U.S. Precision Weapons Not Foolproof
The U.S. military is fighting perhaps the most accurate air war in history, with most of the 8,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles loosed on Iraq blasting their intended targets.
But ``precision″ weapons also miss. Human and mechanical errors send 10 percent or more astray, Pentagon and civilian experts say _ a disastrous percentage for civilians living near the intended targets.
``No weapons system is foolproof,″ said Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Qatar. ``We’ll always have one or two that go off target.″
Some of the dozens of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded may have fallen victim to American precision weapons that, for reasons of mechanical failure or human error, struck homes, markets or city streets rather than military targets.
``Statistically, several hundred of those have missed to some degree,″ said Rob Hewson, editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons.
An explosion that killed 14 civilians in Baghdad’s Shaab neighborhood last Wednesday may have been caused by a U.S. missile, perhaps an anti-radar missile aimed at air defenses or a wayward cruise missile. Coalition briefers have suggested one of Iraq’s own air defense missiles tumbled to earth and exploded.
Also under dispute is the cause of a deadly explosion Friday in a Baghdad market that Iraq blames for 60 deaths.
``These two marketplace attacks are looking increasingly sure to have been caused by coalition weapons than went off target,″ Hewson said.
Terrain-hugging U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles fired by ships in the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf have also missed targets. A handful of the 700 fired in the war have slammed mistakenly into Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, leading the Saudis and Turks to ask the Pentagon to stop firing them across their territory. Iran has protested at least three hits by U.S. missiles.
``If you’re going to use cruise missiles, you’re going to have ones coming down where they’re not supposed to,″ said David Isby, a private missiles and munitions consultant in Washington, D.C. ``This isn’t a scandal for long-range operations. It’s to be expected.″
Bombs and missiles that can be programmed to follow a laser trail or hit a specific geographic coordinate based on satellite guidance comprise about 90 percent of those used in the 12-day-old war, Owens said. The bombs go wrong when they’re aimed at mistaken targets or given incorrect coordinates, Isby said.
Laser and satellite-guided bombs can also be pushed off-course by winds, by out-of-date geographic data, a misreading of the attacking aircraft’s position or an inherent flaw known as target location error _ meaning a location triangulated by satellites doesn’t match a spot on earth, Hewson said.
Motors that move the bombs’ guiding fins sometimes also fail, Isby said.
Since the Pentagon isn’t sharing data on hits and misses, Hewson and other analysts base their predictions of accuracy on anecdotal evidence and data from previous wars.
A Canadian military assessment of laser-guided bomb accuracy during the Kosovo campaign in 1999 showed that 60 to 70 percent hit their targets, Hewson said. Since NATO faced tougher air defenses and weather in that campaign, he said he figures the current combination of laser- and satellite-guided bombs are hitting targets 75 to 80 percent of the time.
``There’s a significant gap between 100 percent and reality,″ he said. ``And the more you drop, the greater your chances of a catastrophic failure.″
Laser-guided weapons suffer from other problems, including losing their ``lock″ on the laser target beam, which can be obscured by clouds or smoke. Hewson cited British military video from the 1991 Gulf War that showed a pair of laser-guided bombs gliding far beyond their bridge target and slamming into an Iraqi town.
Hewson said Tomahawks, which use radar to follow reference points on the ground, sometimes get lost over featureless deserts.
At the Pentagon, Air Force Lt. Col. Christy Nolta said that despite painstaking planning, ``there’s no way to eliminate the risk″ of civilian deaths.
``These are mechanical devices, and mechanical devices will have mechanical failures,″ Nolta said. ``Human error also plays into it.″
Besides the tragedy of dead civilians, Hewson said errant bombing stokes anti-U.S. and anti-British hostility.
``In a war that’s being fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, you can’t afford to kill any of them,″ Hewson said. ``But you can’t drop bombs and not kill people. There’s a real dichotomy in all of this.″