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'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 / October 22, 2002


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.

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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.

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.