America's Ultimate Weapon of War: Precision-Guided Munitions

Precision-guided munitions helped the United States military destroy an Afghan government in a few months, with minimal footprint. What can they do against ISIS? 

Editor’s Note: Please also see Five ISIS Weapons of War America Should Fear, Five American Weapons of War ISIS Should Fear as well as Five Israeli Weapons of War ISIS Should Fear.

How has the growth of the Precision-Guided Munitions (PGM) complex changed the balance of international power? More specifically, how has the U.S. military’s embrace of this system of weapons affected its ability to accomplish U.S. national goals? The president’s decision to pursue the war against ISIS strictly through the means of airpower and seapower makes the question particularly relevant. The United States will fight ISIS with precision-guided munitions, and apparently little else. It’s worth asking how effective they are in accomplishing national ends. The answer, it turns out, is surprisingly mixed.

The Question

Last year, Barry Watts contributed an outstanding article to The National Interest on ways in which the PGM has matched, exceeded, and fallen short of expectations based on a much longer monograph for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Watts concentrated on differences between the expectations of early “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)” theorists and the actual record of U.S. PGM use. Watts also asked why other countries have been so slow to develop their own systems of support for the use of precision-guided munitions.

In contrast, this article concentrates on an evaluation of the effect of PGM munitions on the ability of the United States to accomplish its interests through military means. The possession of a nearly unique class of weapons would presumably convey upon the United States a massive advantage on the international stage, potentially beyond the advantages that the United States already enjoyed by virtue of its great size and wealth. For any serious assessment, we need to consider the technical effects of PGMs against the political impact of the end of the Cold War. Both have allowed the United States to fight wars differently, and to fight wars in which it might not otherwise have been engaged.

In short, we can imagine that the growth of the PGM complex would have allowed the United States to fight wars more cheaply, with a better chance of success, and with lower overall costs in terms of blood and treasure. We would expect these effects to exist along with the huge increase in relative American power that accompanied the collapse of the USSR.

The Wars

The first elements of the modern American PGM complex emerged towards the end of the Vietnam War, where the use of laser and video guided bombs dramatically increased accuracy in the final months of the conflict. Over the 1970s and 1980s, PGMs became deeply integrated into U.S. plans to fight the Soviet Union. They played a small role in the 1989 invasion of Panama, and a much larger role in the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq.

In the first Iraq War, the United States used PGMs against Iraqi tactical, operational and strategic targets, severely attriting Iraqi forces without fully destroying either Iraqi command and control or the willingness of elite Iraqi forces to fight. PGMs made the war quicker, easier, and probably less painful for the U.S. military, but beyond this did not transform the final outcome.

Arguably, the existence of PGMs made possible the 1999 Kosovo War, where the United States and its NATO allies used precision airpower to push Serbia out of Kosovo. Had the United States not had weapons available that could strike at Serbian military, economic and political power without causing enormous civilian casualties, it is unlikely that NATO would have intervened. Even the relatively modest Serbian civilian casualties tested the commitment of many NATO partners.

As Watts argues, the lack of strong competitors to Israel and the United States within the PGM field is remarkable. U.S. allies have demonstrated great reluctance in developing the full systems necessary to generate their own strike complexes, instead relying on U.S. capabilities. This is not to say that France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and a few others cannot fulfill the demands of multilateral operations, or even of certain small-scale operations of their own.

Kosovo was surely important, but it was in the Wars on Terror that PGMs began to have a major systemic effect. In brief, PGMs make the Afghan Model possible. They allow the United States and its allies to defeat governments and quasigovernmental organizations through a combination of special forces, precision airpower and local proxies. Having won the first round of the Afghan War through such methods in 2001, the United States replayed the campaign in Libya in 2011, and seeks to replay it one more time against ISIS.