Attrition: When Too Few Is Not Enough


July 7, 2016: The United States government recently responded to growing criticism of its tactics in fighting Islamic terrorists. The U.S. released classified data on the use of air strikes, particularly UAVs, to seek out and kill Islamic terrorists. This included classified data on Islamic terrorists and nearby civilians killed in a seven year period (2009-2015). In the course of 473 air attacks, most by UAVs and all using guided bombs or missiles, about 2,400 Islamic terrorists were killed along with about 90 civilians. Many critics of the air campaign insist too many civilians are dying and some insist the actual number of civilians killed is up to ten times more than American intel analysis of their data indicates.

What is ignored is that there are few other ways to get at many Islamic terrorists that would not get more civilians, and friendly troops killed. The fact is that during this period guided missiles saved a lot of American and civilian lives. It’s all about accuracy and the fact that before GPS guided bombs and missiles you had to drop hundreds of unguided bombs to do what one small missile will now accomplish. Some missiles can be fired through a window or door several kilometers distant. Some are designed with relatively small warheads that will kill everyone in the room on the other side of the window, but not so people in adjacent buildings. This saves a lot of civilian lives.

American forces don't get much credit for keeping civilian ("collateral") casualties down. Compared with previous wars (Vietnam, Korea, World War II), far fewer (like 90 percent fewer) civilians are getting killed because they are near enemy forces. The precision weapons enable U.S. troops to take down enemy troops much more quickly as well. This pattern was detected by the troops, and local civilians, early on. Actually, it was noted during the 1991 Gulf War, when only a few percent of the bombs were smart (guided) bombs, but they did most of the damage to the enemy, and caused the fewest civilian casualties along the way. By 2003 there were hardly any dumb bombs used, and far more, higher quality (and more expensive) missiles and smart bombs available. But all this has come at a cost, and the cost is in the billions of dollars for dozens of different types of guided munitions (including GPS guided artillery shells and rockets). But as is always the case, no good deed ever goes unpunished.


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