Sunday, December 23, 2018

Precision Guidance

Precision guidance - the miracle of modern warfare!  We’ll be able to fight a war with one hundredth or maybe one thousandth the number of munitions we used to use, right?.  The military has embraced precision guidance (PG) wholeheartedly and without taking even a second to examine the wartime usefulness of such munitions.  Heck, why would they?  We can pick which window of a building for a missile or bomb to fly into.  We can pick which vehicle in a convoy to hit.  We can blow up a building and leave the building next to it untouched.  What possible downside could there be to precision guidance aside from a little more production cost which more than pays for itself in all the munitions that don’t have to be used because we can do the job with just one?

How do we know all this?  How do we know it will work in a real war?  We know because we’ve been using PG munitions in real combat scenarios since Vietnam in the 1960’s and Desert Storm in 1991.

There’s just maybe one slight, tiny, miniscule concern, though – none of the combat uses over the ensuing decades has been against a peer opponent.  That shouldn’t matter though, should it?  There’s no difference between an A-6E circling over a target while laser guiding a bomb to its target and an F-15E or F-35 circling over its target while laser guiding a bomb to its target, is there?  Is there? 

Well, let’s think about that peer opponent concept.  Historically, we’ve had the luxury of being able to leisurely circle above targets to provide the necessary laser guidance.  Is that going to happen against a peer opponent?  Would we allow enemy planes to casually circle over our bases, troops, and facilities and provide precision guidance for bombs?  I don’t think so!  Historically, bombing runs have been single, high speed passes – no loitering.  How are we going to deliver laser guided bombs in a survivable manner?  If our planes can’t leisurely circle over a target without getting shot down, we may find that those laser guided bombs are nowhere near as useful as we’ve come to believe.

Of course, we’ve been talking about bombs that are guided by the aircraft.  The option also exists to provide laser spotting from the ground.  Again, though, this presupposes a fairly benign environment in which the spotter can set up, acquire his target, and provide the necessary spot for the required length of time.  Is this realistic in a peer ground combat scenario?  

For starters, a spotter is limited to very short ranges from the target.  The spotter has to approach the target quite closely on a relative scale (line of sight).  Either the spotter is going to be limited to those few (or many if we’re being overrun!) targets to the immediate front or he’s going to have to attempt to penetrate enemy lines to reach spotting positions for targets beyond his line of sight.  Can a spotter successfully penetrate large scale, peer, enemy infantry and armored units to reach the desired position?  How would the spotter even know where a desirable position is without pre-knowledge of the target?  The reality is that in high end, peer combat a spotter will be limited to the few targets immediately in front of him that he can visually see.  Further, most of those targets will be moving, fleeting, and small.  A single tank would be an example of a likely target.  It’s nice to take out a tank but that’s definitely not the kind of high value, lucrative target that precision guided munitions are intended for.

This is radically different from a spotter in Afghanistan sitting in a mountain oversight position and casually dealing with occasional groups of Taliban.

There’s also the issue of time.  It takes time to visually identify a worthwhile target, set up the spot, communicate and coordinate with a circling aircraft (there’s that peer survivability issue again – there won’t be any circling, waiting aircraft to call on), and actually execute the attack.  That kind of time is readily available against a few roving bands of terrorists but will it be available in high end, frenetic combat against peer opponents who are pushing hard against our positions?  It seems extremely unlikely.

We’ve been talking about dumb gravity bombs that have been provided guidance packages but there’s another class of precision guided weapons that are long range and much more sophisticated.  These include Tomahawks, JSOW, JDAM, JASSM, JWhatever, and the like.  These weapons have a few common characteristics.

  • Their range allows the launching platform to stand off from the target and, to an extent, reduces the risk to the launching platform.
  • They require precise targeting coordinates, typically, a combination of GPS and inertial guidance.
  • They are expensive.

The cost precludes these weapons from area bombardment and limits them to individual targets.  However, those targets require exact coordinates and that raises an issue.  Who supplies the co-ordinates?  Where do the coordinates come from?  

