Saturday, September 17, 2005

Precision Bombing and Imprecise Casualties

During the 1991 Gulf War the US military made much of the precision of their armaments, specifically bombs, against Hussein's forces and strategic targets. Careful post-war analysis showed firstly that guided bombs accounted for only 10% of the munitions expended and furthermore that guided weapons, though vastly improved over conventional "dumb" munitions still missed their targets around 50% of the time.

With the advent of the GPS guided JDAM system, bombs could finally be steered to within a meter or two of their intended targets. A JDAM is simply a conventional "dumb" bomb fitted with a relatively cheap GPS transponder that controls the bomb's fin steering to actively "fly" the bomb to an exact map coordinate rather than just being dropped in the target's vicinity.

This innovation is a boon to military commanders and to taxpayers alike. It considerably reduces the waste of conventional munitions and significantly reduces the need for sophisticated and very expensive missiles.

According to the military and their political friends a more accurate bomb is a "friendlier" bomb. Instead of missing it's target most of the time, a JDAM bomb will HIT it's target most of the time. Result? The bad guys get killed and "collateral' damage is minimized. Civilian casualties therefore are kept to a minimum, and war can be conducted on a more "humane" level. The notion of "precision bombing" therefore makes war more acceptable, especially to those who don't have to experience it first-hand.

But consider the "precision" bombing of Bagdhad. Specific locations were targeted and destroyed. Militarily the strikes were "perfect" and "minimized" the impact on civilians.

The trouble is, no matter how precise the targeting a bomb is inherently an indiscrimate weapon. Bomb casings are just containers for the explosive material, they are part of the destructive effect of the bomb. They are specifically engineered to fragment into pieces that will be accelerated to velocities around 4 times greater than regular rifle bullets. And unlike rifle bullets the bomb fragments are dispersed in a complete 360-degree radius.

The accuracy of a GP-guided JDAM is useful militarily, basically guaranteeing a direct strike on the desired target, just as a laser guides a sniper's bullet. But to ensure the destruction of the target a lot of explosives are used.
The smallest bomb in any military inventory these days weighs 250lb. Essentially half that weight is the bomb casing, half the explosive. 100 lbs of HE can throw a 6-ton vehicle 20 feet into the air, make a crater 6 feet deep and 25 feet wide and blast bomb case fragments for a mile ( not to mention the fragmentation of the target). So clearly , no matter how precise the targeting, the destuctive effect of such a bomb extends far beyond it's intended purpose.

In an urban target area despite the accuracy of GPS, civilians will be maimed and killed simply becuase civiilians will live and work within a mile of the target. And the 250lb bomb is the smallest one currently used. Indeed 500 lb bombs are more common amongst rich nations such as the US.

Of course "precision" bombing is preferable to the random effects of 'carpet bombing' but when it is a city being bombed rather than an army far removed from population centers the effect is the same. And in pretending that "precision"' bombing in an urban area is somehow effective and somehow "saves lives" is utter rubbish. A bomb is a bomb, it is indiscreet and it has no "life-saving" qualities whatsoever. For all the subtleties of directing a bomb to its intended target, the damage is never limited to that target. A bomb reaches out to everyone, in all directions and indiscriminately. Carefully designed and precisely guided, a bomb's impact is ALWAYS random, violent and uncontrolled.

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