On June 9th five U.S. Special Forces soldiers died in Afghanistan when a GPS guided bomb was called in to the wrong location. What was unusual about this incident was how rare it has become. Since GPS guided bombs were introduced during the 1990s the technology and procedures for their use have been tweaked, automated and improved to avoid friendly fire incidents like this. The investigation of the June 9 accident is under way and the results of that will result in more tweaks to the system in a continuing effort to reduce friendly fire losses even further.
The elimination of most friendly fire incidents was one of many changes that have made 21st century combat much less deadly for American troops. For example the casualty rate for American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been about a third of what it was for their counterparts in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Friendly fire deaths have fallen even more and are now about 20 percent of what they were in mid-20th century wars. There have been some other big changes.
Since September 11, 2001 the age of massive firepower has come to an end. It was the late 19th century introduction of nitrocellulose propellants for firearms and artillery and mass produced precision metal parts that made possible machine-guns and modern (quick firing and quite accurate) artillery. This radically changed warfare, since the side with more of these guns, and ammo for them, had a huge advantage. It began a brief age of massive firepower. That has all changed in the 21st century. Actually, you could see this coming at the end of the 20th century. The 1990 war with Iraq was notable for the bombing campaign against Baghdad that resulted in remarkable pictures of precise damage using smart bombs. The media expected the usual widespread urban devastation, but reporters on the scene could only show individual buildings destroyed or heavily damaged by precise bomb or missile hits. Local civilians appreciated the bombs because they were largely spared from injury or damage to their property. This was repeated in 1999 in Serbia. By the end of the 1990s, smart bombs became the majority of bombs used because they became cheaper, especially in that you needed fewer very expensive aircraft and a lot fewer bombs to do the same amount of damage that ten or twenty times the aircraft (and even more bombs) previously required.
Thus one of the less noticed revolutions in warfare has been the American development of precision firepower from an occasional weapon to the standard method, which has rapidly replaced the massive firepower tactics that dominated the 20th century. For most people American smart bombs like JDAM (GPS) and Paveway (laser guided) represent "precision firepower." But the concept goes much farther than that. American infantry carry automatic weapons but most of the time they fire one precise shot at a time. In Afghanistan and Iraq the locals quickly got to know when American troops were fighting in the area. They were the ones firing single shots. The other guys fired their AK-47s on full auto. But it was the sparser American firepower that was more lethal and dominated the battlefield. Better training, and high tech sights made the U.S. troops very accurate. This led to wider use of snipers, with up to ten percent of American troops qualified and equipped for this kind of shooting. Snipers alone have greatly changed American infantry tactics. Using night vision scopes, small UAVs, and personal radios for every soldier, American infantry battalions can quickly deploy a dozen or more two man sniper teams that will turn a large area into a deathtrap for enemy forces.
Snipers are backed by infantry that fire much more accurately than did their World War II counterparts. At the same time massed artillery fire is a thing of the past. Many American artillery battalions have been disbanded. U.S. artillery units now use a lot fewer, but much more precise, shells and rockets. For example, the GPS guided MLRS rocket has been in use since 2005. This 227mm weapon delivers a 100 kg (220 pound) warhead as accurately as a 500 pound JDAM (GPS guided bomb). When it comes to bombs, smaller and more accurate is what the infantry prefer. That's because, once the bomb goes off, the grunts want to get in there and capture or kill the survivors before the shell shock wears off. The blast radius of larger (500 and 1,000 pound) aerial bombs, especially unguided ones, means friendly troops have to stay several hundred meters away. Thus the ideal weapon would be GPS guided shells. Now American cannon (155mm) artillery units are using (since 2007) GPS equipped "Excalibur" smart shells. Infantry commanders are particularly fond of this 45 kg (99 pound) shell, as it allows their troops to be as close as "across the street" from the target.
This produces another unique battlefield sound portrait. You know American troops are at work when one shell goes off, followed by a few shots. Much less shouting, American troops use individual radios, hand signals, and night vision equipment. They move fast, using minimal firepower, which means less risk of friendly fire or collateral damage (civilian casualties or property damage). Battlefields have never sounded this quiet.
Because less fire power means a quieter battlefield that enables better trained troops, who know what to listen for, have more opportunities to use their ears to sort out what is going on. Silence can be a weapon. Precision weapons also reduce resupply problems, especially closer to the battle zone. Less wear and tear on the weapons as well.
Other aerial weapons, in addition to their smart bombs, have become more effective. New fire control systems enable fighters to use their 20mm cannon with greater accuracy. Ground troops can now call in jets to use their automatic cannon to take out a few snipers on a roof, or in a particular window in a building. Warplanes rarely use unguided bombs any more. It's all smart gun sights, smart bombs, and guided missiles.
On the ground even machine-guns are used less. In the future machine-gun use will decline still further as computerized "enemy fire location" systems become more common. Widely used now for locating snipers, the troops (although not the brass back in the Pentagon) are eager to link the sniper finding systems with armed robots. With this kind of a system the sniper gets return fire seconds after getting a shot off. This forces snipers to move and that makes a sniper more vulnerable.
UAVs have become decisive weapons, armed with light weight (10-23 kg) laser guided missiles. These missiles have become so reliable that some are being adapted for use by the ground troops. The age of big bangs and loud noises is over. Precision and small explosions are much more effective, for those equipped for this sort of thing.
Precision and speed have been a battlefield trend for over a century but no one really expected those trends to get to where they are now. The last decade has seen the greatest changes in ground combat since World War II, when widespread use of air support, armored vehicles, and radios created a radically different kind of ground war compared to anything before it. Now that has happened again and those changes are still evolving. The U.S. is building a “battlefield Internet” capability that will allow troops and commanders to exchange battlefield information instantly. For several decades the term “information dominance” has been tossed around, but now that concept is about to become a decisive weapon rather than a briefers favorite buzzword.