The American Military: Power without Limit?

I got an e-mail from a Muslim organization a couple of days ago telling me to oppose the war in Iraq because the US will drop so many bombs that 500,000 Iraqis will be killed within the first 14 days of fighting. Iém not sure the war will even last 14 days, but the reality is that the US will win this war with minimal civilian casualties, and in many ways that is even more frightening.

Just in the last ten years there has been a revolution in the way the US military operates. Its effectiveness has taken a huge leap forward by incorporating the fruits of American technological superiority. To get some perspective consider these numbers. In World War II, the United States dropped over 1.5 million tons of bombs in its air war against Germany. These bombing raids were matched by British Bomber Command which carried out its own separate assault on German cities. Firestorms in Hamburg and Dresden killed tens of thousands in a single day and night of bombardment. In Vietnam, the much larger jet bombers such as the B-52 allowed the US to deposit over 4 million tons of bombs in Southeast Asia, and yet it still could not achieve victory.

But then a strange thing happened. In the 1990 Gulf War, total bomb tonnage dropped to 90,000 tons, and the Allied armies swept to an easy victory. Then in Afghanistan, the bombing sunk to 10,000 tons total, and another easy victory for the US followed. In Afghanistan, the bombing was so sparse that a single errant bomb could make the world’s newspapers and TV stations. A very odd turn of events.

What had occurred was the development of guided bombs. The new JDAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munition, was a standard dumb bomb with a computer strapped to it and tail fins that can move and change the bomb’s flight path as it drops. The bomber pilot enters the exact coordinates of the target (usually supplied by a spotter on the ground or through satellite data) into the bomb’s computer and drops it. Within 15 minutes of a soldier on the ground finding something worth attacking, the bomb is on its way.

The devices are accurate enough to drop within 25 yards of the target over half the time. In the real world, this means 2 or 3 bombs will be enough to guarantee the destruction of the target, a task that the old method would have needed 100 bombs to achieve. So the scale of destruction dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, the US military developed a doctrine that identifies the key elements that allows the opposite military to function and targets them specifically. These are essentially command, communications, fuel, radar, and heavy weapons sites. These are mostly fixed targets that can be identified well in advance and then destroyed with B-52s flying so high you can’t see them or hear them. The enemy is quickly rendered deaf, dumb, and blind, and his army turned into a rabble.

The end result of all this is that the US now has the capacity to defeat its enemies with relative ease, and with much less collateral damage and civilian casualties than would otherwise be expected. The United States has leaked its air assault plan for Iraq. In the first two days it will be hit with 7000 JDAM bombs and 3000 cruise missiles and other guided weapons.

This seems like a lot, but amounts to less than 10,000 tons of ordnance. But the Iraqi military will be gutted by this assault, and will quickly collapse.

For American planners this is a wonderful thing, and for Iraqi civilians it means that there will be less civilian casualties, perhaps far less, than many imagine. But it is also very dangerous.

The defeat in Vietnam chastened the United States against foreign military adventures. For 25 years, the US has reluctantly gone to war. Fear of American casualties and fear of excessive civilian deaths have led US planners to think twice before leaping into the fray. But this huge lead the US now has in conventional military power has turned that old equation on its head. This new world we are in is one in which the US can expect to win its wars with ease, with few American casualties, and with minimal civilian deaths. So what restraint will there be on the American President when it comes to military force? He will dismiss his critics at home and abroad, and this is what is happening already. The Bush administration is aware that the majority of the American public is not anxious to go to war with Iraq, and that massive American casualties or Iraqi deaths could well cost Bush re-election, yet this does not seem to perturb them.

There are some scenarios in which significant numbers of Iraqis die. One is in which Saddam uses chemical weapons against his own people. Another possibility is if Saddam’s closest military units fight to the end inside Baghdad, in which case the death toll will be quite high. Another possibility is that Iraq’s authority disintegrates too fast, and before the US can occupy and restore order, Iraq’s various ethnic groups engage in communal violence. All of these are unlikely, but the easy American win the Pentagon is expecting is no less dangerous.

We may be entering an age of a second American empire.