WarModern Warfare: “Precision” Missiles Will Not Stop Civilian Deaths – Here’s Why

By Peter Lee

Published 19 November 2021

No degree of missile precision will stop the tragedy of civilian deaths in war. And wars show no sign of ending. Perhaps it is time for a more honest dialogue about the limits of technology and the human costs involved.

Modern guided missiles and bombs are capable of incredible, almost science-fiction-like precision. To research my book, Reaper Force, about the lives of drone operators, I was allowed to watch RAF MQ-9 Reaper drones in real-time action in Syria.

I sat with a three-person crew at a ground-control station in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada as they killed an Islamic State fighter with a Hellfire precision-guided missile. The Reaper drone being piloted was flying 20,000 feet above its target. He was on a moving motorcycle when the missile hit him.

Missile accuracy is judged by how close it gets to its aiming point. Precision refers to the size and predictability of the explosive blast. The strike I watched was accurate and precise and no civilians were hurt.

Degrees of Precision
Air-launched missile technology continues to advance rapidly. The 100-pound Hellfire missile was developed to destroy armored tanks, and its laser targeting is the most accurate system in regular use. It included 20 pounds of explosive charge, though recent versions use less explosives to reduce the risk of collateral damage and civilian deaths.

Having said that, precision can only take you so far: governments do not publish lethal blast-radius information, but a video released by the UK’s Ministry of Defense shows a Hellfire blast radius of several meters. Blast is also affected by the angle at which a missile hits a target, the local topography and any nearby structures which might absorb some of the explosion. Also, even light clouds can disrupt the laser beams that laser-guided missiles like the Hellfire rely on to hit their targets accurately.

This is still much more accurate than more traditional bombs, though these are being improved for accuracy too. Traditional unguided 500-pound, 1,000-pound and 2,000-pound “dumb” bombs are being converted into “smart” Guided Bomb Units (GBU) by attaching a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance tail kit.

The JDAM contains inertial navigation – an internal computer and gyroscopes to ensure it flies straight – as well as global positioning-system guidance capabilities. They can only hit coordinates and can’t “see” or avoid civilians, though unlike the Hellfire missiles, they are not affected by cloud cover. The 2,000-pound version can be lethal up to several hundred meters away but the guidance kit enables them to strike between [10 and 30 meters] of their targets.