"Smart Bombs" Change Face of Modern War

February 18, 2005

This week marks the 60-year anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, Germany, when Allied aircraft unleashed a massive bombardment that left tens of thousands dead and devastated the city.

"During WWII civilian casualties were not 'collateral,'" said John Pike, founder and director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy Web site in Alexandria, Virginia. "Some people were squeamish about it, but killing large numbers of civilians was [often] the [military] plan."

In March 2003, during the first two days of the United States-led invasion of Iraq, coalition aircraft dropped more bombs than were used in the first two months of the 1991 gulf war.

Military and strategic locations across Baghdad were decimated during the recent conflict. But civilian casualties remained in the low hundreds, according to U.S. military estimates—a comparatively low figure by historic standards.

Today's so-called smart weapons—weapons that can be very specifically targeted—appear to have changed more than just the tactics of war.

Ivan Oelrich is a strategic weapons analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. He said that during World War II "in general it was thought to be a legitimate action to send B17s in fleets to bomb German cities."

"If we'd done that in Baghdad, it would have been widely condemned as a war crime," he said. "Because we can do better."

Intelligence Target

By the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, laser-guided weapons were in widespread use and accounted for about one in ten bombs dropped by U.S. and coalition forces. In the ensuing years, the technology has advanced even more.

Current GPS guidance systems now allow long-range targeting of individual buildings. The streets of Baghdad today are pocked with razed structures whose neighbors stand unscathed on either side.

But such technology has its limitations. For starters, planners must know which building to hit.

"The problem now is not putting a weapon on the aim point, but it's figuring out the aim point," said Stephen Biddle, research professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. "If you can tell me precisely that Osama bin Laden is at a certain longitude and latitude, we can put a lot of explosives on that point."

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