The myth of the precision bombing

Many people believe that modern guided (dubbed “smart”) weapons allow for pinpoint precision from very large distance, such as allowing fast high-flying aircraft to carry out Close Air Support, or to engage targets in urban environments.

Baloney.

In NATO missions in Libya, carried out to “support” anti-Gadaffi rebels, have killed or wounded multiple civilians and rebel troops. It is nothing new – as noted in the article, up to 25 – 80 % of casualties in wars have been caused by friendly fire (this also shows why BVR combat is unlikely to become prevalent form of air combat, as potential for misidentification is far greater). Visual ID has time and again proven itself as only somewhat reliable type of identifying targets, and even it is not perfect. As such, fast jets are completely incapable of identifying targets. WW2 Stuka pilot, Colonel Hans Rudel, has stated that “high speeds are a poison for finding tanks” – and that was in flat Ukraine, flying an aircraft far slower than modern jets. Army Sgt. First Class Frank Antenori has stated same thing.

In fact, due to lack of A-10s, F-15Es have on multiple occasions found themselves using their guns to strafe targets in Afghanistan. While they were mostly successfull, end result was longer time required and less successfull mission than what would have been with A-10s. A-10 also has very long loiter time, which means that – unlike “multirole” jets – it can be on station hour after hour, providing permanent presence and near-immediate answer to any CAS request.

Furthermore, units are equipped with limited number of radios, making identification difficult. While low-flying UAV’s can be used to identify targets, such usage is dependant on lack of any serious air defenses as well as presence of secure uplinks.

But even when targets are identified, precision weapons’ performance is nothing stellar – unless killing civilians is considered, where casualties have increased from WW2-standard of 9 tons of bombs per civilian killed to 200 civillians per one bomb, and drones’ effectiveness of 6 civillians per attack. This shows that, for precision weapons to be used correctly, either aircraft must be slow enough and low enough for pilot to use binoculars for identification, or identification must be done by troops on the ground.

Precision weapons have to have their points of impact calculated. Result was that, even with fast jets in the air, it took anywhere from 26 minutes to several hours for munitions to be finally delivered.

Guided munitions are also only effective against fixed targets. But against mobile targets, low-speed low-altitude attacks with cannon or unguided munitions are required to achieve any kind of effect, rendering DAS (Distant Air Support) ineffective. As such, laser designators have to be complemented with smoke grenades and marker baloons. JDAMs are not terminally guided, and as such are very likely to go astray.

While satellite surveillance is avaliable, it is very-long-distance, and as result it does not offer good target-recognition capabilities – to satellites and high-flying aircraft, cardboard decoys are indiscernible from actual targets, and it takes 18 hours for strike to arrive. UAV surveillance, on the other hand, is insufficient, whereas UCAVs can only attack fixed targets.

And problem sometimes isn’t too few data – it is too much data displayed to the pilot, overloading him and distracting him from the mission, as well as increasing time required for “observation” in OODA loop.

There are problems with munitions themselves too – further away bomb is dropped from, greater error becomes. On release, bombs often bump into each other – and sometimes aircraft too – causing fins to get bended and thus reducing accuracy. This is problem that only increases with increasing speeds, due to stronger turbulences. GPS weapons’ guidance systems also often malfunction, with bombs hitting miles off the target. A laser-guided bomb, meanwhile, can be thrown off course by a laser beam guding it being disturbed by a debris or simply by smoke, dust, clouds or highly humid environment, thus causing bomb to go ballistic.

During Operation Desert Storm, at most 60% of bombs have achieved hits on targets, and many misses were off by hundreds of meters. In fact, success rate could have been as low as 41%. While officials have said that strategic targets will be destroyed in 10 days, it took two weeks to destroy nuclear weapons factories – and all other targets have only been damaged, not destroyed. Out of 15 SAM batteries attacked by low-flying F-117s in Baghdad at first night, 13 continued to operate. All Coalition aircraft hit only 21 of 37 “crucial” targets. It also took between 4 and 10 laser-guided bombs to destroy targets such as bridges – similar to success rate of dive bombers against aircraft carriers during Pacific war.

