The Buzz

Beware: America's Lethal Precision Strike Advantage Is Slipping Away

On average, it took 1,000 sorties of B-17 bombers dropping nearly two-and-a-half million pounds of “dumb” bombs to successfully knock out a significant Nazi target in 1944. By contrast, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a B-2 bomber could reliably achieve the same result with a single 2,000 pound “smart” bomb—and then go on to strike up to fifteen more targets in a single mission.

This level of accuracy proved to be an unprecedented and powerful force multiplier and was a central component of the so-called “second offset” strategy in the closing stages of the Cold War. By pushing the technological envelope, the U.S. and its allies could equalize the odds in any defense against the numerically superior Warsaw Pact in a hypothetical conflict. These same technologies were employed to deter aggression from smaller states by credibly holding the depth of their crucial command and logistic networks at risk, all while minimizing risks for civilians—a capability demonstrated in the Gulf War. The United States’ unique advantages in delivering precision strikes thus helped keep the peace in Europe and elsewhere while minimizing the number of American boots on the ground, quickly becoming a bedrock of U.S. combat and deterrence operations the world over.

Twelve years later, the story is very different. According to a  report released this summer by the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessment,  the U.S. monopoly on precision guided munitions (PGM) is ending. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff admit that America’s traditional technological advantage is eroding. In the report, authors  Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark lay out the situation in depth, and propose a novel solution for turning the tables and regaining the upper hand. While the entire report is absolutely worth a read, it clocks in at over seventy pages and is packed with charts and technical data. Here is the run-down to get you up to speed on the problem—and the witty solution proposed by Gunzinger and Clark—in under ten minutes.

The Reemerging Salvo Competition:

From countless drone strikes to Operations Odyssey Dawn in Libya and Inherent Resolve today, pinpoint PGM strikes have been a hallmark of U.S. military action for over a decade. Now, potential American adversaries, from Iran and North Korea to Russia and China, have developed significant PGM capabilities of their own—and hordes of countermeasures to defeat American PGM. In any confrontation with these states, they could respond to U.S. strikes with smart bombs of their own. This would lead to what Gunzinger and Clark dub a “salvo competition,” in which the side that gains the upper hand in employing precision strikes will have a disproportionately large tactical advantage.

Gaining that advantage centers on altering what’s known as the Probability of Arrival (PA): the percentage chance that a given PGM will successfully strike its intended target. Gunzinger and Clark suggest that in planning an air campaign, enough ordinance should be allocated to ensure a given target is eliminated with 95 percent certainty.

Operating in uncontested airspace with stealth aircraft or standoff cruise missiles against opponents with weak or nonexistent air defenses, American PGMs have routinely achieved a PA bordering on 90 percent. Factoring in duds and mechanical issues, that B-2 with fifteen PGM would be able to conduct about ten successful strikes at 95 percent certainty of destruction by allocating three smart bombs for every two targets.

In a contested environment, near-peer competitors have a plethora of ways to drive the PA down. Kinetic defenses, from radar-directed close-in weapons systems to advanced surface-to-air missiles, like the S-300 currently being shipped to Iran from Russia, can intercept cruise missiles and potentially pose a threat to stealth aircraft. Electronic decoys and jammers can confuse or attract PGMs in order to prevent them from hitting their targets. Even if the enemy’s defenses can be overcome, their own PGMs could still attack and credibly degrade U.S. targeting networks, airbases, aircraft carriers, and other strike ships.

Gunzinger and Clark demonstrate how, by causing changes in the PA, these defenses have an exponential effect on the amount of PGMs that will need to be expended because of the desire to eliminate targets with 95 percent certainty. If the PA in Operation Iraqi Freedom hypothetically fell from 90 percent to 50 percent, it would have taken 149,250 PGM to strike the same 19,900 targets hit by the 27,800 smart and dumb munitions that were actually used.

Until the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, it remained standing U.S. policy for the military to be able to fight two major wars at once. Yet combating two Iraq-sized states at 50 percent PA would require almost 300,000 smart bombs, roughly equivalent to all the PGM procured by the Department of Defense since 2001. The U.S. would also have to increase the number of sorties generated by a factor of ten—assuming zero aircraft attrition—to carry out all these attacks in thirty days.

Will the Bomber Always Get Through?: