A laser-guided anti-tank missile fired from Gaza hit an Israeli school bus on April 7, killing one teenager. We then waited for worldwide condemnations against Hamas that the firing on a school bus constituted Hamas exercising a '"disproportionate' use of force," and "collective punishment," but none were forthcoming. But that just leaves open the question: Against a school bus, what exactly does constitute a "proportionate" use of force?
The proliferation of precision guided weapons such as the Russian "Koronet" missile used against the Israeli school bus is happening now, and America and Israel are both trying to adapt to this new reality.
The use of a laser-guided weapon by Hamas, which the U.S. and other governments have designated a terrorist organization, marks a new development in 21st century warfare. Precision guided weaponry is no longer the monopoly of ordinary military organizations; it is now in the hands of non-state actors.
In a recent paper on the "Maturing Revolution in Military Affairs," published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Barry Watts wrote "... it appears to be simply a matter of time before American forces will be confronted with short range precision weapons." Watts also points out that the U.S. is facing a new generation of Chinese and Russian weapons designed to counteract U.S. strengths, such as anti-radar stealth technology and large aircraft carriers.
They are doing so, in part, by developing both new offensive and defensive weapons, as well as supporting sensors and command and control systems. Defensive weapons will be "game changers," reducing friendly casualties by protecting tank and vehicle crews and troops, both in bases and in the field, and civilians.
This capability will increase the military, economic and political price that America and Israel's foes must pay for their attacks. They will be increasingly frustrated when their costly weaponry fails to kill or injure troops or civilians. Firing rockets and missiles without killing, injuring or even seriously inconveniencing anyone will only expose them to counter-fire, increasing their own casualty rate. It will also expose them to ridicule.
On March 1, an Israeli Merkava Mark IV tank patrolling outside Gaza used its "active" Trophy system to defeat a missile attack. The system detected the incoming weapon and fired a small interceptor at it, destroying the missile before it hit the tank. Other "active protection systems" are under development in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, but the Israeli Trophy is the first one to be proven effective on the battlefield.
The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), shorthand for the impact of advanced information technology on war and military affairs, became apparent to the world after the 1991 Gulf War. Before that, the RMA was the subject of a specialized debate among military experts and a few politicians.
During the Gulf War, U.S. Air Force F-117 and F-111F fighters used laser-guided bombs to knock out Iraqi headquarters, air bases and tanks. Other guided weapons, such as the Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Hellfire laser-guided missile and even the French laser-guided AS-30 were also used. These systems not only quickly defeated Saddam's army; their effectiveness shocked the world. A senior Russian officer was quoted as saying "My God, they could have done that to us!"
Since 1991, the U.S. and its allies have repeatedly used their precision weapons in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans. The weapons have improved and so have the tactics involved in using them. Targeting no longer requires complex plans and orders, or conversations between controllers on the ground with a radio trying to imagine what targets a pilot flying three or four hundred miles an hour several thousand feet above him can and cannot see. Now, a few clicks on a laptop, or just touching a screen, can send a bomb or missile accurately onto its intended target.
The best defense the adversaries have has against precision weapons is to surround themselves with women and children. The use of human shields, voluntary or otherwise, may be against the laws of war, but this does not seem to have stopped Hezbollah, the Taliban or al-Qaeda from hiding among them in schools, hospitals and mosques, and even next to UN buildings -- not only as deterrents, but as photogenic propaganda tools if they are deliberately or inadvertent hit.
Watts points out that "…The conflicts the U.S. military has fought in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been against major adversaries with comparable military capabilities." America's potential major foes are building new and sophisticated systems, the goal of which is to negate the advantages that precision weapons and other technologies, such as radar-evading stealth aircraft, ships and missiles, give to U.S. forces.
Looking ahead 20 years or more, Watt sees the potential for a world in which China, Russia or another so-called "near peer" nation or alliance can effectively challenge America's military superiority. Watt points out that "as precision strike capabilities proliferate, it will become less and less feasible for U.S. military services to continue simply using precision strike to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of traditional ways of projecting conventional military power and fighting."