In Kosovo War, only 58 successfull strikes have been made by USAF out of 750 attacks, destroying 14 tanks, 18 APCs and 20 artillery pieces. Out of 80 SAM batteries, 3 were destroyed. That can be compared to USAF claims of 120 tanks, 220 APCs and 450 artillery pieces destroyed. Chinese Embassy was also bombed, which was a repetition of President Reagan’s raid on Libya, when French embassy was bombed by “precision” weapons. Civilian casualties were one for every 10 tons of bombs, very close to WW2 rates. In Vietnam, casualties were one for every 12,5 tons of bombs. UK’s bombing accuracy with smart bombs was 40%.

In Afganistan, 2001, B-52 dropped precision ordnance around 100 meters from US Special Forces team, killing three US soldiers and five Afghan government soldiers. Other than several such incidents, however, war has been a positive example of USAF integrating more with the Army. Still, errors cannot be done away with, and problem gets worse faster the jet flies.

During 2003 invasion, US “precision” weapons have managed to miss Iraq entirely, falling into Turkey and Iran (at least US heavy bombers in WW2 never missed the country, though they did occasionally miss the city in entirety). Civilian objects, including hospitals, were consistently hit, and 2003 precision bombing has been more deadly than 1991 bombing which was done mostly by “dumb” bombs – killing 1350 civilians per 10 000 tons of bombs, as opposed to 400 civilians per 10 000 tons. This can in part be attributed to pilots dropping bombs from greater altitude due to the belief that part of targeting can be taken over by the projectile itself. Ballistic missiles did not fare much better, with only one-third hitting targets, one-third failling to detonate and one-third missing alltogether. It also happened on Balkans, when NATO bomb intended for Serbia fell in Sofia, Bulgaria. Accuracy of bombs against radar sites was 32%.

What is important to realize is that many of described attacks have taken place at low altitude – inly in Serbia did bombardment come, as a rule, from high altitude due to altitude limits placed, which means that it could be considered most indicative for high-altitude bombardment success rate. But even when bomb or missile does hit the target, debris from 1-ton bomb can cause casualties hundreds of meters from the impact point; radius for a 2-ton bomb can extend to a thousand meters. In fact, while 450-kg GPS bomb has CEP of 12 meters, blast damage extends to 30 meters and fragmentation damage extends to 900 meters. Area of effect is calculated by cube root of yield, so 227 kg weapon would still cause blast damage to 24 meters and fragmentation damage to 716 meters. As such, precision munitions are completely unsuited for CAS roles as well as operations in urban areas or areas where there might be civilians present. Furthermore, due to the expensive guidance systems, trend is for precision munitions to have higher yield than “dumb” counterparts, increasing the problem.

UCAVs used for assassinating terrorist leaders are especially problematic. Of 700 people killed by UCAVs in Pakistan, only 14 have been Taliban, which is mostly connected to unreliable intelligence and careless approach.

While some say that low-and-slow-flying CAS aircraft are vulnerable to being shot down, aircraft is just as safe from SAMs and MANPADS below 30 meters as it is above 3 000 meters. It is in-between these two values that trouble occurs. While average infantry division has large number of automatic weapons, most of these are small-calibre and thus only suited for engaging typical fighters (F-15, F-35) and not armored ground attack aircraft such as A-10 or Su-25 which can survive even direct hits by full-sized SAMs in good portion of cases – 50% in case of the A-10. In reality, real threat for CAS aircraft are enemy fighter aircraft, although the mere fact that CAS aircraft fly very low might make job difficult for radar-guided missiles. On the other hand, large aircraft such as AC-130 Spectre are vulnerable, can only be used at night. and have more limited capability for providing effective CAS. In Gulf War, only the tough A-10 and very fast Tornado operated at low altitudes due to persistent threat from optically-aimed AAA and IR MANPADS. Unlike other aircraft, both these types proved survivable in the environment.

Since precision weapons are tested in deserts, in fair weather (without anything that might impede bombs) and against static targets, official claims about their actual precision can be disregarded – they are equally faulty and based on equally flawed assumptions as pre-Vietnam claims of 90% accuracy for BVR missiles, which has turned out to be around 8% in combat.

