You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Smart Bomb

Because the Bush administration is fighting Al Qaeda and threatening Iraq simultaneously, it's easy to lump both together: Indeed, George W. Bush's State of the Union address managed to confuse on just that point. But the Iraq problem exists independent of September 11: It is that Saddam Hussein is acquiring atomic, chemical, and biological weapons. Baghdad has now had several years, without inspection or bombardment--but with hard cash from the relaxation of the U.N. oil embargo--in which to manufacture the means of mass murder. Decisive action must be taken before Saddam uses what he has acquired. This would be the case even if September 11 had never occurred.

The current Iraq debate basically pits the timid--who want U.N. resolutions, scolding, and bluster--against the interventionists, including this magazine, who believe that the Iraqi National Congress can become the next Northern Alliance. All concerned favor "toppling Saddam," as though that involved pushing a button. But short of invasion, there is no sure way of lifting the darkness that covers Iraq. There is, however, an option that is straightforward, simple, and fast: a determined aerial attack--not against Iraq generally, but against its facilities for weapons of mass destruction. No national infrastructure would be harmed, so as not to worsen the suffering of the oppressed Iraqi people. Weapons sites alone would be targeted, in a campaign that continued as long as necessary until Iraq's weapons manufacturing facilities were windblown rubble. To do so, the United States would employ a new form of aerial war. Overlooked in analysis of events in Afghanistan is that American forces are now capable of an unprecedented type of air attack: one in which nearly every bomb hits its target (even if, tragically, some targets are wrongly chosen) and the majority of munitions are released not by strike aircraft flying low in harm's way, but by bombers at high altitude, far beyond the range of most ground weapons.

This new form of air war--which does not yet have a name, in part because the technology that underlies it has taken even the military by surprise--means American flying forces can do far more against ground targets than they could during the Gulf war. An air campaign using new technology and tactics to destroy Iraqi weapons facilities might occur with few, if any, U.S. casualties and with little risk to civilians, unless they work at weapons sites. Perhaps such a campaign would inspire the overthrow of Iraqi tyranny; perhaps not. Either way it would make the world--including the Arab world--a lot safer. When UNSCOM, the U.N. organization created to monitor Iraqi disarmament, arrived after the Gulf war, it found a nation madly building weapons of mass destruction. Iraq contained at least 16 "main facilities" for atomic weapons, only two of which had been bombed during the Gulf war. One particularly worrisome site, called Zaafaraniya--North 32 degrees 32 minutes, East 46 degrees 29 minutes, if you happen to be targeting a cruise missile--included a production line for "calutron" equipment, used to make bomb-grade fissile materials. (Though Iraq is not believed to possess atomic weapons, it may have most of the pieces; see "The Big One," November 5, 2001.) UNSCOM also discovered at least 34 Iraqi installations for the research and production of chemical and biological weapons, including the Fallujah complex--three large factories, the first located at North 33 degrees 32 minutes, East 43 degrees 37 minutes--which contained extensive equipment for making nerve agents and other chemical weapons.

The Fallujah complex and other weapons sites were bombed during the Gulf war but not necessarily put out of action. For one thing, Gulf war bombing focused on helping coalition troops prevail in the field, not on destroying Iraq's military manufacturing. Second, when the Gulf war began--after a six-month coalition buildup--some of Iraq's weapons were already in protected underground installations. Third, pre-UNSCOM, U.S. intelligence did not realize how extensively Iraq was gearing up to produce weapons of mass destruction. And, finally, most of the munitions dropped by the United States during the Gulf war were standard "dumb" bombs, as likely to miss their targets as to hit them. Twice since the Gulf war, the United States has carried out limited strikes on Iraqi weapons facilities. In 1993, after Saddam barred U.N. inspectors from most of Zaafaraniya, American ships fired 44 cruise missiles into the facility, damaging but not destroying it. After UNSCOM was expelled in 1998, U.S. and British forces conducted Desert Fox, a strike employing 325 ship-launched cruise missiles, 90 air-launched cruise missiles, and 600 mostly "dumb" bombs. Many weapons-production and storage facilities were hit, among them rebuilt areas of the Zaafaraniya complex and sites associated with development of Al- Samoud, a supposedly short-range (and thus legal under the U.N. compact with Iraq), but probably medium-range, ballistic missile intended to menace Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Bomb damage assessment showed that fewer than half of the targets attacked in 1998 were destroyed, partly owing to use of dumb munitions. Since 1998 Iraq has been free to do as it pleases, without inspection or military confrontation, other than occasional small missiles fired at air- defense batteries as part of U.S.-British enforcement of the "no-fly" zone. Since then, Saddam has siphoned off an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion annually from the "humanitarian" revenues of Iraqi oil sales--and it's a good bet that much of that has gone into weapons of mass destruction.

