Smart Bombs Over Iraq

Published in Z Magazine in April 2003

January 29, 2003 was the date that the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) was expected to launch. Those of us working on the last “great observatory” of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were getting ready to put decades of work to the test. If all went well, the spacecraft would be launched into orbit around the Sun to measure the infrared light from our own Milky Way and other galaxies.

In November 2002 we were told that the launch would be delayed until April. The reason was that a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite was taking the January 29 slot, and that a host of other military spacecraft needed to use that late January/early February launch window. Most of us didn’t question why the military would take precedence over science; the assumption was that someone somewhere was making the right decision. Our acceptance of the delay demonstrated the US space program’s “pecking order” in practice. This subordination allowed the Pentagon to field crucial tools in time for its conquest of Iraq.

The GPS vehicle was “the first in a flurry of military satellites” to go up prior to the expected US invasion. According to Lt Colonel Mike Rein, however, it has “nothing to do with the war.”(1) The conventional picture is that GPS technology is so widely available and so useful that the Air Force is helping us all by getting these satellites into orbit. After all, the Department of Defense (DoD) is just one of many users. According to Space News, “Car navigation is the most frequently used application of the system, while marine and military uses are the least used applications.”(2) After the recent Space Shuttle accident, the use of GPS to map precisely the debris path has been touted as a success of the US space program. Lee Meeks, a sales manager for Leica Geosystems, told the New York Times, “It’s really cool that the military put all those satellites up there so we can tie into this and get these positions.”(3) Major Mike Mason, chief of GPS operations at U.S. Air Force Space Command, emphasized that “GPS systems can be used by any person out there, whether it be my grandmother going in the car to the grocery store or Saddam Hussein.”(4)

But it is difficult to believe that automobile navigation was the main reason GPS displaced an astronomy satellite on the Cape Canaveral launch pad. The aerospace trade journal, Aviation Week and Space Technology, was more honest about why we needed to get the new satellites into orbit. Craig Couvault wrote, “The US Air Force is beginning to replenish the GPS, Milstar, and Defense Satellite Communications System constellations with critical spacecraft…to provide unprecedented warfighting capabilities to the US forces arrayed against Iraq.” Rather than to help ordinary people drive to the grocery store, the goals of the current “US Military space surge,” according to Couvault, are to “substantially bolster overall US military satellite bandwidth capability going into the critical February/March time frame, when an attack on Iraq could begin.”(5)

GPS technology is extremely useful in modern warfare, especially for bomb and missile guidance. In the most recent exercise of US military power, the bombing of Afghanistan, “The Pentagon’s weapon of choice has been the Joint Direct Attack Munition, a device attached to the tail of a 2000-pound bomb that enables it to be guided by a satellite-assisted Global Positioning System.”(6) GPS-guided weapons will also be the “weapon of choice” over Iraq. Rajat Baijal and Manoj Arora of the Indian Institute of Technology write, “With war clouds looming large over the west Asian region, the world is likely to witness…state of the art weaponry being used by the US led forces. Most of these, either directly or indirectly shall be using GPS to accurately target and achieve the desired results.”(7) The New York Times confirms this assessment. “The Pentagon’s war plan for Iraq calls for unleashing 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles in the first 48 hours of the opening air campaign…The initial bombardment would use 10 times the number of precision-guided weapons fired in the first two days of the Persian Gulf war of 1991.” The purpose of this onslaught would be “to stagger and isolate the Iraqi military and quickly pave the way for a ground attack to topple a government in shock.” Somehow this is to be accomplished so as to “limit damage to Iraqi infrastructure and to minimize civilian casualties.”(8)

“Precision-guided weapons” sound humane, and this is why the phrase is used in public descriptions of war plans. If nearly all weapons hit their intended targets (i.e., the “bad guys”), we don’t have to worry about the “wrong” people getting hurt. But the real reason so-called precision-guided weapons are the “weapons of choice” is because they allow the military to kill more people, not less. In this vein, GPS technology is referred to as a “force multiplier.” Maj. Gen. Gerald F. Perryman Jr. of the Air Force Space Command expressed it this way: “Our pilots are no longer tied to their target … they can ‘fire and forget’ thanks to the accuracy provided by GPS targeting and guidance systems … [P]recision-guided munitions allow one pilot on a single pass to take out several targets. This makes space technology a real force multiplier — it allows us to send fewer people to do the same job.”(9) It is not obvious that a strategy of “fire and forget” is compatible with minimizing civilian casualties, but it is clear that if one plane can “take out several targets” with the new technology, many planes can “take out” an unprecedented number of targets. The result is more violence with less effort.

