Casualty Allocation in Modern Warfare
The reliance upon stand-off military assets, particularly fighter jets and bombers, has been criticized in a number of quarters: indeed, some argue that the United States and its Coälition partners believed that the initial "Shock and Awe" campaign and subsequent air and missile attacks on Baghdad and other parts of Iraq in the Spring of 2002 would substantially, if not utterly, remove Iraqi resistance to the subsequent ground invasion. But while the Coälition might earnestly have believed the air campaign would conclusively and swiftly resolve the war, it is certainly the case that aerial bombardment by bombs, rockets, and missiles did not do nearly as much as expected to bring combat to a swift end. Among the ranks of modern war planners and advocatesparticularly those lacking actual experience in warthere does seem to exist a belief that air power can not only define the architecture of dominance in military campaigns, but also be decisive in wars, themselves. The IDF has in its current campaign against the Lebanese Hizballah shown considerable subscription to this belief, having already flown hundreds of sorties in just the few weeks its attack on Lebanon has been underway, while at the same time fielding only token, if highly publicized, infantry forays into Lebanese territory.
In a ground force projection begun on July 25, 2006, IDF soldiers quickly encountered resistance from Hizballah fighters whose ferocity seemed to take Israeli soldiers by surprise. The ensuing skirmishes clearly established why the air campaign had been and remained far preferable, at least in the short run: nine IDF soldiers were killed in a relatively short period of time during combat engagements in southern Lebanon. In the broad history of warfare, such a death toll is minimal and insignificant, but it comes as a shock nonetheless to both troops and the public at large since neither group is used to death in combat at any level, despite having national experience with far higher tolls in earlier times and previous wars. For the public especially in recent times in modern societies, months or a rapid series of high death rate encounters are required for general concensus to accept death toll numbers above one or two in a given day or a given encounter.
At left is a picture of a GBU-28A/B in flight: the "GBU" stands for "Guided Bomb Unit," otherwise informally and generically referred to as a "bunker buster." The GBU-28 was developed for and used in Desert Storm and is now being provided by the United States to the IDF, which is using this weapon in Lebanon to destroy what it describes as some of the 600 or so hardened, underground munitions and personnel bunkers under the control of Hizballah forces. The bomb is mounted under the wing of an F-15I "Eagle," depicted in the first graphic near the top of this article. (The Israelis call the F-15I "Thunder," and they gave the earlier, F-15C/D version the rather ominousor perhaps insensitivename "Buzzard.") Because a GBU carries a massive explosives package, in earlier versions its delivery jet would often have to make a critical upward maneuver, releasing the weapon in a lofting trajectory that allowed it to come more or less straight down on its target, this being necessary so the device did not have to navigate around intervening buildings and other structures on its way to the target, which might be underneath a building or otherwise buried and hardened. In the GBU-28, a Paveway III GPS/INS guidance package (which usually removes the need for the lofted release) takes the bomb on the final leg to its target, where its payload of 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of explosives detonates on top of the underground bunker, breaching overlying earth, concrete, and other protective materials.The explosion of the bomb then kills personnel in the bunker and sets off or otherwise destroys any munitions stored there. The force of the explosion is sufficient to destroy any building atop the bunker. Surrounding buildings for dozens of yards left standing around the target are structurally compromised both at the level of their foundations and in their load-bearing walls, making the effect of a GBU-28 detonation particularly destructive in urban and suburban environments. The graphic at right above shows buildings that were near a destroyed target in Beirut.
Effective, mission-specific alternatives to these bunker busters are few and uniformly problematic, as are alternatives to other air-to-surface rockets, bombs, and missiles and surface-to-surface, large-calibre ordnance. In fact, the principal and general alternatives reduce in reality to only one: ground forces. This would include infantry on foot and in armored vehicles penetrating urban and peri-urban environments, fighting house-to-house, building-to-building, degrading enemy assets and killing enemy soldiers during the advance and securitization operations. In the words of Israeli Knesset member and Minister of Justice Haim Ramon, "What we should do in southern Lebanon is employ huge firepower before a ground force goes in... Our great advantage vis-a-vis Hizbollah is our firepower, not in face-to-face combat."
