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What is ‘Precision Strike?’
May 1, 2017

What is ‘Precision Strike?’

By Bilal Khan

While the concept of “precision strike” has been in use since as far back as Vietnam War[1], the term became popular with the advent of the first U.S invasion of Iraq in 1991 and has been thrown around by defence analysts, military officials and government leaders ever since.[2] The general premise of the concept is the idea that a munition could strike its target so accurately that it would not only neutralize it, but it would do so with minimal collateral damage.[3]

The latter half of the premise (about collateral damage) is questionable, especially in the context of how it has been used to justify military doctrine that allows for intentionally engaging targets within dense civilian environments (a brief look at any of Israel’s recent incursions into Gaza is enough to ascertain this point). However, the point about accurately reaching the target is valid, and its importance in state-to-state encounters involving high-value targets in the form of dockyards, fuel depots, aircraft hangars and other capital infrastructure of use to an enemy’s military should not be ignored.

It would be difficult to cover this concept in its complete detail in one piece, especially in terms of the specific weapon systems involved (there are many!), but an attempt will be made here to offer a solid high-level idea of how this technology works as well as its history and development.

The origins of precision strike (or precision-guided) could be traced all the way back to the Second World War where the Germans employed manual command line-of-sight (MCLOS) gravity bombs such as the Fritz X.[4] After launch, the Fritz X unit was controlled via radio by an operator in the launch aircraft, who would guide the bomb to its target.[5] The Fritz X was used to great effect by the Germans against Allied naval ships, but as the Allies secured air superiority, Germany’s ability to use the Fritz X was gradually curtailed.[6] But the concept itself was solid, and it was built upon by the 1960s (particularly by the U.S) through the development and use of electro-optical (i.e. TV) guidance.

DAYTON, Ohio -- "Fritz X" Guided Bomb on display in the Air Power Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio — “Fritz X” Guided Bomb on display in the Air Power Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The AGM-65 “Maverick” was a major milestone in the development of precision-guided munitions (PGM). The first version, AGM-65A, was a TV-guided air-to-ground missile (AGM) where the pilot uses the televised feed from the missile to take aim at the target, upon firing, the missile’s onboard systems would ensure the missile hits its set target by matching the ongoing visual feed to the target’s image initially set by the pilot.[7] This effectively makes the AGM-65 one of the first (if not first) examples of ‘fire and forget’ PGMs, systems that free the pilot from manually managing the munition after launching it.[8]

An AGM-65 Maverick AGM.

An AGM-65 Maverick AGM.

In parallel to the AGM-65 Maverick, the United States was also developing the world’s first modern laser-guided bombs (LGB). Early LGBs (e.g. BOLT-117) and their modern day successors (such as the GBU-10/12/16) are essentially guidance kits attached to general purpose bombs (GPB), which transform unguided munitions into PGMs. LGBs function through the combination of the munition and laser-designator (serving as the targeting system). Today, the latter is often deployed through specially-designed targeting pods, but in the earliest days of LGB use, it was done through support aircraft or ground forces.[9] The designator “lights up” the target, the munition would strike the illuminated target.[10]

The Texas Instruments BOmb, Laser Terminal-117.

The Texas Instruments BOmb, Laser Terminal-117 aka BOLT-117.

Compared to early TV-guided munitions such as the Maverick, early LGBs were more accurate and cheaper to acquire, enabling the likes of the U.S Air Force to acquire them in large numbers.[11] In terms of accuracy, LGBs were a major step forward, demonstrating exponentially better accuracy than GPBs, with the Paveway (i.e. GBU) series reaching 48% accuracy against designated targets in the Vietnam War, compared to only 5.5% with GPBs.[12]  The Paveway series of LGBs was also used to immense effect in America’s first invasion of Iraq in 1991.[13] Whereas unguided bombs necessitated the use of wide area bombardment, which would involve more aircraft and sorties (i.e. resources), precision strikes enabled combat aircraft to become more efficient as standalone units. However, optical and laser-guided munitions are susceptible to failing in adverse weather conditions (which hamper visibility).[14] For more information on LGBs, be sure to check out our piece (link).

