Eyes Over Baghdad
Our secret street-fighting weapon.
Some TV footage shown early this morning suggests that the battle for Baghdad might be easier than expected. The live video stream showed a U.S. drone flying over the Iraqi capital in clear daylight. This picture was significant in two ways.
First, it provides a clue, among many other clues these past few days, that Saddam Hussein's regime exists no longer. The key clue here is the very fact that a drone can fly over Baghdad at all. The drones we're using fly very low and very slowly; they are easy to shoot down. Yet no Iraqi soldier even tried to shoot this one down. We know that Iraqi soldiers have anti-aircraft artillery; they have turned some of them horizontally and used them as ground artillery against U.S. tanks. A fair inference is that no one shot down this drone because no one gave orders to shoot it down—which likely means no command structure existed to give such orders. Organized resistance seems to have crumbled, and, if that's the case, so has the regime, in any meaningful sense of that word.
The second significant thing about this drone (and, presumably, many more drones like it) is that, if American soldiers and Marines must go on battling against scattered resistance door to door and block by block, they will retain a good bit of their technological advantage, which many have assumed would be nullified in the dense chaos of urban warfare.
There are several kinds of drones in the U.S. arsenal—the Hunter, the Predator, the Global Hawk—but, basically, they all work in the same way. They are pilotless aerial vehicles that can loiter in the sky for several hours and digitally transmit high-resolution, real-time images of the area below. U.S. commanders can view these images, back at headquarters in Saudi Arabia or Qatar (or Washington, D.C., for that matter). During last year's war in Afghanistan, the commanders viewing the drones' images would tell U.S. pilots the precise location of a target; the pilots would program the coordinates into their smart bombs, fly to the area, and drop the bombs. The average time between spotting the target and dropping the bomb: about 20 minutes.
In urban warfare, commanders could tell their officers on the street where Iraqi soldiers and Fedayeen guerrillas are hiding—which rooftops they're crouched on, which windows they've been firing from, which alleyways are clear and which are death traps. Without the drones, the Iraqis would enjoy a geographic advantage; with the drones, this advantage is, while not entirely overwhelmed, considerably stripped away. The drones also allow the U.S. forces to maneuver in coordination, to retain the initiative, and to achieve tactical surprise—none of which are Iraqi forces able to do any longer.
Where U.S. ground troops can't maneuver to exploit this intelligence, air forces can come into play and, so it seems, in a way that might cause less "collateral damage" than many had feared. Planes are reportedly being loaded with laser-guided bombs instead of GPS satellite-guided bombs. There are two reasons these older-style laser bombs are the weapons of choice in a city crowded with civilians. First, their explosive power is lighter—500 pounds, as opposed to the GPS bombs' 1,000 to 2,000 pounds—meaning the radius of the blast will be much shorter. Second, when conditions are just right, laser-guided bombs are more accurate—they land on average within 10 feet of their target, as opposed to GPS bombs' 30 feet. (More can go wrong with laser-guided bombs: The laser beam can be deflected by smoke, fire, dust, rain. Then again, a human being is monitoring the laser and can tell whether the beam is hitting the target properly before releasing the bomb to follow the beam's path. Things can go wrong with a GPS bomb, as well: For example, the pilot can punch in the wrong coordinates, which happened a few times in Afghanistan.)
Some planes will also carry smart bombs filled with concrete. If a building is filled with Fedayeen, a concrete-bomb could flatten the building without damaging the surrounding buildings: no blast, no shrapnel, nothing more than maybe a few shards of concrete. (These bombs were developed with little fanfare in the late 1990s, after the Iraqis started parking their air-defense batteries in residential neighborhoods to keep U.S. bombers from attacking them while enforcing the no-fly-zone rules. The idea worked: The concrete bombs smashed the batteries while leaving nearby houses intact.)
None of these developments mean that the battle of Baghdad will be as short or easy as, say, the battle for the Baghdad Airport. But they do mean that it will almost certainly not be a replay of the battles of Berlin, Stalingrad, Grozny—or possibly even Basra.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Predator drone by Ho/Reuters.