The first precision strike dominated conflict, Desert Storm, occurred more than two decades ago. Since then, all conflicts in which the United States has engaged and those of other advanced military nations such as Israel have been marked by the extensive, even overwhelming, application of precision strike capabilities. In fact, the U.S. military worked for decades to achieve its current level of capability which can be described simply as “one aircraft, one weapon, one target.”
In reality, precision strike is not based on a single technology, system or capability. Rather it reflects a number of key attributes. Advances in each of these capabilities have raised precision strike from the tactical level of one plane and one weapon to the operational and even strategic levels of war. This is a primary reason why the Air Force, in particular, refers to global precision strike as one of its core functions.
There are three key attributes to today’s U.S. precision strike regime:
Extremely accurate navigation and near-perfect weapons delivery. Even before the introduction of precision weapons, the ability of military aircraft to reliably find their way to the target constituted a significant step forward in the ability to conduct strike operations. In addition, modern precision strike operations still can be very complex affairs, requiring the coordination of a host of enablers including ISR platforms, electronic warfare and air defense suppression assets as well as strike aircraft and aerial refueling tankers. Knowing with precision the location and flight paths of all aircraft involved in a mission has been an important feature of modern strike operations.
Accurate weapons delivery has been the Holy Grail of offensive air operations for many decades. Indeed, some analysts have suggested that fully realized, that is supported by the appropriate ISR and networking, precision strike would constitute a revolution in military affairs. Today, precision weapons delivery means essentially zero delivery error (CEP). Over the past several decades, weapons guidance technology has evolved to reduce CEPs and allow for the employment of smaller, lower weight weapons with equal or greater lethality. The availability of smaller yield weapons is significant both in terms of limiting collateral damage as well as to enhancing the capability of individual platforms. In the near-future, virtually all U.S. bombers and tactical aircraft including the F-16, F-18, F-22 and F-35 will be configured to carry multiple 250lb Small Diameter Bombs each with a range, depending on the version, of up to 40 miles.
SEAD and Stealth. The Navy and Air Force have long employed a combination of electronic warfare and kinetic means to conduct Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses missions. Today, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps maintain a dedicated fleet of electronic warfare aircraft based on the EA-18G Growler. U.S. strike campaigns as far back as Desert Storm have generally begun with large scale cruise missile strikes intended to destroy critical air defense sensors and command and control systems. In addition, a portion of the tactical fighter fleet — F-15Es, 16s and F/A-18s — some equipped with the High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, can conduct SEAD missions.
Another approach to countering air defenses, generally employed in combination with SEAD activities, is stealth. While not rendering an aircraft invisible, stealth, signature reduction has allowed the U.S. military to conduct a single, integrated air campaign rather than sequential operations that require suppression of hostile air defenses prior to strike on other targets. The presence of even a handful of stealth aircraft has had an impact on operations that far exceed their numbers.
Today, the U.S. deploys a very small number of stealth aircraft. The current program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will increase the presence of U.S. combat aircraft fleet with significant stealth features to nearly 70 percent by 2035. The percentage may be even higher if force structure reductions result in a smaller but “all stealth” tactical fighter force.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Advances in ISR, intelligence processing, exploitation and dissemination and dynamic data sharing has proven a major contributor to the revolution in precision strike. Precision weapons lose their utility in the absence of high quality target information. The current ISR challenge is to find, fix and track mobile targets. In addition, the miniaturization of sensors now enables single platforms to perform the entire kill chain process. So too is the ability of intelligence assets to accurately identify a target and characterize its location in three dimensions (what is termed mensuration).
The evolution of the modern precision strike regime has been driven by a dynamic inter-relationship between the increasing precision of modern weapons and improvements in the character and quality of ISR. More precise weapons require more accurate ISR and the ability of ISR assets to find, fix, characterize and track even small and highly mobile targets has enabled the development of even more precise weapons.
Other capabilities play in the maintenance of dominant precision strike. These include connectivity to ensure that ISR and battle space information is collected, moved and shared, reach or the ability to successfully access targets at all ranges and the appropriate concepts of operations to successfully employ a precision strike force.
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