We’ve grown used to UAVs leisurely circling an area and providing real time video and targeting data.  That’s simply not going to happen against a peer opponent.  Would we allow an enemy UAV to casually circle above us providing targeting data?  Of course not!  Why would we think a peer opponent will allow us to do that?  They won’t!  In short, we won’t have any survivable source of targeting data.  That B-2 bomber that has spent the last day flying all the way from some base in the US to launch long range, precision guided weapons is going to be asking for target coordinates and we won’t have any to give.

Yes, initially, we’ll have a list of known, fixed targets such as airfields, dockyards, factories, headquarters, etc. that can be readily targeted but attempting to support our forces with precision munitions in a fluid battle environment is going to be very difficult because none of the enemy forces will stay in one place long enough to establish coordinates, transmit the targeting data, coordinate the attack, and execute the attack.

The preceding discussion leads to one inexorable conclusion – on the active battlefield against a peer opponent, effective precision guidance will be limited to line of sight from the front lines – a hundred feet to a mile or two, depending on terrain, and then only against fixed targets or slowly moving targets (slow relative to the speed of the weapon).  Thus, small, portable anti-tank weapons (TOW and the like) will be effective because they can be rapidly employed against ‘fixed’ targets but 1000 lb guided bombs will be only marginally effective.

Consider this conceptual snippet of conversation between a ground unit under attack and a circling plane with a precision guided weapon attempting to help.

Infantry:  “Help!  We’re taking mortar fire.”

Aircraft:  “Give me the target coordinates.”

Infantry:  “I don’t have any coordinates!  It’s somewhere behind one of those hills in front of us.”

Aircraft:  “Without coordinates I can’t help you.  Call me when you have coordinates.”

The solution for this scenario is, of course, to call for artillery area bombardment and then, a couple of minutes later, the mortar no longer exists.

Without a doubt, precision guided weapons are useful and effective under the right circumstances.  But – and this is the big but – they will be nowhere near as useful as we’ve come to believe because we won’t be able to provide targeting to any useful extent on the active battlefield.

Here’s an example of the military’s misguided focus on precision munitions:

Wiki (“Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod”):  For target coordination with ground and air forces, a laser spot tracker, a laser marker, and an HDTV quality video down-link to ground-based controllers supports rapid target detection and identification.  –Seriously, does that sound like a rapid process to you?  Does it sound like a process that will stand up under peer combat?

Precision guided weapons are great for known, fixed location targets but are limited or nearly useless on the active battlefield.  This was always the inherent weakness with the Zumwalt (well, that and the million dollar projectile!).  It could only hit known, fixed targets and that’s not helpful for supporting engaged ground forces.

So far, we’ve been talking about geographical coordinate (GPS) and laser designation type targeting but there are other types of precision guidance such as electro-optical (EO) imaging and infrared (IR).  Those types of targeting do not require fixed geographical coordinates and can, to an extent, handle moving targets but they still require a reasonably accurate target fix prior to launch in order to avoid being wasted.

For example, EO guided weapons can be programmed to look for specific types of targets but unless the target location is known with a fair degree of assurance, the launch becomes an exercise in random chance and such weapons are too expensive to waste in such a fashion.  So, even EO/IR weapons suffer from the same targeting limitations on the active battlefield.

Targeting in high end, peer combat simply will not be readily available.  We’re going to find ourselves falling back on good, old fashioned, area bombardment weapons which are known as artillery.  Despite being able to anticipate this result, the US military is pouring most of its resources into ever more precise weapons and is downplaying the role of artillery.  We are not developing advanced artillery-delivered cluster munitions, thermobaric munitions, advanced self-propelled artillery, etc.


Precision guidance factoids:

-Wiki (“Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor”):  “The F-22 can also carry air-to-surface weapons such as bombs with Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance and the Small Diameter bomb, but cannot self-designate for laser-guided weapons.

