Political Airpower, Part II: The Seductive Allure of Precision Weapons


Editor’s Note: Please read the first installment of this series, “Say No to the No-Fly Zone.”

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

                                                                        Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science

Airpower advocates are often accused of treating all warfighting problems in the same way — wielding a hammer against challenges, even (and especially) when a hammer is not the right tool. Accordingly, a large part of the history of airpower has encompassed the quest for precision bombing, so that the hammer might be more appropriately applied with less risk to the wielder. Now that we have finally reached an enviable level of precision, we have found our arrival at airpower Nirvana postponed indefinitely. Unrealistic expectations surrounding the application of force are making the strategic utility of precision far less than it ought to be — ultimately hindering both strategy and operational utility of the U.S. military. The ubiquitous nature of precision has resulted in the growth of a generation of policymakers who misunderstand the nature of warfare. These individuals cannot separate the political risk entailed with employing military force with the physical risk aviators are exposed to while trying to fulfill unrealistic demands for a sanitary and clean conflict. The allure of precision weapons has proven too much for policymakers. They have been seduced into believing that somehow, aerial warfare is not the dirty, dangerous, and destructive child of modern warfare that it actually is.

In the Beginning

To understand how the U.S. Air Force got here, one must understand how wars necessitate invention — in this case, the evolution and pursuit of precision weapons.

In World War II, “precision” bombing meant putting a stick of bombs within a quarter mile of the aim-point.  An impressive feat for the time, this still required hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of bombs to achieve the desired effect — a hammer with a head both broad and deep. Still, this would not have been possible without inventions such as the Norden bombsight, then a closely guarded secret. While more accuracy was sought through both technological improvements and adaptive tactics, new levels of precision held out the promise of gaining strategic effects with airpower without the mass required in 1943.  A new vision became tantalizingly close with the Luftwaffe’s invention of guided bombs.

The world’s first operational guided weapon, the German Hs-293 rocket propelled glide-bomb, used a radio-commanded guidance system and a red flare mounted on the tail so the operator could steer the weapon to the target by looking through a bomb-sight and keeping the cross-hairs on the target. Developed almost concurrently, its larger 3,000-pound, gravity-dropped cousin, the Fritz X, infamously sank the Italian battleship Roma in 1943. The U.S. equivalent 1,000-pound VB-1 Azon achieved attention by successfully being used to attack bridges in the China-Burma-India theater.  Despite progress, these guided weapons were still complicated, unreliable, and not nearly as precise as one would believe — so they were not widely used.

Throughout the Korean War, U.S. airpower mainly relied on the equipment from World War II.  After Korea, the U.S. Navy sought to develop its own munition and fielded the AGM-12 Bullpup in 1959. This was the first mass-produced precision guided weapon. The Bullpup, like the Hs-293, was equipped with a tail flare and was hand steered into the target by a pilot who had dropped the weapon and was simultaneously flying his own aircraft and the bomb.  In the F-4, the Bullpup was steered with the left hand while the aircraft was flown with the right.  The weapon needed to hit to work — it was designed with a svelte 250-pound warhead so it could be carried by the Navy’s aircraft. The Air Force followed suit in 1965, adopting the Bullpup for the F-100, F-105, and its own F-4 aircraft. Still, the weapon was too small to inflict damage on larger well-constructed targets.

In 1967, the Navy introduced the larger 1,000-pound AGM-62 Walleye while the Air Force contracted the 2,000-pound HOBOS (homing bomb system). Both weapons had a radio link for control and a TV seeker in the nose which transmitted its picture to the launching aircraft — giving the aircrew the ability to “fly” the weapon with a bomb’s eye view.  This system achieved new levels of precision when conditions provided a high-contrast target background for the operator to see on the display. Precision guidance still required aircrew to fly the weapon into a target from a distance.

Despite these advances, precision remained a niche capability.  The majority of weapons deliveries still required massed attacks to achieve target destruction.  If you wanted accuracy rather than mass, the solution was to get close.  Aerial fires in Korea and Vietnam were often the equivalent of waiting to “see the whites of their eyes,” with the attendant risks of dense air defenses.  Dropping from high altitude moved the aircraft above the densest gunfire but was correspondingly less accurate.  If guided weapons could be employed from altitude where the threat of guns and terrain was lessened, targets could be hit effectively while reducing the risk to aircrew.

