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Smarter Bombs

In Desert Storm, guided munitions made up only 20 percent of the bombs dropped. In Iraq this time, almost all the munitions America uses will be smart. What's changed?

11:00 PM, Jan 8, 2003 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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THE 1991 AIR WAR over Iraq introduced Americans to the wonders of precision-guided munitions. Who can forget the "slam-cam" footage of television- or laser-guided bombs homing in on a targeted air duct on a specific building in the middle of downtown Baghdad--announcing its bull's-eye hit with the crackle and fuzz of sudden static?

After watching dozens of such slam-cam clips, most observers thought precision munitions were the go-to weapon during the Gulf War, but during Operation Desert Storm, of all the bombs dropped over Iraq, only 20 percent were "smart." And in fact many of those missed their targets because of weather problems or malfunctions. Saddam's destruction of Kuwaiti oil fields late in the war foiled the laser guidance systems of many because the smoke deflected the laser energy the bombs homed in on.

But if America goes to war again in Iraq, close to 100 percent of its bombing sorties will be conducted using smart bombs. And this time, they'll be smarter. Advances in laser technology, targeting systems, and the now ubiquitous global positioning satellite system have revolutionized how America conducts war from the air--and, in many cases, the ground.

During the Gulf War, pilots had to calmly keep a laser trained on their target and wait for another plane's bombs to follow the beam to the bull's eye. Today, targeting pods attached to an aircraft's wings can keep their eyes on the target while a pilot zigs and zags his way out of trouble. A laser-guided bomb dropped on Baghdad during this war will reach its target even during the most severe defensive maneuverings.

However, it's the GPS-guided bomb that has truly changed the face of air-to-ground warfare. An inexpensive retrofit to existing "dumb" bombs, the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, literally screws onto the tail and around the belly of a conventional 1,000 or 2,000 pound unguided bomb, making it in many cases more precise than a laser-guided bomb. The pilot simply programs in the GPS coordinates of a target, sometimes broadcast to air crews from ground forces by radio, and the bomb glides its way to the target, day or night, in clear skies and stormy weather. There are no laser beams to bend or bounce, just the steady signals of America's GPS constellation beaming their coordinates from space.

In the not-too-distant future, America's pilots will wield even smarter bombs--what many term "brilliant" munitions. These bombs will be guided to within miles of their targets from distances well beyond the range of air defenses protecting high value targets. The munitions will then begin to think for themselves when they approach the target, picking out the building they've been programmed to hit, or even loitering above the battlefield waiting for a target--such as a tank or a SCUD missile launcher--to emerge.

As technology improves, America's bombs will get smarter and more autonomous. As these smart bombs get smarter, America's enemies will have fewer and fewer places to hide.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.