The US record in Afghanistan makes clear the horrific consequences of GPS-enhanced “force multiplication.” A front page article in the New York Times declared, “Afghanistan will be remembered as the smart-bomb war.” The article touted the ability to target “terrorist safe houses and command centers hidden among schools, hospitals and homes in crowded urban areas,” but did not explain how Pentagon planners validated the intelligence behind urban targeting. It only boasted of “the Pentagon’s confidence about striking near civilians.”(10) Even if the intelligence is correct, however, most discussions of modern military technology ignore the fact that force multiplication implies error multiplication. According to a study done by the Los Angeles Times, “The American air campaign in Afghanistan, based on the high-tech, out-of-harm’s-way strategy, has produced a pattern of mistakes that have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians…[T]he Pentagon’s use of overwhelming force meant that even when truly military targets were located, civilians were sometimes killed.”(11) The study concluded that “as many as 400” civilians were killed by US air strikes in 11 locations studied. Since the US bombed over 40 locations, the overall civilian toll is certainly much higher.(12)

A US invasion of Iraq will likely involve even more bombing of crowded urban areas. But even when targets are far from cities, the results can be devastating. The village of Charykary, where 30 people were killed by “errant bombs,” illustrates the effect of force multiplication. A report hidden in the back pages of a Saturday edition of the New York Times told how the village was destroyed by US forces attacking Taliban soldiers on a ridge a half mile away. “The Americans bombed those positions [on the ridge] for days. Many bombs missed their mark. They landed on farmers and their families, flattening homes and killing people in bunches. Some died in flashes of heat and fire, others were crushed under rubble, and a few were killed by shrapnel.” One villager named Muhibullah told the reporter, “The United States killed my daughter and injured my son. Six of my cows were destroyed, and all of my wheat and rice was burned. I am very angry. I miss my daughter.” Another villager, Muhammad Usef lamented, “We thought this was a very safe place because we heard on the radio that the United States drops its bombs on its targets. If we knew how they missed, we would have run away from here.”(13)

The author is a staff scientist at the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) Science Center, California Institute of Technology. He is on the Board of Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission and his articles on US policy in Afghanistan have been published in Z Magazine.

1 Kelly Young, “Conditions for GPS satellite launch favorable,” 28 January 2003, Florida Today

2 Peter B. de Selding and Jeremy Singer, “US Government Pressures Europe on Galileo Spectrum,” 2 December 2002, Space News

3 Amy Harmon, “Even as it gazes toward the stars, the space program has broad benefits for those rooted to Earth,” 10 February 2003, NYT

4 Op. Cit., Young

5 Craig Couvault, “GPS, Milsatcom Assets Bolstered as War Looms,” 3 February 2003, Aviation Week and Space Technology

6 James Dao, “The New Air War: Fewer Pilots, More Hits and Scarcer Targets,” 29 November 2001, NYT

7 Rajat Baijal and Manoj Arora, “GPS: A military perspective,” 2001 Geographic Information Systems Pvt. Ltd. (India);

8 Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “War Plan Calls for Precision Bombing Wave to Break Iraqi Army Early in Attack,” 2 February 2003, NYT

9 Timothy Hoffman, “Space capabilities vastly improved since Gulf War,” 11 March 1998, Air Force News;

10 Eric Schmitt and James Dao, “Use of Pinpoint Air Power Comes of Age in New War,” 24 December 2001, NYT

11 Dexter Filkins, “Flaws in US Air War Left Hundreds of Civilians Dead,” 21 July 2002, LA Times

12 The most complete analysis of the civilian toll is that of Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire: “A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan”, Revised March 2002;

13 C. J. Chivers, “An Afghan Village Where Errant Bombs Fell and Killed, and Still Lurk in Wait,” 15 December 2001, NYT