Figure 1:  A U.S. Air Force North American F-100D-85-NH Super Sabre aircraft (Tail #56-3415) makes a low altitude dive pass against an enemy position in South Vietnam in 1967 (U.S. Air Force)

The Advent of Lasers

In 1965, Texas Instruments — the company that invented the microchip and subsequently became famous for calculators — developed a proof-of-concept low-cost laser-guided weapon for the Air Force. The weapon would guide on laser energy reflected from the target.  Now, instead of flying the weapon, the crew only needed to keep the laser on the target and the bomb would do the rest.  The first combat employment in Vietnam involved the GBU-1 Bolt-117, a 750-pound bomb with a guidance kit.  Introduced in 1967, 50 percent of the weapons scored direct hits — a remarkable feat at the time. The end of Rolling Thunder in 1968 stopped air attacks against North Vietnam for four years.

Figure 2: F-4D 66-7709 of the 433rd TFS sporting PAVE KNIFE and two 2000-pound LGBs (U.S. Air Force)

When bombing resumed with Operation Linebacker I in 1972, a target was waiting. The Paul Doumer bridge had been attacked previously, with little success.  Now, the Air Force was ready with new PAVE WAY laser-guided bombs (LGBs) in sizes up to 3000 pounds. The opening day of the operation saw 16 F-4 Phantoms from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing attack the Paul Doumer bridge with Walleye bombs — and miss. The following day, 11 May 1972, LGBs would get their chance on the wings of a lone four-ship of F-4s from the 433 Fighter Squadron. One of the limited PAVE KNIFE targeting pods was installed on the lead aircraft, which was also equipped with two GBU-11 3,000-pound LGBs. The remaining aircraft were outfitted with two GBU-10 2,000-pound LGBs. All eight bombs scored direct hits on the bridge, destroying it.

Figure 3: Post-strike image of the Paul Doumer Bridge, 1972.  (U.S. Air Force)

Eyes were now on an even more durable target — the Thanh Hoa (nicknamed “Dragon’s Jaw”) bridge.  Unlike the Paul Doumer bridge, the Thanh Hoa bridge had been on the targeting list since the opening of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965. Despite 871 sorties, thousands of munitions (including hundreds of small Bullpups) and the loss of 11 aircraft, the well-built, well-defended bridge still stood.

On May 13, 1972, just 48 hours after the Paul Doumer bridge fell, the same LGB-equipped squadron attacked the Dragon’s Jaw bridge — and it too fell. A dozen F-4 Phantoms with LGBs had done in a single morning what three years of intermittent attacks had failed to do. The success of laser guided bombs — which were 10 times more likely to achieve a direct hit on a point target than gravity bombs were —demonstrated the potential of economic precision munitions.  World War II air raids required whole squadrons of bombers to destroy one target (maybe,) and by the end of Vietnam, we were approaching the ability to destroy a point target with a single fighter.  Airpower still provided the hammer, but we now had one that was capable of some very fine work.

Figure 4: The Thanh Hoa bridge finally goes down. (Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate)

Desert Storm

Fast forward almost 20 years:  In 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, the F-111F and F-117A dropped the majority of precision weapons, ranging from the laser-guided 500-pound GBU-12 and the massive 4700-pound GBU-28 to the datalink-guided GBU-15.  In fact, the F-117 was designed around the ability to carry a pair of 2000-pound LGBs.  The AGM-65 Maverick, an air-launched antitank missile, was shot in numbers larger than all other PGMs in the Joint inventory combined.  The routine viewing of weapon impact video on cable news led to the inaccurate public perception that the majority of weapons were precision-guided and that their application could be precisely managed.  They were not and they could not.  What the PGMs did do was reduce risk to the aircraft by increasing the distance from which they could achieve a hit.

