War: Surgical Strikes


Journalists and politicians are like generals: They all tend to fight the last war. We see this in the reaction to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, in which the experience of Vietnam is on everyone's mind. But few commentators have cared to view the Persian Gulf crisis in the light of what is probably the single most influential military event of recent years: the truck-bombing of U.S. Marines in Lebanon, whereby a lone driver killed 241 of our men. This single act forced President Reagan to withdraw our troops from that country.

While everyone worries about Saddam Hussein's inaccurately aimed Scud missiles, the real danger may be of an entirely different kind. Suppose a dictator like Hussein could carry out a truck-bomb attack. Such a strike might not only hit U.S. troops overseas. It might be directed against our home front, destroying valuable and undefended targets. Consider:

  • A terrorist loads a private airplane with (explosives and flies to New York City. His target is the most vulnerable point of the George Washington Bridge, where the central span of cable rises to one of the towers. After the explosion, the bridge deck, carrying a full load of traffic, tilts crazily to one side. It dangles there, supported by a single cable; then, as more steel breaks, the bridge's main span plunges into the Hudson.
  • A missile comes in from the sea, skimming the waves to make itself hard to detect. In an apartment overlooking John F. Kennedy International Airport, a man waits with a laser. At the appropriate time, he aims it at the control tower. The missile sees the resulting spot of light with its optical sensor and strikes the tower, detonating a 1,000-pound warhead. Without air-traffic control, the airport ceases operation.

These kinds of attacks are realistic possibilities. Third World dictatorships already possess the hardware necessary for the George Washington Bridge attack and may soon have access to the missile technology required to shut down Kennedy Airport. Yet we are largely unprepared for such tactics, focusing instead on threats to our forces abroad.

An attack such as the one on the George Washington Bridge would not be difficult. The needed explosives would not even have to be smuggled. A dummy construction firm could purchase them from commercial sources. The cocaine trade furnishes ready examples of the safe houses and clandestine transport routes that such terrorists could rely on. The cocaine industry also shows how easy it is for private pilots to engage in gross illegality and how readily they can evade detection.

Current air defense would be impotent against such a threat. The Soviet Union's airspace is heavily defended, far better than our own. Yet on his first try in 1987, the German pilot Matthias Rust flew a Cessna to a safe landing in Red Square, without being shot down and apparently without even being detected.

Even so, one cannot expect that the world's Husseins would stop at this. It's not that they would lack suicide pilots; those would exist in abundance. But even such a dramatic blow would still amount to terrorism, the aim of which is chiefly psychological: to shake the will of the irresolute. This is a warfare of weakness, like the sabotage carried out by French Resistance fighters while they waited for the Normandy invasion. Furthermore, such attacks would have almost no effect on an enemy like Israel, whose lionheartedness recalls that of Britain in 1940. Thus, in addition to this aerial terrorism, tomorrow's dictators would want the ability to attack specific targets at will, using precision weapons based in their own territory.

Cruise missiles, which are basically long-range versions of France's Exocet antiship weapon, fit the bill. The Exocet is used by some 30 nations, and it showed its punch quite dramatically in the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina. An Exocet launched from an Argentine fighter aircraft struck the destroyer HMS Sheffield and touched off fires that forced the vessel to be scuttled. The missile did this even though its warhead failed to detonate. Residual rocket fuel, exploding on impact, was all it needed.

The Exocet is rocket-powered, but cruise missiles rely instead on jet engines, which give them long range. The range of the Tomahawk, America's principal version, is 1,500 miles. The engine needs to operate for only a few hours at most, in contrast to the thousands of hours that an airliner's engines must run. Hence it can be built to lower standards of quality, often using cast rather than machined parts.

A distinctive feature of the cruise missile is its guidance, which allows it to determine from time to time where it is. The missiles are fitted with inertial guidance, but such systems tend to lose accuracy as the missile flies. To detect errors, when flying over land, the Tomahawk relies on a technique called TERCOM (terrain contour matching). Its computer carries maps of the local terrain as seen by radar altimeter, one map for every 100 or so miles. At appropriate times, the computer studies the terrain that the missile's altimeter is seeing, compares the readings to those of an appropriate map, and thus determines the missile's position. This updates the inertial guidance, which can keep the course until the next position check.

The resulting accuracy can be quite high. In an early test, a Tomahawk launched from a submarine off the California coast flew 300 miles to a test range in Nevada and sailed into its target, a banner stretched between two poles. Such accuracy, however, depends on the availability of terrain maps, which are made by aircraft. What's more, a cruise missile cannot readily use the TERCOM technique to cross an extensive stretch of ocean and hit a land target.

