Smart Bombs Over Iraq


29, 2003 was the date that the Space Infrared Telescope Facility
(SIRTF) was expected to launch. Those working on the last “great
observatory” of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) were getting ready to put decades of work to the test. If
all went well, the spacecraft would be launched into Solar orbit
to measure the infrared light from our own Milky Way and other galaxies. 

November 2002 we were told that the launch would be delayed until
April. The reason was that a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite
was taking the January 29 slot and that a host of other military
spacecraft needed to use that late January/early February launch
window. Most of us didn’t question why the military would take
precedence over science; the assumption was that someone somewhere
was making the right decision. Our acceptance of the delay demonstrated
the U.S. space program’s “pecking order” in practice.
This subordination allowed the Pentagon to field crucial tools in
time for its conquest of  Iraq. 

as Force Multiplier 


GPS vehicle was “the first in a flurry of military satellites”
to go up prior to the expected U.S. invasion (which as of this writing
has not yet happened). According to Lt. Colonel Mike Rein, however,
it has “nothing to do with the war.” The conventional
picture is that GPS technology is so widely available and so useful
that the Air Force is helping us by getting these satellites into
orbit. After all, the Department of Defense (DoD) is just one of
many users. According to


, “Car navigation is the most frequently used application
of the system, while marine and military uses are the least used
applications.” After the recent Space Shuttle accident, the
use of GPS to map precisely the debris path has been touted as a
success of the U.S. space program. Lee Meeks, a sales manager for
Leica Geosystems, told the

New York Times

, “It’s
really cool that the military put all those satellites up there
so we can tie into this and get these positions.” Major Mike
Mason, chief of GPS operations at U.S. Air Force Space Command,
emphasized that “GPS systems can be used by any person out
there, whether it be my grandmother going in the car to the grocery
store or Saddam Hussein.” 

it is difficult to believe that automobile navigation was the main
reason GPS displaced an astronomy satellite on the Cape Canaveral
launch pad. The aerospace trade journal,

Aviation Week and Space

, was more honest about why we needed to get the new
satellites into orbit. Craig Couvault wrote, “The U.S. Air
Force is beginning to replenish the GPS, Milstar, and Defense Satellite
Communications System constellations with critical spacecraft…to
provide unprecedented warfighting capabilities to the U.S. forces
arrayed against Iraq.” Rather than to help people drive to
the grocery store, the goals of the current “U.S. Military
space surge,” according to Couvault, are to “substantially
bolster overall U.S. military satellite bandwidth capability going
into the critical February/March time frame, when an attack on Iraq
could begin.” 

technology is extremely useful in modern warfare, especially for
bomb and missile guidance. For bombing Afghanistan, “The Pentagon’s
weapon of choice has been the Joint Direct Attack Munition, a device
attached to the tail of a 2,000-pound bomb that enables it to be
guided by a satellite-assisted Global Positioning System.”
GPS-guided weapons will also be the “weapon of choice”
over Iraq. Rajat Baijal and Manoj Arora of the Indian Institute
of Technology write, “With war clouds looming large over the
west Asian region, the world is likely to witness…state of the
art weaponry being used by the U.S. led forces. Most of these, either
directly or indirectly shall be using GPS to accurately target and
achieve the desired results.”  


New York Times

confirms this assessment. “The Pentagon’s
war plan for Iraq calls for unleashing 3,000 precision-guided bombs
and missiles in the first 48 hours of the opening air campaign….
The initial bombardment would use 10 times the number of precision-guided
weapons fired in the first two days of the Persian Gulf war of 1991.”
The purpose of this onslaught would be “to stagger and isolate
the Iraqi military and quickly pave the way for a ground attack
to topple a government in shock.” Somehow this is to be accomplished
so as to “limit damage to Iraqi infrastructure and to minimize
civilian casualties.” 

weapons” sound humane, and this is why the phrase is used in
public descriptions of war plans. If nearly all weapons hit their
intended targets, we don’t have to worry about the “wrong”
people getting hurt. But the real reason so-called precision-guided
weapons are the “weapons of choice” is because they allow
the military to kill more people, not less. The term, “force
multiplier” is often used to describe how GPS technology really
benefits the U.S. military. Maj. Gen. Gerald F. Perryman Jr. of
the Air Force Space Command expressed it this way: “Our pilots
are no longer tied to their target…they can ‘fire and forget’
thanks to the accuracy provided by GPS targeting and guidance systems.…
[P]recision- guided munitions allow one pilot on a single pass to
take out several targets. This makes space technology a real force
multiplier—it allows us to send fewer people to do the same
job.” It is not clear that a strategy of “fire and forget”
is compatible with minimizing civilian casualties. 

U.S. record in Afghanistan makes clear the horrific consequences
of GPS-enhanced “force multiplication.” According to a
study by the

Los Angeles Times

, “The American air campaign
in Afghanistan, based on the high-tech, out-of-harm’s-way strategy,
has produced a pattern of mistakes that have killed hundreds of
Afghan civilians…[T]he Pentagon’s use of overwhelming force
meant that even when truly military targets were located, civilians
were sometimes killed.” The study concluded,  “as
many as 400” civilians were killed by U.S. air strikes in 11
locations studied. Since the U.S. bombed over 40 locations, the
overall civilian toll is certainly much higher.  

front page article in the

New York Times

declared, “Afghanistan
will be remembered as the smart- bomb war.” The article touted
the ability to target “terrorist safe houses and command centers
hidden among schools, hospitals and homes in crowded urban areas,”
but did not explain how Pentagon planners validate the intelligence
behind urban targeting. It only boasted of “the Pentagon’s
confidence about striking near civilians.” A U.S. invasion
of Iraq will likely involve more bombing of crowded urban areas.
But even when targets are far from cities, the results can be devastating.
The village of Charykary, where 30 people were killed by “errant
bombs,” illustrates the effect of “force multiplication.”
A report hidden in the back pages of a Saturday edition of the

York Times

told how the village was destroyed by U.S. forces
attacking Taliban soldiers on a ridge a half mile away. “The
Americans bombed those positions [on the ridge] for days. Many bombs
missed their mark. They landed on farmers and their families, flattening
homes and killing people in bunches. Some died in flashes of heat
and fire, others were crushed under rubble, and a few were killed
by shrapnel.” One villager named Muhibullah told the reporter,
“The United States killed my daughter and injured my son. Six
of my cows were destroyed and all of my wheat and rice was burned.
I am very angry. I miss my daughter.” Another villager, Muhammad
Usef lamented, “We thought this was a very safe place because
we heard on the radio that the United States drops its bombs on
its targets. If we knew how they missed, we would have run away
from here.”

Ingalls is a staff scientist at the Space Infrared Telescope Facility
Science Center, California Institute of Technology.