-AAQ-14 LANTIRN Targeting Pod provides laser designation for the F-15E, F-16

-AAQ-33 Sniper Pod for F-15E and B-1B

-F-35 EOTS includes a laser designator


  1. For a time, the navy was investing in a (supposed) stealthy, penetrating ISR focused UAV under the UCLASS program. It's not an alternative to area bombardment, but a dedicated ISR UAV that can survive in a contested environment would go a long way towards making the precision weapons we've already spent billions on worth their deck space and $$$ in a peer war. Although you're 100% right that the most mobile platforms (tanks, SPGs, MLRS, and other "shoot and scoot" platforms) demand short range, rapid response infantry or artillery engagement, there are lots of moderately mobile targets that could be engaged by a standoff weapon with GPS (sometimes without EO/IR) targeting. Mobile SAM batteries and their mobile Radar/C4 platforms are a good example; they can be quickly set up or mobilized, but they're not quite fast enough to evade a GPS targeted missile if they were initially stationary, especially if the PGM is terminally EO/IR guided and the UAV doesn't need to illuminate the target or reveal itself (if stealthy enough) in the act of acquiring and delivering the targeting data.

    Even if the program had matured ideally (ha!), CNOps' statements about laser guidance are spot on, the platform would be most useful for relaying GPS coordinates for medium-mobility targets (which can be engaged by PGMs often enough to be worth flying the platform), and for spotting for artillery bombardments.

    More generally, this points to the USA having basically the same troubles on a grander scale that China faces in trying to target its ballistic missiles. In a peer war, we're perfectly happy to destroy anything that can see and be seen from our CVBGs. There's simply no hope of getting targeting data without flying an aircraft *well* into harm's way, and many weapons require it to stick around there for a bit. Generally, I think stealthy ISR platforms and supporting platforms and CONOPs are a legitimate answer to this issue, but enemy IADS make this a significant investment.

    1. " but they're not quite fast enough to evade a GPS targeted missile if they were initially stationary, especially if the PGM is terminally EO/IR guided"

      This is part of the thinking behind SDB II's multimode seeker. The manufacturer claims you can use it from beyond 150km against stationary targets, and from 70km against moving targets because in addition to GPS/INS you've got a multimode IR/milimeter wave radar seeker.

      "but enemy IADS make this a significant investment."

      On one hand, the IADS can't be everywhere, which means that you can use stealth to increase the area of uncertainty and give you more room to work with. On the other hand, the IADS can and will push back most of the large unstealthy sensor assets. If we look at the Serbian war, the Serb AD forces only shot down 2 NATO aircraft (and lost 2-3 obsolete mobile launchers of their own). However, the SAM risk was serious enough that drones and J-STARS had to fly suboptimal orbits, reducing their effectiveness, which allowed the Serb army to operate with greater freedom from prying eyes. The Serb AD couldn't keep NATO from hitting infrastructure targets, but they were able to tie up the air war and keep NATO from hurting their ground forces.

      And this was with launchers and systems that were considered obsolete in the late 90s, so just imagine now if you're going up against the S-300 and S-400 family...

    2. " The Serb AD couldn't keep NATO from hitting infrastructure targets, but they were able to tie up the air war and keep NATO from hurting their ground forces."

      Not even remotely true. NATO's number one objective was to not lose any personnel. Their number two objective was not cause any collateral damage. Actually accomplishing any military objective was, at best, a tertiary objective. It was NATO's unwillingness to actually engage that kept NATO assets out of range, not any effectiveness of the Serb air defenses.

      Statistically, NATO lost 2 aircraft out of some 30,000 sorties, as I recall. That's the epitome of an ineffective air defense system and/or proof an the extreme NATO desire not to lose anyone to a war no one cared about.

  2. "none of the enemy forces will stay in one place long enough to establish coordinates, transmit the targeting data, coordinate the attack, and execute the attack."

    This points either to a strategy of using these weapons entirely for stationary strategic targets (of which there are enough to assign all our long range PGM missiles and then some) or to a problem with the kill chain for PGMs. I don't think you like option A, and I don't either, so how do we fix the kill chain? What can reasonably be made faster, more reliable, etc?

    Establishing coordinates is fast once targets are observed, but initial observation and classification is limited by available ISR platforms. Transmitting data is very fast, taking a fraction of a second even with several trips around the planet at light speed (hyperbole intended). Processing that data at relays takes time, but not much and it can't be improved much. Command and control takes too long to turn this data into a strike plan, and it is critical to reduce this bottleneck - "how?" is a topic for a whole thread or post. Finally, executing the attack takes time to launch jets and fly them into range (if you're using air launched missiles), launch the missiles, and wait for the missiles to reach their targets. Admitting (as we should) that jets probably won't be loitering anywhere near the target, it's hard to see a way to improve this except with faster jets and missiles... but not impossible, and faster missiles are something CNOps certainly agree on for several roles.

