Bombs Awry!: The Imprecision of ‘Precision’ Bombing

July 9th, 2003 - by admin

by Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War – An EAW Investigative Report

The US had two competing versions of its attack plan for invading Iraq. One proposed a “precision bombing” campaign that would keep civilian casualties to a minimum; the second was a “Shock and Awe” strategy that would leave the country reeling under the onslaught of thousands of bomb and missile strikes in a continuous 48-hour barrage.

You can’t have it both ways. In the aftermath of the aerial bombardments of Basra, Baghdad and Tikrit, human rights groups have demanded to know why so many innocent civilians were blown apart and maimed by our state-of-the-art killing technology.

On March 26, a coalition weapon killed 14 civilian shoppers in Baghdad’s Al Sha’ab district. Three days later, on March 28, a US bomb exploded at the al-Nasr market in northwest Baghdad, killing at least 58.

In some cases, the technology simply malfunctioned. This supposedly explains why US Patriot missiles managed to shoot a British Tornado bomber and US Navy Hornet out of the sky and why a number of errant missiles missed Iraq entirely and wound up hitting Syria and Iran (twice). On March 24, a US missile killed five civilians riding in a bus inside Syria. On March 21, a stray US missile happened to streak into Iran and land on top of an Oil Ministry building near the border and on April 8, a US air-to-ground rocket hit Iran, killing a 13-year-old boy.

Pentagon officials claimed that around 10,000 Iraqi sites were removed from the target list because they were “sensitive” — i.e., too close to civilian, cultural or archeological sites. And still, US bombs managed to fall on schools, museums, a children’s hospital and packed civilian marketplaces.

As the US rain of bombs thundered down on non-military targets around Baghdad, one frantic resident speaking live over telephone lines from Baghdad told listeners tuned to Pacifica Radio’s “Flashpoints” that US bombs had hit Baghdad University, the National Museum, several hospitals and “the oldest school in the world.”

Too Much of a Bad Thing
The problem, it appears, is that the US used far too many bombs, rockets and missiles than were needed to achieve the stated objective. When rockets are launched and bombs are dropped, a certain percentage will go awry. It’s a simple equation: The more weapons you drop, the larger the number of off-targets you are likely to hit.

In the first week of the attack, the US launched some 750 cruise missiles, 15,000 precision-guided “smart” munitions and 7,500 “dumb” bombs. (The Iraqis, on the other hand, managed to lob around 14 aging Ababil-100 missiles in the general direction of US encampments in Kuwait.)

The Pentagon admits that 10 percent of its “smart” bombs can be expected to fail owing to human error (incorrectly entered targeting commands) or mechanical malfunctions (steering fins failing or falling off). That means 75 cruise missiles (with explosive payloads peaking at 2,000 pounds) were expected to land God-knows-where while as many as 1500 “smart” bombs could go AWOL.

In the 1991 Gulf War, Australian Broadcast Corp. reporter Peter Lloyd noted in a recent broadcast, “roughly one-third of missiles hit their target, one-third missed altogether and the rest didn’t even detonate.” Despite launching more than 36,000 aerial strikes during the 43-day war, the GAO determined that it took, on average, four tries to destroy a given target. And in 20 percent of the cases, it took six smart bombs to do the job.

“Smart bombs” have proven next-to-useless for destroying weapons of mass destruction. As Fred Kaplan noted in a February 20, 1998 Boston Globe report: “UN [inspection] teams have destroyed far more of Iraq’s arsenal than Desert Storm’s air strikes did — 38,000 chemical weapons, 480,000 liters of chemical agents, 48 missiles, 20,000 liters of biological agents.”

In the 1999 war in Kosovo, only 40 percent of Britain’s “smart bombs” hit their targets. During its 12-year bombing campaign against Iraq’s air defense facilities, US “smart bombs” managed to hit the Iraqi radar sites a scant half the time. The Washington Post reported that these weapons generally missed their targets by more than 330 feet.

The Pentagon initially claimed that 80 percent of the rockets fired in Gulf War II would be “smart” weapons guided by lasers or GPS data. But subsequent figures suggest that as many as 48 percent of the weapons fired in the invasion’s first week may have been “moron munitions.”

But even with “smart bombs” there’s a problem and it has to do with the way the Pentagon measures a bomb’s targeting “IQ.” When a rocket or missile is said to be capable of striking “within three meters” of its target, the Pentagon is using a standard known as the weapon’s CEP (for “Circular Error Probable”). But all this measure requires is that a CEP-certified weapon land within 10 feet of its target half of the time.

A $1.3 million Tomahawk cruise missile, with a CEP of 10 to 30.5 meters would be expected to strike within 60 to 200 feet of its intended target. And that’s the best-case scenario. Put another way, that means that one out of every two cruise missiles is expected to miss its target by at least 200 feet, or two-fifths of a city block.

And even when a weapon hits smack on target, the damage is not limited to a discreet parameter. Scott Kerr, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq during the US bombardment, attests to deadly repercussions of even the most accuracy of these incredibly powerful explosive weapons. In an April 2 article published on, Kerr called the accuracy of the US bombs “incredible. But,” he added, “what people don’t realize is that each bombing blows out all the glass from the windows for two or three blocks around the bomb site. That’s what’s causing most of the injuries.”

