The missiles that miss

Who is to blame when weapons rain down on shopping centres killing women and children? Paul Moorcraf

''Bloody and unnecessary," was Robin Cook's judgement on the anti-Saddam war. "Unnecessary" depends on your political stance, but "bloody" is part of the military debate. What is the truth about the slaughter of innocents in two Baghdad shopping areas? How can it have happened when the coalition claims its new high-tech weapons are accurate?

According to an expert at the scene, there was a Scud SS-1b on a mobile launcher very near the first parade of shops. So perhaps that missile didn't really miss and we could blame the Iraqi authorities for putting offensive missiles in overcrowded neighbourhoods. Critics, however, could argue that killing so many civilians is too high a price to pay for eliminating old-fashioned Soviet-style Scuds which, even assuming they did not get shot down by Patriots, would do relatively little damage - though there is always the possibility of their being armed with chemical or biological warheads.

It has been suggested that the second tragedy, where 64 people were killed, may have been caused by an Iraqi surface-to-air (SAM) missile. These are not the small, short-range missiles such as those used by al-Qaeda in its attempt to shoot down an El Al airliner in Kenya. Some larger Iraqi SAMs carry 130kg of high explosive, enough to form a 250-metre crater when they explode. This could explain why Iraqi officials rushed to clear away the debris from the crater and why the minister in charge of air defence was sacked the next day.

Critics, however, will quote previous American cock-ups, such as hitting the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war and the bombing of the Amiriya bunker in Baghdad during the first Gulf war, where more than 400 women and children were incinerated. These examples have all to do with faulty intelligence, not the inaccuracy of weapons. And this time, the coalition has been shown often to lack good human intelligence on the ground, especially in Baghdad.

The US is now developing weapons with minds of their own - in the jargon, they can "autonomously acquire targets" - but we have not quite got as far as robot wars. Soldiers are still in the decision-making loop. So the question remains: are these human-controlled weapons, especially cruise missiles, sufficiently accurate?

Take the most common - the Tomahawk. Its antecedent was the V-1 German flying bomb, partly made of wood, which the US modified; the early prototype was egregiously called the Loon. The modern US Tomahawk was first tested in 1981. It was used in the first Gulf war when, according to the US defence department, there were 297 firings against Iraqi forces. Seven malfunctioned on launch, and 42 missed their targets. But they got better with practice in Iraq and later in the Balkans. On 29 March, the defence department said that of 675 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles launched, only seven had failed to reach their target.

Britain's two submarines in the Gulf are using Block III TLAM-Cs (conventional Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles). The Royal Navy says its cruise missiles are accurate to within seven metres and within seconds of their planned flight time. The UK Cruise Missile Support Agency liaises closely with the US to ensure that 85 per cent of missiles reach their target. Of the remaining 15 per cent, some fail to launch or do not go into their cruise mode after firing. Perhaps between 3 and 4 per cent actually go seriously adrift, but the navy says that cruise missiles are armed only in the final few seconds of flight. The RAF's smart weapons, such as the Enhanced Paveway bomb, can range between five and ten metres from the centre of the target.

The UK Ministry of Defence insists, however, that its missiles - either the sea-launched or the brand-new Storm Shadow "fire-and-forget"cruise missiles operated by the RAF - had nothing to do with the attacks on the Baghdad market places.

The British and Americans cannot fairly be accused of being careless with civilian casualties. Both have exerted themselves mightily to avoid them, often at high military cost. The lack of an aerial blitzkrieg before the ground war may have been partly the result of American hubris, but the decision to try to avoid civilian casualties also influenced the strategy.

Yet mistakes inevitably happen in war. So far, more British troops have been killed in accidents, including "friendly fire" incidents, than in combat. In the case of many weapons - such as the RAF's Enhanced Pathways - the shift from "dumb" to "smart" is determined by the use of an applique kit which, when attached to a conventional 500lb, 1,000lb or 2,000lb bomb, is little different from what was used in the Second World War. The Tomahawk and the RAF Storm Shadow, by contrast, are designed from the start to be precision munitions, comprising warhead, guidance systems and motor in a single system. But nothing is perfect. General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated on 4 March that, on the basis of testing and operational experience, he expected between 7 and 10 per cent of precision-guided missiles to fail.

But who is to blame when a weapon goes astray and kills civilians? Sometimes, the defender may bear some responsibility. Iraq has tried to interfere with the GPS (global positioning systems) guidance used in some bombs. Before the war, it acquired jamming devices from Russia. If successful, they could have "spoofed" guidance systems, thus drawing bombs away from the original target. The US has tracked and destroyed six such devices. To its electronic counter-measures, Iraq has added more primitive ones: trenches filled with burning diesel. The dense black clouds are designed to confuse laser-guidance systems. And it should be added that Iraq's own attacks on Kuwait employ scud ballistic missiles, which are indiscriminate and differ little in technology from old Nazi V-2s.

Paul Moorcraft is the editor of Defence Review, London. Additional reporting by Adam Baddeley