'Smarter' bombs still hit civilians

In every war since Iraq, the US used more 'smart' bombs. So why do civilian casualty rates keep rising?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The two American "smart" bombs worked perfectly, striking what the Pentagon had identified as an Iraqi command and control center during the 1991 Gulf War.

The 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs burrowed through 10 feet of hardened concrete and detonated, punching a gaping hole in the Amiriyah bomb shelter – and incinerating 408 Iraqi civilians.

It is considered the single most lethal incident for civilians in modern air warfare.

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As US military planners prepare for another battle with Iraq, the Amiriyah bunker bombing illustrates a conundrum that has grown during the Yugoslav and Afghan air campaigns: more accurate bombs aren't necessarily reducing civilian casualty rates.

In the Gulf War, just 3 percent of bombs were precision-guided. That figure jumped to 30 percent in the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, and to nearly 70 percent during the Afghan air campaign last year.

Yet in each case, the ratio of civilian casualties to bombs dropped has grown. Technology, say analysts, isn't the key issue. In Afghanistan, tough terrain, inability to discern combatants from civilians, and paucity of fixed military targets led to estimates of 850 to 1,300 civilian deaths. Red Cross food depots depots were hit twice, as well as some mosques, and so was a wedding party of mostly pro-US civilians last July.

By one estimate, the number of civilians killed per bomb dropped may have been four times as high in Afghanistan as in Yugoslavia.

A number of factors contribute to this trend, including the changing nature of combat. The US is relying more on air power, in part to protect American lives. Its foes, aware of the propaganda power of civilian deaths, are hiding military equipment and troops in civilian areas. The Amiriyah bunker bombing illustrates some of the problems, including the lack of good intelligence on the ground.

The Pentagon targeted Amiriyah because it picked up electronic signals coming from the site, and spy satellites could see a lot of people and vehicles moving in and out of the bunker. It fit the profile of a military command center, says Charles Heyman, the London-based editor of Jane's World Armies. The Pentagon didn't find out until much later, says Mr. Heyman, that the Iraqis had put an aerial antenna on top of the bunker. The antenna was connected by cable to a communications center safely 300 yards away.

Of the 250,000 bombs and missiles dropped on Iraq in 1991, only two impacted here at the bunker, on Feb. 13. But those two bombs defined the war for many Iraqis, and, six weeks into the air campaign, prompted Washington to curtail further attacks on downtown Baghdad.

"I want the Americans to come here to see what happened, because this place bears witness, because the US is talking about a new war," says Intesar Ahmed Hassan, as she takes a visitor on a tour of the blackened Amiriyah bunker – today a shrine to the victims – which still smells of smoke. "Maybe they won't do it again, if they see that this is the result."

Propaganda war

But Heyman predicts that if the US launches another air war on Iraq, "[Hussein] is going to make sure that civilians get killed. And he's going to make sure that all over the world, there are pictures of weeping Iraqi mothers and dead babies. That is part and parcel of the game."

Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution in Washington estimated the "Iraqi civilian deaths could number in the tens of thousands.... "Even careful bombing by the US would produce large numbers of civilian casualties, given Saddam's likely decision to hole up in cities, using civilian populations as shields for his military forces."

Military experts say with the shift from trench warfare, the aversion of military losses, and the rise of long-distance high-tech weapons, the proportion of civilian casualties to military in war has grown from 10 percent a century ago, to about 90 percent on modern battlefields.

Better technology

"Smart" bombs have advanced by magnitudes since 1991. But war takes place under imperfect conditions. Targeting data may be faulty, computer chips can fail, and greater accuracy can breed overconfidence.

The air campaign to free Kosovo of Serbian control in 1998 underscores the point, according to Fred Kaplan, author of "The Wizards of Armageddon." "Ton for ton, the bombing killed civilians at the same rate as the [Rolling Thunder] air campaign over Vietnam," Mr. Kaplan wrote. One reason was that the improved accuracy of "smart" bombs "emboldened commanders to aim more bombs at targets that required it," he says – leading to more frequent misses.

William Arkin, an air war expert and military commentator who visited Iraq after the Gulf War as part of a Harvard University study team sent to assess battle damage, has seen the Iraqi hospital records that confirm the Amiriyah casualty count. The bombing was the "single largest incident of collateral damage that has ever occurred in modern warfare," he says, and it impacted both sides in the war.

"All of a sudden, after six weeks of there being bloodless conflict, there was blood," Mr. Arkin says. Orders went out that subsequent downtown targets would require approval from Washington." It had as big an impact on [then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Colin Powell's psychology, as it did on the Iraqi people's psychology."

But Arkin doesn't see the Amiriyah bombing as a warning of the risks of air warfare. Rather, he sees it as an example of how efficient smart bomb targeting had become, even then.

"More than 10 percent of all civilians who died in the air war, died in that single incident," says Arkin, who notes that nearly 50,000 allied sorties flown only produced a half dozen cases of numerous civilian dead in Baghdad. But he doesn't expect there to be a greater number of casualties in another Gulf war.

That's because Iraq has the largest conventional army in the Mideast, with a vast array of installations and bases. Targeting will be simpler than in previous conflicts. This "new era of warfare" translates into minimizing casualties, Arkin says – a feat the military can pull off.

Civilian casualties in Iraq may instead depend on the length of the war, US and Iraqi strategies in the cities, and Iraq's possible use of chemical weapons.

US planners are putting their faith in better bombs. Laser-guided munitions that can cost $250,000 each have given way to the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, which is a $20,000 technical kit that can turn many types of bombs into "smart" ones that navigate by satellite. In Afghanistan, the mix was about half and half. Traditional laser-guided bombs were often used on mobile, short notice targets called in – and sometimes "painted" with a laser – by US Special Forces units on the ground. The JDAM was used mostly for fixed targets. In anticipation of war in Iraq, the Pentagon is boosting their production.

"When laser-guided bombs fail, they tend to fail spectacularly," says Arkin. "They could go a mile or more off target, because if a laser fails to lock, if the laser is impacted by weather, if the pilot makes an error, that bomb does not know where to go."

But if the JDAM's satellite system fails, its inertial system kicks in, usually bringing it to within 50 yards of the target.

The advice given after the Amiriyah incident by the Pentagon was that "the safest place for an Iraqi civilian is at home in his bed." But that was little solace to Iraqis who were near the Amiriyah shelter when it was hit by "smart" bombs that worked flawlessly.

Hussein Abdallah still lives in the house across from the shelter, and was asleep in his bed at 4:30 a.m. when the bombs dropped, blasting out the windows of his house, splitting still-visible cracks along grey plastered foundations, and sending a chunk of hot shrapnel the size of his thick forearm hurtling in a wall just 1.5 feet from his head. "We fell down because of fear of the explosion. Our bodies were trembling," recalls Mr. Abdallah, a portly truck driver whose toes protrude from worn plastic sandals.

His children were affected most, when they saw rescue workers pull the dead from the bunker. "In every war there are civilian casualties," Abdallah says. "They will throw rockets, not stones. Always, innocent people will die."

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