Precision Air Strikes

Yesterday I took issue with the opposition of Lord Howe to a proposed requirement for the British military to record civilian casualties caused during their operations.  My post passed over something in his speech that bothered me and which I’ll address today.

Every care is taken to avoid or minimise civilian casualties and our use of extremely accurate, precision-guided munitions supports this aim.

He is not alone in arguing that the precision of modern bombing technology protects civilians.  And up to a point he is right.  Being able to control where a bomb lands should be helpful for avoiding civilian casualties.

But people often confuse two very different things:

  1. The ability to hit a very precise GPS position.
  2. The knowledge of who and what are at the position to be hit.

I’ve written before about the US strike on the MSF hospital in Kunduz.  In fact, the US is about to release its report on this strike according to a Guardian article which also says that:

Campbell [the US general in charge] stated that the effect was that the AC-130 targeted the hospital under the incorrect assumption that the facility was a building that Afghan forces were clearing of insurgents. But he also said that the gunship crew, before the first salvo, relayed its targeting coordinates back to a headquarters in Bagram airfield, which failed to realize that the coordinates corresponded to a protected facility.

I can’t say whether this is an accurate rendering of what actually happened in Kunduz but the quote does clarify the wide gap between 1 and 2 (above).  According to the quote the people involved in the strike knew the exact coordinates they were hitting but didn’t know what (a hospital) was actually there.

It is clear that precision technology has its limits.

Postscript: The Syrian government bombed an MSF hospital yesterday and this is just one particularly bad attack in a longer stream of attacks.

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