TCS Daily

The Art of Aerial Assassination

By David Axe - June 9, 2006 12:00 AM

For years, the military has labored to increase the flexibility and lethality of its aircraft and to decrease the time it takes to put bombs on target. One goal has been to "decapitate" regimes and terrorist organizations with timely air strikes. Several decapitation strikes since 2003 have failed despite increasingly sophisticated weapons and sensors, due to intelligence failures.

On Wednesday, the military succeeded in killing Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi with an air strike on his Baqubah, Iraq, safehouse. For the first time in more than four years, intelligence has allowed the technology of aerial assassination to fulfill its potential.

Earlier failed strikes include:

* An air raid in Fallujah in June 2004 that narrowly missed Zarqawi.

* An attack on notorious Ba'ath Party leader Ali Hassan Al Majeed, aka "Chemical" Ali. He had already left his safehouse in Samawah when it was hit in March 2003.

* Several attacks on suspected safehouses in Baghdad that failed to kill Saddam Hussein in the early months of the war.

* The opening shot of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- a bomb dropped on Dora Farms, one of Saddam's country retreats, on March 20, 2003. The strike was launched based on reports that the Iraqi leader was at the site, when in fact he hadn't visited in months.

Prior to Wednesday, the only successful major "decapitation" strike had been in Yemen on Nov. 4, 2002, when a CIA-operated Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile that killed Abu Ali, one of the masterminds of the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole destroyer that killed 17 sailors.

Drones such as Predator and the larger, unarmed Global Hawk are critical nodes in an expanding adaptive network of sensors and shooters combining aircraft and ground forces from all the U.S. services. The military's aim is to blanket a combat zone in this network, spotting and killing Time-Sensitive Targets (TSTs) in minutes' time. The Zarqawi raid represents the network's first headline-worthy success.

Several current and future technologies underpin the network:

Sensor Pods

These are perhaps the most visible technologies in the military's efforts to take on TSTs. Pods contain day and night cameras, GPS for employing satellite-guided bombs and laser designators and trackers for laser-guided bombs. The cigar-shaped pods are slung under jets' wings or fuselages.

Lt. Col. David Wilbur, commander of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332, which returned from Iraq in February, says that the new Litening AT pod enables Marine fighter crews to switch easily between looking for insurgents and attacking them, even in bad weather. Litening AT made its combat debut on Marine Corps jets during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and since has become standard equipment.

The Air Force is buying a number of different pod designs for nearly all of its combat aircraft types. In recent years, F-16s, F-15Es, A-10s, B-52s and B-1Bs have been fitted with pods.


The newest sensor pods include datalinks tied to a laptop computer-based terminals called Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receivers. The system allows crews to beam pod imagery to troops and commanders on the ground, letting them see what the crews see and facilitating close coordination between U.S. personnel on the ground and personnel in the air. A datalink called Link 16 performs a complementary role. Link 16-equipped jets can transmit a graphical target schematic based on and including GPS coordinates to other jets and to ground stations.

Helmet Sights

Navy Lt. Comm. Trenton Lennard used Link 16 in conjunction with the new Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, or JHMCS, a wired visor that allows pilots to direct their radars, targeting pods and weapons just by looking at a target. "With that helmet, on the [Link 16 terminal], a pilot can look down, designate a target and put it out to everybody. ... It gets target pods, sensors and eyeballs on to the same piece of dirt."

With pods, datalinks and JHMCS, if one pilot or sensor operator sees a target, so can every other friendly force in the area. A target need enter only one person's situational awareness to enter everyone's. That makes it hard to hide and allows commanders and controllers to assign the best shooter to a given target, cutting the time between spotting the target and attacking it.

Aerial Drones

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), blanketing Iraq in cameras and radars around the clock, only reinforce what is already a robust network of sensors and shooters. The Air Force flies 20 small Predator drones and a handful of larger Global Hawks on continuous orbits that cover almost every corner of the country. The service calls this "persistent" surveillance.

