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
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