The blast-effects from the bombs in the US’ modern arsenal are so intense, Kerr reported, that “these gusts can blow out birthday candles even when the bomb falls several miles away.”

Despite its glowing publicity for the new, improved Patriot missile, the truth is that this weapon is incapable of intercepting incoming missiles on a one-to-one basis. In order to hit a single incoming rocket, US troops need to fire a swarm of Patriots. The technique is called “ripple-fire.” The hope, as the Washington-based Center for Defense Information explains, is that the missiles’ “lethality will be increased simply by sheer dint of numbers. The ripple-fire method is more or less how the Patriot was designed to be operated.”

Promoted as a “precision” weapon, the Patriot is actually just an expensive, high-tech version of buckshot.

Shocked and Awestruck
Not only did the US use too many bombs overall, it used too much explosive power in specific instances. In part, this was a result of Pentagon public relations. The DOD had promised to deliver a “shock and awe” spectacle the likes of which the world had never seen.

The Pentagon’s “shock and awe” cavalcade kicked off a day early, on March 19, when four bunker-buster bombs were dropped on an unsuspecting civilian neighborhood where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was believed to be sheltering. The Iraqi leader apparently left the area several minutes before the bombs arrived, so the costly bomb-drop mainly succeeded in leveling a slew of residential homes and killing an unknown number of innocent Iraqis.

Operation Iraqi Freedom marked a turning point for the Pentagon. For the first time, the US made the “targeted assassination” of a foreign leader, his family and particular individuals, a matter of explicit policy.

(In 1986, President Ronald Reagan attempted to kill Libyan leader Muammar Quadhafi by bombing his home, but the bombs only succeeded in killing one of Quadhafi’s daughters. In the 1991 Gulf War, a special US “bunker-buster” was used in a covert attempt to kill Saddam Hussein. The existence and purpose of this weapon was not publicly acknowledged by the first Bush administration.)

After Saddam appeared on Iraqi television commenting about events that had occurred after the outbreak of fighting, the US scrambled to make new plans for “Operation Decapitation.”

JDAM It All to Hell
On April 8, the US received a tip that Saddam and sons were meeting in a bunker hidden deep beneath a restaurant in Baghdad’s Al-Mansour neighborhood. Without warning, the quiet middleclass area was hit with four 2,000-pound JDAM bunker-busters. The blast decapitated palm trees and swept the top floors off surrounding buildings. Five multistory homes vanished into a smoldering, 40-meter-wide, 20-meter deep crater. The fireball turned most of the 14 civilian victims into what the US military likes to call “a pink mist.”

The JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) is a $21,000 (FY 2001 dollars) guidance kit that can be slapped on the tail of a “dumb” bomb to imbue it with precision smarts. Steered by satellite-guided GPS data, a JDAM is said to be accurate to within 13 meters (43 feet) of a target.

Once again, the JDAM is promoted as a “precision” weapon. But, with a miss-range of 43 feet, this means that, at best, a JDAM aimed at one particular house is easily capable of hitting any one of four neighboring homes in a densely settled urban environment.

The devastation in Al-Mansour was so intense that even had Iraqi leader been killed, it was unlikely that there would be enough forensic evidence left to confirm his demise. Within hours, however, British Intelligence was reporting that the wily Iraqi had apparently escaped this second assassination attempt.

Conflicts-of-Interest Conflicts?
In another case of high-tech overkill, the US decided to target Saddam’s half-brother Barzan Al-Tikriti for assassination. But, instead of dispatching a sniper squad from Special Operations, CentCom sent no less than six JDAM missiles streaking into Barzan’s home in Ramadi.

Barzan, who had been placed under house arrest by Saddam, fled Baghdad when the US bombs began to fall. Ironically, Barzan sealed his fate when he called his family in Switzerland to assure them that he was safe. US intelligence intercepted the call and traced it to Barzan’s farm.

(Ironically, the same day that the US set up Barzan Al-Tikriti for a “targeted assassination,” the Israeli government used an Apache helicopter to pulverize a car driven by a leader of the Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The rocket attack killed at least six Palestinians (including two children) and wounded 48. As in Iraq, the lingering question remains: Was the attempted assassination of one individual worth the lives of scores of innocent civilian bystanders?)

While the morality and legality of plotting the murder of a noncombatant politician may stir a passionate debates between supporters of human rights and proponents of military ends, both sides would doubtless agree on one point: Was it really necessary to use six JDAMs to kill a single human being?

Certainly Boeing, the manufacturer of the JDAMs, was grateful. Every time a Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed-Martin or Raytheon weapon self-destructs, the rain of shrapnel and the screams of the wounded guarantees that a new order for replacements is certain to appear in the next Defense Spending Bill.

One would hope that the White House officials who make decisions on how many bombs and rockets are dropped don’t have any investments in the weapons industry. That would constitute a conflict-of-interest in conflicts.