    If we're talking about rapid response support for ground forces, we're usually talking about a planned assault. We don't need to know exact targeting data to know there will be targets in the AO. We certainly could pre-launch some long range missiles from medium range, have them loiter low and slow outside of the enemy IADS and/or behind terrain (not directly overhead), and cue them to targets as soon as C4ISTAR comes through with targeting data and a strike plan. Of course, faster missiles would improve response time further. This isn't a cure all and we can't use our whole PGM inventory this way, but it does make them a more viable ground support weapon *for certain medium mobility target*, as a supplement to artillery.

    1. Very nice couple of comments. Good observations and good points.

      "Command and control takes too long to turn this data into a strike plan,"

      Key observation! We need a short-circuited link directly between the observation asset and the shooting asset. Of course, that makes Command and Control very nervous (and makes one question their value!). This is analogous to calls for artillery support. The call is direct to the shooting unit rather than routed through multiple levels of command.

      I'd like to see our military exercise in a realistic manner and start finding out what works and what doesn't in a high end, peer combat situation. I strongly suspect (know for certain) that many systems we're counting on won't work the way we hope. Now is the time to find out.

      Really nice comments!

    2. In a COIN operation, direct link from ground forces to ISTAR and air strike assets is a recipe for civilian casualties. In a peer war, the same is a recipe for a pleasing Effect On Target and sufficiently efficient application of munitions - even in a contested environment.

      Unfortunately, the Pentagon has trouble envisioning a world where they pay for the hardware to enable direct links from ground to air forces (above what already exists), and train with this capability, and still don't employ it in COIN operations. It really shouldn't be used much in COIN, but it is *badly needed* for "ambitious" combined arms operations against peers.

      The trouble is, local data links may be about as vulnerable as "magic joint force networks" in a peer war. Designing even a "simple" infantry comm link, UAV sensor platform with comm link, strike platform with comm link network would require a thorough consideration of the PLA's ECM, EW, and cyber warfare capabilities. It may be that single platform sensor-effectors are the most reliable option in the face of complex EW, but I think there's hope for robust local data links.

    3. "In a COIN operation, direct link from ground forces to ISTAR and air strike assets is a recipe for civilian casualties."

      Why? Or, rather, why would it be any more of a danger than giving automatic rifles to individual soldiers? That's a direct link between the strike asset (the rifle) and the ground forces (the soldiers) and yet we don't consider that a recipe for civilian casualties or, at least, not an unacceptable recipe/risk.

      Maybe you'd like to expand on this a bit? You may be on to something but you need to think it through a bit more or explain it a bit more.

    4. In a COIN operation, ROE even for small arms is quite restrictive, requiring positive ID of a hostile target (phrased something like "bad guys have to shoot at you, not just have an AK") and requiring avoidance of civilian or "cultural" casualties - try not to empty your .50 belt into a house just because somebody in it is shooting, and definitely don't return fire on the guy shooting at you from a mosque. Of course this kind of restrictive ROE has no place in a peer war, but it does serve a purpose in COIN if you're doing the "hearts and minds" thing.

      Those rules are good enough and rifles are small enough that collateral damage from infantry operations is usually minimal or otherwise acceptable. Air strikes are another level of firepower. A "small" warhead can't help but kill everything within several meters, and larger ones have lethal radii in the tens of meters, basically killing everyone in a building. If and only if you're doing a "hearts and minds" COIN operation (seems to be nearly the only kind the USA does these days), that level of firepower demands thorough evaluation by a team in a command center dedicated to avoiding the kind of Iraq Daily Gazette headlines that make new enemies.

      There are many situations, even in urban COIN where an entire building or other fortified position is clearly devoid of noncombatants or the threat posed by the combatants outweighs our desire to avoid civilian casualties, and those are situations in which we already do use air strikes with limited command intervention.

      Also I should have been more clear, specifically I think direct links *and* training with the kind of ROE required to be effective in peer war is a recipe for civilian casualties. Even if you change the ROE for COIN, you're still going to make some overzealous JTACs who have been conditioned (if the training is any good) to get PGMs on target as soon as they have targeting data, because they're training for peer war, for high mobility targets of opportunity.

