Book Review: ‘Precision Guided Munitions and Human Suffering in War’ by James E. Hickey

READING WEEK: A short series of book reviews related to the use of armed drones.

Nick Gilby reviews Precision Guided Munitions and Human Suffering in War by James E. Hickey

HICKEY PPC(240X156)pathIn this very interesting book, a member of the American military, James E. Hickey, tries to evaluate whether the use of precision-guided munitions (by the American military) has reduced the level of suffering in the conflicts he analyses. As he points out, in general throughout history technological advances have tended to increase the amount of destruction, killing and suffering in war, the development of nuclear weapons being the logical culmination of this trend. However, since the late 1960s the development in America of laser-, electro-optical- and GPS-guided (or so-called “smart”) munitions has made possible wars which lessen human suffering compared with what would have happened had conventional “dumb” munitions been used.

In the first three chapters Hickey explains the criteria he uses to answer his question, and his framework is in three parts.

In the first part he looks at precision-guided munitions and their employment, seeking to know whether in fact the weapons are as precise as claimed, and secondly, whether those using them have been seeking to minimise civilian casualties.

In the second part he looks at the possible unintended consequences of the use of precision-guided munitions. These are rapid enemy capitulation leaving underlying problems unresolved, asymmetric responses to precision-guided weapons resulting in a net increase in human suffering overall, and precision-guided munitions resulting in longer-term suffering as defined by the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

In the third part he looks whether precision-guided munitions result in a reluctance by decision-makers to employ ground forces, and thereby increase suffering, or whether they encourage leaders to embark on military operations before jus ad bellum criteria are satisfied.

Hickey bases his analyses on three main case studies – the latter part of the Vietnam War, the Gulf War of 1991, and the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s (specifically Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999). In Vietnam less than one per cent of the weight of munitions dropped were precision-guided, in the Gulf War around eight per cent were precision-guided (contrary to popular myth – Iraqi forces in the (unpopulated) Kuwaiti desert were chiefly subjected to traditional “area-bombing” techniques with conventional “dumb” munitions) and in the Balkans over ninety per cent were precision-guided.

While Hickey’s book is undoubtedly a serious attempt to evaluate whether precision-guided munitions have lessened human suffering in war, and is by no means a superficial propaganda exercise, my view is that his obviously biased viewpoint means his conclusion about precision-guided munitions is far too favourable.

Firstly, the evidence about the actual performance of the weapons is actually patchy. This is not really Hickey’s fault – perhaps understandably the American military are not keen on releasing lots of detailed data about precision-guided munitions as no doubt that might help their adversaries. Nonetheless it is difficult to doubt his overall conclusion from the patchy data that a) precision-guided munitions are more accurate than conventional “dumb” munitions and b) that civilian casualties in wars where they are widely used seem to be lower than wars where conventional “dumb” munitions are widely used.

Secondly, his evidence about the intent of military planners in Vietnam and the Gulf is also patchy. In Vietnam Hickey can hardly fail to note the indiscriminate nature of much of the bombing in South Vietnam and Laos, with the appalling suffering that resulted. He digs out what seem to me isolated examples of military/political figures expressing concern during the target planning process about civilian casualties (pages 99-100) but these can hardly be taken to be representative of the decisions taken throughout the war. He concludes (page 102) “the government’s laudable desire to reduce human suffering, so evidence in the literature, was ultimately limited by the technological means available to prosecute the war”.

Hickey’s relatively few isolated examples do not justify the conclusion the American government had a “laudable desire to reduce human suffering”. His excuse that precision-guided munitions were not widely available and thus the Americans had no option but to use “dumb” munitions seems incredible. After all, it must have been apparent to the American leadership as early as 1968 that the massive use of aerial firepower in Vietnam had not resulted in military victory. This is what made Kissinger and Nixon’s decisions to carpet bomb Laos and Cambodia so unconscionable.

In the Gulf War of 1991 decision-makers “articulated” no “formal restraints” on military planners. However, Hickey does produce evidence that one of the military planners did issue guidance to minimise collateral damage. The only evidence he has about the politicians comes from memoirs, an obviously unreliable source, rather than primary documents.

Thirdly, I felt he underplayed the “unintended consequences” of Desert Storm. Hickey explains that American planners aimed to “turn the lights off” in Iraq and use precision-guided munitions in such a way that “the system could be rebuilt in months rather than years”. According to Hickey (page 146) a miscommunication in the military resulted in faulty targeting, and the resulting damage to the electricity generation system resulted in 70,000 – 90,000 “additional” deaths in April to December 1991 because Iraq relied on electricity for water purification/distribution and sewage removal and treatment. However, if as Hickey suggests the Americans had intended to inflict damage on the electricity generating system requiring months to repair, then the choice of using precision-guided munitions to accomplish must inevitably have lead to those deaths (which happened in the months after the Gulf War necessary to rebuild the system), regardless of miscommunications.

Although in the conclusion Hickey concedes (page 223) that if decision-makers anticipate using precision-guided munitions results in little collateral damage (relatively speaking) and few or no American casualties, that might influence their behaviour, he does not see this as a reason to alter his positive evaluation. Even though he correctly identifies problems such as the 1998 strike in Sudan that cost the lives of tens of thousands (because it destroyed much of Sudan’s pharmaceutical production capability), this does not alter his conclusion. However, it seems to me that his suggestion on page 223 that the use of precision-guided munitions in situations others find hard to understand (including Sudan) is justified by jus ad bellum principles, even if there are serious jus post bello consequences, is far too complacent given the evidence he cites.

Given this complacency about the use of precision-guided munitions the fact he seems so troubled on pages 224 – 226 by the use of drones is bizarre and eccentric. After all, the only real difference with a drone strike is that it reduces the chance of American casualties from very minimal to zero, and thus is not really much of an additional step from using aircraft- or cruise-launched precision-guided munitions. Drones do of course provide a better “loitering” capability than aircraft or cruise missiles but this is not relevant to the argument. If as Hickey suggests political leaders may be prone to use drones in situations which cannot be justified by jus ad bellum arguments, and that there are potential unintended consequences, then surely these arguments also apply to the use of precision-guided munitions in many of the later conflicts Hickey analyses.

The book then is an excellent attempt to evaluate seriously the issues around the use of precision-guided munitions and their effect on ways of warfare, but I fear Hickey’s bias results in muddled and unjustifiably positive conclusions.

About the reviewer:

Nicholas Gilby is the author of Deception in High Places: A History of Bribery in Britain’s Arms Trade (Pluto Press, 2014). You can follow him at @nicholas_gilby.

Leave a Reply