Precision bombing myth is also nothing new. Norden sight for B-17 was claimed to be able to “put bomb into a pickle-barrell from 20.000 feet”. In the end, entire city blocks were levelled when bombers attacked specific targets, with bombs falling hundreds of meters off the target.

Conclusion? While guided munitions can be and are helpful, they are not magic, and aircraft still have to go very low and very slow – until pilots can see target through the canopy – in order to reliably hit tactical targets. Old-fashioned cannons are still most precise weapons in arsenal, when used well; and while precision munitions certainly can be useful, their main usefulness is not so much in increasing range from which attacks are made as in allowing pilot to spend least time possible “on target” and concentrate on evading enemy AA fire.

Advertisements


Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , ,

24 replies

  1. You forget to mention a lot of things…the biggest «tank buster» in the gulf war was not the A-10…it was the F-111 with the GBU-12 LGB…from the WIKIPEDIA«The F-111s were credited with destroying more than 1,500 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles.[60] Their use in the anti-armor role was dubbed “tank-plinking”.[61]»
    The main weapon of the A-10 isnt the GAU-8,its the Maverick…they launched 90% of the Mavericks in GW1.
    During TASVAL 79 the A-10 egaging the enemy with the cannon were all destroyed by simulated soviet air defenses.During the gulf war the A-10s proved to be very vulnerable:«General Chuck Horner, the ‘Air Boss’ in Desert Storm, gets to have the last word on whether the A-10 or an A-10 ‘like’ platform qualifies as the ‘best’ CAS tool in the future (LINK):

    Q: Did the war have any effect on the Air Force’s view of the A-10?
    A: No. People misread that. People were saying that airplanes are too sophisticated and that they wouldn’t work in the desert, that you didn’t need all this high technology, that simple and reliable was better, and all that.
    Well, first of all, complex does not mean unreliable. We’re finding that out. For example, you have a watch that uses transistors rather than a spring. It’s infinitely more reliable than the windup watch that you had years ago. That’s what we’re finding in the airplanes.
    Those people . . . were always championing the A-10. As the A-10 reaches the end of its life cycle– and it’s approaching that now–it’s time to replace it, just like we replace every airplane, including, right now, some early versions of the F-16.
    Since the line was discontinued, [the A-10’s champions] want to build another A-10 of some kind. The point we were making was that we have F-16s that do the same job.
    Then you come to people who have their own reasons-good reasons to them, but they don’t necessarily compute to me-who want to hang onto the A-10 because of the gun. Well, the gun’s an excellent weapon, but you’ll find that most of the tank kills by the A-10 were done with Mavericks and bombs. So the idea that the gun is the absolute wonder of the world is not true.

    Q: This conflict has shown that?
    A: It shows that the gun has a lot of utility, which we always knew, but it isn’t the principal tank-killer on the A-10. The [Imaging Infrared] Maverick is the big hero there. That was used by the A-10s and the F-16s very, very effectively in places like Khafji.
    The other problem is that the A-10 is vulnerable to hits because its speed is limited. It’s a function of thrust, it’s not a function of anything else. We had a lot of A-10s take a lot of ground fire hits. Quite frankly, we pulled the A-10s back from going up around the Republican Guard and kept them on Iraq’s [less formidable] front-line units. That’s line [sic] if you have a force that allows you to do that. In this case, we had F-16s to go after the Republican Guard.
    Q: At what point did you do that?

    A: I think I had fourteen airplanes sitting on the ramp having battle damage repaired, and I lost two A- 10s in one day [February 15], and I said, “I’ve had enough of this.” ….From the blog «Elements of power»
    You know nothing about aviation and only write political(non technological )anti-american opinions…you should read something about aviation from Bill Gunston or Mike Spick not Mike Sparks…lol

    • You are ignoring my main points here:

      1) A-10 was primary CAS aircraft in all US wars. CAS is far more than just “tank-busting”, and while Maverick is principal tank-killer, it is useless for anything else.

      2) GAU-8 was used for supporting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was most useful where CAS was needed most: in helping ambushed troops in mountainous regions. Neither F-111, B-1 or F-15E have been successfull in these kinds of missions.
      3) If new technology is more reliable than older one (for example, modern processors compared to vacuum tubes) it is usually becase it is simpler.