  3. The RQ 180 was/is designed to fly in contested space. We have been building them since 2014. How many, I have no clue. Is this not a credible answer to the PG problem? What am I missing?

    1. The RQ-180, assuming it even exists, is a fascinating platform and concept. No one knows but it is thought to be similar in appearance to the X-47 but quite large with a 130+ ft wingspan. As you state, it is intended to be a stealthy, survivable penetrator. The question is, is it? It's one thing to survive against low end threats but another to survive over a battlefield that has all manner of sensors (EO, IR, IRST, radar of various freqs, eyeballs, etc.) present and that has enemy aircraft crisscrossing the skies (eyeball). Do you believe that an enemy stealthy UAV could remain undetected LONG ENOUGH over our forces to provide useful targeting data? I find it unlikely but who knows? The sheer density of sensors and assets would seem to argue against any asset remaining undetected for long.

      Penetration THROUGH an enemy airspace is one thing (you can plan and maneuver around threats and sensors) but loitering over a battlefield is a much harder challenge in my mind.

      What do you think?

  4. The CSBA group is pushing for the RQ 180 to be fitted with a 150KW
    laser. I believe it can fly unrefueled for over 24 hours. Its huge.

  5. I will adopt your strategy of making stuff expendable and make so many it won't matter how many we lose. I have no idea how much NG charges for these things. I willing to bet its ridiculous.

  6. Anybody know if you can spot and know when you are hit with a laser for targeting? I think it's possible, I'm pretty sure some goat herder in Yemen or Afghanistan don't know when they are being lazed by US SOF BUT what happens when you do the same to the Russians or Chinese? How long will it take them to notice and send artillery down range on that US SOF spot? How long will SOF/SEALS survive when they are in close proximity to peer forces? Same thought applies to everything that lazes, how long will they survive against a peer that spots the laser or the drone? Anyone believe Reapers or Global Hawks will survive for more 24 hours against China?

    1. @NICO laser warning receivers exist and function on the same principle as radar warning receivers. They are small passive IR sensors that detect strong IR signals (lasers, not engine heat), emit a warning, and in many cases can give a bearing (usually not range) for the illuminating laser pointed at it. This is precisely why I said any ISR UAV would be more useful for providing GPS targeting data than as an IR spotter. There's no signal to detect when an enemy UAV spots you and relays your coordinates, unless you're intercepting (and have decrypted) enemy communications.

    2. @luke: the flipside to that is that not everybody has laser warning receivers, but you're right that GPS targeting data would be better than an laser spotter, sice GPS means your spotter can move on to the next point instead of waiting until your LGB impacts. Ofc it depends on exactly what the target is.

    3. Except that the UAV is emitting EMR by relaying coordinates and therefore will be detected by ESM. And they don't need to decrypt the signal to jam it.

      There's also the issue of cost vs. number of UAVs. Stealthy = expensive and large platform = expensive++ so you won't have a lot of these. Where will you use them?

      And the perverse logic of combat dictates that the more effective a platform or technique is, the more incentive the enemy has to develop counters to it. One of my pet peeves is that it seems like the US MIC never recognizes the back and forth nature of combat and weapon development.

      For example, smoke still works and is cheap compared to a PGM.

  7. New tech

    1) A new era of cheap PGMs?
    What has not been mentioned in recent years using AI computers have got shockingly good at recognizing images and there's evidence that the new software actually works in a similar way as the human visual system.

    Many uses, one can think of using equivalent Apple A11/A12 chip with neural engine, fitting them to larger artillery shells, rockets or even to thousands of quadcopters, top three quadcopters drone companies are Chinese.

    2) Another example of new tech on the immediate horizon is the hypersonic glide strike missile, Chinese have carried out many dozens of test flights and as far as know no counter to them, will be more challenging than intercepting ballistic missiles.

    1. Yeah, but camo, flares and smoke are all cheaper than developing an AI equipped munition that the enemy will capture and reverse engineer in the first week of fighting (assuming they don't have it before the fighting).

