WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is relying on new targeting technology to reduce civilian casualties and damage to nonmilitary targets during the bombardment of Iraq.
It ranges from a predictive computer program that military techies term “Bug Splat” to greater use of “smart” weaponry built to strike with surgical precision.
So-called collateral damage during the 1991 Persian Gulf War may have directly killed 13,000 civilians, according to one government estimate. Damage to hospitals, water-supply systems, the electric power grid, and other facilities may have contributed to 70,000 later civilian deaths. About 40,000 Iraqi soldiers died in combat.
Avoiding collateral damage may pose a special challenge now because of Saddam Hussein's tactics of using civilians as human shields, and intermingling civilian and military facilities.
“He deliberately constructs mosques near military facilities, uses schools, hospitals, orphanages, and cultural treasures to shield military forces, thereby exposing helpless men, women, and children to danger,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted at a briefing.
Avoiding collateral damage also has assumed greater importance since the United States wants to preserve Iraq's infrastructure so the country can bounce back economically after the war.
The inevitable civilian deaths and injuries also become fodder for opponents of the war.
An expert with the U.S. Central Command, who briefed reporters on targeting technology at the Pentagon, said it may go a long way toward meeting both goals. The Pentagon asked that the source be identified only as “a senior defense official.”
He said that days of careful planning often underpin those fuzzy TV images of buildings in the gun-camera cross hairs, disappearing in a flash of light.
The most difficult challenges occur for military targets located close to civilian facilities, those with human shields, and “dual-use” facilities such as communications centers that have both military and civilian uses.
Even barracks and other valid military targets, however, go through a screening process that determines what damage might occur to the surrounding area.
Planners develop what amounts to an attack recipe for each target. The ingredients include the weapon, its fusing, time of day for delivery, and other factors. About 400 individual targets in Afghanistan went through the process, the official said. He did not indicate the number planned for attack in Iraq.
A Hellfire missile's 40-pound warhead, for instance, causes most damage within a circle 70 feet in diameter. A 2,000-pound Mark-84 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) bomb has a damage circle of 600 feet. Using aerial photographs and other images, planners draw circles around targets to see whether damage will overlap on civilian facilities.
That's where Bug Splat can save civilian lives and preserve civilian facilities that will be crucial in rebuilding post-war Iraq.
“It's sort of a groupie term, but it's really a mathematical process that we can go to that shows, depending on the direction the bomb is actually falling, where the effects of that fragmentation from the bomb will go.”
Planners run the computer program, developed by the U.S. Air Force, to check how blast and other effects might cause nearby damage. It considers the reality of each explosion that's invisible to TV viewers, such as intensity of the shock wave, whose pressure can burst bodies and buildings, and range of the bomb's red-hot metal fragments, zooming at 500 mph.
If civilian facilities are within the “splat” region of a vital military target, planners have options. They can pick a time for the attack - early morning, for instance - when few civilians are likely to be near. The bomb also can be fused to explode underground, producing less shrapnel than an air burst.
A “whole series” of other computer programs are used to calculate damage to nearby structures. Planners, for instance, can keyboard information about a nearby apartment building, including its distance from the blast, height, and number of glass windows, and get an estimate of the injuries and deaths inside.
In some circumstances, planners may decide to let the target remain, but deny its use by the enemy. The denial-of-use tactic would be critical, the official indicated, for buildings used to store chemical or biological weapons. Bombing would spread the dangerous material over wide areas.
It involves cutting off the electric power supply to a building, for instance, or ringing it with small mines delivered from the air that self-destruct in 24 or 48 hours. The mines also would prevent people from taking material out of the building to conceal or destroy it.
Greater use of “smart” bombs - guided to their targets by laser beams or Global Positioning Satellite - also may help reduce collateral damage, the official said. About 70 percent of the bombs used in Iraq will be precision-guided, compared to 20 percent during Desert Storm in 1991.
Smart bombs usually hit within 21 feet of the intended target, compared to 200 feet for their “dumb” or unguided counterparts. About 7-10 percent do not, however, due to electrical or mechanical failures.
Greater use of smart bombs will reduce the risk of collateral damage from human error.
“In Desert Storm we, on a number of occasions, targeted a particular location with 16 or 18 airplanes,” the official said. “We'll do that same target with one now.”