Two U.S. Air Force F-15E's fly over northern Iraq after conducting strikes against ISIL targets in Syria.

Two U.S. Air Force F-15E's fly over northern Iraq after conducting strikes against ISIL targets in Syria. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch

How American Precision Weapons Opened the Door to an Arab Coalition

For years, the U.S. sold Arab militaries precision-guided bombs for this very reason, while NATO stockpiles have lagged since Libya. By Marcus Weisgerber

President Obama’s insistence that Arab states join in on U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq serves a political purpose for Washington and the region. But that Arab states were able to play a key role in the strikes at all is owed to years of purchases of made-in-America, high-tech, precision-guided bombs.

The U.S. military has gone to great lengths to detail the precision of the air strikes conducted against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Joint Staff director of operations, offered a glimpse into the accuracy of these types of weapons this week when he showed reporters pictures and videos of some of those strikes. The black-and-white images captured from aircraft in the sky show these weapons hitting specific areas of buildings.

In one strike, a Raytheon-made Tomahawk missile – launched from the USS Philippine Sea about 1,000 miles away in the Arabian Gulf – exploded fractions of a second before slamming into a suspected Islamic State finance center. The result, communications equipment on the roof was heavily damaged while the building “remains largely untouched,” Mayville said.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby on Thursday said that U.S.-led strikes against Islamic State-controlled oil refineries in Syria, were so precise that refinery towers purposefully were left standing while other structures of the same plant were targeted. The intent is to damage the site enough so the Islamic State cannot use it for profit now, but not obliterate the site so that it can’t be repaired and used after the conflict.

Nearly all of the air strikes by U.S. and coalition militaries in Syria and Iraq have used precision bombs. This type of firepower has become the standard for the U.S. military over the past decade and drastically reduces civilian deaths, officials say. On the first night of air strikes in Syria, 96 percent of the bombs used were precision-guided munitions, Mayville said.

“One of the things you’re seeing in this air campaign is the fruition of two decades of interoperability and procurement activities, training activity and education activities with our allies in the region,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday during a press briefing at the Pentagon.

These nations “are performing just as well as we are on the issue of precision and reducing the possibility of collateral damage,” Dempsey said.

Air force fighters from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are participating in the strikes and those militaries use U.S weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, and Paveway bombs. The Boeing-made JDAM is a special tail kit affixed to the bomb. It uses GPS satellites to guide it to a specific location as it falls to the ground. Paveway bombs, made by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, are guided with a laser controlled by someone on the ground or in an aircraft. Both nations fly U.S.-made fighters, including F-15s and F-16s, allowing them to operate seamlessly alongside their U.S. counterparts.

“The stocks of free-fall, precision-guided weapons that countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE have got are significant,” said Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London.

“They will have a substantial number of weapons in their inventories so I wouldn’t expect them to burn though anything like a complete stock of weapons in the current operation,” he said.

But outside the Middle East, NATO leaders long have expressed concern that the alliance lacked sufficient stockpiles of these types of guided weapons and could limit a countries’ participation in long-term air strike campaign. “We do not have enough precision-strike munitions to carry on a concentrated campaign, at length, helping all of our allies to be there with us,” said Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander Europe and head of US European Command, last week. “We need to think through where we are on precision munitions.”

After the Cold War, many European counties did not replace older unguided weapons, sometimes called dumb bombs, with large stockpiles of precision munitions, Barrie said. During NATO’s 2011 campaign in Libya, some countries came close to running out of precision-guided weapons and the U.S. rushed guided weapons to these countries. So in recent years NATO has been looking to stand up a pooling-and-sharing agreement for types of guided weapons among its members.

Even though Saudi Arabia and UAE have large stockpiles of precision weapons, Barrie said he does not expect the U.S. or Arab states participating in the strikes to continue using large numbers of bombs because the Islamic State militants are not structured like a traditional, large army. But he does expect Arab countries to replace the stocks they do use by buying replacements or, better yet, a newer equivalent.