Guided munitions accounted for only eight percent of the weapons employed in the conflict but accounted for an estimated 75 percent of the effects.  Precision weapons allowed attacks against targets that were small or which required very precise weapons placement to achieve the desired effect, provided the weather was clear enough to see the target. Up to now, the Air Force had to accept that a precision attack was only possible in conditions of clear visibility.  During the Gulf War, one in three laser-guided bomb attacks was canceled because the lasers could not point out targets through storm clouds, sandstorms, and smoke and haze from oil fires. The F-117 alone reported 400 weather-related misses or no-drops with LGBs.  This set in motion the effort to produce what became the GPS-aided, inertial measurement unit-guided joint direct attack munition (JDAM).

Figure 5: Precision in clear air.  An AGM-130 from FIAT 91/92, flight of 2 F-15E, is guided on the Cortanovci Highway Bridge, 3 April 1999 (NATO)

All-Weather Precision

The JDAM debuted in 1999’s Operation Allied Force. Used exclusively by the B-2A, over 650 2,000-pound JDAMs were employed with impressive reliability and hit rates compared to LGBs.  Aircrew were directed to prioritize minimizing risk over hitting the targets — and were directed not to stray below 15,0000 feet to find clear air for their lasers under the weather.  Collectively, almost a third of all weapons delivered by NATO were guided but they accounted for 64 percent of the total points struck. Dumb bombs were used mostly during periods of bad weather or for attacks on area targets.  Free-fall munitions had their place: Two B-1s unleashed a classic runway attack with two long sticks of Mk-82 500-pound bombs on Sjenica and Sombor airfields. Trees now grow on both runways.

Figure 6:  There is no substitute for the heavy bomber – post-strike imagery of Sombor airfield, 12 May 1999 (NATO)

In Desert Storm only 10 percent of the participating U.S. strike aircraft were PGM-capable, but only eight years later, it was 90 percent. In the next few years, the JDAM would be integrated onto virtually every attack, fighter, and bomber in the inventory. The bombing paradigm changed from where it had been stuck for 30 years — one aircraft, one target at a time.   With JDAMs, one aircraft could now strike multiple targets simultaneously in one pass, thus minimizing exposure. On top of that, they were no more expensive than the Paveway LGBs.

After 9/11, JDAM would continue its success in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. By the turn of the century, the wonder had become mundane and the expectations of extreme precision routine.  But, the unanticipated product of the precision revolution was the mistaken belief that these weapons could be used to make warfare less messy by limiting collateral damage.  Lost in the discussion were the twin rationales for precision in the first place — greater effectiveness and lower risk to U.S. forces.

Precision to a Fault

While the advent of precision weapons ushered in an era of “one bomb, one target” planning, the expectations for these weapons have outpaced their actual abilities.  The use of these weapons does not ensure than only the target will be hit and nothing else.  Precision ensures that there is a high probability that the weapon will land on or near its desired aimpoint.  Two thousand pounds of cosmic catastrophe hitting its target still has effects well beyond the target. A 2000-pound Mk-84 bomb can throw fragments for thousands of feet.  Precision weapons were developed to ensure that when a strike package dropped on its targets, there was a reasonable expectation that those targets would be hit, reducing the need to return over and over again and continually expose aircraft and aircrew to risk. Precision weapons were intended to make the combat application of airpower more efficient and safer in the long run, not to make them more palatable as a policy option.  An airpower tool became a political one — another aspect of “political airpower.”

Precision strikes became a default policy option after Operation Desert Storm.  Airpower dominated foreign policy in the 1990s, leading to Operations Desert Strike, Deliberate Force, and Allied Force as we have previously discussed.  Cruise missiles were even easier to employ politically — no risk, no video, and only a million dollars a shot with no basing issues or rules of engagement to negotiate.  But, the same forces that made it easy to employ military force made it even easier to blunt the edge of combat airpower by providing the illusion of control.  The term “surgical precision” entered the lexicon, implying a level of control that did not exist.

