Even our best smart bombs will kill civilians—and won't topple Saddam.

Military analysis.
Oct. 17 2002 6:18 PM

How Smart Are Our Smart Bombs?

They're better than ever, but they still won't topple Saddam.

In the debate over going to war with Iraq, hawks and doves tend to share one tenet—that the war itself will be a cakewalk. Under the ferocious precision of U.S. airstrikes, Saddam will crumble in a matter of days, perhaps hours. This belief might turn out to be true. But no one should count on it, and it's worth going over a little history to see how blithe optimism might turn sour. The basic premise of the insta-victory scenario is that American bombs have become a lot more accurate in recent years. In military circles, one hears a great deal of talk about "key nodes" of the Iraqi "command-control network." Destroy those nodes—a task that our superaccurate bombs make easier than ever—and Saddam's whole war machine falls like the proverbial house of cards.

There's a great temptation to believe this. Nobody wants to send soldiers into the streets of Baghdad (population: 5 million) to wage door-to-door combat. The U.S. military has little experience with urban warfare, and while the Iraqis don't have much either, they at least know the alleyways and sniper's nests.

The belief in a quick victory seems credible because the scenario's premise is true. As demonstrated in Afghanistan, our new "smart bombs" really are as smart—as accurate—as the giddiest technophile might imagine. I say this as a reporter who was very skeptical of smart bombs during the last Iraqi war, 11 years ago, and remained skeptical in subsequent conflicts until now. Skepticism was warranted, as we all learned from even the official "bomb-damage assessments" following Operation Desert Storm. It turned out that the smart bombs weren't as smart as they'd seemed on the TV newscasts. Those nifty shots of a bomb slicing an Iraqi bridge in two or darting straight down the chimney of Iraq's military-intelligence headquarters were the exceptions, not the rule. The problem was the technology. The smart bombs of the '90s were laser-guided. An air crewman flashed a laser beam on a target. The bomb followed the beam. If the beam wavered, or if some clouds, dust, or smoke got in the way, the bomb would go astray.

The new smart bombs are guided to their targets by Global Positioning Satellites, in much the same way that the GPS system in your new car guides you to your destination. The pilot punches the target's coordinates into the bomb's GPS receiver. The GPS tells the bomb where it is, where it's going, and where it's supposed to go, until it arrives on target—plus or minus three feet, on average (an astonishing level of precision)—and explodes. Dust, smoke, and weather don't enter into the equation. This new weapon is called JDAM, for Joint Direct Attack Munition. It's a technology kit that can be attached to a wide variety of existing bombs. During Desert Storm, a laser-guided bomb cost between $120,000 and $240,000. A JDAM kit costs $20,000. In Desert Storm, just 3 percent of the bombs dropped were smart bombs. In Kosovo, where JDAMs were first used (though to a very limited degree), the figure rose to 30 percent. In Afghanistan, it approached 70 percent. Even my old sources in the Pentagon, the ones who used to look at smart bombs with cocked eyebrows, had to admit this new model broke the mold. It actually worked the way it's supposed to work. (If the GPS signals are somehow disrupted, JDAM's inertial guidance system can still get the bomb to within 10 feet of the "aim point," close enough by any measure.)

Another breakthrough in Afghanistan was the accelerated flow of information. A special forces officer spotted a Taliban target, typed out the coordinates on a laptop, transmitted the information to an overhead drone, which relayed it to a commander back in Saudi Arabia, who sent it to a bomber pilot, who programmed a JDAM's GPS receiver and dropped the bomb. The total time lapsed: 19 minutes. In the Gulf War, assigning a particular bomb to a particular target took three days.

All that said, hitting targets is one thing, winning a war is another. The two are related, but not quite synonymous. Which leads us back to the notion of hitting the "key nodes" of Saddam's command-control, then watching his regime unravel. There is nothing new about this scheme. The first few nights of Desert Storm—when F-111, F-15, and F-117 Stealth planes dropped hundreds of smart bombs on Iraq's communication centers, command posts, microwave relays, and leadership bunkers—were all about destroying the key nodes, in the hopes that Saddam would be cut off from his troops, lose control of his government, and be overthrown or killed. Yet, according to the official U.S. Air Force analysis of the air war, Iraq's communication system never collapsed. Despite "the lethality and precision of the attacks," the study concluded, the "system turned out to be more redundant and more able to reconstitute itself than first thought. Fiber-optic networks and computerized switching systems proved particularly tough to put out of action." (By the way, the author of that study was Eliot A. Cohen, whose new book, Supreme Command, was recently seen tucked under President Bush's arm.) Command-control—the communications systems that allow commanders to stay in contact with their troops—is a tough target. As a U.S. Air Force Intelligence officer told me at the time, "It's a telephone on a desk." Now, it's a cell phone in a pocket—a more amorphous target still.

If victory doesn't come quickly in this next war, it may not come cleanly, either. Even the new super-smart bombs miss sometimes—JDAMs land within three feet of their targets, on average, and in a crowded city, they don't have to miss by very much—or, in some cases, at all—to kill a lot of civilians.

One remarkable statistic to come out of the 1999 air war against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was that, ton for ton, the bombing killed civilians at the same rate as the air campaigns over Vietnam a quarter-century earlier. The calculation seemed absurd at first glance. After all, the bombs dropped on Yugoslavia were far more accurate. But that new accuracy emboldened commanders to aim more bombs at targets that required accuracy—for example, a particular building in downtown Belgrade. And since some of those bombs missed, more civilians died than anyone had predicted. Over half the bombs in that war were dropped on Belgrade and other cities. It's likely that almost all the bombs in the next war will be dropped on Baghdad, with similar consequences.

There are differences about this next war, if there is a war. Saddam can't be very secure in his rule just now. His officers must be terrified of fighting the U.S. military again, given the beating they were dealt last time out. Then again, Clinton thought Milosevic would cave after a week of bombardment, and it took more than two months. Nothing is certain. Regimes, especially heavily armed ones, tend to be more resilient than they appear. War is never a cakewalk.