‘Smart Bombs’ on Target at Air HQ Post : Arms: Lasers guided explosives with unprecedented accuracy, boosting role of U.S. technology.


It was like a scene from “Star Wars.” With pinpoint accuracy, a U.S. F-111 fighter plane dropped a 2,000-pound, laser-guided bomb down the air shaft of the Iraqi air defense headquarters and blew the massive building to smithereens.

Pictures of the successful air raid over Baghdad were proudly displayed Friday by U.S. commanders as evidence that modern technology has provided U.S. forces with an unprecedented ability to attack the headquarters of the enemy’s top echelon.

The purpose of such bombing, according to military experts, is to “decapitate” the Iraqi military--not necessarily by killing President Saddam Hussein and his top commanders, but by disrupting the command and control system by which Hussein communicates with his troops in the field.


For the first time in history, U.S. forces are able to take advantage of their technological superiority to target enemy command and control systems at the outset of a war, a strategy that American commanders believe already has undermined Iraq’s ability to strike back.

“I think to date we have been quite successful,” declared Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the allied forces. Added President Bush: “As each hour goes by, they are going to be relatively less able to respond.”

Yet experts caution that precision bombing of Hussein’s command structure, no matter how accurate, does not guarantee a shorter war with fewer allied casualties.

“It’s a big armed forces; it’s a big command and control structure,” said William E. Odom, a retired Army lieutenant general and former head of the National Security Agency. “It’s going to take a long time.”

Throughout the ages, it has been a dream of military commanders to wage a quick and easy war by mounting a successful attack on enemy commanders operating behind the lines--leapfrogging the masses of enemy tanks, artillery and fortified positions that make traditional warfare such slow and bloody work. And although this dream has never been realized, American military commanders saw a rare opportunity in Iraq.

Accordingly, in the initial days of the air assault, they assigned a very high priority to crippling or destroying command and control facilities. Only moderate resources were devoted to hitting the tens of thousands of Iraqi tanks and artillery pieces dug into massive fortifications along the Kuwaiti border. Those would be dealt with in due course, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, indicated.


Similarly, the estimated 700 planes of the Iraqi air force--when they failed to mount a direct challenge to U.S. and allied planes--were dealt with only in passing.

The theory was that, if decapitation were successful, the effectiveness of the Iraqi planes and ground forces would be significantly reduced or conceivably even eliminated.

And as U.S. military planners saw it, Hussein’s military may be particularly vulnerable to attacks on its command and control structure.

The Iraqi military relies on a Soviet-style command structure, which is particularly vulnerable to a “decapitating” attack. Field commanders, even those 375 miles from Baghdad on the Kuwaiti border, are not permitted to move without orders from the central command.

Furthermore, technology appears to be working in favor of the United States and against the Iraqis. Like most modern armies, the Iraqi military depends heavily on electronic communications, which can be disrupted by an enemy with the high-tech equipment of the American forces. At the same time, U.S. forces have the ability to attack Iraqi military command posts, even those in residential areas, without necessarily killing innocent citizens.

As the pictures unveiled by U.S. military officials on Friday clearly demonstrate, the development of laser-guided bombs enables U.S. warplanes to drop bombs down the air shafts of command centers, much as space pilot Luke Skywalker did in the movie “Star Wars.”

In general, the system such a plane is equipped with first matches infrared images of its potential target against satellite photographs. It then beams its laser on the target, and the reflected laser energy automatically focuses the bomb’s guidance system on the target.

The system not only is more accurate than conventional targeting, but it also allows for faster delivery and thus limits the plane’s exposure to hostile ground fire.

With the help of these so-called “smart bombs,” U.S. warplanes have destroyed the Iraqi Ministry of Defense in downtown Baghdad as well as the air force headquarters and other command targets. In addition, the palace of Saddam Hussein was hit, perhaps by a Tomahawk missile fired from a ship in the Persian Gulf.

Such an offensive is unprecedented, according to Paul Stares, author of a forthcoming book on wartime command titled “Command Performance.” “I don’t think, in the past, there has ever been as massive and coordinated a campaign of command suppression,” he said.

In effect, said former NSA chief Odom, U.S. forces are trying to accomplish in two weeks what it took them two years to do against Germany and Japan during World War II. “We haven’t seen this kind of bombing, with this kind of weapons, in this short a period before,” he said.

Although there is no way of knowing exactly how much damage U.S. attacks have done to the Iraqi command structure, many experts and members of Congress agree with Bush’s assessment that the strategy so far has been as successful as can be expected.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), himself a former Navy pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and spent five years in a Hanoi prisoner-of-war camp, believes that the Iraqi military would be mounting a much more effective counterattack if its command and control system were still intact.

“It’s obvious that we were able to sever it,” he said.

Still, there is a limit to what the strategic bombing of Iraqi command headquarters can accomplish. Despite the accuracy of American weapons, there is no way to target a particular commander, not even Hussein. U.S. military leaders have insisted from the beginning of the conflict that they had no plans to go after him.

“We are not targeting any individual,” Bush reiterated on Friday.

Moreover, experts believe that although communications between the top officers and their field commanders can be disrupted, they probably cannot be destroyed. Since U.S. troops moved into the Persian Gulf in August, the Iraqis have had five months to bury their communications lines underground and develop backup systems.

“You are not going to run into a circumstance when Saddam Hussein can’t reach anybody,” said Warren L. Nelson, a military analyst for the House Armed Services Committee. “The idea is that you just make it difficult for him.”

The Iraqis will eventually adjust, said Jeff Shaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In the long run,” he said, “(Hussein) becomes acclimated to the effects of heavy bombing. He will adapt to the air power. His capabilities will be greatly reduced, but he will learn to deal with it.”

According to U.S. military officials, there is considerable evidence that Hussein’s orders are still reaching his men in faraway posts. For example, it is unlikely that Iraqi forces would have fired Scud missiles at Israel without direct orders from their top commander.

“We believe he is still maintaining control over the elements of his forces,” said Rear Adm. John M. McConnell, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations, added: “We think Saddam Hussein is still in charge, (although) I don’t know how effective his command and control is.”

And while there is little doubt among U.S. military officials that their strategy of strategic bombing has been successful in weakening the Iraqi command system, it is notnecessarily a good idea to destroy it.

Nuclear-weapons experts have long pondered the question of whether, by destroying the top Soviet military command in the event of an East-West conflict, the United States might also eliminate the possibility of surrender. And although Bush has ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf, a similar dilemma exists for U.S. military planners in Iraq.

Some experts are asking: What happens if Iraqi top commanders never receive the information that their forces in the field have been defeated? Or what happens if these commanders, having decided to surrender, cannot control their troops?

As author Stares put it, “It’s a paradox. There’s a delicate balance between weakening the command structure and destroying it so it cannot rein in the troops when the time comes.”

Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this report.