Navy Capt. Steve Wright, a UAV manager for the Chief of Naval Operations, says that UAVs help the military maintain a "common operational picture" -- in other words, a universal, constantly-updated view of the battlefield, with which it can quickly assign on-station pilots to hit new targets.

While most attacks are carried out by high-performance manned aircraft, Predators themselves have been armed to give commanders more options. It was an early armed Predator that killed Abu Ali in 2002. A new version of the versatile UAV will carry more ordnance.

"As we speak, several MQ-1 [Predators] are probably airborne over the skies of Iraq ... collecting and transmitting key intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information," says Air Force spokesperson Doug Karas. "Additionally, these MQ-1s are likely armed with the Hellfire missile providing combat units with a precision, low collateral damage weapon."


This situational awareness will only improve in coming years if Air Force experiments with a radical new database bear fruit. The Global Net Centric Surveillance and Targeting, or GNCST, would plug all military aerial sensors into a common dynamic database outputting to a variety of terminals for a wide range of users. For the first time, updated data on targets all over the world would be accessible by everyone with a need to know.

"A human being processing the data we are talking about here, it could take in some cases days, sometimes even weeks," Air Force Gen. Gregory Power has said. "This machine-to-machine interface we will have with GNCST will allow us to do it in seconds, minutes at most."

Despite the depth and breadth of the military's sensor/shooter network -- and despite great progress in prosecuting TSTs -- targets as small and hard-to-identify as single human beings represent a daunting challenge. The system is in place to quickly kill high-value targets such as Zarqawi, but it depends on someone on the ground pointing out the target's location to begin with, accurately and in a timely manner.

David Axe writes for and His graphic novel war memoir WAR FIX was published in June by NBM. He can be reached at



Weren't there some aerial assisignations in Afghanistan
I remember two incidents.

A Hummer or LandRover, being blown up by a Hellfire, fired from a Predator, and another incident when a large number of Taliban leaders were caught followed to a meeting site in the desert, which was then flattend by F-16's.

Even before Afghanistan
Israelis are the ones who really have led the way in this method of eliminating terrorists. Even though there are apologists for terror who moan and beat their chests when such actions are carried out, it's as nothing compared to what Roosevelt, Churchill, and later Truman had to sign off on in terms of collateral damage. But the message should be clear to all but the most idiotic, if you can't abide the collateral damage, work against terrorists living among you.

A New National Holiday
Wow! The Pentagon finally succeeded in killing someone it has sought to kill for several years. Let's celebrate the "art" of aerial assassination. Surely we need an Aerial Assassination Day (or month) to celebrate this tremendous achievement. All praise new methods of techno killing! Now the government has taken a step towards its goal of killing anyone it wants, anywhere in the world, just by pressing a button. We should all be thankful.

Do you think you could have done it any faster?

Re: faster
I guess you missed my sarcasm. My bad. It isn't the lack of speed of this "great" accomplishment that I commented on, it was the accomplishment itself.

To make it perfectly clear, I'm not thrilled that the government now is close to being able to kill anyone it wants to kill, anywhere, at any time. It scares the hell out of me. So I don't think it's something to celebrate.

Eyes on the Ground
Regardless if it's a lone camouflaged sniper or a loitering aerial platform, successful assassinations always come down to the eyes on the ground -- even yesterday's hit on al-Zarqawi relied on Special Forces at the scene directing the events.

Ballistic Missiles
A plan is in the works to remove nuclear warheads from some missiles and replace them with solid projectiles.

Guidance has become so good that nuclear warheads are not needed.

Jastrow wrote about this years ago in Popular Science.

Next step will be miniature guided missiles programed for one individual like in 'Runaway'.

Yeah, Phase. Let's go back to carpet bombing cities with inaccurate bombs, where thousands of civilians die, rather than focusing on killing those tho actually plan the terrorist attacks. Ignore the thousands of lives saved, and focus instead on the evil few who are actually responsible for the evil. Poor poor terrorist. How dare we kill those who seek to kill us!

Yes, there are many foolish people out there. Just look in the mirror, Phase.