As the focus on precision effects expanded, “weaponeering” became fashionable. Targets were matched with ordnance and aim-points to achieve the effect desired — a function that had long been the purview of the aviators executing the strike and not the operational planners who tasked it.  As the mentality shifted from targets to exact aim-points, software programs were developed to meticulously select and analyze targets using mathematical models to compute percentages of probabilities in order to determine the likelihood of meeting often-arbitrary damage and effect criteria. These were used at headquarters to nominate and garner approval from senior leaders, providing command elements with the illusion that airpower application was strictly controllable, and sanitary — questing for immaculate warfare.

The quest failed.  The so-called “bug-splat” programs were collections of averages and assumptions that bore no resemblance to the real world.  Bombs explode, throwing fragments and debris.  Blast-shattered glass causes gruesome injuries, combustibles burn, and buildings collapse.  People who were not nearby when a weapon was released became victims a mere 30 seconds later when the weapon arrived.  Weapons dud, ricochet, or broach in unintended directions. Collateral damage recurred, and recurred again, and kept on recurring.  The controllable use of force was anything but.

Limiting Precision

The use of precision weapons had dropped unintended casualties to levels unimagined mere decades before — but they had not dropped to zero — and anything more than zero became politically unpalatable.  And so the handcuffs emerged, in the form of increasingly higher levels of approval, often by individuals with no airpower expertise hundreds or thousands of miles from the engagement.  Because of the demonstrated ability of a precision weapon to limit unintended damage, particularly against civilian targets, they were wrapped in a semi-impermeable shield of risk aversion that limits their use.

This manifested itself in increasingly complex rules of engagement that became difficult to negotiate in the real world.  During the height of the 2010 Afghanistan surge, aircrew were burdened with no less than three additional layers of multi-page tactical directives and strategic guidance papers from multiple parallel theater commands, along with monthly tests and mandated group scenario discussions to ensure comprehension and compliance by operators — layered on top of legal rules of engagement and special instructions. By 2014 in Iraq, the handcuffs evolved further into an iron maiden, with Army generals mandating an airborne real-time video feed before personally granting approval for each and every air strike. If one of these generals were away from their desk (i.e. sleeping or at a meeting), the ISIL target lived to fight another day.  And, the potential warfighting value of seizing the initiative was lost.

The guiding philosophy changed:  Because we are able to minimize civilian casualties with precision weapons, we should eliminate them.  Our own leadership, historically enamored with the potential for limiting U.S. casualties by effective use of airpower, has mutated into insisting that we fight only “casualty-free” conflicts, where the umbrella of protection is extended everywhere.  Hays Parks, the key architect of the official Department of Defense Law of War Manual, states this in a bluntly obvious observation: “If you wish to assume responsibility for each civilian casualty incidental to a lawful attack, your enemy and others will let you.” Ironically, our warfighting capabilities are being held hostage to a fanciful, sanitized vision of war that has as its overriding goal not to hurt anybody.  Our hammer has become a feather.

Precision Handcuffs

“Do or do not; there is no try”

                                                                                                                   – Master Yoda

The quest for enviable levels of precision has stretched over more than half a century, arriving at the point where we can accurately place weapons within feet of our intended aimpoint, even in bad weather.  We have increased standoff distances, allowing accurate weapons delivery to be accomplished without closing to point-blank range.  In the process, we have constructed our own straitjacket, insisting in a level of precision effects that we cannot reliably deliver.  The political airpower aspect of precision is paradoxical:  While it was intended to minimize risk to U.S forces and quickly achieve objectives to end conflict, instead it is neutering our fielded forces, prolonging conflict, and increasing both the political risk and the risk to warfighters who go in harm’s way and yet cannot accomplish the mission.  The goal of minimizing unintended effects is both moral and necessary, but the expectation that we can eliminate them is unrealistic.  Combat is a nasty, dirty business — a violent manifestation of policy options that cannot be made clean, predictable or nice.  If the desired policy is to avoid unnecessary destruction, then avoid the military option as a policy choice.  Precision will not allow policymakers to avoid the ruin inherent in war — destruction is the handmaiden of war, the second horseman.  No one should long for war, but if a war is to be had, there is a responsibility to act swiftly and decisively to bring about its end and to accept the consequences of that choice rather than trying to avoid them. Airpower is not an easy way out.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.