July 1, 2009  

Lowering risk

Air power can reduce civilian casualties

During the 20th century, perhaps 175 million people died in war, and the majority of those were civilian non-combatants. World War II was the worst, claiming as many as 60 million victims, including 40 million non-combatants. According to one expert on the subject of war casualties, “technology” killed 46 million civilians during the wars of the 20th century. Of these, 24 million people were killed by small arms, 18 million by artillery and naval gunfire, 3 million as a result of “demographic violence,” and a further 2 million because of air attack.

Despite this low figure for the number killed because of air attack, air power acquired a questionable reputation that lingered for years. Often, air bombardment was associated with the city attacks of World War II: Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima. Horrible as these incidents were, the number of civilians who died as a result of air attacks was a small percentage of the non-combatants killed in the war — less than 5 percent. Moreover, since World War II, the numbers killed by air attack have declined dramatically, largely as result of the development and use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs). The conflicts of the past two decades have demonstrated a new capability to fight effectively with air power while at the same time limiting risk to those on the ground.

Airmen had always hoped that air power would lower the numbers killed in war — on both sides. Before World War II, U.S. air leaders argued that air power would shorten wars and make them less bloody. They theorized that it was possible, in essence, to shoot the gun out of the enemy’s hand — to disarm him by disrupting his industrial production. This was the doctrine of precision, high-altitude bombardment of enemy industry that the Army Air Forces (AAF) took into World War II.

World War II proved to be far different from the predictions. The AAF quickly discovered that German defenses were far stronger than expected and losses were severe. In the Schweinfurt mission of Aug. 17, 1943, 60 B-17s and nearly 600 crewmen were lost — more than 20 percent of the attacking force. Nonetheless, air leaders clung tenaciously to their daylight precision bombing doctrine. As the war progressed, technology allowed more accuracy, but unquestionably, many civilians died in the bombing attacks. The same was true in the attacks on Japan.

But the war had to be won, and Japan was a particularly tenacious opponent: More than 20,000 Americans died at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the Japanese defenders suffered far more fatalities. As for Allied plans to invade the home islands, one can debate the number of projected casualties, but it is likely such landings would have cost millions of American and Japanese lives. Air attacks, culminating in the two atomic strikes, seemed no less inhumane than starvation of the civilian populace through the slowly tightening naval blockade or the bloody land campaigns already scheduled.

Relative to the total number of deaths in World War II, air attack — as had been predicted by prewar air theorists — was a surprisingly discriminate weapon.

The plight of civilians improved after 1945, although many non-combatants died in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Since then, the number of civilian casualties has dropped significantly in conflicts involving the U.S. In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Greenpeace estimated that 5,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by air attack, but other researchers put the figure at fewer than 1,000, despite the hundreds of thousands of bombs dropped.

The next sizable conflict involving the U.S. was in 1995, when force was used to halt the fighting in Bosnia among the various factions. According to then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, 25 civilians died from NATO’s three-week air campaign. To stop the ethnic cleansing by the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999, NATO launched Operation Allied Force. After a 78-day air campaign, Milosevic — then president of Yugoslavia — capitulated. Despite the duration and intensity of this air campaign, Human Rights Watch estimated that fewer than 500 civilians were killed.

An authoritative account of civilian casualties in Iraq is provided by Iraq Body Count (IBC). This organization has determined that about 85,000 Iraqi civilians died as a result of the war through 2008. Of these, about 9,500 were the result of airstrikes — 11.3 percent of the total. Significantly, not only have the numbers of civilian deaths decreased since 2005, but the percentage of deaths attributable to air attack has also decreased — to 2.6 percent. In other words, IBC calculates that more than 97 percent of the 60,922 Iraqi civilians killed since 2005 were victims of ground warfare.

Every death is regrettable, but the low numbers of deaths as a result of airstrikes are remarkable, especially when compared to a traditional land campaign.


The reason for this drop in casualties in air warfare is the PGM. Although tested during World War II, PGMs were not used extensively until the later stages of the Vietnam War, but their impact was little known to most observers. As a result, Desert Storm was the first conflict in which they played a major role. The PGMs employed were of various kinds — electro-optical, infrared, cruise missiles using ground-tracking radar and laser-guided. Nonetheless, of the more than 200,000 bombs dropped during Desert Storm, fewer than 17,000, or slightly more than 7 percent, were PGMs. In addition, only a small percentage of U.S. aircraft were then equipped to drop such weapons.

During the years following Desert Storm, the numbers and types of PGMs increased. Over Serbia in 1999, PGM use increased to 35 percent; in Afghanistan, the number jumped to 56 percent; and in Iraq, PGMs were 70 percent of all bombs dropped. PGMs have continued to improve, and the GPS-aided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), which can find its way through clouds or sandstorms, made its debut in Serbia. Since then, a laser JDAM has been developed that allows precision strike against moving targets.

Yet PGMs are only as good as the intelligence used to guide them. If it is now possible to put a bomb through a specific window of a particular building, then it is essential to ensure it’s the correct window. Sensors have grown in number and resolution capability over the past two decades. Space-based cameras and radar can resolve images down to a few feet of fidelity.

PGM use has substantially reduced the amount of collateral damage and civilian casualties. In a sense, every bomb, missile or bullet fired by one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines is a political act, so we can no longer afford to miss. More than that, even when we hit the target, we have to do so almost softly and with minimal impact.