The problem has not been, for the most part, eyes on the ground, it has been quickly responding when those eyes see something. We "almost" got him many times, but he got away just in the nick of time. Faster response makes all the difference.

We also had bin Laden in our crosshairs a number of times, and in that case, it was political weakness that prevented us killing him. Now, he's hiding out like a coward, and is much more difficult to find.


killing opponents
govt has always had the power to kill anyone they wanted to.
The Nazi's were very good at that. So were the Soviets.

It's not the technology that should be feared, it's the will of the "leaders".

Bob, that's a good point. But my intention was to remind readers that precision bombing by itself is of little use if we don't have eyes on the ground.

If at first you don't succeed....
Try, try again!

...a good reason not to vote Clintons or Kerrys into office. At least Bush goes after real bad guys, not night guards in aspirin factories to get Monica off the front page. Clinton never acknowledged that there was a real war on (never visited the WTC for example)....for all W's failings getting the bad guys one at a time is not one of them.

Re: Foolish
Sure. Let's let the government be prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Let's not have such annoying and cumbersome things like trials, evidence, defense or appeals. When the government wants you "done", you're gone.

And, of course, the government would never kill anyone who is innocent or anyone by mistake. And how could we know? But, even if it did, it could always fall back on its perennial excuse -- we'll have to review our procedures.

To be pleased that the government has the power to kill anyone it wants at the push of a button, is putting entirely too much faith in government.

Perfection in government is unachievable but there must be some. . .
Teleophase - What is it that you want?

Perfection in government is unachievable but there must be some scope for government action.

Perhaps you disagree with our intervention in Iraq. Where do you draw the line at government intervention? Is it your belief that all issues are suitable for trials, evidence, defense and appeals?

One vulnerability exposed by the ability to do such quick reaction strikes
Clearly the opposition must be studying ways to spoof our intelligence and draw in strikes on photogenic innocent victim targets.

As I recall there was some speculation that Saddam achieved that sort of aim in Gulf War One by drawing in a bunker buster attack on a shelter used by the families of the nomenklatura.

Like it or not a democracy with a free press has to fight on the public relations front as vigorously as it fights on the battle front.

Re: Perfection ...
Most days I'm an anarchist but occasionally I'm a minarchist. I'm convinced that it is impossible to contain and restrict government power. It will always enlarge; witness our dead Constitution. So, I fear what you call "scope for government action". The scope will always expand. On my minarchist days, I think government should be restricted to running courts to settle disputes and providing for a defense against attack on the country, without things like standing armies and ever-growing defense bureaucracies.

I'm not sure what you mean by all issues being suitable for trials, etc. Certainly, I think the government should not be permitted the arbitrary power to kill whomever it wants. And no, that doesn't mean that, if country X launched an attack, there would have to be a trial before a defense could be implemented. I simply mean that, if person X is supposed to be a criminal, it must be up to the government to prove it before he is just snuffed out by an "artful", aerial bomb.

Wow it works!!!! Z. is dead but we are quietly spending our way to losing a war.
I really hope that the administration is right that this killing will spell the end of the insurrection in Iraq. I have my doubts because in most confrontations the low cost supplier wins. My issue here is not that these techno killing systems work but that we spent billions developing and employing this stuff. The scumbags like Z. and his ilk are using much less expensive means to fight their war. Money always matters in any human action. After years and years of spending these billions while the terrorists spend hundreds to perform their damage, who will win?

Well, then, if you are an anarchist, you would not be opposed to any individual killing the terrorists out of revenge, eye for an eye?
Who needs government? Who needs due process? Kill them all and let God sort them out.

How about a little possibility thinking?
If a miracle occured and the NY Times and all the other liberals woke up tomorrow and said that we support our President in the war on terror. All polling data showed that every American and every European were 100% behind destroying the terrorists and establishing democratic gvoernments in all Middle East countries.
If that happened tomorrow, how long do you think it would take for the 'insurrection' to stop?

