Precision Fires

The Air Force has a good record at avoiding civilian casualties in counterinsurgency operations when such strikes can be planned in advance, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said Friday. Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Schwartz said that “in deliberately planned” attacks, the Air Force “very rarely” hurts civilians. The problem, he said, is in “spontaneous” attacks where there is a troops-in-contact situation when ground forces need quick close air support and there isn’t time to vet the surrounding terrain for friendlies and hostiles. This increased risk is the same for ground forces as well as airpower, he said, noting that Army Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has “imposed rigorous rules on spontaneous targeting.” However, in planned strikes, the Air Force doesn’t bomb unless it has “positively” identified enemies “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That gets tougher all the time, he said, because enemies are keenly aware of the US unwillingness to strike noncombatants, so the bad guys hide among them for protection. Attacks being carried out in Afghanistan are more precise and better assured of being against the right people “than anything we’ve ever undertaken,” Schwartz asserted.