War Stories

Direct Hits and Misses

What the Afghan war proves about weapons.

Immediately upon coming into office, President Bush and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld emphasized the need to thoroughly review America’s weapons. Rumsfeld went about this by convening dozens of panels of advisers. But then a more straightforward testing process presented itself: a war. So, how did U.S. weapons do and what can be learned from their performance?

The bull’s-eyes have it. There’s no question that the U.S. air campaign broke (er, blew up) new ground in accuracy. For the first time ever in the history of warfare, most of the weapons delivered got within a few yards of where they were aimed. The few really glaring exceptions to this seem to have come not from bad design or malfunction but from human error, such as when some Green Berets were killed by U.S. bombs (they apparently inadvertently gave their own coordinates as the target location), or when a Red Cross warehouse in Kabul was hit because it was mistakenly included on a target list.

This quantum leap in accuracy was clearly the key to the U.S. strategy of putting ordnance right where Northern Alliance forces needed it. Most of the bombs dropped so precisely in this campaign were old-fashioned unguided bombs that had been retrofitted with $20,000 kits enabling them to receive navigational inputs from the military’s satellite-based Global Positioning System. And many of them were guided by U.S. special ops soldiers using improved but also comparatively low-cost laser and infrared target designators and much-improved night-vision devices.

Oldies but goodies. The bulk of these bombs were dropped by long-serving Navy and Air Force tactical jets and, in the latter stages of the air campaign, by 1960s-vintage Air Force B-52 bombers, which are the only planes capable of carrying the really huge weapons dropped on the Tora Bora cave complexes. The B-52, according to former Pentagon testing chief Philip Coyle, was “spectacularly successful.” Also effective against Taliban and al-Qaida targets once U.S. air supremacy was established were the lumbering AC-130 aircraft, which are long-in-the-tooth too but heavily and very accurately armed.

Flattops still in. In the first phase of the war, Navy carriers provided much of the air power while the United States was still dickering with nations bordering Afghanistan over the right to establish air bases and flight paths. A carrier was also used to position the first contingent of special forces soldiers and their helicopters in-theater.

Droning on. The unmanned Predator aircraft provided a lot of battlefield targeting information, in the form of downlinked still shots and live video. Plus, these drones even scored a few hits on targets by launching their own missiles, a combat aviation first. The Predators were shown to have some problems—they are susceptible to icing, and their targeting sensors and communications devices are balky in bad weather—but their overall performance, taken together with that of the higher-altitude unmanned Global Hawk surveillance vehicle, made a strong case for further development of battlefield drones. This seems true even though both types of drones crashed—after all, even those failed flights produced intelligence without producing POWs.

In dubious battles. Other weapon systems used during the war worked as expected but didn’t have that much of an impact: B-1 bombers, Harrier jump jets, the bread-and-butter non-special-ops helicopters. The $236 million C-17 multipurpose transport plane was mainly used for humanitarian food drops. It wasn’t used to drop the paratroopers in that airfield raid the Pentagon quickly showed us video of—the much older and cheaper C-130 was used for that. That’s because the turbulence the C-17 leaves in its wake is a lethal threat to anyone trying to parachute out of it. Perhaps the most notable example of this category is the $2 billion-plus B-2 stealth bomber, which flew only six missions. The explanation for this seems to be that the planes’ stealth coating is degraded by too much exposure to the elements, which forces the Air Force to get them back to their special environment hangars in Missouri for scads of between-flight maintenance, which in turn means they need to fly really long missions, rendezvousing often along the way with distinctly non-stealthy tanker aircraft. And besides, since the half-baked surveillance radar systems of Third World countries like Afghanistan have proved to be rather quickly trumpable, who needs the B-2’s stealth against them anyway?

Missing, inaction. What’s more, there were some mainstay or glamour weapons that didn’t even show up: The F-117 stealth fighter, the M-1 tank, the Apache Longbow attack helicopter, and submarines. (A British submarine fired some Tomahawk cruise missiles on the first night of the war, a move widely seen as politically cosmetic, not tactically necessary.) And none of these no-shows were missed because the Taliban/al-Qaida threat didn’t call for them.

Cheap tricks. There is an obvious moral here but probably not the one the Bush administration will want to draw: The best thing to do, for the battles we are now most likely to wage as part of the anti-terror war, is not to throw R&D megadollars at the Next Big Boom but to perfect proven technology, and as cheaply as possible. The real stealth fighter isn’t a plane made of exotic materials—it’s a commando who can see in the dark. Those cheap upgrade kits turned dumb bombs into war winners. Those Air Force and Navy tactical jets that got so much of the job done are a generation old. The aircraft carriers we’ve already got can last for much of this century if the Navy puts money into their upkeep instead of into newer, fancier ones. Those Predator drones are much cheaper than the planes and the pilots they replace. The B-52s were bought and paid for long before any of their pilots were born and have been upgraded piecemeal ever since. The only major part of them that hasn’t been redone is the engine. And instead of spending more money on speed and stealth that just ends up sitting out wars anyway, why not do that next?