It can happen. Why are so many 'tolerant', 'peace-loving', 'democratic' liberals opposed to it?

In "Introduction to Psychology" we learned about the concept of "projection" where people project their thoughts and motives on to others assuming that others had the same [evil] thoughts and motives as themselves.

If this applies to you, get some help!

Re: Anarchism
The idea of anarchy as "jungle ethics" is a common misperception. I would not be opposed to revenge killing if that's what the families decided. But anarchy does not mean lawlessness and does not mean lack of courts, police or legal procedures; it means lack of a government with a monopoly of force in a geographical territory.

Where do you get your news?
"I really hope that the administration is right that this killing will spell the end of the insurrection in Iraq."

Didn't you see President Bush say the opposite? Yes, it is good news that we got a leader of the bad guys, but the administration is not saying that this will spell the end of the insurrection in Iraq.

This is similar to our killing Admiral Yamamoto (planner of the Pearl Harbor attack) during World War: "a major blow, it will help a lot, but it is not the end of the war."

Bean counters don't win wars
"After years and years of spending these billions while the terrorists spend hundreds to perform their damage, who will win?"

Money is not the object of war. Killing the enemy before he kills you is your goal. Pretending you are not in a war to the death doesn't help. "It's not the ecomomy, stupid!"

Get a dictionary
Better look up anarchy.

Collateral Damage
It would be a lot cheaper if we didn't have to worry about collateral damage.

You are completely correct the war would be cheaper if we did not worry about CD.
If the US and its allies did not worry about who they killed or what they destroyed on their quest to make a democratic Iraq then it the price tag of the war itself(the DOD budge will still be beyond huge.) will be cheaper.

The issue there is what are we trying to do? And will not worring about collateral damage helps us to do it. Personally I do not believe that a strategey of "If you get killed or wounded don't worry we have a great plan for your future." will get us very far.

Bean counters do not win wars, they just compute the losses.
Bean counters do not win wars. They compute the accounting losses in fighting and winning the war.

And I be the if we win, however Bush defines winning, the bean counters will say it was worth the cost.

The problem is that the accounting loss is a small fraction of the lost opportunity. The economy on the other hand FEELS the real lost opportunity and as this war rolls on the the economy slides into a recession the citizenry will get angrier towards those who started the war in the first place.

"Personally I do not believe that a strategey of "If you get killed or wounded don't worry we have a great plan for your future." will get us very far."

What does that mean?

It depends on the ratios involved
Billott - you asked "After years and years of spending these billions while the terrorists spend hundreds to perform their damage, who will win?"

It all depends on whether we run out of billions before they run out of terrorists.

If we're spending 200 Billion per year to fight the terrorists and another 400 Billion for all other defense needs that would mean we're spending about 2% of our Gross National Product on the War on Terror and a total of 6% of GNP on all defense matters. During WWII we spent about 50% of our GDP to fight Germany and Japan.

We can afford it - whether we're doing it efficiently is a fair question.

providing for a defense against attack on the country,
… without things like standing armies and ever-growing defense bureaucracies.

SO exactly how are you to do that without standing armies? Post a sign at the boarder that says “please don’t attack us”?

The only true way to keep a national defense is to stop these spend and purge trend we have had for the last 25 years. One President gets in and strips the military of all it resources and people then the next has to spend a ton to rebuild and rearm it. In the past 50 years our military strength has only been about 1.5 -2% of our population and about 4-5% of our GDP.

Personally I would make a Constitutional amendment that set these figures as the least allowed for the “professional military”. I would also add mandatory 2 years Federal service for all citizens. That could be in the military, Border Patrol, VA Admin, or any other form of service.

You are correct. But there are lots of insurgents...
You are correct. It is a war of attrition where our side spends a lot more money and loses a lot fewer lives. The problem is that there are lots of insurgents. Furthermore, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins and friends of terrorists/insurgents constitute a large group of potiential recruits while we have a limited tolerance for the war despite size of the tolerance.