      4) F-16 can’t do A-10s job, and that is proven fact. USAF likes it because it is more expensive, not because it is more capable in CAS. USAF actually hates CAS, it wants to be completely independent and not – even occasionally – subservient to the Army, and only reason A-10 is still flying is because it was either that or turn it over to the Army.

      5) A-10 is slow, true, but it is also capable of very-low-level flight – and if you actually read my article you would have realized why that is important – and it has proven far more survivable than F-16 or F-117 when flying in same environments. These are relevant quotes from my F-35 Analysis:

      “In Gulf War I, F16s flew 13 340 sorties, and had 3 confirmed losses to enemy action, 7 losses total; thus, loss rate was one plane per 4460 sorties for confirmed combat losses, or one plane per 1900 sorties for total losses – both far better than F117. In Kosovo war, one F16 was shot down out of 4500 sorties.”

      “In over 8 000 daytime missions in Gulf War One, A10 suffered 3 losses to IR missiles – in other three cases, plane was hit but returned to base safely. Meanwhile, 83 % of A10s that were hit made a safe landing. In Gulf War and Kosovo campaigns, A10s flew 12 400 sorties while suffering 4 losses – one loss per 3100 sorties, far less than F117, which had 1 loss per 1300 sorties. ”

      “In Gulf War I, 42 F117s generated, at 0,7 sorties per day, less than 1300 sorties out of 33 000 flown, and made 2 000 laser-guided bomb attacks. Out of 15 SAM batteries in Baghdad reported attacked by F117s on first night, 13 continued to operate. In same night, 658 non-stealth aircraft also hit targets, with no losses whatsoever.

      While F117s did have zero losses in the war, as opposed to 2 F16s, and 4 A10s lost, night was a much safer combat environment than day, and the F-117 flew only at night. Two squadrons of A-10s flew at least as many night sorties as the F-117. Their losses were the same as the F-117’s: zero. F-111Fs also flew at night and also had no losses.”

  2. 1-The AGM-65 Maverick is an air-to-ground tactical missile (AGM) designed for close air support. The most widely-produced precision-guided missile in the Western world,[4] it is effective against a wide range of tactical targets, including armor, air defenses, ships, ground transportation and fuel storage facilities.(WIKIPEDIA)
    2-The cannon is cheaper but it puts the aircraft in danger…
    3-Since the Vietnam war that fast jet do CAS:the A-7 corsair droped bombs just 75 ft (23m)from friendly trops in more tham an ocasion (source:An illustrated guide to modern attack aircraft by Mike Spick).In fact the most used weapon in cas in A-stan and Iraq is the JDAM…
    4-You did not read my post:the General was tired of having is A-10 in pieces..

    • 1-it is designed for destroying tanks, not helping infnatry slug it out with opposing infantry, which is also part of CAS. And don’t quote me Wikipedia here.
      2-it is also far more effective in many situations
      3-and how many troops did A-7 kill? BTW, turboprops were most widely used for CAS in Vietnam…
      4-General was tired of having Air Force supporting Army. Statistics *are* clear, wether you like it or not.

  3. 1-The GAU-8 cannon is not for use against infantry…its original purpose was to be a tank buster.The USSR were fielding more MBTs and armored cars than NATO had PGM…the cannon was a cheap alternative to destroy tanks…like the Maverick missile it had outher uses,but it main goal was tank busting.In fact the USMC version(AGM-65E)has a penetrating blast-fragmentation warhead for use against fotifications or exposed soldiers…its a CAS missile…
    2-has i stated,TASVAL 79 PROVED that the use of the cannon against peer forces would result in very large attrition rate.It was verified in the first Gulf War .You can search the statemnts of General Chuck Horner…
    3-The biggest friendly fire causers are the A-10 and the Apache …bouth fly slow like you said…the Corsair was loved by ground troops.Search 190th Fighter Squadron, Blues and Royals friendly fire incident.Search WIKIPEDIA for friendly fire…the A-10 is more probable to kill friendly troops because it relies on the eyeball to do the shooting…GPS guided PGMs HAVE reduced the number of accidental deaths…just do a small search…i beg you…
    4-Are you serious?He continued doing the CAS WITH F-16s BECAUSE HE HAD 14 A-10s in repairs AND 2 LOST…he send the f-16s and none was lost…what the hell man…that is Mike Sparks BS right there…just like James Bond is real and the anti tank vespa…lol
    http://youtu.be/bmxxdFcFUw8 – fresh proof that i am wrong and you are right:)

