Academic journal article Aerospace Power Journal

Precision Aerospace Power, Discrimination, and the Future of War

Academic journal article Aerospace Power Journal

Precision Aerospace Power, Discrimination, and the Future of War

Article excerpt

Editorial Abstract: Over the past decade, the use of precision weapons and advances in intelligence technologies for air and space have drastically revolutionized air warfare, permitting easier differentiation between military and civilian targets and greatly reducing casualties. Colonel Meilinger predicts that the time will come when airpower alone will win wars faster and at less cost in human lives than alternate tactics.

DURING OPERATION ALLIED Force over Kosovo, some observers questioned the tactics of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) airmen. No less worthy an individual than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a fighter pilot himself during Vietnam, wondered aloud as to the morality of flying and bombing above 15,000 feet. McCain and others were concerned that bombing from that "safe" altitude was inherently less accurate and therefore less humane than if the aircraft had flown lower. These critics were wrong. In the vast majority of cases, NATO airmen flew at the optimum altitude for achieving accuracy while also fulfilling NATO's political demands to avoid risk.

This article maintains that air warfare over the past decade has significantly humanized war-if such a phenomenon is possible. Tremendous technological strides in the use of precision weapons, as well as developments in air and space intelligence-gathering tools, have made it far easier to distinguish between military and civilian targets and then effectively strike the military ones. Moreover, such effectiveness has carried with it a marked reduction in risk to the attackers. In short, modern air warfare has reduced casualties among both the attackers and the attacked, thus making it an increasingly efficient, effective, and humane tool of American foreign policy.

True, Gen Wesley Clark, the NATO commander, directed airmen to take all precautions to limit friendly losses. Clark realized that the fragility of the NATO alliance during Allied Force necessitated such risk avoidance. Enemy missiles, antiaircraft artillery, and small-arms fire can be extremely deadly at low altitude.1 As a consequence, strike aircraft were directed to stay above 15,000 feet when deploying their weapons. An important question is whether or not this requirement significantly and adversely affected accuracy. In the vast majority of cases, it did not. Before proceeding, a brief discussion of new air weapons and their characteristics would prove helpful.

Precision-guided munitions (PGM) have improved accuracy by orders of magnitude. These air-launched weapons are equipped with adjustable fins that allow them to alter course in flight and home in on their targets. PGMs have several different types of guidance systems-laser homing, inertial, optical or infrared imaging, or satellite signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS). These various guidance systems have strengths and weaknesses. For example, laser-guided bombs are highly accurate, but because lasers cannot penetrate clouds, one cannot use them when bad weather obscures the target. The most successful new PGMs employed over Kosovo used GPS guidance. These relatively inexpensive but highly accurate weapons in some cases allow a standoff capability-one can launch them several miles from the target-- thereby lowering the risk to the delivery aircraft and crew. Perfect accuracy is not guaranteed-failure of the guidance system or aircraft equipment, as well as aircrew error, means that accidents still happen-but current PGMs have an accuracy usually measured in feet.

Although used in Vietnam, PGMs truly came into their own during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Television networks showed cockpit videos detailing the accuracy of these weapons so frequently that they became one of the defining images of that war: the public saw bombs going down chimneys, through doors, and into specific windows. Seemingly, "air-shaft accuracy" had become so routine that everyone expected it. When American aircraft struck Serbian targets in Bosnia in 1995 and Serbia/Kosovo in 1999, they used PGMs almost exclusively in populated areas. …

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