As always, the U.S. defense establishment should adjust as soon as possible to this new reality. It will take a significant investment and much hard thinking, but the U.S. has an advantage that may not be obvious as seen from inside the beltway: its alliance with Israel. The Israelis also face a shifting alliance of politically well-connected, adaptable enemies, equipped with a variety of modern precision-guided weapons. The Israelis are now changing the way they fight, they are finding ways to combine precision strikes and other offensive tactics against an enemy, like Hamas or Hezbollah which has embedded its forces in civilian areas with, active defenses against rockets and missiles and with a renewed effort to improve its civil defenses largely consisting of old air raid shelters that were mostly built before 1967.
The systems and tactics they are developing today will soon available to U.S. forces. In the 2006 Second Lebanon war against Hezbollah, Israel was not only bombarded by thousands of unguided Katyusha types of rockets, its tanks and infantry were hit by dozens of laser-guided weapons; and one of its Navy's Sa'ar V corvettes was hit, but not sunk, by an anti-ship cruise missile.
On its northern border, Israel is facing an Area Denial, Anti-Access dilemma that somewhat replicates, in miniature, what the U.S may face if it ever has to engage with China in the Asia/Pacific region.
The tactics that Hezbollah used in 2006 included a large scale use of laser guided anti-tank missiles, and mines that made it difficult for Israel's tanks and armored personal carriers to freely maneuver in the area of operations. The Israelis were forced to move slowly and carefully. Deprived of their traditional advantage of being able to move fast the Area Denial/Anti-Access tactics of Hezbollah were, at least in the early stages of the war, a success.
China has hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at both U.S. carriers and other large surface warships, and at its airbases in Japan, South Korea and Guam.
These weapons might be able to deprive the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force of their ability to maneuver, at will in broad stretches of the Pacific. Protecting these ships and bases, as well as U.S. forward deployed forces, should be a high priority for the U.S. military in the next decade and beyond.
No one doubts that if hostilities flare up again between Israel and Lebanon, Hezbollah will try to use its extensive missile force to shut down Israel's air bases, especially those in the north. To counter this, the Israelis have developed, with American support, the "Iron Dome" defense system that was successful in stopping rockets fired from Gaza, and the "David's Sling" system that is supposed to be ready for use sometime in 2012.
The David's Sling system is a missile defense system that includes radars, command and control electronics and launchers for interceptor missiles designed to hit attacking missiles with ranges of roughly 70 to 250 kilometers. With that performance it should be able to protect Israel's major cities and military bases from the kind of medium range missiles that Hezbollah and Syria have been deploying in recent years. For use against long range missiles from Iran, Israel has the Arrow 2 system, and has begun work on the Arrow 3. The Arrow was developed to destroy missiles and their warheads-in-flight hundreds of kilometers from the targets in the Israeli homeland.
These defensive systems – "Trophy," "Iron Dome," "David's Sling" and "Arrow" -- are either in use, or will be soon. Over the years these weapons will be continually improved and adapted to handle new challenges. The experience that Israel gains under actual wartime conditions gives America access to invaluable information that will help it develop and refine the tools needed to maintain its technological military superiority.
In some situations, such as in South Korea, it would be in America's interest to deploy Israeli systems. "Iron Dome" and "David's Sling" are obvious choices. North Korea has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles dug in near the cease-fire line. These weapons are a constant threat to the South Korean capital of Seoul and its civilian population, as well as to U.S. and allied troops and bases throughout the country.
As important is the experience of being able constantly to improve weapons and defense systems using ideas that come from sharing different scientific and engineering cultures. Both Israel and the U.S. have a common interest in being able to defeat the new generation of precision strike weapons that threaten them. Working together would ensure that neither the U.S. nor the Israeli defense establishments become complacently isolated from real world experience.
The U.S. House of Representative's Appropriations Committee decision to increase funding for these joint ventures is a wise and necessary investment in America's future military strength.