The sad truth is that, without inspectors, no one can say for sure how much progress Saddam's weapons builders have made, as satellites see only the outside of facilities. "If we could figure out what they were doing from the sky we wouldn't have needed UNSCOM in the first place," notes Michael Levi of the Federation of American Scientists. Most of what is known about recent Iraqi weapons production comes from defectors, who describe a continuing, near-fanatical emphasis on acquiring atomic, chemical, and biological arms, fissile materials, miniaturization equipment for atomic warheads, and ballistic rockets that can carry these parcels of hell to neighboring states. In short, the writing is on the wall, and it is dangerous self-delusion not to read it. The threat will probably remain even if Saddam again admits inspectors, since he will almost certainly subject them to another round of his deadly hide-and-seek (see "Bluffing," by Lawrence F. Kaplan, page 19). The best way to ensure that Saddam does not stockpile weapons of mass murder for use against his neighbors, the West, or his own people is to destroy Iraq's weapons sites. And, fortunately, the United States now has the military capability to do just that. A mere 10 percent of the bombs dropped by the United States during the 1991 Gulf war were precision-guided. By the Kosovo air campaign in 1999 that figure had risen to around 50 percent; and, in Afghanistan, it has been at least 60 percent. Design breakthroughs and lower prices have made it practical for most U.S. munitions to graduate to "smart." Mavericks, the primary Air Force precision munition during the Gulf war, cost at least $130,000 per shot and were therefore used sparingly. By contrast, each jdam--America's current primary smart bomb--costs less than $30,000. Bush's 2003 Pentagon budget request doubles JDAM production, anticipating that it will basically make the "dumb" bomb obsolete. And, even as smart munitions grow less expensive, their IQs are rising. In the last decade the chips, lasers, and inertial gizmos that steer precision- guided munitions have become far more effective. Equally important, a new class of smart munitions has been added--those, like JDAM, that are controlled by data pulses from the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network rather than by lasers or fancy cameras. Just as civilian GPS transponders can now tell cars precisely when to turn down a street, encrypted GPS military signals can tell a bomb where it is in three-dimensional space to an accuracy of less than one meter. The latitude and longitude coordinates given earlier in this story would seem hopelessly primitive to a GPS-guided device. Smart munitions are not perfect: Their electronics can fail, or they can accurately blast a target programmed in error. (Accurate blasting of the wrong target has been the awful cause of U.S. and civilian deaths in Afghanistan.) But, in the Afghan campaign, smarter smart bombs coupled with the declining use of unguided munitions have allowed American pilots reliably to put bombs within ten feet or less of the objective. In World War II the "circular error probable" of bombing was measured in thousands of feet; as recently as the Gulf war, it averaged around 100 feet--and a bomb missing by 100 feet will not destroy a reinforced object. Accuracy to within ten feet means good night, Irene. To top it off, the cheaper, more accurate new JDAM carries a 2,000 pound charge, versus 125 to 300 pounds of explosives on older, Maverick-class weapons. As recently as 1998 the air-launched cruise missiles employed against Iraq were rare among precision weapons in mounting warheads of one-ton size: the biggest fists, and too expensive to use often.

