Precision Strike: An Evolution

The world once thought guided munitions were the future of warfare. The truth has been more complicated.

Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, precision strike weapons systems have become ever more central to the American way of war. Starting in the 1970s, the possibility of integrating precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and wide-area sensors with command-and-control networks was the seminal idea behind Soviet and American forecasts that precision strike would eventually change war’s future conduct as much as Blitzkrieg, strategic bombing, and carrier aviation had changed World War II’s conduct. In the early 1990s, when Andrew Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) precipitated the American debate over this emerging revolution in military affairs (RMA), many observers presumed that precision strike would proliferate rapidly. After all, international relations theory has long argued that competition between nations creates “a powerful incentive for states to emulate the military practices of the more successful states.” In this vein, Marshall’s speculation in 1993 was that long-range precision strike might become “the dominant operational approach.” Much of the RMA analysis and wargaming during this period presumed that future conflicts involving advanced militaries would be dominated by long-distance duels between opposing reconnaissance-strike complexes (or RUKs from the Russian разведывательно-yдарные комплексы).

This is not what has happened. Some two decades later, the U.S. military remains virtually the sole employer of large-scale precision strike efforts, especially over long ranges requiring the integration of precision munitions with near-real-time sensor and targeting networks. Witness, for example, the U.S. capability to strike a Taliban commander in Afghanistan with an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) being operated by a Reaper crew in Nevada. While China particularly is trying to catch up, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has vowed to do the same, the fact is that only the U.S. military has evolved RUKs capable of striking over global distances. Why has conventional precision strike still not proliferated as widely or rapidly as atomic weapons spread after World War II? And until substantial proliferation beyond the American military occurs, does it make any sense to talk about a mature precision-strike regime?

Although the development of precision-guided weapons can be traced back to World War II, it was the success of laser-guided bombs (LGBs) in Vietnam that got both American and Soviet military practitioners thinking about an emerging RMA driven by RUKs during the late 1970s. From February 1972 to February 1973 the U.S. Air Force expended nearly 10,500 LGBs, of which over 5,100 were direct hits and an additional 4,000 achieved a circular error probable (CEP) of 25 feet. Compared to manual dive-bombing with unguided, or “dumb,” bombs, these results were “spectacularly good.” So much so that in 1975 the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDPP) conducted by the Defense Nuclear Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) concluded that “near zero miss” conventional munitions could substitute for nuclear weapons in “a wide range of circumstances.”

The Soviets agreed. In a famous 1984 article in Red Star, the chief of the Soviet General Staff argued that against many targets non-nuclear means of destruction would “make it possible to sharply increase (by at least an order of magnitude) the destructive potential of conventional weapons, bringing them weapons of mass destruction in terms of effectiveness.” Authoritative Chinese military theorists have also endorsed this conclusion. As Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi have written, the application of nonnuclear RUK technologies in high-tech local wars “can bring about strategic effects similar to that of nuclear weapons and at the same time avoid the great political risk possibly to be caused by transgressing the nuclear threshold.”

However, the most immediate result of the LRRDPP was DARPA’s initiation of the Assault Breaker program, which sought to demonstrate the technical feasibility of precision strike on conventional battlefields. By December 1982, tests at the White Sands Missile Range had shown that reconnaissance-strike systems using missile-delivered terminally-guided submunitions could be developed to attack Soviet follow-on forces “deep” behind the front lines in the event of a Warsaw Pact attempt to overrun Western Europe. Both DARPA’s Assault Breaker program and the development of “stealth” aircraft such as the F-117 were intended by U.S. defense officials to exploit U.S. technological superiority to offset the “three-to-one quantity advantage” that Warsaw Pact forces were believed to enjoy in Central Europe.

Nevertheless, the proliferation of long-range precision strike to other nations than the United States remains nascent. For example, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been working for some time to evolve the DengFeng-21 (DF-21) into an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) to strike U.S. aircraft carriers operating one thousand kilometers or more from China’s coast. But the PLA has yet to conduct a single test of this system against a moving target at sea. Similarly, the proliferation of short-range precision munitions, such as guided mortars, artillery and rockets, also appears nascent, although such weapons are for sale by a number of countries. Indeed, it now appears likely that short-range precision-guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles (G-RAMM) may proliferate sooner and more widely than long-range precision strike.