    • 1-GAU-8 is not designed to kill infantry, but it IS used for that role too. And in many cases, missiles are simply too destructive.
      2-exercises and evaluations are useless if you don’t know assumptions. I have all data I need at hand, and A-10 has proven one of most survivable aircraft – in BOTH Gulf Wars.
      3-A-10 and Apache are more likely to kill friendly troops because they are used for CAS far more often than any other aircraft. GPS-guided missiles have been used mostly against fixed targets, and not for CAS, so of course they won’t cause many friendly-fire incidents. You’re comparing apples and oranges here.
      4-check your data. A-10 was one of most survivable aircraft in both Gulf Wars – only slightly less so than F-16, while operating in far more demanding environment.

  4. Ever notice that none of the Stuka aces fought in the West? In fact, the Stuka was almost never used in the West because Allied anti-aircraft batteries and CAP massacred German ground attack aircraft whenever they attempted to intervene.

    It’s hard to know where to begin with your analysis but you are aware that there are other ways to guide precision munitions other than laser and GPS? AARGM uses MMW for terminal guidance and the SBD II uses no fewer than three guidance modes.

    “Old-fashioned cannons are still most precise weapons in arsenal”

    Uhh..how? The dispersion of modern cannon fire at actual combat ranges (dictated by enemy AAA) is pretty awful and certainly not used in “danger close” scenarios. Precision guided cannon rounds may change that (EAPS for examples) but it’s not likely that CAS aircraft will ever fire such rounds.

    “Guided munitions are also only effective against fixed targets. But against mobile targets, low-speed low-altitude attacks with cannon or unguided munitions are required to achieve any kind of effect, rendering DAS (Distant Air Support) ineffective. As such, laser designators have to be complemented with smoke grenades and marker baloons. JDAMs are not terminally guided, and as such are very likely to go astray.”

    You are aware of Laser JDAM? It’s been used in combat for years. Not to mention the fact that Paveway has been hitting moving targets since GW1.

    Going in “low and slow” is an awful idea against modern or even 80’s air defense systems.

    How effective is aerial cannon fire against well-equipped enemy infantry firing from cover? Answer: not very. A 30mm auto-cannon rounds contains no more than 45g of explosive fill; compare that to 25 *Kilo* grams of explosive fill on a Small Diamater Bomb (SBD) I. Then of course, the SDB can be programmed to airburst or fly a non-ballistic trajectory something than no current air-fired cannon shell can do.

    “Precision bombing myth is also nothing new. Norden sight for B-17 was claimed to be able to “put bomb into a pickle-barrell from 20.000 feet”. In the end, entire city blocks were levelled when bombers attacked specific targets, with bombs falling hundreds of meters off the target.”

    Entire city blocks were leveled deliberately because the Germans dispersed their industry. But against non-disperable targets (oil refineries, synthetic oil production plants, transmission and engine assembly, coking and steel works), precision bombing did work.

    “It also took between 4 and 10 laser-guided bombs to destroy targets such as bridges – similar to success rate of dive bombers against aircraft carriers during Pacific war.”

    Do you have any idea how many unguided bombs were required to destroy bridges in WWII, Korea and Vietnam? Hundreds if not thousands. In fact, precision guided munitions like AZON were developed (and used in WWII and later Korea) specifically to attack bridges.

    Dive bombing was only effective if the enemy had weak AAA and was generally abandoned after WWII because losses against AAA had been so heavy; Torpedo bombers like the Avenger sank far more enemy vessels than dive bombers.

    • “Ever notice that none of the Stuka aces fought in the West? In fact, the Stuka was almost never used in the West because Allied anti-aircraft batteries and CAP massacred German ground attack aircraft whenever they attempted to intervene.”

      Stukas have proven more survivable than heavy bombers. Read my article “From Douhet to Drones” for detail.

      “You are aware of Laser JDAM? It’s been used in combat for years. Not to mention the fact that Paveway has been hitting moving targets since GW1.”