Today the one-ton, relatively cheap JDAM means that the United States could hit Iraq with thousands of big fists, with great accuracy. And it's not just technology that's changed. Equally important, air war tactics have also changed significantly in the years since Desert Storm--in fact, they have changed significantly in the two years since Kosovo, something largely overlooked in the coverage of the Afghan conflict. From Vietnam through Kosovo, standard U.S. tactics called for heavy bombers such as B-52s and B-1s to drop unguided dumb munitions from a high altitude-- effective against a large industrial complex or massed armor, but not accurate enough to be sure of hitting, say, a particular building. Smart munitions that could hit with precision were borne by tactical aircraft, such as the Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters and the Navy F-18. Those strike fighters needed to fly fairly close to their targets to lock on their munitions' precision-guidance systems, exposing pilots to a far greater risk of being shot down than their compatriots at high altitude. (Cruise missiles guide themselves to targets without any risk to aircrews, but, at $2 million apiece, they must be saved for special missions.) And, unlike heavy bombers that can carry many tons of ordinance, tactical aircraft only carry small loads--usually two smart bombs per mission. As a result, as recently as the Gulf war, destruction of a large factory complex might require hundreds of tactical "sorties." Enter the JDAM and a similar, new, low-cost smart bomb called the "windcorrected munition," which uses advanced gizmos to prevent wind drift. Both can be dropped from bombers flying high above ground fire.

In Afghanistan, the first conflict in which they were used routinely, these bombs have proved as accurate as munitions launched from lowflying tactical planes, to the astonishment of military planners. Combine this with the fact that a B-1 can carry 24 JDAMs rather than the two typically carried by a strike fighter, and you can understand why the bulk of the bomb tonnage in Afghanistan--roughly two- thirds--has been dropped from high altitude by a handful of heavy bombers rather than by swarms of tactical fighters. Finally, because bombers have much longer ranges than fighters, accurate air attacks can now be staged over great distance without necessarily requiring fighter bases nearby or aircraft carriers in local water. The success of this new form of air war has taken military planners sufficiently by surprise that it is not yet reflected in the Pentagon budget. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took office wanting to retire 33 of America's existing 93 B-1 bombers, on the theory that bombers were yesterday's news. His 2003 budget proposal stands by this goal, while endorsing hundreds of billions of dollars for 2,000 or more of the new Joint Strike Fighters--planes whose main task would be delivering low-altitude smart bombs. The bad news, if you are a Joint Strike Fighter contractor, is that technology just leapfrogged part of your mission. The good news is that a high- altitude bombing campaign against Iraq (or any other adversary) could now deliver far more punch far more accurately than was possible even a few years ago.

This does not, of course, mean that a campaign against Iraq would be easy or without risk. Iraq has at least some surface-to-air missiles that could threaten high-flying bombers; these would have to be "spoofed" by jammer planes or destroyed by low-flying strike aircraft. And while atomic reactors and chemical storage facilities are the sort of stationary targets that invite bombing, bioweapons laboratory materials are small enough to be put in a truck and moved to another location. No military action, short of occupation, will destroy Saddam's entire biological weapons program. Some of the worst stuff may also be hidden underground. The United States has developed several "bunker-buster" bombs in recent years--including munitions that burrow into earth or concrete before detonating; a bomb that flies through a blast door and then skips down the corridor before exploding; and a "thermobaric" explosive optimized to produce heat and extreme air pressure. But because no current "buster" weapon works below about 100 feet, there's no guarantee that an air attack can eliminate deeply buried targets. The Bush administration has asked the Pentagon to begin researching small nuclear warheads that would burrow into the earth and shatter deep underground facilities without releasing much radiation. But the decision to use such a weapon would be extremely contentious, and it wouldn't be ready for years anyway. Another risk is that a sustained campaign against Iraqi weapons facilities would lead Saddam to lash out by launching missiles at Israel or Saudi Arabia.

Iraq is believed still to possess perhaps a dozen Scuds on mobile launchers that are almost impossible to find; and, it loaded Scuds with nerve gas during the Gulf war. The "short-range" Al-Samoud might also carry poison gas. (Whether gas dispensed by missiles would work is unknown, but the risk is real.) Saddam did not respond to Desert Fox by launching missiles, perhaps to avoid provoking a more determined campaign. Once such a campaign was in progress, he might feel he had nothing left to lose. Balanced against this risk is the chance that Saddam will someday fire the missiles when they are far more dangerous than they are today, tipped by atomic warheads--a risk that only grows the more time his regime is given to perfect weapons of mass slaughter. On September 11 we learned there is a moral obligation to act in advance against those who plan to do mass murder. If ever a preemptive attack were justified by such obligation, it is against Saddam's Iraq. The target should be weapons facilities, not the country as a whole. The means should be the new technology and tactics of air war. And the time should be before it is too late.