Despite the widely publicized success in precision strike operations during
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S. military lacks the intelligence and
sensor capability to assess its targets and battle damage, according to a top
Defense Department weapons expert.
“We have made some amazing progress in the explosive part of the weapon,
but we have a lot of work to do in the sensor part of the weapon,” said
Stephen Younger, the head of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
As a combat support agency, DTRA has a free hand to develop and build a limited
number of weapons that are immediately needed on the battlefield, said Younger.
“We can do a weapon in 90 days, or in under a year. We can handcraft a
lot of these systems,” he said.
One of these weapons is the BLU-118/B thermobaric bomb, or the “Daisy
Cutter,” which the Air Force first dropped on the caves of Afghanistan.
The bomb was designed, developed and demonstrated in 60 days and then employed
in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Having accurate battle damage assessment is paramount for global strike, Younger
said. It is important to know not only whether the strike was successful, but
also whether there were unintended civilian casualties or strikes on friendly
forces. For that reason, Younger said, battle-damage assessment sensors need
to be part of the complete weapon system package.
Another alternative is to place the sensors on the weapon itself, and have
them jettisoned before the bomb strikes the target, he explained. “There
are a variety of ways that you can do that,” he said. “We are not
Sensors placed on the weapons, in the future, could actually give a pilot the
ability to decide whether another strike is needed—without waiting for
confirmation from the air operations center, Younger said.
Sensors contribute to the “single most important determinant of battle
success,” which is intelligence, according to Younger. While the technology
for precision strike weapons has improved significantly, the ability to obtain
target intelligence remains a challenge.
“We are moving on into a time where, if we know where the target is and
we have some basic characteristics of the target, we will be able to destroy
that target anywhere on the planet,” he said. “This does not involve
magic technologies. It implies the application of technologies which either
exist today or with very high confidence are being developed today.”
However, the problem lies in locating the targets, he said. One of the most
heavily armed borders in the world provides an example of a need for greater
intelligence. In North Korea, there are thousands of buried structures within
walking distance of the demilitarized zone, but nobody knows exactly what they
contain, he said.
In case of a conflict with North Korea, the U.S. military would like to know
what is in those structures. In this case, “intelligence becomes a critical
enabler for battle success in the future,” he added.
U.S. military planners rely too heavily on satellite imagery, Younger said.
While satellites provide useful pictures, they do not always tell the whole
story, he said.
“We need to do a better job of human intelligence,” he said. “There
are some things that you are just not going to see from space. Overhead imagery
is very important, but we should not over-emphasize it.”
Potential U.S. enemies are learning denial and deception techniques to fool
overhead satellites. “They know how to conceal the imagery, and that won’t
give us the complete picture,” he said.
While information oftentimes comes from disparate sources, every piece of information
has to be integrated, he said. “Not all intelligence is top secret. Sometimes
people put things in the newspaper because they want you to know,” he
said. “A lot of times, there is a lot of information out there, particularly
on the Internet. If you piece it together, there is an interesting story that
could be told.”
Information databases have to be standardized and automated, he explained.
“If you can’t use the data, it is of no value.”
Data also needs to be “mined,” a term used to describe the ability
to extract only the useful information. “We are being hit with a tidal
wave of low quality data now,” he said. “Within that there may be
information, but you are not going to find it by having the analyst look through
millions of pages.”
Appropriate planning tools also are a key piece of the precision strike capability.
Military planners have to determine the actual physical effect they want to
have on their target, he said. And for that they have to decide, for example,
whether they need conventional high explosives, a thermobaric mixture, metal
loading or carbon case on the munitions to contain shrapnel.
“Do you want a high pressure pulse followed by a lot of shrapnel, followed
by a second pulse, do you want a minimum amount of shrapnel, do you want a long,
slow pressure build up with minimal temperature?” he asked.
“As we get better GPS and as we get better precision tools we need to
put the weapon exactly where we want, but we need to know exactly where the
target is,” he said.
If a certain target can’t be identified, the military needs to develop
“network level indicators,” he said, referring to data which would
give more confidence that the actual target is located according to calculations.
DTRA’s focus is to deny the adversary the use of weapons of mass destruction.
“WMD are the only serious threat to the military capability of the Unites
States,” Younger said.
WMD targets are “niche” targets, he explained, because they tend
not to be similarly constructed. They also are hard to find and destroy. Chemical,
biological or nuclear weapons typically are deeply buried targets. Destroying
them requires specific weapons with unique performance parameters, Younger said.
Striking biological or chemical bunkers is particularly challenging, because
if the bomb misses the target, even by a small fraction, toxic agents would
be released into the atmosphere. Ninety percent containment of biological agents
is a “failure,” he said. “You want to know what you did to
that target with some degree of precision,” he noted.
DTRA now is working on the first gravity weapon, Crash PAD, specifically designed
to kill bio-agents, said Younger.
When targets are suspected of containing significant quantities of toxic materials,
a method of containment has to be figured out while destroying the target, he
The effects of dropping ordnance on a “shallow burial” target may
be easier to contain. If it is a mobile target, even if it is what Younger calls
a “soft target,” the shooter has to keep track of its movements.
That is a “hard problem,” he said.
The decision to strike a certain target depends, for example, on soil conditions,
what kind of rocks are in the soil and whether the weapon can bounce back because
of them. “That is the kind of details that you need to know,” he
Pilot training is key when employing specialized weapons, Younger said.
For instance, the thermobaric Hellfire missile used in Iraq, looked “like
a Hellfire, felt like the Hellfire, but when it hit the target it looks like
a 2,000 pound bomb,” he said. “So, that is what you want. You want
something that is familiar to the user, and then have the planning tools.”
The thermobaric Hellfire is used for enhanced blast effects in buildings. For
example it could take out the first floor of a building without damaging the
The air-to-ground missile can be fired from remote-controlled Predator drones
or attack helicopters. The thermobaric warhead is designed to unleash an incinerating
shock wave and fuel explosion in tunnels or other confined spaces, according
Currently, DTRA is looking at dense explosive penetration technologies, hardened
steel cases, multiple detonations to achieve deeper penetration. “We have
a lot of capabilities that can be glued together quickly to create a new military
capability,” he said.