The drive to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage has generated great scrutiny among military planners. Since the air campaign over Serbia, a special software program has been used, appropriately termed “Bugsplat,” which predicts the amount of damage that could occur from any given airstrike. Planners examine a computer-generated map of the target area that contains enormous detail regarding the size, construction materials and use of all buildings in a given area. Planners can specify the type of bomb used, warhead size, attack path, fuze setting and other factors for a specific target. The program then provides estimates of how much damage, if any, would occur to nearby buildings if a munition hit on target, or, in a worst case, if it missed by a specified number of feet. Based on the results, planners can modify the size of the warhead, weapon type, attack path, etc., to drive the anticipated damage results lower.

Nonetheless, striking mobile or fleeting targets remains difficult. Because of the nature of such targets, aircrews will have less time to determine their identity. They must then assess the risk of allowing a vital target to escape versus hitting it only to discover later that it was not an enemy vehicle after all. Accelerating the decision-making process for hitting mobile or fleeting targets to enhance military effectiveness, while still ensuring the protection of civilian objects, has been a challenge.

This dilemma generates tensions. Military commanders must protect the lives of their own forces and not put them at undue risk, while simultaneously limiting non-combatant casualties and collateral damage. This dilemma has been aggravated by numerous instances of the Iraqis, Serbs, Taliban, Hezbollah and Hamas deliberately commingling military targets with civilians. Such tactics include placing rocket sites on or near hospitals and schools, installing a military communications center in the basement of the al-Rashid Hotel or simply using civilian refugees as shields.

Such activities are illegal, but the appropriate military response is open to question. Allowing these practices to go unpunished rewards bad behavior, but is there an alternative to turning the other cheek, especially when the price for doing so could be increased military or civilian casualties?

troops in contact

Targeting lies at the heart of this issue. More to the point, there are targets that are considered “preplanned” while others are not. The problem of “pop-up” or fleeting targets has already been noted. But what if there are friendly troops on the ground being attacked by enemy ground forces? This situation, termed “troops in contact,” has proved a thorny problem. Ordinarily, preplanned targets are thoroughly vetted in advance of an airstrike to ensure intelligence has identified the correct target and that collateral damage will be held to a minimum — the Bugsplat process noted above, for example. Depending on the degree of collateral damage expected determines what level of authority is necessary — the air commander, theater commander or even the president — to authorize the airstrike. In a troops-in-contact situation, however, these safeguards are bypassed. Forces on the ground who are under attack may call in an airstrike to assist them. An aircraft overhead will be given the location of the enemy — it may be GPS coordinates, but may simply be a general description of a building where enemy fire is originating. The aircrew of the orbiting aircraft then does its best to identify the enemy and deploy its weapons to protect the lives of the friendly troops below. It is in this situation where most mistakes occur.

Human Rights Watch determined that the vast majority of cases in which air-delivered weapons caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan were troops-in-contact situations. The statistics are compelling. In the 35 airstrikes that caused collateral damage during 2006 and 2007, only two occurred as a result of preplanned strikes. There are several interesting aspects of this situation. First, given that there were 5,342 airstrikes flown by U.S. forces during those two years, the number causing collateral damage was a mere 0.65 percent. Yes, any mistake is deplorable, but that is still a remarkably small number. Second, more than 95 percent of the 35 airstrikes resulting in collateral damage were troops-in-contact situations — those instances when the rigorous safeguards taken at the air operations center to avoid just such mistakes were bypassed.

The problem is quite basic: When our leaders put ground forces in harm’s way, it is inevitable that they will be in contact with the enemy. In such circumstances, they will call for help from the air. The potential for making fatal mistakes then comes into play. The solution to prevent mistakes and lower risk to our forces and to civilians seems apparent: Avoid putting in ground forces.

The war on terrorism offers many challenges. Terrorists often use illegal methods and weapons to achieve their goals; yet, they are in some ways shielded by the law from the consequences of these illegal acts. Terrorists often operate in urban areas, deliberately commingling with civilians and occupying protected structures such as mosques and schools. Terrorists are often organized in small, highly mobile and separated units, easily blending into the civilian populace (their intent) and making it extremely difficult to track them, much less strike them.

We must therefore confront what one could cynically call “the myth of non-combatant immunity.” For decades, there have been attempts to reduce the suffering of non-combatants during war, but these efforts, although noble sounding, largely serve to paste a fig leaf on the problem. In reality, civilians have always suffered the most in war. This was never truer than in the 20th century, when tens of millions of civilians died in conflict. Throughout the past century, indiscriminate killers included unrestricted submarine warfare, land mines, blockades, embargoes, sieges, artillery barrages, starvation and genocide — as well as some bombing operations in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

There is much evidence over the past several centuries to show that blockades, embargoes, sanctions and sieges almost always have a percolating effect: They start killing at the bottom levels of society and slowly work their way upward.

It is time to return to the basics. If our intent is to reduce the risk to ourselves and to civilians on the ground, then we should look more closely at the weapon that has proven time and again to be the most discriminate and humane form of warfare: air power.

It must be our goal to employ weapons and strategies that limit collateral damage and civilian casualties. Clearly, the events of the past two decades have revealed the stark contrast between the discriminate and precise nature of air warfare — especially as conducted by the U.S. and its allies — and that of land warfare. But even more to the point, the appalling slaughter of 1 million Iraqi civilians as the consequence of U.N.-imposed sanctions is unacceptable. War is indeed hell. People suffer in war, innocent people, and this is precisely why countries try to avoid war, and why they decide to end it. The challenge is to fight only when it is necessary and then to exercise forbearance in war, while also achieving the stated political objectives. Air power now offers the greatest possibility of achieving these diverse goals and of reducing the risk to all concerned.

Phillip S. Meilinger is a retired Air Force colonel and former defense analyst with a doctorate in military history.