During the 1991 Gulf War, much of the media attention was garnered by the then rather nascent U.S. capability to deliver precision-guided munitions. Only about 7.5 percent of all the ordnance used by the Coalition during that conflict could be classified as precise. Since then, from the conflict in the Balkans when the B-2 bomber with GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) was first employed, up to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in which some three quarters of all air-delivered munitions were precision-guided, the trend has been obvious. The bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been nearly 100 percent precision-guided. This conflict saw the first employment of the F-22 which can carry not only 1,000 and 2,000 lb. JDAMs but the extremely accurate 250 lb. Small Diameter bomb with very low collateral damage. The F-22 also is able to use its advanced synthetic aperture radar to refine the accuracy of its weapons placement.
The demand on the U.S. military for precision delivery of munitions will only increase as the weapons themselves get smaller, adversaries use dispersal, camouflage and co-location to limit the effectiveness of air attacks, and sensitivities to collateral damage become even more pronounced. U.S. air planners have to go through an elaborate process of matching weapons to targets, evaluating the potential for collateral damage and getting the lawyers to approve the strike plan before it can launch a mission.
Not surprisingly, greater precision comes with significant costs over and above those associated with the smart bomb and its delivery platform. Finding, tracking, fixing and evaluating potential targets places tremendous demand on U.S. ISR systems. There have been numerous press reports that the current aerial campaign is being hampered by a lack of adequate intelligence and targeting information. This is one of the reasons that the Obama Administration has relaxed the policy on limiting collateral damage with respect to airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. U.S. ISR assets are being taxed to the limits not just by the fight against ISIS but also by the need to monitor Russian movements in Eastern Europe, Chinese military activities, North Korean nuclear programs and a host of other crises. In order to save money, the Pentagon is proposing to retire the entire U-2 fleet, this nation’s premier high-altitude, long-range ISR platform, even though a true replacement is years away from being fielded.
Another cost of precision warfare is the need for a large, well trained cadre of targeteers, the professionals that know how to turn data about enemy forces and infrastructure, their locations and the surrounding environment into an executable strike plan. This is a unique U.S. asymmetric strength. Yet, while the use by the U.S. military of precision weapons has gone up two or three orders of magnitude since the end of the Cold War, the number of Air Force targeteers declined by more than half. Only one of the regional combatant commands has sufficient targeteers in their organization to put together a serious strike plan. Instead, they rely heavily on the Air Force’s Targeting Center (AFTC), the brainchild of former Air Force ISR chief, Lieutenant General David Deptula. The AFTC uses all-source information and intimate knowledge of weapons systems and platforms to put together target plans that best match means to ends with the greatest care for collateral damage. A senior Air Force component commander told me that had it not been for the support provided by the AFTC, NATO could not have successfully carried out the Libyan operation back in 2011.
In the face of ongoing budget woes, the Air Force was considering cutting back on support for the AFTC or even closing it down. Targeting is a manpower intensive activity and that alone can be sufficient to put even a unique military asset in the budget cutters crosshairs. Fortunately given the current security environment, cooler thinking prevailed and the Air Force has actually increased its support for the AFTC.
It is clear that as weapons become even more sophisticated and adversaries smarter about avoiding our preference for using precision-guided munitions, the demands for more accurate and careful targeting will only increase further. This means that the military will need more and better ISR capabilities, both on the strike aircraft and on other platforms. It also means investing in the people and supporting systems to allow the U.S. military to increase its capacity to generate accurate targets and strike plans and to do so more rapidly.
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