Air Weapons: March 10, 2003


Shock and awe is the headline. If the dogs of war are unleashed in Iraq, the Pentagon says that the US will strike ten times as many targets in the first day as the 1991 war. Desert Storm saw about 2,000 US aircraft deployed to the region. Current estimates put the number for this war at less than half that number. How will fewer fighters and bombers accomplish this?

Before GPS guidance made precision weapons cheap and all-weather, the Gulf War was fought mostly with dumb bombs. Although they attracted much attention and did more damage, precision bombs were only ten percent of those dropped in 1991. That percentage has gone up considerably since; 60 percent in Bosnia, 75 percent in Afghanistan. Today, every aircraft, from the new Super Hornet to the fifty year old B-52, employs some kind of precision guided weapon. 

Twelve years ago expensive laser-guided bombs were the most common guided weapons. Today Global Positioning System satellites are used to guide more versatile bombs costing 20 percent of what laser guidance costs. Unlike lasers, GPS is all-weather. The variety of guided weapons has also increased. Even bomblet-scattering cluster bombs--traditionally the least precise bombs--are available with inertial guidance and infrared seekers on their bomblets.

Faith in precision weapons has grown with their increased use. Flying 2 percent of strike sorties in the 1991 war, F-117s with laser-guided bombs destroyed 40 percent of strategic targets. That capability has changed the way planners assign missions. Instead of half a dozen aircraft striking each target, one aircraft will hit two, four, or more targets per sortie. A B-52 or B-2 bomber can strike over a dozen individual aim points.

The result of all these factors is a smaller number of aircraft striking a greater number of targets. Shock and awe indeed.


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