But the Navstar navigational system will overcome these problems. Navstar, which is just coming into use, relies on a global network of navigational satellites. It can be used either as a complement to TERCOM or as a substitute for it. In the latter case, it eliminates the need for digitized terrain maps, which may be difficult for a Third World government to obtain. Navstar operates at all altitudes, over sea as well as land, and in all weather. In tests it has enabled missiles to determine their position to within 12 meters.

Laser guidance allows even higher accuracy. In this technique, a laser operator, who can be far from the missile launcher, shines a laser onto the target. An optical system in the missile sees the spot and directs the weapon accordingly. Laser guidance was the basis of the "smart bombs" of the Vietnam War, with which the U.S. Air Force succeeded in knocking out heavily defended North Vietnamese bridges that had withstood earlier attacks. In land warfare, their counterpart is the Copperhead, a rocket fired from a 155-mm howitzer. It can knock out a tank at ranges exceeding 10 miles, which is far beyond the reach of tank-mounted cannon.

Laser guidance has shown its usefulness in the Persian Gulf war. A dramatic example was the destruction of the Ministry of Air Defense in Baghdad. That building had a thick roof and was located in a part of the city where fear of civilian casualties might have discouraged attack. But an Air Force "smart bomb," probably using laser guidance, flew into an air shaft and blew it up.

Even with only TERCOM and without lasers, the Tomahawk has also been a mainstay of the war with Iraq. It has been fired by the hundreds and reportedly has shown an accuracy in aim of 25 feet. One correspondent reports seeing such a missile fly purposefully down a street at rooftop altitude, following its course while avoiding buildings as if it were consulting a road map.

In addition to offering very high accuracy, cruise missiles have the advantage of being lightweight and compact. In size they are much more akin to torpedoes than to aircraft. This means that an enemy could easily carry them across oceans. Naval vessels with displacements of only a few hundred tons, smaller than a destroyer, would suffice to carry a full load of cruise missiles. Third World navies include hundreds of such warships. Diesel-powered submarines would also be attractive, and several nations build them: Germany, Britain, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union. These also have been sold within the Third World in substantial numbers.

Currently only the United States and the Soviet Union have cruise missiles, but many other countries already have access to the basic elements: aircraft-type inertial navigation systems, microprocessors, Navstar receivers, lasers, optical detectors, and the technical capability to build jet engines that need work for only a few hours.

It's not hard to imagine the results of a major offensive conducted with such weapons. Our view of attacks on cities carries the strong influence of World War II, when massive air attacks burned wide areas to the ground, often killing tens of thousands of people. But after a major attack by cruise missiles, New York or Los Angeles would appear nearly the same as before. Only a close look would show the damage.

One could go for miles without seeing a bombed-out building. But major bridges and freeway interchanges would lie in rubble, producing unbelievably snarled traffic and largely cutting off Manhattan from the other boroughs. Airport runways and hangars would be undisturbed, but the loss of control towers would virtually put an end to commercial aviation. At the seaports, the large and specialized cranes for container ships would lie broken and twisted—and with them, the ability to load or unload today's cargo vessels.

Well-placed hits at electrical plants would knock out the power grid. Similar strikes at major oil facilities would touch off raging fires while putting motorists in a panic over the availability of gasoline. The destruction of communication facilities such as AT&T's long-distance telephone center in Bedminster, New Jersey, would take out much of the phone system. Hits on major bridges would break the railroad and highway networks into isolated fragments.

Indeed, this appears to be a reasonable prescription of what Baghdad will look like after the present war. There, too, the targets are quite specific: government ministries, power plants, military facilities. The accuracy of U.S. weapons makes it likely that few civilians will see their homes destroyed—and yet the city already is quite unlivable.

How likely is such an attack within the United States? It would be one thing for a potential foe to develop cruise missiles, and even to build and deploy them in large numbers during peacetime. It would be another thing entirely for the enemy to maintain its ability to produce and launch such weapons in the face of an American counterattack. Yet the ease with which they could be hidden and launched, for a considerable time even after the outbreak of a war, might prove tempting.

Such low-cost instruments of destruction can destroy targets with thousands of times greater value. Both the Lebanese truck-bomb incident and the sinking of the Sheffield are examples of such attacks. And the United States, both in its cities and in its armed forces, offers an abundance of high-value targets that are suitable for such weapons, ranging from bridges to aircraft carriers. Indeed, such valuable items are a hallmark of the sort of war our planners prefer.

Cruise missiles and similar weapons do not mean that war as we know it is obsolete. They have only limited effectiveness in the kind of war fought between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s, a war of massed infantry, artillery, and intermediate-range missiles. But they are likely to be highly significant in any future shooting war with the United States, as well as in acts of terrorism. And if such events cause us to lose our will, as was the case in Lebanon, then tomorrow's Saddam Husseins will find it all too easy to conclude that America is something less than a serious military force in the world.

Contributing Editor T.A. Heppenheimer is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.