low cost per unit, the GPS/INS combination has proved extremely cost effective. These new missiles will be much cheaper than the missiles they replace, allowing the US to expend more of them for the same price. As a result, satellite guided PGMs will form a larger percentage of US munitions as time progresses.
Ground Based Systems,
While the vast majority of PGMs are either cruise missiles or air delivered weapons, surface units have also been acquiring more capable PGMs. Smaller PGM systems exist for infantry and light vehicles, giving these relatively weak units a high degree of firepower. The new Javelin anti-tank missile will give infantry a fire-and-forget missile that can destroy tanks out to 2,000 meters. The thermal imager that the Javelin system uses for guidance has a secondary capability as a lightweight reconnaissance tool.
The US Army’s Tactical Missile System (ATACM), the new Crusader Gun System, and the Navy’s advanced gun system for the upcoming DD-21 Zumwalt class destroyer, bring precision to ground units and to gun systems. Although precision munitions for guns were available, mainly in the form of Copperhead anti-tank munitions, these munitions were too expensive to gain widespread use. New GPS guided shells for the advanced gun and the Crusader offer much more reliable and cheaper shells. The shells of these weapons act very much like the JDAM after they have been fired and have similar accuracy.
Ground units maintain other precision strike capabilities in the Army’s ATACMs system. However it has a prohibitively high cost of $820,000, which is slightly offset by a range of over 160 km. The ATACMs was available for use in the Gulf War, but not in great enough quantities to have made a quantifiable difference. Early variants of the ATACMs used a guidance and control system (GCS) that functioned similarly to the guidance system of a Tomahawk missile. Upgrades to the missiles will add GPS to make the system more accurate and will extend the range of the missile. Even with the current inventory limited, ATACMs give long range striking capability.
Ground based PGMs are still very limited in number. The procurement process has just begun. Any impact that PGMs have made has been felt first in air power. As ground forces gain more PGMs the effects, they will experience more of the effects of PGMs. However airpower is at the vanguard of PGM usage. Thus learning about the effects of PGMs on airpower gives some indication what effect that PGMs will have on warfare as a whole.
Effect on Principles of Mass
The concept of mass has been an integral part of warfare. It can be best summed up in the immortal words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “Victory goes to him that has the biggest battalions”. This strategy however was not formulated in the precision strike era and has been invalidated to a great degree by PGMs. Going back to the example of the Thanh Hoa Bridge, PGMs allowed US forces to destroy a valuable target with only 4 aircraft. Hundreds of aircraft armed with dumb bombs failed to achieve the objective.
With PGMs, massive amounts or ordinance, delivered by massive numbers of platforms are no longer needed. During the Gulf War, US aircraft equipped with PGMs were able to obtain a target to sortie ratio, that is the number of sorties to destroy a single target, of 2:1. The target to sortie ration of aircraft equipped with dumb bombs was 1:6. Thus aircraft armed with PGM were able to hit 10 times as many targets per mission.
Leaders in the past hedged against the inherent inaccuracy of any weapon system by using more of them. However PGMs eliminates this need to compensate to a large degree. Thus in the era of PGMs, bigger does not mean better. According to Army theorist Robert Leonhard, when one platform, on the average kills less than one opposing platform, then the principle of mass applies and mass equals killing power. However when one platform is able to kill more than one opposing platform, mass has no relation to killing power. In Thanh Hoah Bridge case, each individual aircraft, armed with dumb bombs, had a very low probability of destroying the bridge, and thus the principle of mass applied. However when armed with PGMs, the number of aircraft had little bearing on the outcome of the mission.
Nowadays, instead of concentrating hundreds of aircraft on a target, the US disperses its aircraft to attack hundreds of targets. Using the bomber fleet tactics of World War I with PGMs to strike a target is overkill. When 4 aircraft are able to take out a bridge, sending twenty or thirty does not increase the chances of success very much. The only effects are to provide the enemy with more targets and increase the chances of detection.