A GBU-22/24/27 Paveway III LGB.

A GBU-22/24/27 Paveway III LGB.

To address these issues, the U.S introduced INS (inertial navigation system) and satellite-aided guided munitions in the form of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a kit designed to retrofit GBPs into precision-guided bombs (PGB) or ‘smart bombs.’ INS or inertial guidance allows the munition to navigate to its target using accelerometers and gyroscopes (i.e. to ascertain movement, orientation, speed and trajectory) based on its originating location. But on its own, INS is liable to inaccuracy due to the accumulation of errors in-flight, thus necessitating satellite-based support to correct these errors, especially near terminal stage. As a result, a PGB kit such as the JDAM typically involves INS and GPS.[15]

Two JDAM units.

Two JDAM units.

The advantage of the JDAM and similar systems is that once the munition is launched, it is able to autonomously engage its target with practically no additional input by the pilot.[16] This is in stark contrast to LGBs which, while accurate, are dependent on supplemental support in the form of laser designators (e.g. targeting pods). The JDAM saw extensive use in the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003).[17]

This is absolutely by no means an exhaustive or particularly detailed piece on precision-guided munitions, but it should offer a fairly good general idea of the history of these weapons, their development, and their operational usage (as well as rationale). In time Quwa will explore more of the detailed specifics, especially the myriad of munitions of the past, present and future.

Epilogue/Author’s Notes

With PGM deployment in mind, it is important to question the discourse surrounding its efficacy in “minimizing collateral damage.” It is the author’s opinion that this line of reasoning is a means of justifying the use of military force in civilian environments, in which case, civilian casualties of some kind are an inevitability. In truth, the focus of PGMs is to maximize damage against designated targets.  PGMs enable their users to fully concentrate each and every one of their general purpose bombs (of which tens of thousands can be stockpiled) against their targets with little chance of wastage. Maximum destruction is the objective, and the best means of avoiding ‘collateral damage’ is to avoid engaging civilians at all, i.e. to not pull them into one’s military engagements.

References

[1] Barry D. Watts. “Precision Strike: An Evolution.” The National Interest. 2 November 2013: http://nationalinterest
.org/commentary/precision-strike-evolution-9347

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christopher P. Cavas. “Better Defenses Change Nature of Precision Strike Warfare.” 29 June 2015: http://www.
defensenews.com/story/defense/air-space/strike/2015/06/28/precision-strike-weapons-missiles-jassm-pgm-cruise-bob-work-rand-csba-mark-gunzinger-bryan-clark-warfare-bombs/29334345/

[4] Fritz X (X-1). Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?
object=nasm_A19840794000

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Note, this is a very simplistic and abbreviated summary, the following site offers a more thorough explanation.
AGM-65 Maverick. F-16.net: http://www.f-16.net/f-16_armament_article4.html

[8] “AGM-65 Maverick Tactical Air-Ground Missile.” AirForce Technology: http://www.airforce-technology
.com/projects/agm-65-maverick-tactical-missile/agm-65-maverick-tactical-missile1.html

[9] Dr. Carlo Kopp. “Smart bombs in Vietnam.” Milestones. Air Power Australia. September 2009: http://www.ausairpower.net/PDF-A/MS-PGMs-in-NVN-Sept-2009.pdf

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Max Boot. “From Saigon To Desert Storm.” American Heritage. November/December 2006. 57:6: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/saigon-desert-storm

[13] Barry D. Watts. “Precision Strike: An Evolution.” The National Interest

[14] Kopp. “Smart bombs in Vietnam.”

[15] Dr. Carlo Kopp. “JDAM Matures.” Australian Aviation/Air Power Australia. December 2002/January 2003: http://www.ausairpower.net/TE-JDAMPt1.html

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

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