Weapon Systems

US precision-guided munitions enable targeted strikes with minimal collateral damage


Such weapons typically use the global positioning system, laser guidance or inertial navigation systems to improve a weapon's accuracy to reportedly less than 3 meters.

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An MQ-9 Reaper fires a Hellfire missile over the Nevada Test and Training Range on August 30. [US Air Force]
An MQ-9 Reaper fires a Hellfire missile over the Nevada Test and Training Range on August 30. [US Air Force]

The US military's precision-guided munitions (PGMs) enable it to strike targets without harming civilians or causing collateral damage.

The US military always considers civilian life and works to prevent collateral damage.

The Pentagon in August 2022 released its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP), which laid out a series of major actions it would implement to mitigate and respond to civilian harm.

Those actions included, among others: the establishment of a civilian protection center of excellence, the development of standardized civilian harm operational reporting and data management processes, and incorporation of the CHMR into exercises, training and professional military education as well as security cooperation with allies.

US airmen prepare to load a Hellfire missile on an MQ-1B Predator in January 2009 at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. [US Air Force]
US airmen prepare to load a Hellfire missile on an MQ-1B Predator in January 2009 at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. [US Air Force]

"Protecting civilians from harm in connection with military operations is not only a moral imperative, it is also critical to achieving long-term success on the battlefield," the Pentagon said in a statement.

"Hard-earned tactical and operational successes may ultimately end in strategic failure if care is not taken to protect the civilian environment as much as the situation allows -- including the civilian population and the personnel, organizations, resources, infrastructure, essential services, and systems on which civilian life depends."

A counter-terrorism tool

The US military has long used PGMs as a method to counter terrorist groups.

While precision munitions were introduced to military operations during World War II, they first demonstrated their value during the Vietnam War and gained prominence in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, according to another CRS report published in June 2021.

Although PGMs represented only 6% of the total munitions used during Desert Storm, "they struck a number of critical targets, reduced the number of combat sorties required, and limited collateral damage to civilian structures."

Operations over the past decade in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have also demonstrated the effectiveness and importance of PGMs.

The US Air Force has used almost 139,000 weapons, mostly PGMs, in combat operations in the Middle East since 2014, according to the report.

Operations in Iraq and Syria countering the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) especially relied on PGMs.

In 2015, coalition air forces used more than 28,000 weapons -- mostly PGMs --with that number growing to 39,500 in 2017 at the height of operations. JDAMs and Hellfire missiles in particular saw heavy use.

Backed by the ability to consistently identify key targets, the US military has relied on PGMs to target terrorist groups and their leaders, who themselves care little about collateral damage.

Precision strikes in January 2017 on two ISIS training bases near Sirte, Libya, killed more than 80 enemy fighters. The strikes were directed against some of ISIS's external plotters, who were actively planning operations against US allies in Europe, said officials.

In July 2022, a US drone using a modified Hellfire missile killed fugitive al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a strike in Kabul. The drone was believed to have used the Hellfire R9X, a warhead-less missile equipped with six razor-like blades extending from the fuselage that slices through its target but does not explode to prevent collateral damage.

Members of al-Zawahiri's family were present in the home but "were purposely not targeted and were not harmed," one official told AFP at the time.

An MQ-9 Reaper in January 2020 also used PGMs to kill Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani as his convoy left Baghdad's international airport.

"Gen. Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region," the US Department of Defense said in a statement at the time.

Preventing collateral damage

PGMs are guided weapons specifically "intended to destroy a point target and minimize collateral damage" and can include air- and ship-launched missiles, multiple launched rockets and guided bombs, according to the Pentagon.

Such weapons typically use the global positioning system (GPS), laser guidance or inertial navigation systems to improve a weapon's accuracy to reportedly less than 3 meters (approximately 10 feet).

The US military has a variety of platforms that can fire its PGMs, according to a report published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in November 2022.

Nearly all US military fixed wing aircraft can drop the Paveway Laser Guided Bomb and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), which converts existing unguided free-fall bombs into accurate, adverse-weather "smart" munition.

Meanwhile, the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and the AH-64 Apache and AH-1Z Viper helicopters can fire the Hellfire precision air-to-ground missile (AGM).

Both the Apache and the Viper and some fixed wing aircraft are expected to be able to fire the Joint AGM (JAGM), which is designed to replace Hellfire, tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) and Maverick missiles.

The B-1B Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress aircraft can internally carry the Joint Air-to-Surface Strike Munition (JASSM), an air-launched cruise missile. A number of tactical fighters, including the F-16 Falcon, F-15E Strike Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-35 Lightning II can carry the JASSM externally.

The US military also utilizes the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), an anti-ship missile using a JASSM missile body to replace the AGM-88 Harpoon.

On land, the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) can fire a variety of PGMs, including the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) 610mm tactical ballistic missile and the Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMLRS), a GPS-guided, 227mm rocket.

Both systems can also launch the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), a new development program intended to replace ATACMS.

At sea, US Navy ships carry the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile; the Naval Strike Missile (NSM), an anti-ship and land-attack missile; and Standard Missile-6 (SM-6), a multi-mission missile capable of anti-air warfare, terminal ballistic missile defense and anti-ship strike roles.

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