The Air Force is ahead of the curve when it comes to PGMs. The Army is still struggling to come to terms with the implications of PGM technology. For the Air Force, it is much simpler. PGMs allow fewer aircraft to strike more targets, thus you send fewer aircraft. When ground units also receive PGMs in large quantities, they too will be able to strike more than one target and still succeed. In a world of PGMs, military leaders have less need to hedge against the probability of a miss, and thus the need for large masses of forces is diminished. AS Eliot Cohen states, “numbers of tanks, airplanes, and soldiers and more elaborate firepower-based measurements of military might were always questionable, but now they say almost nothing about real military effectiveness.”
The Supremacy of Information
Sophisticated PGMs have proven themselves to be able to reliably hit a target. Thus “seeing is tantamount to being able to kill.” If an aircraft is able to detect a target, it will be able to destroy that target. The ability to see, in military terms, is the communication, sensor, and reconnaissance infrastructures. The reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition apparatus behind PGMs contribute as much to the success of PGMs as the weapons themselves. PGMs are still accurate, however without intelligence support PGMs would have very little to shoot at, or worse, could shoot at the wrong thing.
This is exactly what happened during the Kosovo air campaign. The US had picked an inauspicious supply depot in the city of Belgrade. The attack on the depot was a routine affair and the bombs that targeted the facility landed on target. Due to poor intelligence at the CIA, the US did not realize that the building they had targeted was actually the Chinese embassy. Evidently the Chinese had moved, however maps still displayed their old location. CIA analysts had failed to recognize that the embassy had moved and approved the list of targets that the embassy was on. The US faced serious international repercussions for that snafu. The PGMs that targeted the building worked as they were designed. It was the intelligence that failed.
This tragic event illustrates the importance that intelligence has on the effective use of PGMs. The effective application of PGMs requires vast quantities of intelligence. Moreover the “quality of intelligence support is the primary determinant that outcome [i.e. the success of a military operation].” Precision-guided weapons are able to strike targets that previously were out of the question, such as armored bunkers and tanks in fortified positions. PGMs “require intelligence of a sufficiently high order to enable a desired mean point of impact to be established on an individual target.”
Without intelligence to provide targets, PGMs are effectively useless. Dumb bombs still needed intelligence in order to be effective, but they are used en masse to destroy large targets, which were easier to find. PGMs, because of their precision, target much smaller, more individual items. Therefore the intelligence that is needed to select targets for PGMs needs to be that much more discerning. In the context of a precision strike, “targets have to be meticulously chosen and the choreography of a conflict becomes ever more essential.”
This type of choreography was just barely achieved in the Gulf War. The key to the success of the air war in the Gulf War was the US’s air tasking order (ATO) system. Each day a new ATO was issued. In it every single target was outlined, aircraft were assigned to hit those targets, and weapons were chosen. The ATO allowed the US to systematically take out Iraqis target without overlapping. The problem was that Air Force and Naval aviation units did not have compatible communication systems and thus Navy units afloat could not readily get ATOs. The Navy and the Air Force never worked out their communications difficulties and only resolved the problem by flying hard copies to Navy carriers in the Persian Gulf. Precision strike warfare depends not just upon the rapid collection and analysis of intelligence, but also “moving it from place to place, from weapon system to weapon system.” If the situation had been different and naval aviators had not been able use the ATO, the effectiveness of the air campaign would have been jeopardized.
With its vast array of collectors, the US is able to generate a huge amount of data. Without knowing what sensor findings mean, without placing photos in their context and analyzing the results, data is rather worthless. However the surfeit of data is not paralleled by large numbers of people to analyze and make meaning of the raw data. Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper of the US Marine Corps Combat Development Command state that it was one thing to get information coming in, it was another to know what to do with them. Raw data does not become useful until it has been analyzed into meaningful intelligence.
During the Gulf War, the Coalition collected huge amounts of data on Iraqi force movements, locations, and communications between units, however they did not have “enough people or equipment to process the raw data into meaningful depictions of the Iraqi Army”. Analyzed data plays a crucial role in precision strike warfare and thus the shortage of intelligence analysis is a serious problem.
The information revolution will play a significant role in PGMs. Without the information revolution and the large quantities of data that it can produce, the effectives of PGMs would be limited. The large quantities of information that PGMs require indicate that it will be “part of an information revolution.” From the electronics that gather information to the computers and people that process it, PGMs are just the tip of a larger spear.