      I'm still unconvinced about hypersonic glide strike missiles for various reasons. One reason being the targeting and tracking of mobile targets seems to present a major obstacle to employing them without strategic warheads. IMO they are more of a doctrinal threat and sea area denial system than a war winning magic bullet. They basically prevent the US from deploying carriers off your coast during the ramp up to fighting.

    2. "They basically prevent the US from deploying carriers off your coast during the ramp up to fighting."

      Very interesting position.

    3. Same idea as minefields in ground combat. You don't really expect to stop an attack with a minefield, you want to either canalize the attack towards a particular place or you want to slow down the attack by forcing the enemy to sweep for mines.

      Which also links back to your MCM post.

      In this case, if tensions escalate over Taiwan, the US can't station carriers in the immediate area without considering they would be at risk from a sudden missile strike. Even keeping a CVBG an extra 200 nm from the combat zone cuts way into it's efficiency and sortie rate.

    4. " You don't really expect to stop an attack with a minefield"

      Actually, this can happen with regards to amphibious assaults. Iraq stopped our planned amphibious assault during Desert Storm with mines. We, after the fact, claimed that it was a just a diversion but it became a diversion only when we realized we couldn't deal with the mines. Inchon, in the Korean War, was almost stopped by mines.

      Anyway, the part that caught my interest was the use of mines to force carrier groups to reposition much further away. That would require open ocean mining which is a challenge since the area to be covered is so huge but it would only take a few detected mines over a broad area to scare off a carrier group - a very interesting use of mines and, potentially, a very useful result.

    5. Sorry, should have written "you don't plan to destroy all of the attackers with mines". There are numerous stories of ground attacks bogging down when troops hit a minefield. The minefields in the Dardanelles did sink a number of ships, but more importantly they caused the Allies to give up trying to force the strait by naval force which led to the landing of troops at Gallipoli.

  8. Taking a moment before things get all too busy wishing you and your readers a Merry Christmas.

  9. Having seen a little of the sausage-making on this, the issue isn't precision munitions, the issue is that without cluster and other methods restricted by various treaties, the inventory does not exist to sustain area denial against a peer for longer than a few weeks, if that. To get the most out of a limited inventory requires precision--which now requires an increasing amount of not-yet-mature magic technology that may be ready in five years even though the engineers were making the same promise of readiness five years ago.

    1. "Having seen a little of the sausage-making on this"

      I'm intrigued. What aspect have you seen and what, exactly, has it told you?

      Your point about cluster munitions and the like is certainly valid but your conclusion about inventory and precision needs some more explanation. For example, you didn't address the costs of precision versus the costs of 'dumb' area munitions or the inability to provide targeting on a fluid battlefield.

      Please, expand on your thoughts!

    2. This came from an Army Acquisitions brief from a couple years back, where the Army rep was bemoaning the inventory issues. My role was in the magic technology. Basically, the Army was doubling down on precision because of inventory shortages and legal restrictions. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the rationale for not producing more dumb shells, just that the Army rep said they would need at least an order of magnitude more shells than in stock for non-precision, non-cluster artillery operations. (The Army really wants cluster back.)

    3. The military seems focused on the arithmetic of the one-target, one-munition concept of precision guidance while ignoring the targeting and timing challenges.

      I discussed the targeting issues in the post but there is also a time element. Let's say you're engaged with a fast moving, enemy armored division. There will be 10,000 soldiers and thousands of vehicles of all types. A precision guidance kill chain can process, perhaps, 10 targets per hour (finding, id'ing, assigning to a strike asset, getting into place, executing … it all takes time). You'll be long overrun before the precision guidance systems can even make a negligible dent in the armored division. Let's face it, there are times when the only viable solution is good, old fashioned, area bombardment and lots of it.

      "There's a division in front of me! Just blanket the area with explosives. You're bound to hit something! Who cares about individual targets?"

      Precision guided weapons are great for high value, fixed targets but of limited use on a fluid battlefield.

      So, the inventory issue shouldn't be addressed by more precision guided weapons - that will just exacerbate the problem - but by more cheap, dumb weapons. The Army guy was totally wrong and clearly hadn't thought through how a peer war will be fought. Not surprising since the military leadership has not thought it through. Our current leadership has been professionally raised on police actions not total war.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.