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Surgical Strikes are not surgical and are not precise

Matt Duss scolds the New York Times for this bellicose editorial advocating Iranian bombing. He notes this passage:

Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try. They should be precision attacks, aimed only at nuclear facilities, to remind Iran of the many other valuable sites that could be bombed if it were foolish enough to retaliate.

Duss comments:

Ah, yes, “precision attacks” that wonderful salve for the modern, sophisticated warmonger’s conscience. This paragraph, by itself, should have disqualified Kuperman’s op-ed from running in any serious publication. The amount of work that “relatively” is doing is here is pretty staggering. One can argue that the benefits of a strike outweigh the risks and costs. I think that’s clearly wrong, but one could argue it. But stating that those costs and risks would be “little” — even “relatively” — is a flat out, bald-faced admission that you just haven’t bothered to do the work.

Perhaps the point is not worth belaboring, but surgical strikes and precision bombing fail an awful lot. When they fail, people get hurt, and that undermines the rationale behind it. This BBC article on NATO blunders during the Kosovo conflict reveals the full extent of it.  One of its most bizarre episodes was a NATO bomb intended for Serbia that fell in a suburb of Sophia, Bulgaria (about 50 kilometers away from the Yugoslav border). Luckily, no one was seriously hurt (and it was reported nowhere in the American press – though it was reported in Eastern Europe).


I generally supported the NATO action on Kosovo, though the conflict made clear how empty were the claims that modern weaponry could avoid civilian casualties. I’d actually been fooled by articles about the Gulf War which claimed that bombs would focus on one building and ignore the rest.

I’m sure that modern guidance systems have improved considerably over time but doubt that they have made a difference about human casualties. Why?

  1. All machines & software have glitches and do not function as planned. I’ve worked a bit in software testing, and let me say that even for official software, there are always bugs and unexpected behavior. Developers can only work at suppressing the most egregious.
  2. A weapon interacts with other military systems, sometimes with systems of the opposition. True, US guided missiles might be able to outmaneuver other radar systems better, but that does not mean that an interaction between these two systems can’t have unpredictable consequences.
  3. Failures of human intelligence. Often the technology can work perfectly fine, but the military intelligence over what the function of a building is can be wrong or outdated. That was what happened with the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, an accident with disastrous consequences.
  4. Incompetent/Malicious soldiers. Planners assume that all soldiers are basically competent and sane and that weapons systems are failsafe. We cannot know that. (Perhaps they were talking on a cell phone to their commander when they accidentally pushed a button?)
  5. The natural tendency to make weapons more lethal over time offsets any overall gains in precision. If a bomb had the power of a single bullet and could be guided to blast through a window and assassinate a single leader, that would be precision bombing. Even though GPS may provide a predictable path to the target,  it would be ridiculous to award this intelligence to a single bullet; it just isn’t lethal enough; that would be a helluva expensive bullet.  I once visited a burger place where they had three sizes of milkshakes: medium, large and extralarge. The medium was 16 ounces, the large was 24 ounces and the extra large was 32 ounces. A 16 ounce shake has  423 calories (i.e., 2 candy bars). Even if you order the medium, you are still ordering more calories than what you really needed. Sure, the military can create a “medium-sized” bomb, but by definition it is going to be more destructive than what was really necessary. Now you can argue about whether the ends justifies the means, but you can’t really argue with the idea that bombs have to destroy a significant area for its use even to make sense.
  6. Lack of real time information. You may know for a fact that Osama bin Laden will be in a certain room at a certain time, but you may not know the people around him or not have a way of knowing whether he was delayed somewhere. A related problem is the unexpected arrival of people who weren’t supposed to be there. NATO et al can always claim that they assumed they were bombing a target at a time when the target was isolated or unmanned, but it’s hard or time-consuming to anticipate what kind of people are around or inside a building at any particular moment.
  7. Failure to predict direction of debris. You may know Osama bin Laden is in a certain room at a certain time, but it’s hard to predict how the bomb would explode or where the debris will fly.

Unless the US can voluntarily agree to voluntarily downgrade the lethality of its weapons, it seems unlikely that precision bombing can actually be achieved despite its repeated use in opinion pieces.  Generally, military people have accepted this inevitability. (“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.” ) But when you use the language of “surgical strikes” and “precision bombing” you are hoping the unsuspecting reader will believe this nonsense and start to believe that the phrase itself protects you from a messy uncertainty.

Update: . Glen Greenwald complains about how the military leaks airstrike information strategically:

But far more often, these boasting claims regarding a controversial U.S. air attack or missile strike turn out to be completely false. It’s painfully obvious that these assertions are made to overwhelm, distort and suppress any discussions of the actual effects of the attack — who the strike really killed, whether it was justified, legal or wise, whether we should continue to drop bombs in more and more Muslim countries. Yet no matter how many times these claims prove to be false, American media outlets not only dutifully and mindlessly print them without challenge or skepticism, but also allow these claims to dictate their headlines and the overwhelming focus of their “reporting” on the attacks (U.S. Air Strike Said to Kill Top Al Qaeda Leaders). As a result, Americans are innundated with false claims about things that never actually happened — pure myths and falsehoods — while the actual consequences of our actions (the corpses of innocent Muslim men, women and children being pulled from the rubble) are widely disseminated in the Muslim world, yet are barely mentioned by our media. And then we walk around, confounded and confused, about how there could be such a grave disparity in perception among our rational, free and well-informed selves versus those irrational, mislead, paranoid, and primitive Muslims.

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