The uncomfortable fact is that the Bush dynasty does stand to benefit directly from the bombs unleashed by George W. The Bush family is actively invested in the work of the Carlyse Group, an international arms broker that supplied weapons for the Iraq invasion. George W. Bush’s father, the former President Bush, serves on the board of the Carlyse Group (as did, until very recently, the father of Osama bin Laden).

In late April, the Carlyse Group convened in Italy to discuss how to divy up contracts for the “rebuilding” Iraq’s pummeled infrastructure. This would seem to pose a clear conflict-of-interest. The more damage George W. Bush’s invasion caused, the more money George H. W. Bush’s company stood to gain. Inexplicably, George H. W. Bush has failed to resolve this controversy by resigning from his post on the Carlyse board.

Two days later (in another instance of overkill), one of the Pentagon’s “smart” bombs landed in the midst of a family compound in Shkin, Afghanistan, killing 11 women and children. US Marines explained that they were attempting to eradicate a force of ten Afghan fighters. The weapon they chose to accomplish this task? A 1000-pound bomb. (The human rights group, Global Response reports that 800 Afghan civilians were killed by US bombs in 2002.)

Show and Effect
A new generation of “superbombs” were also trotted out for their international debut on the brightly lit stage of nighttime Baghdad. While the Pentagon did not deploy its infamous 21,000-pound MOAB (wryly touted as the “Mother of All Bombs”), some of the weapons used in the assault on the capitol were so large that they left mushroom clouds boiling into the night sky.

When not bombing the bejeezus out of Baghdad, the Pentagon burned through millions of tax dollars conducting a series of spectacular “stunts” to demonstrate its killing prowess. One of the showiest examples involved the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s luxurious private yacht, Al-Mansur (The Victor). The 420-foot, $50 million floating-palace-cum-sitting-duck was torn apart by allied planes that raked it with no fewer than 16 500-lb, laser-guided bombs.

This costly and unnecessary waste of ammunition also destroyed the yacht’s extensive onboard hospital and a large cache of medicine that could have been put to good use treating hundreds of badly injured Iraqi citizens. Similarly, the ship’s 12,000-horsepower engine, which could have provided much-needed electricity while the local power-grid was being repaired, was pounded into floating scrap.

A “False Flag” Attack on Kuwait?
One of the strangest incidents of a US weapon striking a civilian target occurred around 1:45 in the morning of March 29 when a missile slammed into the Soug Sharg mall, the largest shopping center in Kuwait.

Pentagon officials and Kuwaiti authorities immediately identified the weapon as an Iraqi Silkworm or Seersucker anti-ship missile fired from the Al Faw Peninsula. The debris, after all, clearly showed Arabic writing. The message was unmistakable: The Iraqis had brutally targeted innocent Kuwaiti. The shock and indignation of this attack served to swing the world’s attention away from the deaths of the Iraqis in the markets of Al Sha’ab and al-Nasar.

The next morning, however, the story began to unravel. Initially, the US claimed that Silkworm missiles had a range of 90 to 200 km. In fact, the Silkworm’s range is a mere 80 km. The closest missile site on the Faw Peninsula was 120 km east of Kuwait city. The missile that struck Kuwait City came in from the south.

As soldiers began to comb through the wreckage, they were surprised to discover that some additional identification had survived the impact — a serial number (“5420”) that identified the missile as a US Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM).

Further investigation revealed that CALCM 5420 had flown in over Saudi Arabian airspace where it had been picked up and tracked by Saudi military radar. The radar track led investigators to a B-52H, which had launched the missile 40,000 feet over the Red Sea. The B-52 was supposedly engaged in a “routine training flight” between Britain’s Royal Air Force Base at Fairford, England and the US airbase at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Joe Vialls, an expatriate US military analyst based in Australia, takes up the story at this point. “None of the bomber crewmembers knew where CALCM 5420 was headed, but this is considered quite normal in an age of push-button warfare. All cruise missile guidance systems are programmed by targeting specialists — normally but not always working for the Pentagon — either by remote secure data transfer or locally with a computer floppy disc.

“Unlike the usual ‘To Saddam With Love’ or other crude remarks in English,” Vialls writes, “this cruise missile had Arabic writing sprayed on its side at Fairford, with hints to the bomber crew that the target was ‘probably’ one requested by US Special Operations teams located in Djibouti.”

According to Vialls, 5420 had been “modified to carry a conventional warhead under classified contract number F34601-91-C-xxx.” Vialls explained that the last three digits were intentionally “deleted for national security reasons and to block my extradition from Australia under the PATRIOT Act.”

Because the B-52 bomber was on a “routine” flight well outside the Iraq War Zone, it was not monitored by the Central Command Headquarters in Qatar. As a result, Vialls writes, “General Tommy Franks was, and would forever remain, ignorant of the covert ‘strategic’ launch of CALCM 5420.”

Had CALCM 5420 landed in the midst of the shopping mall, its detonation surely would have caused the first Iraqi atrocity of the conflict. Fortunately, on this occasion as on so many others, the “precision” weapon proved somewhat less than precise: It missed its apparent target and hit an adjacent pier.

Gar Smith, the former editor of Earth Island Journal, currently produces a weekly eco-zine called The-Edge and edits the Environmentalists Against War website.