TCS Daily


Direct Hit

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - April 1, 2003 12:00 AM

We've all seen the pictures. A dim, shadowy rectangle described as an Iraqi tank sits in the middle of the grainy screen. A blip streaks diagonally across and then a white blossom of fire and smoke fills the picture. Tank gone.

Such scenes have already become almost a video cliché. Indeed, we are becoming so used to the accuracy of U.S. bombs and missiles that when they miss it becomes big news. There are moments in war when one can almost see the hinges of military history turning. The bombing accuracy we are seeing in Iraq is providing one of those moments - a record of direct hits unprecedented in the history of warfare.

Over the weekend the Pentagon released video of a strike on a building in Basra where a large number of fighters of the Fedayeen Saddam were said to have gathered. And F-15 put a bomb directly into the building destroying it. It was a classic example of using on ground intelligence to spot a target and quickly marshaling "air assets" to efficiently eliminate it. We can expect to see more such footage in coming days.

Perhaps only those pilots who flew repeated sorties against bridges and other targets in Vietnam or the Korean War, or those aging veterans whose B-17s returned time and again to the damaged but still functioning factories in Germany, can appreciate what is happening in Iraq. Aerial bombardment has often been oversold. In actual war conditions it has always been a mysterious combination of mathematics, science, physics, vagaries of weather, crew skill, personal bravery, not a little dumb luck and a hell of a lot of persistence. Consider, for instance, this little vignette from the massive day and night bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.

Three key German chemical plants, at Leuna, Ludwigshafen-Oppau and Zeitz, were the targets of a total of 146,000 British and American bombs (total weight 30,000 tons). Only 12.5 percent of that total bomb tonnage fell within the perimeter fences of the three factories - a combined target area of 3.5 square miles. German records indicate that over 14 percent of the bombs that fell inside the fences did not explode. As the official U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey noted of the attacks on these three plants, "only about 3 percent of all bombs dropped hit buildings, equipment, and other damageable structures."

By the time of the Gulf War, 1990-91, unprecedented advances in electronics, guidance, lasers, and other technology had brought the possibility of bombing accuracy to unheard of heights. We all remember some of the early videos from that bombing campaign, but the fact is, only 3 percent of allied bombs in that war were precision-guided. The Yugoslavian bombing campaign of 1999 employed precision weapons about 30 percent of the time. This war is very different.

Until early last week an estimated 70 percent of all coalition bombs and missiles used against Iraqi targets were precision guided. But now there are indications that the percentage may go up to 80 percent. Centcom is stepping up the bombing tempo but at the same time it is sensitive to the problem of inadvertently killing civilians or destroying non-military targets as it goes after more leadership strongholds as well as military assets "tucked in," so to speak, around Baghdad.

The increased use of such weapons, combined with the extraordinary care being taken by American and British forces, must account for the relatively few incidents of civilian casualties reported thus far. The incident at a market in Baghdad in which Iraq claims an American bomb killed 58 people is still being investigated. But the relatively small size of the crater at the site points to the possibility that the damage was caused by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile that fell back into the city.

Make no mistake, however, there will be more civilian casualties and more collateral damage. It is inevitable. No matter how "smart" they are, aerial bombs have big footprints. One of the most commonly used weapons, for instance, the 2000-pound JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition), is an ordinary "iron" bomb with a sophisticated guidance package bolted onto it. But what this bomb does is not ordinary.

The average citizen, used to slow motion movie explosions with their thickly blossoming flames, has no conception of the destructiveness of this steel cylinder stuffed with 945 pounds of a silvery solid substance called Tritonal - good old-fashioned TNT mixed with 20 percent aluminum powder. The aluminum greatly increases what bomb-builders call "brisance," the speed with which the TNT explodes.

When this bomb detonates in a blinding millisecond flash it gives an awesome high-speed lesson in chemistry and physics. All that Tritonal is instantly transformed into a very hot gas expanding with such force that it pushes the heavy steel bomb casing out in all directions like a balloon until it shatters into thousands of white hot fragments.

Any human being within the immediate radius of the detonation (about 200 feet in the open) has no choice but to die, instantly roasted, blown to bits (shockwave and overpressure) hurled at high speed against some object, or pierced through countless times by shrapnel.

The air where the explosion takes place is compressed and driven outward at supersonic speed, creating a pressure wave that results in, as one medical treatise chastely puts it, "patterns ranging from traumatic amputation to total body disruption." If you are not blown apart or don't suffer massive trauma from being slammed into a wall or other object, chances are your internal organs will be crushed by overpressure that may reach thousands of pounds per square inch (normal pressure on a human being at sea level is 14.5 psi). The inner ear, lungs and intestines are usually the first to go.

You get the picture. Bombs are ugly things. And although we have the amply proven ability to drop JDAMs in the windows or doors of "embedded" military targets, it's still not a good thing to be in the adjoining building or the mosque across the street when they go off. Blast wave and shrapnel effects can reach as far as 4000 feet beyond the hit.

Centcom would do well to emphasize that it is making every effort to minimize collateral damage. But destroying, for example, a tank that has been parked next to a civilian building on its transporter trailer will inevitably cause some damage to the building. Bombs are, well, bombs. They cannot be "surgical" in their effects except in a relative sense.

On Friday, U.S. bombers dropped two GBU-28 "bunker buster" bombs in Baghdad. These are 5000-pound bombs, but most of that weight is in the penetrating warhead, a 4,400-pound artillery tube (that's right) filled with about 630 pounds of Tritonal. The weight of the tube and its relatively narrow frontal cross section allows the bomb to penetrate far underground before it detonates. Expect to see more of these weapons used in coming days as Centcom tries to chase Saddam from bunker to bunker around the city.

It is very likely that in the coming week the importance of bombing accuracy will become even more apparent if our ground forces can coax the Republican Guard's Medina and Hammurabi divisions into battle before Baghdad. The coordination of air strikes with the fire from coalition tanks and artillery will provide perhaps the greatest display of weapons accuracy against a force in the field in military history.

If the Iraqis try to keep their armor dispersed to avoid massive kill-offs, U.S. planes, directed to targets from our excellent overview of the battlefield, will simply destroy them piecemeal.

As has been mentioned before in these columns, you don't want to be in an Iraqi tank or any vehicle when this show starts. Get as deep underground as you can, and even that may not work. The coming battle - particularly the emerging Iraqi tactic of creating "ambush parties" to go after our helicopters - opens the way for the use of anti-personnel weapons including formidable fuel-air explosives, but we'll talk of that another day.
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