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The Team That Picks the Targets

Planners tout weapons' high-tech precision but admit mistakes are made.

March 25, 2003|Kim Murphy and Alan C. Miller | Times Staff Writers

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In a squat aluminum building deep in the desert, U.S. Air Force Col. Doug Erlenbusch oversees a team of men and women who recommend the targets to be bombed in Baghdad, more than 650 miles away.

Erlenbusch and his crew at the $45-million Combined Air Operations Center weigh which houses and office buildings in the Iraqi capital belonging to Saddam Hussein's leadership will be turned to rubble and, consequently, who lives and who dies.

The staff of the 28,400-square-foot air combat nerve center is guided by artificial eyes: more than 3,000 computers, bristling nests of antennas, walls of huge video screens, satellite links and 128,000 feet of high-speed-data cable.

Most of the thousands of pounds of munitions that have fallen on Baghdad since Thursday have hit their targets.

But Pentagon officials warn that even the highest-tech targeting, in a war that already has involved more than 6,000 combat missions, will occasionally go wrong -- and the wrong people will die.

"Sooner or later, it's close to inevitable you're going to hit something with serious collateral damage when you drop this many guided weapons," said Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney, a tactical air analyst at the Pentagon.

Iraq says at least three civilians have been killed and hundreds injured in the airstrikes on Baghdad.

Commanders of the U.S.-led forces face a daunting challenge in targeting Baghdad, a city of nearly 5 million people.

They seek to inflict enough damage to compel the most entrenched Iraqi forces to surrender while avoiding civilian casualties, which would inflame antiwar sentiment at home and anti-Americanism abroad.

Erlenbusch says the media images of the bombing of Baghdad in the opening hours of the air war provided the world with barely a hint of the size of the attack. "You have no idea of the vastness of that attack," he said. "Looking out of the window of a hotel is like looking through a soda straw."

The targets hit in the opening days of the war have been in Pentagon planners' sights for years. Since the conclusion of the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq has remained a potential theater of operations for U.S. military planners, and specific bombing sites have been identified, analyzed, measured and mapped.

"We already knew where the Iraqi military headquarters were. It wasn't a pull-it-out-of-the-seat-of-your-pants thing," said Erlenbusch, a 1979 graduate of Cal State Fullerton and a former fighter pilot who commands the 609th Combat Plan Squadron.

Erlenbusch reports to Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces, who is running the air war from his "battle cab" on the second floor of the air operations center. From their perch, senior officers look out a glass window to the hubbub and flashing electronic screens of the operations floor below.

Erlenbusch and his Guidance Apportionment and Targeting Team arrived at the air operations center in February with a full set of potential targets that they then had to analyze: Were they still legitimate targets? How close were they to civilian structures? What was the minimum level of explosive necessary to destroy them? Could the U.S.-led forces afford to cripple them, rather than destroy them? How would the necessary tankers, airlift, transport and support planes be factored into the battle plan on a minute-by-minute basis?

"The humanitarian piece, the collateral damage piece, I think it would probably blow the minds of a lot of folks to think how much time and effort goes into minimizing the weaponeering," Erlenbusch said.

The team has worked seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day to refine targets, along with the weapons, aircraft and, in some cases, the flight paths necessary to take them out.

Air Force officials have declined to discuss their techniques to avoid schools, homes and hospitals that may be near intended targets, but one key aspect is a computer program. The process begins with precise coordinates of the proposed target -- beamed electronically to the air operations center from surveillance aircraft, unmanned aircraft, ground observers or other intelligence.

The program produces a "weaponeering solution," which calculates the precise effects likely to occur on the target and surrounding properties, depending on what kind of explosive is used.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Hubert said planners calculate the expected radius of the bomb blast and then make sure an area up to 10 times larger is clear of civilians. New technology also helps protect noncombatants.

"One of the primary things you need to remember, I was over here in '91, and the generation of weapons that has evolved since '91 is a magnitude of accuracy higher," said Navy Capt. Russ Penniman, who is Erlenbusch's night-shift counterpart in combat planning.

To reduce problems in case the bomb falls long or short of the target, planners sometimes specify which angle bombers must use.

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