      I am aware of different guidance methods, but point is that precision weapons never have pinpoint accuracy, despite media and military PR portrayals. Also, yes, cannon is most precise weapon for CAS, and that is not going into question of actual damage potential.

      “Going in “low and slow” is an awful idea against modern or even 80′s air defense systems.”

      F-117 (“low, slow, and hard to detect”), A-10 (“low,slow and tough”) and Tornado (“low and fast”) were most survivable aircraft in Desert Storm as far as air defenses were concerned. It probably would have been different if Iraqis had competent air force, but they didn’t, and in any case CAS isn’t done until you establish local air superiority.

      “How effective is aerial cannon fire against well-equipped enemy infantry firing from cover? Answer: not very. A 30mm auto-cannon rounds contains no more than 45g of explosive fill; compare that to 25 *Kilo* grams of explosive fill on a Small Diamater Bomb (SBD) I. Then of course, the SDB can be programmed to airburst or fly a non-ballistic trajectory something than no current air-fired cannon shell can do.”

      Aerial bombardment is never effective against dug-in enemy, and it only gets less effective as altitude increases.

      “Entire city blocks were leveled deliberately because the Germans dispersed their industry. But against non-disperable targets (oil refineries, synthetic oil production plants, transmission and engine assembly, coking and steel works), precision bombing did work.”

      B-17 and B-29 have repeatedly proven unable to hit tactical targets, in both WW2 and Vietnam.

      “Do you have any idea how many unguided bombs were required to destroy bridges in WWII, Korea and Vietnam? Hundreds if not thousands.”

      Yes, and that was level bombing from high altitude, not dive bombing.

      “Dive bombing was only effective if the enemy had weak AAA and was generally abandoned after WWII because losses against AAA had been so heavy; Torpedo bombers like the Avenger sank far more enemy vessels than dive bombers.”

      Dive bombers don’t sink ships, they disable them. And USN manual stated that dive bombers attack enemy ships first, while torpedo bombers, which were more vulnerable to enemy fighters and AAA, set up the attack.

  5. Remarkable issues here. I’m very happy to look your post.
    Thanks so much and I am looking forward to touch you.
    Will you kindly drop me a mail?

  6. Dear Picard thx for this useful article.

    I read cautiously this article more than another hoping a solution. Nevertheless, Iam sad to learn that DAESH terrorists will resist again, and again, most likely months, else years. If JDAM are not enough what could we do ? As you understood, I hoped on syrian army to obliterate DAESH terrorists, but they could not, even to use A-10, or SU-25. As terrorists had hundreds the old S-60 and KS-19 that deter in 2014-2015 any low flying bombing, whatever it could be F-15 E, Tornado, or A-10.

    Thx for this article.

  7. Hi what do you think about the couple rafale/AASM and the french doctrine of target of opportunity as it is today against ISIS ?
    And also your opinion on the brigdstone ? Thanks.

    • When fighting an assymetric or semi-symmetric opponent, you can only engage targets of opportunity because there are very few other targets. USAF made a lot of noise about F-22s dropping bombs on empty buildings, but that did nothing against ISIS. It is their mobile forces that have to be engaged and destroyed (including those trying to get into Europe as refugees).

      Regarding Brimstone and AASM… Brimstone really could use an IR seeker, its usage of millimetric wave radar means that it is vulnerable to jamming, false returns (of course, IR seeker is also vulnerable to IR-opaque smoke, so maybe dual seeker should be considered).

      AASM is a guidance kit for normally-dumb bombs, similar to Paveway. Having GPS, IR and laser guidance options gives it quite a lot of versatility, so no complaints there.

Trackbacks

  1. The myth of the precision bombing
  2. Why USAF hates A-10 and why it can’t be replaced « Defense Issues
  3. Why return to single-role aircraft « Defense Issues
  4. Myths about nuclear weapons | Defense Issues
  5. bangalore bomb blast on 17 april 2013 | Kuplux's
  6. U.S. Bombing in Afghanistan Kills Doctors Without Borders Staff and Patients | Nonprofit Quarterly
  7. How Precise Are Precision Bombs? - Autonomy Scotland
  8. Fast jets as close air support (CAS) aircraft « Defense Issues

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: