Weapons: The Precision Revolution


May 15, 2012: Over the last decade the age of massive firepower has come to an end. It was only 130 years ago that the introduction of nitrocellulose propellants for firearms and artillery, and high-grade mass produced metal parts 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 an age of massive firepower.

Thus one of the less noticed revolutions in warfare recently has been the American development of small scale, precision firepower on a large scale, which has rapidly replaced the massive firepower tactics that dominated the 20th century. For most people American smart bombs, like JDAM and laser guided bombs, 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 are fighting in the area. They are the ones firing single shots. The other guys fire their AK-47s on full auto. But it's the sparser American firepower that dominates. 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 units can deploy a dozen or more two man sniper teams that will turns a large area into deathtrap for enemy forces.

Snipers are backed by infantry that fire much more accurately than their counterparts in World War II did. At the same time, massed artillery fire is now a thing of the past. Many artillery battalions have been disbanded. U.S. artillery units now use a lot fewer precision shells and rockets. For example, the GPS guided MLRS rocket has been in use for several years now. This 227mm weapon delivers a 100 kg (220 pound) warhead as accurately as a 500 pound JDAM. 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. American cannon (155mm) artillery units are now using GPS equipped "Excalibur" smart shells. Infantry commanders are particularly fond of this 45 kg (99 pound) shell available, as it allows 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. No 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 like this.

Less fire power also means a quieter battlefield. That enables better trained troops, who know what to listen for, more opportunities to use their ears to sort out what is going on. Silence can be a weapon. Precision weapons also reduce supply 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 cannot 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 guns, bombs, and 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 arrive where they are now.


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