As the Israeli Justice Minister's statement demonstrates, the disadvantages of 'face-to-face combat' are rather more obvious than the advantages. Infantry fighting in close quarters entails a very high probability of significant casualty rates among troops; stand-off weapons, on the other hand, by their nature keep troops far away from ground fire and booby-traps. Furthermore, stand-off weapons willprovided they actually hit their intended targetsdegrade enemy assets much more rapidly than infantry and mechanized infantry possibly could, even when the airborne ordnance does not live up to the "precision" frequently used to describe its accuracy. Slogging forward across a hostile country takes days, and target-rich environments can be few and far between along the way. Aerial bombarment from jets and artillery projects destructive force miles and scores of miles forward, thereby offering considerably greater access to widely dispersed targets of interest. For ground troops, after moving forward through sparse encounters on the way to a city of strategic interest, the drop into urban and peri-urban combat environments causes a sudden shift of the target/threat environment from one relatively thin to something so rich and multi-faceted that it can quickly overwhelm even the most trained infantry and mechanized units, leaving soldiers and other war assets vulnerable to everything from snipers to booby-traps to ambushes.
And these are just the beginnings of the problems for the early phases of urban combat environment engagement, even before genuine occupation forces can arrive and establish some degree of order, tense and violent as such might be. Urban warfare is where soldiers of both sides come into contact at close range. Most likely, both sides will attempt to employ small arms fire to neutralize enemy combatants sited or suspected; but the availability of rifles, side arms, and grenades does not entirely remove the possibility of the worst of all possible battlefield scenarios, hand-to-hand combat: those 'face-to-face' fights mentioned above are bloody and violent beyond description, and their nature mitigates at least to some degree any technological superiority one side might have over the other. Extremely close-quarters fighting is where the most ancient roots of warfare rise to the surface in brief encounters that end with the near certainty of deaths of some of those so engulfed.
But ground forces also present an interesting and little noted opportunity: because of the close quarters in which such combat occurs, and because of the human, real-time, visual nature of identifying enemy threats, there exists the capacity, at least in some cases, to determine whether or not potential targets actually merit attack. Unlike stand-off weaponry, which by its nature can only remotely distinguish civilians from genuine tactical targetsforward observers, prior intelligence, remote video monitoring, and target painting notwithstandingground force combatants can and do tell the difference between dangerous adversaries and civilians.
This is by no means a perfect trade-off: infantry and close artillery can cause civilian deaths, either by accident or deliberation: the former is a tragic consequence of non-combatants killed or wounded in cross-fire or through misidentification; the latter is a monstrous and very real possibility, with only some of the many small and large massacres of civilians ever becoming widely known as was the case, for example, of the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila in mid-September of 1982.
The accidents and treacheries committed by infantry troops having been noted, the trade-off between force casualties and those on the other side of a conflict is genuine. In an air and artillery campaign, fewer soldiers will be exposed to enemy fire, but more civilians on the other side will suffer as a result. Stand-off weaponryregardless of the sophistication of technology employed in its guidance, targeting, and detonation systemswill not always nor particularly frequently ensure the safety of those who are not a threat, and this grim fact is unrelated to whether or not enemy soldiers are using civilians as "human shields," as is so often claimed when civilians get killed in bombings. Civilian casualties are an inevitable consequence of the nature of the chosen matrix of weaponry and tactics. When the enemy is at distance, clarity in identification is sacrificed at the same time troops are protected from close-quarters combat with its attendantly higher kill rates.
The trade-off is such: rely on bombardment campaigns to protect one's own troops, and thereby re-allocate the composition of absolute casualty count toward those upon whom the bombardment is being wrought. The greater numbers of dead and injured on the other side will necessarily reflect both genuine targets and innocent civilians.
Readers uncomfortable with or disgusted by this allocation calculus should strive not to wage war in the modern age because technologically sophisticated societies will do whatever is necessary to minimize their own casualties in order to maintain popular support. Deaths of soldiers and civilians on the other side in a war are not nearly as corrosive to that public support as would be large numbers of casualties on their own side.
That means air warfaredespite its limitations in successfully resolving conflicts and despite its inevitable, occasional killing of civilianswill continue to be the first and principal means by which the Western world and its more sophisticated proxies prosecute the grim wars of this century and beyond.
The Dark Wraith trusts that readers have been enlightenedwhile perhaps being disheartened or even enragedby this informational article.