Precision guidance for terrorists’ weapons

In all the brouhaha over the Benghazi affair last year, many people lost sight of unconfirmed reports that the incident revolved around attempts by the USA to either buy back missiles the State Department had previously supplied to Islamic militants, or to supply Libyan weapons – including surface-to-air missiles – from Libya, via Turkey, to Islamic revolutionaries in Syria.  Reports about both allegations have dried up since then, and I daresay there’s heavy pressure from on high to make sure they stay dried up.  Frankly, I find both reports at least potentially credible, given the official blind eye turned by the Obama administration towards (and possibly its covert support for) US groups supporting the so-called  ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across the Middle East.

The proliferation of such precision-guided weapons is alarming, because they’re growing smaller, more portable, much more accurate, and much easier to use.  Recent developments include:

  • Boeing has announced that it’s developing a version of its precision-guided ‘Small Diameter Bomb‘ (a lightweight 250-pound weapon usually carried in racks of four by strike aircraft such as the F-15 or F-16) that can be carried by light counter-insurgency aircraft such as the Brazilian Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, a propeller-driven plane currently slated to be supplied to the Afghan Air Force by the USAF.  A single bomb of this type could conceivably also be carried by armed light aircraft such as the Cessna 208 Caravan, which is currently flying with the Iraqi Air Force, equipped with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.  If smaller, lighter aircraft like these could carry it, there’s no reason it could not be fitted to other light aircraft or small transports – even, potentially, in the belly of commuter airliners, where it could be carried to its target without being detected until it was too late to stop it.  Furthermore, equivalent systems such as Israel’s Spice 250 glide bomb are coming onto the market, offering similar capabilities to anyone with the money to buy them.
  • Standard ‘dumb bombs’ have been equipped for years with ‘strap-on’ kits to turn them into ‘smart bombs’.  For example, the USA’s Paveway systems have been sold to air forces all over the world.  Now other countries are supplying their own equivalents, without the export safeguards imposed by first-world suppliers.  To name just one, South Africa developed its ‘Umbani‘ strap-on guidance kit, including wings to extend the range of the bomb by gliding, and recently announced a deal to license their production in the United Arab Emirates.  The kit is specifically optimized for lighter, slower aircraft such as jet trainers rather than fast attack aircraft – precisely the sort of planes that are likely to be found in third world air forces.  Dozens of jet trainers are even flown by US civilians – and they’re still capable of being armed.  Several other countries are working on developing similar systems.  Other old-technology weapons are also being upgraded (for example, ‘dumb’ 2.75″ rockets are being upgraded with screw-in guidance systems to convert them into precision weapons).  This means that precision guidance capabilities will soon proliferate out of any feasible control.  They’ll become more and more available to terrorists, who can take advantage of lax third-world security controls to purloin them from military bases.
  • Lightweight guided missiles capable of taking out any vehicle in existence are becoming smarter, smaller, and more widely available from more and more suppliers (including countries that will sell them for hard cash to all comers, no questions asked).  Already we’ve seen surface-to-air missiles fired at an Israeli airliner by terrorists.  (In response, Israel is fitting its airliners with anti-missile technology.)  How long will it take before the same thing happens to an airliner on its approach to or take-off from a major US city?  When will a Presidential motorcade be targeted by someone with the equivalent of a TOW missile?  It’s frighteningly easy to smuggle such weapons across our porous borders.  Frankly, I’m surprised such attacks haven’t happened already!
  • Even small arms are acquiring greater precision and accuracy.  For example, a ‘smart rifle’ has just gone into production, almost guaranteeing hits by novice operators at out to a thousand yards or beyond.  Some argue that such weapons shouldn’t be sold to civilians at all.  I’m not among them – heck, if I could afford one of those ‘smart’ rifles, I’d buy it tomorrow! – but the risk of one of them ending up in the wrong hands has to be acknowledged.

I fear that the proliferation of precision-guided weapons is making the world a much more dangerous place for all of us.  The day can’t be far off when such weapons are employed against civilians by terrorists.  Imagine what small guided missiles could do to, say, an electrical substation, or a pumping station serving a critical oil or gas pipeline or sewage system.  The attackers could stand off, far outside the reach of local security, and cripple such facilities at will.  With the advent of ‘smart’ mortar bombs or ground-launched versions of ‘smart’ aircraft bombs, this will become even easier for them.

I hope the authorities are trying to figure out how to handle this threat . . . because I’m willing to bet my pension that terrorists are planning to use ‘smart’ technology against us!



  1. What's worse, I'm sure many semi rogue countries like Pakistan and North Korea are working on chemical and biological weapons. Much simpler than nukes, and at least as effective in the psychological sphere of warfare.

  2. I'm sure you have read "David's Sling", if not, go find a copy. The technology is dated, but the underlying message about information age weaponry is important.

    Building self guided munitions isn't that hard to figure out. With a livable salary and devoting my time to it full time, I could develop delivery systems based on modern hobbyist equipment. It's not that tough. And if they are cheap enough, who cares if there's an 80% failure rate? After all, the average soldier sees a 99.9% failure rate with bullets not hitting the targets.

  3. Peter, years ago (70's),G.Gordon Liddy wrote an article on how vulnerable US infrastructure was to attack. Even large caliber rifle fire can destroy large electrical transformers, which couldn't be replaced in less than 18 months – we don't build them here, they are european-made – and the destruction of two rail bridges on the Mississippi would stop ALL rail shipments east and west of the the river, until replaced. In short, we are frighteningly vulnerable….

  4. When will a Presidential motorcade be targeted by someone with the equivalent of a TOW missile?

    After we have a president who isn't handing these toys out like candy on Halloween again?

    But yeah. This is bound to happen. Like when the BXA had to change their export controls for supercomputers because the Sony Playstation violated them. The world of tech just keeps on advancing.

  5. While all that you mention is true, I do have one fundamental quibble with the underlying premise. In general, would terrorists want precision-guided munitions? One of the primary reasons to use such weapons is to minimize collateral damage, and that's generally not something a terrorist is worried about. In many cases, the more collateral damage is caused, the more succesful the mission. However, is cases such as surface to air missiles, etc., I think you make an excellent point.

  6. What is the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? I cann see someone who is striking at the abuses of a current government make a point of striking only at the people who are the root of the problem.

    Simon Jester anyone?

  7. When it comes to terrorists I don't see this as much of an issue. Smart munitions are generally used for precise hits and small targets. Terrorists simply don't have the infrastructure needed (AKA aircraft) and could care less about being precise. If they were precise about their targets we'd all be a lot less terrified of them.

    As for TOW missiles and high-tech SA weaponry that genie's been out of the bottle for a long time. We all know the record of Stingers in the Middle East and have you checked the operator list for TOWs lately? If they haven't been in terrorist hands for years it's only because they don't want them. Likewise, the idea of using SA missiles on commercial aircraft is not new and has been happening since the late 70's.

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