Platform vs. Munition: A New Acquisitions Policy
The platform “has become less important, while what it carries- sensors, munitions, and electronics of all kinds- has become critical.” However, he US plans to acquire three new expensive airframes over the next few years. The combined cost of the F-22, Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), and the Super Hornet programs will cost well in excess of $100 billion. Yet the benefits of these new airframes are unclear. They will carry the same PGMs carried by current aircraft, yet nothing inherent to these aircraft will make their payloads any more accurate. The Gulf War and Kosovo heralded the primacy of PGMs over the platforms that deliver them. Thus proceeding with these new aircraft acquisition programs requires some rethinking.
The cost of PGMs is one to two orders of magnitude lower than platforms. The JDAM will only cost the Air Force $400 million to develop and $5 billion to fill its inventory, while the JSOW and JASSM will cost less than $1 billion to develop. Munitions provide most of the punch of modern attacks, yet they only cost a fraction of the platforms that deliver them. Investments into PGMs would yield higher benefits for the same cost than new aircraft acquisitions. Advocates of these new programs would argue that these new systems are needed for high-risk situations, such as attacking enemy air defenses or shooting down enemy aircraft. There is some truth to that argument, however it fails to justify spending that much money on new platforms. The US has already shown that it is reluctant to send live pilots in high-risk missions. The current preference is to employ cruise missiles and other long range PGMs. During the initial phases of the Gulf War, Tomahawks were used extensively to attack radar installations and other high-risk targets.(Adams)
PGMs offer a much more expendable option in high-risk situations. In regards to air superiority, the US may need new fighters, however no country has enough advanced fighters to warrant the US completely overhauling its inventory. A few highly advanced aircraft would be adequate to the task of maintaining air dominance. An even more effective way to maintain air dominance would be to develop better air-to-air missiles. These days the vast majority of aerial kills are done by missile. Developing a better munition at the fraction of the cost of a better platform would be the more cost effective investment.
The bulk of the accuracy of any platform these days are due to the munition being fired. Acquisitions need to change from its traditional focus on platforms to munitions. The DOD’s continued prioritization of platforms has lead to a significant shortage of PGMs. During the Gulf War, 91% of all munitions were unguided, like most munitions delivered during World War II. Although the majority of munitions dropped in Kosovo were PGMs, that campaign has diminished PGMs to dangerously low levels.
The rate at which the US is buying PGMs is maddening slow, with most of the arsenal being holdovers from the military build up of the 1980s. PGMs for ground-based units are still highly experimental and have not reached the field yet. PGMs cannot be effective if they are not bought and used. The US needs to prioritize buying PGMs. Even if the US buys all the JSFs and F-22s it wants, without PGMs to arm them with, those aircraft will do very little. However if the US purchases PGMs en masse, the performance improvements in terms of accuracy will be greater across the entire fleet of aircraft. PGMs only cost a fraction of the platforms that deliver them. The PGMs have revolutionized the battlefield, however they have yet to revolution Congress.
No one expected the US to defeat Iraq so convincingly and no expected to see that occur first hand from a precision-guided munition. From 1945-1975, CEP went from 1000m to 100m, while from 1975-2000, CEP has gone from 100m to 10m. Precision-guided munitions have gained accuracy steadily. Although-precision guided munitions followed a rather evolutionary development arc, the revolutionary effects of precision-guided munitions only became apparent after a critical point had been passed. Air launched precision strike capability has redefined the meaning of mass and has marginalized it. In order to get the full benefit from the considerable capabilities of precision-guided munitions, information has become a premium commodity. precision-guided munitions thirst for information indicates that it is an adjunct to a larger information revolution that is occurring within the military. Finally precision-guided munitions have heralded the rise of the equipment, i.e. the avionics, sensors, electronics, and munitions, over the platform. This would imply that investing equipment, especially PGMs would be a more worthwhile investment than purchasing more aircraft. However that is a political decision that must be made by Congress. But the results are in. Precision-guided weaponry has caused a significant impact in American military affairs.
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