War Stories

JDAM the Torpedoes

The weapons and tactics we will use in Iraq.

The JDAM: fulfilling years of overstated promises
The JDAM: fulfilling years of overstated promises

According to CBS News, an attack on Iraq will begin with 300 cruise missiles aimed at Baghdad. According to Newsweek, an attack would begin with 3,000 bombs dropped across the country. According to the New York Times, the attack will commence on a moonless night. According to the Washington Post, air and ground offensives will begin simultaneously. According to USA Today, U.S. tanks could reach Baghdad in just 48 hours. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, Iraq tactics will be influenced by a Pentagon study of how New York City reduced street crime. According to rumors I heard from people who sort of know this stuff, the initial air assault will focus on Tikrit as much as Baghdad.

With war against Iraq approaching, it is well to bear in mind that “rumors I heard from people who sort of know this stuff” is the sourcing for 95 percent of speculation about what is in store. Nevertheless it seems possible to make reasonable forecasts of how an assault on Iraq might go. The air campaign is likely to be dramatically different from the Gulf War, because air weapons and tactics have evolved significantly since 1991. A land campaign, by contrast, may not differ materially from 1991. Army and Marine weapons have not changed much, although advances have been made, including new technology for what the Pentagon internally calls “network-centric warfare,” a catchphrase you may hear often this spring.

And while the very latest in warfare may be employed against Iraq, millennia-old military techniques might also be used. Coalition ground forces may surround Baghdad and then pitch camp to await Saddam’s surrender: a high-tech update of the ancient tradition of Fertile Crescent war, in which one king positioned his infantry outside the gates of another king’s city and simply waited.

In the Gulf War, American and British planes bombed Iraq for six weeks with only a middling result. Most armor, especially the elite Republic Guard units, survived the bombardment, while Saddam’s weapons-production and atomic facilities were damaged but not destroyed.

The 1991 air campaign had a middling result because about 90 percent of the ordnance was unguided “dumb” munitions, which often miss. Those much-promoted videos of smart weapons striking exactly on target depicted the exception; fewer than half the munitions used during Desert Storm hit home. In 1991, heavy bombers at high altitude dropped dumb iron bombs only, while smart munitions were launched one at a time by fighter bombers such as F-15s and F-18s flying relatively close to their targets.

Subsequent American air campaigns have relied increasingly on smart weapons. In Kosovo, about half the ordnance dropped was precision-guided; by Afghanistan, about two-thirds was; if Iraq is attacked again, about 90 percent of bombs are expected to be smart. Use of precision munitions is increasing in part because the falling price of electronics has made this class of weapons one line-item in the Pentagon budget that’s getting cheaper. As recently as the Gulf War, smart munitions cost $250,000 to $1 million apiece; the new smart bomb that debuted in Afghanistan, called JDAM, costs around $20,000. While getting cheaper, smart munitions have also gotten more effective. According to Pentagon analysis, about 80 percent of smart bombs struck within a few yards of their aim points during the Afghan conflict, dramatically better accuracy than in any prior air campaign.

Equally significant but less well understood is that new precision munitions are used in different tactical ways. The JDAM bomb is designed to fall from high altitude, above the range of anti-aircraft missiles and artillery, yet strike more precisely than previous smart munitions delivered by harrowing low-altitude runs. This and similar new weapons are self-guided by signals from the very accurate Global Positioning System. Self-guidance eliminates the need for the pilot of the plane launching the smart bomb to lay eyes on the target or “paint” the aim point with lasers. Using the new self-guided smart ordnance in Afghanistan, U.S. forces conducted the first high-altitude precision strikes in military history. They will do the same again if Iraq must be attacked again, raining down extremely precise bombs from planes that defenders may never even see.

