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Friday, February 20, 1998 Published at 16:48 GMT

Smart weapons in forward role
image: [ Air strikes can be launched from land bases or carriers. ]
Air strikes can be launched from land bases or carriers.

New technology has dramatically improved the accuracy of modern weapons. The US, in particular, has invested heavily in precision guided or so-called SMART bombs and missiles. But as our Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus writes, SMART weapons are by no means infallible.

Precision-guided weapons were among the technical marvels deployed by the Americans in the 1991 Gulf War. Everyone remembers the television images of bombs going down the ventilation shafts of buildings and long-range cruise missiles turning street corners on the way to their targets.

Andrew Bell reports on the latest smart weapons
In the final analysis, the much-trumpeted smart weapons only made up a very small proportion of the arsenal of munitions that were fired against Iraqi targets. And their success rate - while impressive - was not quite up to the standards that the military first claimed.

Smarter this time

[ image:  ]
US carrier-borne aircraft have a variety of laser-guided bombs that they can use together with other guided missiles. In most cases the aircraft releasing the weapon can actually pinpoint or designate the target itself - a laser beam guiding the warhead to its destination.

Alternatively, another aircraft can designate the target for the bombing plane. Britain has rushed similar equipment to the Gulf to arm its Harrier aircraft on board HMS Invincible.

[ image:  ]
Each US aircraft carrier is accompanied by a small flotilla of several warships - what is known as a carrier battle group. And each of these has several vessels - including a submarine - which can launch land-attack cruise missiles.

These can also be fired by long-range B-52 bombers which are currently based on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Problems remain

[ image:  ]
The Americans place great faith in their precision-guided weapons, claiming that several improvements have been made to them since the Gulf War. But however smart the weaponry, several problems remain. For a start the cruise missiles carry a relatively small warhead and therefore can have a limited impact upon a potential target. Certain Iraqi weapons sites may be buried deep underground and the Americans have only a limited capability to hit such targets. Indeed developing weapons that can penetrate deeply into the earth or concrete is one of the top priorities of US weapons designers.

[ image:  ]
Some potential targets may contain chemical or biological weapons. Unless these are totally destroyed at very high temperatures, some dangerous material could be released into the atmosphere.

However accurate the weaponry, an attacking force must know exactly what it is hoping to strike. Some targets are mobile and Iraq has proved itself adept at moving high-value equipment and data around the country to thwart UN weapons inspection teams. Nonetheless accuracy is essential for the Americans if they are both to hit vital targets and to minimise the very real risk of civilian casualties.

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In this section

Military facts and figures

Iraq's weapons of mass destruction

Backing the Americans - HMS Invincible

Military cities on the sea

Smart weapons in forward role

Accurate to within a metre

Tornado - Britain's multi-task bomber

Top Gun - the F-117 Stealth Fighter