How many folks would have been for the war knowing they would spent 400bil / 160mil tax payers = $2500 per tax payer so far? What about the 2500 lives lost so far? What about two plus years of war and no end in sight?

Why bother?

If you're an anarchist, you don't have anything useful to add to the conversation. You're not even serious enough to justify reading your opinions.

The technology isn't the problem
The problem is always going to be identifying the target. Unless we can figure out a way to inject an ID chip into every terrorists, it means humint.

The assymetry of this high tech approach is hurting us. If you can destroy a multimillion dollar tank or APC with a few hundred dollar RPG, or IED you'll lose support at home, especially with a hostile partisan press like we have today. We've got to become invulnerable or find a cheaper way to ID and kill the enemy. It seems to me that if you have a citizenry who will cooperate, no underground operation could survive for long.

That leads to the question of whether the population knows what it takes from them to have a democratic system. Everybody understands voting, but they may not understand standing up for your rights, turning in criminals, petitioning the government or organizing parties capable of electing enough people to govern.
This is an experiment. I think it's worth the cost in blood and treasure, but we shouldn't fool ourselves about how long it will take before we know it worked.

I fully support Bush's handling of this war, but I'm not expecting this to be won by the end of 2008. The worst thing we could do is bail out and let another Saddam take over.

I think the population here at home needs to rise up and smack down our "news" media. If we'd had these whiners running journalism in the 1940s we couldn't have won WWII.

Great Experiment
"That leads to the question of whether the population knows what it takes from them to have a democratic system. Everybody understands voting, but they may not understand standing up for your rights, turning in criminals, petitioning the government or organizing parties capable of electing enough people to govern."

This is on going in many neighborhoods and cities across the USA.

telophase's definition of anarch is in sync with the dictionaries definition.

You do not need govt to have courts and police.

they are more interested in seeing Bush lose, then they are in seeing the US win.

The evidence, for those who have the integrity to look, is that the insurgents are losing.

You assume that the terrorists would be doing nothing, if they weren't dying in Iraq.
Your bean counter needs to add in the cost of what those now dead terrorists would be blowing up, if they hadn't been killed in Iraq.

Who pays?
Who pays for the courts and police?

How is the money collected?

The customers pay
The same way the phone company gets paid.

Be an outlaw?
So if I don't want police service, I don't have to pay and I can live outside the law?

Definition, unless otherwise agreed upon:
1. a. Absence of government; a state of lawlessness due to the absence or inefficiency of the supreme power; political disorder.

This is the primary definition of anarchy.

no, you would be outside of police protection
That is, if you get robbed, nobody cares.

..slides into a recession??
How do you manage to survive from one day to the next, being as demonstrably stupid as you clearly are?

People like you are seldom able to survive even an encounter with a toaster or a jar of peanut butter, much less do more complex and dangerous things like drive a car or hold down an actual productive job.

You have not even the first inkling of a clue as to what you think you are talking about.

Hooray for the government-monopoly public education/brainwashing system.

Seriously, turn off the computer and go watch Spongebob - we'll all be better off, including you.

imagine what today's media post-patriots would have done with the Ultra secret
Imagine if citizen of the world media slug like Dan Rather had gotten hold of the fact that Churchill knew the German terror bombing was coming (via Ultra) but didn't warn the populace because he judged the secret to be worth the cost in civilian deaths.

Imagine what a nominal Canadian like Peter Jennings would have done with the plain fact that the Japanese declaration of war was decoded before the Pearl Harbor attack actually took place but the information was not forwarded to the commanders in Hawaii.

In both cases revelation of the fact that the Allies had broken the Axis codes would have severely set back the war effort.

Imagine what today's New York Times would do with the casualty figures from the Tarawa or Okinawa invasions, or what they would have done with the news that US submarines were waging unrestricted warfare on Japanese shipping and even unwittingly sinking an occasional ship loaded with Allied POWs.

you can have order, without having a govt.
It takes different mechanisms, and it may not be possible to get from here to there, even in little steps, but it is possible.

As long as everyone is armed and follows the Ten Commandments.

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