The ability to strike accurately from high altitude appears finally to fulfill decades of overstated promises about precision bombing. This new ability further means a significant percentage of ordnance can be borne to targets via heavy bombers with entire racks of bombs, rather than aboard fighter-bombers that typically bear two air-to-ground munitions per flight. Lots of smart bombs aboard heavy bombers means the bombing punch can come fast and furious, rather than at the drip-drip-drip pace of the Gulf War.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers told reporters yesterday that the U.S. planned to “shock” Iraq into a quick surrender. Military planners speak of “shocking” an opponent in the early hours of an assault, as blitzkrieg tactics shocked the French army into collapse in 1940. Air warfare has imposed much sorrow and destruction but never itself stunned a nation into quick capitulation. In 1991, bombs came gradually to Iraq and often missed; Iraqi planners may be expecting a repeat performance. If instead large numbers of bombs fall very precisely during the first nights of an attack, the Iraqi professional military may be stunned into suing for peace.

Accuracy also allows new smart bombs to work with less blast. Many targets that in previous air campaigns would have been “assigned” several 2,000-pound warheads will now be struck by a single 1,000-pound or 500-pound bomb. (An unfinished smart-munition project is even called “small diameter bomb,” heralding an era in which the Pentagon actually works to make weapons less destructive.) Smaller warheads mean less unintended damage and permit aircraft to carry more weapons per mission, increasing the shock-inducing sense that bombs are raining down everywhere.

During the entire Gulf War, only 330 bombs and missiles hit within Baghdad. Today, heavy bombers carrying racks of very accurate JDAMs might deliver more ordnance to Baghdad in a single night than fell on the city in the whole of the 1991 conflict. Even hard-hearted Iraqi leaders may find this shocking.

What of “e-bombs”? Expected to debut if Iraq is attacked, these new devices may become a fixation of TV commentators, à la the Predator drone of the Afghan campaign. E-bombs emit high-energy electromagnetic waves, simulating over a small area the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion: In theory, they can fry out electronic circuitry. Futurists have been predicting electronic war, and if e-bombs succeed, perhaps that age will arrive. In the futurist vision, pulses from e-bombs cause anything that contains computer chips to wheeze to a halt, winning without widespread devastation and allowing low-cost reconstruction—just replace the chips! In tests, however, e-bombs have been underwhelming.

Another new aerial weapon is an anti-tank “skeet” munition. In the Gulf War, coalition planes had two ways of busting armor: The A-10 anti-tank aircraft could fire its cannon, or fighter-bombers could launch smart missiles called Mavericks. Both required aircraft to target an individual tank and fly straight toward it, a risky proposition; also, in practice, an aircraft on anti-tank assignment could hope to destroy one piece of armor per mission. During the air war that preceded the 1991 ground offensive, Iraqi armor was degraded but hardly neutralized. Progress was sufficiently slow that even anti-tank pilots described what they were doing as “tank plinking.”

Skeet may change this. Rather than seek individual tanks, pilots will launch these weapons into the general area of enemy armor. The skeet bomb breaks up into small, self-guided “submunitions” that slam into any large object emitting heat. In theory skeet bombs will enable one aircraft to destroy many tanks without the pilot flying close enough for the other side to return fire.

Then there’s the question of what to bomb. An air assault may follow the standard U.S. tactic of first concentrating on air defenses and communications—or may first concentrate on the homes of Saddam’s core backing in Tikrit. This city north of Baghdad is the stronghold of the Baath Party, traditional source of Iraq’s thugs. Suppose an attack on Iraq began with highly accurate bombs blowing up the estates and other possessions of the regime’s wealthy supporters. This might accelerate the knife into Saddam’s back faster than any other tactic.

While an air assault on Iraq will employ many new weapons, U.S. ground weapons are little changed since the Gulf War. The big Army and Marine acquisition programs of the last decade—the Comanche helicopter, the Osprey tilt-rotor, and the Crusader advanced howitzer—have been fiascos, either canceled or years behind schedule. Apache attack helicopters now mount a better targeting system than in 1991, and improved Patriot missiles offer hope of shooting down Scuds. Otherwise a land offensive against Iraq would be carried out by the same Abrams main tanks, Bradley light tanks, and various support weapons used in the Gulf War.

