Gulf War Report Pushes US to Try to Find Better Ways to Assess Battlefield Damage
WASHINGTON — THE request is phrased in opaque military jargon, and buried in the middle of a column of small type. But it reflects something that a congressional panel recently named the most important intelligence failure of the Gulf war for United States forces: judging battlefield damage.
In the July 21 edition of Commerce Business Daily, the government's list of business opportunities for private contractors, the Navy's China Lake Air Warfare Center announced that it wants new concepts for "real time battle damage assessment ... applicable to antiradiation missiles."
HARM antiradiation missiles are designed to destroy radars, by honing in on the radar's own emissions. They are the weapon US planes fire at the Iraqi tracking radars that have periodically come alive since Desert Storm. "Clearly they think they're having problems seeing if the HARMs are doing their job," says a Pentagon contractor.
Battlefield-damage assessment problems are larger than just this shortcoming. Gathering such intelligence has never been easy - and the pace and lethality of modern warfare compounds the difficulties.
A new study by the House Armed Services Committee says, for instance, that US commanders greatly overestimated the amount of Iraqi equipment destroyed by air attacks before the beginning of the ground phase of fighting.
The study examined the damage done to three Iraqi Republican Guards divisions, as a test case. Before the ground war began, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's Central Command staff estimated that 388 tanks from these divisions had been destroyed by air attacks. Postwar analysis based on extensive U-2 aerial photography has shown this figure to be exaggerated by at least 100 percent, and perhaps as much as 134 percent. 'Astounding exaggerations'
The report found that during the six-week air war, battle damage methodology was repeatedly changed by commanders concerned about the accuracy of the figures. But they were still "astoundingly exaggerated," says the panel study.
"There's no book on how to handle battlefield damage assessments. We need to write one now," said Rep. Norman Sisisky (D) of Virginia, chairman of the House Armed Service Committee's oversight and investigations subpanel.
This problem may seem a minor one of interest only to Pentagon planners. But battle damage assessment can provide information crucial to the outcome of military operations.
The beginning of the Desert Storm ground war, for instance, was predicated on certain battle damage figures that would reflect diminished Iraqi military capacity. One rough goal was 50 percent destruction of Iraqi ground equipment by air attacks.
In the face of overwhelming US firepower advantage, it did not matter that more Iraqi weapons survived US air strikes than Gen. Schwarzkopf thought. But in more difficult military theaters - such as Bosnia - the margin for error could be much smaller. Estimation problems
As a measure of the kind of estimation problems involved, consider the case of A-10 pilot exaggeration: At the beginning of Desert Storm, Army intelligence officers decided they would accept 75 percent of all equipment "kills" claimed by A-10 pilots. The A-10 is a slow-flying attack craft that does not carry a gun camera for validation of pilot reports. But since air warfare began pilots have overstated their accomplishments, and the Gulf war was no exception. Back in Washington, CIA officials with acces s to satellite photos began to complain that the A-10 reports were wildly off. By the end of the war only one-third of A-10 kills were counted in official tallies.
With the vast amount of raw intelligence information available, from satellite photos to electronic emissions to pilot reports, why is bomb damage assessment so hard?
For one thing, sifting through all the data to provide usable information for commanders is an immense task. And for another, the very sophistication of US weapons works against intelligence officers. A tank destroyed by a modern guided munition may have only a small entry hole rather than catastrophic damage, pointed out the Pentagon's massive Gulf war report last year.
The Gulf war operations study defended battle damage assessment efforts in Saudi Arabia but admitted that "BDA will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future."