by Stephen Bryen*
Washington has ramped up criticism of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria, complaining that the Russians are using “dumb” bombs when America uses “smart” bombs almost exclusively. Is Washington right, and are the Russians just trying to wipe out civilians and cause overall chaos in “enemy” areas? The actual truth is, sometimes “smart” bombs are smart, but not always.
Smart bombs came into fashion in the 1970s and really gained momentun in the 1980’s and 1990’s. One of the earliest “smart” munitions was the Maverick (AGM-65) that first became operational in 1972. Maverick was a true air launched missile; not really a bomb. It had rocket propulsion and a TV guidance system. While a good weapon, Maverick is expensive and can be tricky to use. But more recent smart bombs such as the JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) is actually a kit that attaches to a standard “iron” bomb. JDAM changes the iron “dumb” bomb into one that can have a target programmed into it.
The JDAM kit essentially steers the “dumb” bomb to its target. There are a number of versions of the JDAM, some that use a ring laser gyro and GPS and others that add a laser sensor so the JDAM can be used to hit moving targets. The laser element of the JDAM was developed by Elbit in Israel; the JDAM kit is by Boeing.
There are a number of other solutions out there, such as the small diameter bomb (GBU-39). But they all share three characteristics:
1. they are intended to make conventional bombing more precise by guiding the bomb to a target;
2. they extend the range a bomb can be steered to a target and the means of striking the target (either horizontally or vertically)
3. they are intended to reduce collateral damage and minimize civilian casualties.
The US hardly fields any plain “dumb” bombs anymore. A precision bomb requires far less ordnance to be directed at a target, so there is less risk to pilots and equipment, better stand-off ranges (away from some air defense systems), and more certainty of results. The trend also is to smaller bombs; instead of 2,000 pound blockbusters with JDAM kits, nowadays 250 and 500 pound bombs are used.
But not everything about “precision” bombs is good news.
To begin with, if targets are improperly selected, no amount of precision will help. If the bomb is directed at a hospital, a school, a mosque, or someone’s home; or aimed at the wrong vehicle on the road, then the results will be bad and often horrific. Thus accurate targeting information is one of the most important combat requirements.
The US generally is pretty good at selecting targets; but sometimes we foul up. Taking out a hospital in Afghanistan is one example of getting it terribly wrong. There are, unfortunately, plenty of others.
Intelligence gathering often involves many assets; overhead drones, satellite surveillance, on the ground target designation. The probability of hitting the target and avoiding collateral damage and civilian casualties is something commanders must evaluate. In relaxed scenarios where there is no urgent demand to necessarily strike you get one kind of outcome, but in intense combat situations it is far more difficult because combat urgency must be factored in. There have been countless complaints form the field that the restrictions on target selection have not only led to lost opportunities, but that our troops or other friendly forces have been endangered when Washington overrules a field request to target the enemy. In the past, local commanders made battle decisions. But that is no longer the case when satellites and modern communications at the speed of light lets a commander in the CONUS or eleswhere far from the battle field make his evaluations and follow through on decisions. Even drones can fly thousands of miles and send back vivid imagery of possible targets of opportunity.
The US has had a lot of practice in recent years in carrying out the coordination needed to link command and control to the pilot and then to the target –think of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia; think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen; Libya, Syria and Serbia, Kosovo; think of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and many more. In short, more than 45 years of precision strike with increasingly more assets to bring to the fight. Compare this to the Russians. The Russians carried out air attacks in Afghanistan, Georgia and now are carrying out operations in Syria. Otherwise they have provided support to their clients, but have far less actual combat experience. It shows.
While the Russians have smart weapons, they probably don’t have very many. Moreover, they barely have the integration of systems that characterize US air power, which some of our allies (UK, France, Germany and Italy) and friends (Israel) have demonstrated too. Others, such as Saudi Arabia, have shown that, despite being well equipped with up to date American and European equipment, are not too good at using it: hence heavy civilian casualties from bombing in Yemen.
In part, therefore, the US complaint about the Russians should be applied equally to the Saudis. But of course it is not. In fact, the US has most complained about Israel even though their standards for precision strike and minimal casualties exceeds the US standard by a considerable margin.
But there is another factor that makes precision strike a little less of a solution. That is when the enemy embeds itself in densely populated areas. If bombing (as opposed to using ground forces) is taken as an option, being able to operate an air campaign against targets in these dense population areas is extremely tricky. The targets move around, hide in homes and public buildings or under bridges. They are hard to ferret out. At least as things now stand, there is no high tech solution that avoids collateral damage and civilian casualties. Indeed, as Hamas demonstrated in Gaza, human shields are a tactic to make bombing difficult or impossible.
This leaves a very mixed bag regarding operations in Syria. US policy against ISIS has, to say the least, been minimal even when the targets have been easy and relatively exposed. This is a Washington decision that more illustrates a reluctance to get real about the ISIS war, than any serious effort to take out an enemy. For their part, the Russians are trying to help the Syrian regime retake lost ground and they have not hesitated to hit the “enemy” hard. Sometimes this is ISIS, but more often it has been opposition forces, mainly Islamic, supported by Saudi Arabia and the US (especially the CIA). This has angered Washington that thought it was going to get regime change and make its clients happy. Nowadays thanks to the Russians, the US clients are not happy.
Insofar as precision bombing is concerned, smart weapons are important but in these kinds of conflicts their usefulness may be overrated. In any case the real complaint about the Russian operation is that it is ruthless and, so far, winning.
*Dr. Stephen Bryen is the author of the new book, Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers).