Precision Strike: An Evolution

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?="#.unpm5jsdtx4">


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.

Why has the proliferation of precision strike been so slow? There appear to be several reasons. First, even in the face of Chinese and Iranian efforts to develop anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, the militaries of other nations have not had the U.S. military’s compelling need for reconnaissance strike. The United States has global commitments, to include assuring access to the global commons on which the world economy depends. In the aftermath of al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (9/11), the U.S. military has waged two protracted unconventional conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. These conflicts have put a premium on being able to strike precisely with minimal collateral damage. Undoubtedly the Russians possess the technical capability to field extended range RUKs. But since the Cold War ended, the Russians have neither had the resources to invest heavily in reconnaissance strike nor, in the case of operations in Chechnya, Estonia, and Georgia, a compelling military need to do so. European countries such as France and Great Britain also possess the technical capacity to develop extended range reconnaissance strike, but they have not made the necessary resource investments.

The second reason why the diffusion of reconnaissance strike has been so slow stems from the sheer complexities and inherent difficulties of fielding and integrating the various guided munitions; wide-area sensors; positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) capabilities; and networked command, control, communications and computers (C4) needed to prosecute relocatable, mobile, or fleeting targets in near-real-time. In the case of fixed targets such as bases or ports, accurate cruise or ballistic missiles with sufficient range can generally suffice. Sophisticated battle networks are not needed. But in the case of emergent, moving, or other time-sensitive targets, battle networks able to find targets and strike promptly are essential, and effective battle networks have proven extraordinarily difficult to establish and sustain under actual combat conditions.

Part of the reason has been the elusiveness of certain classes of targets. Assault Breaker originally focused on attacking tanks and armored fighting vehicles behind Warsaw Pact lines in Europe, and the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) was developed by the Air Force to find and track these targets. Nevertheless, in Desert Storm U.S. forces had virtually no success killing mobile launchers for Iraq’s modified “Scuds,” even after they had revealed themselves to nearby aircrews by firing a missile. Later, in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. reconnaissance-strike operations focused increasingly on an even more elusive target category: individual terrorist leaders. Eventually American special operations forces developed a real-time reconnaissance-strike capability against al Qaeda and Taliban leaders as well as those of their affiliates outside Iraq and Afghanistan. But this capability evolved in response to the war-fighting demands of America’s post-9/11 operations against insurgents and terrorists, demands that most other countries have not experienced on a long-term basis. The elusiveness of mobile missile launchers and the demands of global manhunting operations have pushed the U.S. military to address some of the most difficult challenges of reconnaissance-strike operations, whereas other countries have had neither the resources nor imperatives to do so. This history supports Andrew Krepinevich’s 1993 judgment that joint operations and network integration at progressively higher levels would prove to be the most difficult aspect of reconnaissance strike. These very difficulties go far to explain why the diffusion of extended-range reconnaissance strike has been so slow.

Third, while modern PGMs have rendered accuracy independent of the distance to the target from firing positions or weapon release, they have not rendered unit costs independent of the range to the target. Long-range cruise missiles such as the extended-range variant of the Air Force’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and the Navy’s Tactical Tomahawk are considerably more expensive than the unpowered Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and, especially, the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). The average unit acquisition cost for the planned buy of 2,531 JASSM Extended Range (ER) missiles is over fifty times greater than the average unit acquisition cost for the planned JDAM procurement. Even for a country as rich as the United States, long-range PGMs such as JASSM ER and Tactical Tomahawk will be procured in much smaller quantities than the SDB or JDAM. Unit costs, therefore, provide a third reason why extended range precision strike remains predominately an area of virtual U.S. monopoly.