That armor was overpowering in 1991 and may prove so again. The Abrams is the world’s best tank, with a fire-control system so accurate that in the Gulf War most Abrams gunners destroyed their target Iraqi tanks on the first shot. (During World War II, tank gunners averaged 18 shots per hit.) Historically, 96 percent of American combat deaths have occurred in “the last mile,” when U.S. and enemy units have closed within a mile of each other. Because the Abrams gun has about twice the range of the best Iraqi tank, during the Gulf War few Iraqi units managed to get within a mile of an American unit—one reason U.S. casualties were low.

Some 235,000 U.S. troops are expected to be in the “theater” for a second attack on Iraq, about half as many as 1991. But as the retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales Jr. notes in Yellow Smoke, ever-smaller infantry units with ever-more-accurate arms have been a trend for nearly 150 years. At Gettysburg, Scales writes:

Both sides adhered to doctrinally correct Napoleonic frontages of about 26,000 men per mile. By World War I, the improved precision of rifled arms had forced armies to disperse to about 4,000 men per mile. In the European theater of operations in World War II the figure was about 1,000 and in the Gulf War about 240.

Smaller land forces may use the same main weapons than in 1991, but support gadgets are way better. In 1997, the Army conducted an “Advanced Warfighting Experiment” at its war games facility in California. The purpose was to determine if data links would alter combat. For instance, military units often travel close together—thus controlling less territory while offering a tempting target—in order to communicate better. In the Advanced Warfighting Experiment, units were equipped with “net-centric” devices—essentially, a tactical Internet—that dramatically improved communication. Tacticians realized this meant units did not have to stay close together. Once widely spread but still acting with knowledge of each other’s moves, the war-game forces became much more effective.

If Iraq is attacked again, considerable “net-centric” apparatus will debut. One new system enables all fighter pilots to see the same AWACS-generated projection of the local sky. Laptoplike devices will allow infantry officers to view information being collected by a new radar plane called JSTARS. Previously, surveillance data would be transferred to the rear for analysis and not reach active companies for hours or days. Gizmos similar to Blackberries will allow individual soldiers to know exactly where they are and quite a bit about where their comrades are. In 2001, a surprisingly small U.S. force routed the Taliban and al-Qaida on its home turf—where similar forces once repulsed a sustained Soviet heavy attack—in part because U.S. units held an incredible information edge. If Iraq is attacked again a large force will hold an even greater edge.

In 1991, there were widespread predictions of extensive American casualties in the Gulf War; instead Desert Storm was a walkover. Today everyone expects a second Iraq attack to be a walkover, making it wise to bear in mind that many things could go wrong. Worrisome geopolitical prospects have been much discussed. Bad news could be military, too.

Consider that during the Gulf War, Iraqi commanders navigated using charts and thought it insane to venture into the desert proper, where even those with a compass easily become disoriented. Saddam’s officers kept forces on or near roads and set defenses for attackers approaching along roads. Navigating with GPS, U.S. commanders stunned Iraq by heading straight into open desert and attacking from behind in places the Iraqis thought secure because there were no roads. Also, because Iraqi armor stayed near roads, the coalition always knew where to find enemy tanks.

Iraq may not have been able to acquire new weapons in the last decade owing to sanctions, but surely little GPS transponders have slipped through. There might be nasty consequences if American officers once again assume Iraqi forces will always be found on or near roads, only to have a counterattack emerge from the open desert.

The question of whether to enter Baghdad is also complicated. In open spaces, the Abrams tank and the tanklike Bradley are nearly invincible. But moving through city streets, even the best armor becomes vulnerable. Moscow was able to suppress dissent in the old Eastern bloc by rolling tanks through cities, and the Israel Defense Force rolls armor through the West Bank; tanks within cities work in these cases because local populations lack anti-tank rockets. There will be anti-tank weapons in Baghdad. And the inevitable news footage of Iraqi civilians fleeing in terror before enormous, sinister U.S. tanks will hardly advance America’s cause in the Islamic world.

Which suggests that if U.S. attackers do end up racing to Baghdad, they should encircle the city and stop, waiting for those within to yield. There is a historical precedent for this in Iraq. It worked for Nabopolassar at the gates of Nineveh in 612 B.C. It might work again this spring.