How Precise Are Air Strikes?

If ever precision weapons were really needed for a mission, the Libyan air strikes would be that mission. It would be hard to explain away unintended civilian casualties as collateral damage when the declared objective of the strikes is to protect civilians. For more on precision weapons, Robert Siegel speaks with retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Irving Halter, who is now with the applied technology group of the defense contractor CSC.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

If ever precision weapons were really needed for a mission, the Libyan air strikes would be that mission. It would be very hard to explain away unintended civilian casualties as collateral damage when the declared objective of the strikes is to protect civilians. So, how precise can these air strikes be?

We're going to hear about that now from Irv Halter. That's retired U.S. Air Force Major General Irving Halter Jr., who is now with the applied technology group of the defense contractor CSC. Welcome to the program.

Mr. IRVING HALTER, JR. (Vice President of Space and Aviation Services, CSC): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Tell me, you trained pilots to enforce the no-fly zone back in the Balkans 20 years ago. Is the technology and the accuracy of that technology very far advanced today?

Mr. HALTER: Well, we're always making advancements. Certainly back 20 years ago in Desert Storm we saw the first manifestation of that. The weapons are smaller. In many cases, smaller is better because you can still accurately target something, but limit the damage to things that you don't want to put on. The electronics that we use, the systems that we have increased in their precision and capability. It's, you know, it's what we had before but on steroids many times over.

SIEGEL: When it comes to target selection, how much real-time help from the ground does an air force need to know what to strike at?

Mr. HALTER: I think it depends on where you are. In this particular case, once we got the surface-to-air weapons, the ones that would damage an airplane down, once you start looking at tanks, artillery positions, things like that, one of the first questions is, who has them? Because we do know, or at least are seeing on the press reports, that the rebels have some of these. So trying to make sure that you're hitting the ones you want to hit are an issue.

I would suspect if we go much beyond that kind of thing, i.e. if we're going to try to take out individual troop concentrations, it becomes very difficult unless you have some contact on the ground, whether it's a Western contact, a local contact or something to help you figure out who's who when you're looking down. It's easy to hit anything; knowing what that thing is is the difficult part.

SIEGEL: Does a pilot who is flying over Libya today have a very different and clearer sense of what his targets are than a pilot who was flying over, say, the Balkans back in the early '90s?

Mr. HALTER: Absolutely, they do. The biggest leap is how all of this data links into a net that everybody gets to see at the same time. So, whereas before we used to have to use word descriptions to talk to each other airplane to airplane or from the command airplanes down to the airplanes describing where various things are, various targets are, now we have a system that allows us to talk less and look more - a picture is worth a thousand words in a cockpit.

And so, you know, for instance if you're an F-15E pilot and you're looking at a particular target on the ground that you're going to go after and there's one next to it that you also want to hit on one pass and your wingman's out there, you no longer have to talk his eyes onto it, you can actually show him on a screen, the data links over to his screen and says there's the other target. And you can be assured that he's going to hit the thing that you want him to hit.

SIEGEL: As recently as 20 years ago, you're being talked, you're being told -if you're the wingman, where you should be flying to and what you should be looking for?

Mr. HALTER: Sure. There's a lot more talk when I used to do the no-fly zones which were about 16 years ago in northern Iraq.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HALTER: We all were talking to each other, the command aircraft were talking, the AWACS, you know, telling them what we saw. But when we turned our back to it, we didn't see that. You know, we only could see what was in, you know, our sensors could see. Now, when those guys have their back turned, they're still getting a picture, it's just everybody else's picture.

SIEGEL: Is the result of all this that when a plane goes out and it's hoping to hit a tank on a highway, that the odds of hitting the gas station alongside the highway are far, far, far less than they might have been, say, 15 or 20 years ago.

Mr. HALTER: Absolutely. We had pretty good precision 20 years, 15 years ago. We have much better precision now. But at the end of the day, something can occur, for instance, you know, during the Serbian fight there was a situation where an individual was getting ready to drop a bomb on a bridge and he noticed that there was a train coming for that bridge. And so, he had to steer the weapon away at the last minute. That was a decision that the pilots made. If he hadn't have seen that, then something bad could have happened.

SIEGEL: Well Irv Halter, General Halter, thanks so much for talking with us today.

Mr. HALTER: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's retired Air Force Major General Irving Halter, Irv Halter, who spoke with us from Dallas, Texas.

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