Wonder Weapons Don't Win Wars
Cool high-tech devices have changed the face of modern warfare but not its nature.
The end of the Cold War roughly coincided with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait—and gave U.S. Air Force strategists a more ambitious idea: that these new weapons might revive the age-old dream of a war fought and won almost entirely from the air.
Two Air Force colonels, David Deptula and John Warden, devised a list of 84 targets in Iraq, mostly in Baghdad—the "key nodes" that held together Saddam's military command. Destroy those nodes (and this could be done with the new "smart bombs," as the accurate munitions were called), and Saddam's regime would collapse like the proverbial house of cards.
The targets were destroyed, but the regime didn't fold.
At the time, we didn't have many of these smart bombs; they were expensive ($250,000 apiece), and they weren't so smart. They were guided by laser beams, which were refracted or dissipated by smoke and dust, causing the weapon to veer off. * Through the monthlong air campaign of Desert Storm, only 9 percent of the bombs dropped were smart bombs. Toward the end, B-52s flew in and carpet-bombed Iraqi positions in the field with old-fashioned dumb bombs. And even then, the war wasn't won until about 500,000 ground troops, who had been mobilizing for months, pushed the Iraqi army back across the border.
By the end of the 1990s, some truly smart bombs came into the arsenal. They were called JDAMs (for Joint Direct Attack Munitions); they came in kits that could be attached to the fins of any bomb in the fleet; they cost only $25,000 apiece; they were guided to their targets by GPS signals (impervious to smoke and weather)—and they were joined with a new generation of RPVs called Predator drones.
Wohlstetter's vision was realized.
We have all since heard the story of the special-ops officer, riding horseback outside the Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif, on Oct. 15, 2001. Through his night-vision binoculars, he spotted a regiment of Taliban fighters across the way. He pulled out a laptop computer, typed the enemy's coordinates, and pushed the "send" button. A Predator drone, hovering 20,000 feet overhead, received the message and beamed it to Prince Sultan Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia. There, a U.S. officer sent back a signal, directing the Predator to fly over the Taliban. A video camera in the drone's belly streamed the image back to the base. The officer then ordered a B-52 pilot, patrolling nearby, to attack the target. En route, the pilot punched the target's coordinates into the GPS receiver of one of his JDAMs. He fired the JDAM, which darted toward the target, exploded, and killed the Taliban.
The time that elapsed—from the special-ops officer punching in the data to the pilot dropping the bomb—was 19 minutes. A decade earlier, the sequence would have taken three days. A few years before that, it could not have occurred at all.
Over the next few weeks, the sequence was replicated with variations all across Afghanistan—phenomenally accurate airstrikes, followed by offensives on the ground by anti-Taliban insurgents, assisted by small teams of U.S. soldiers, Marines, Green Berets, or CIA advisers.
Five weeks after the war began, the Taliban fled Kabul and U.S. allies moved in. By the end of the year, a new interim government led by Hamid Karzai took office with international support.
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 an Air Force drone pilot by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.