Photo: President Joe Biden on May 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden’s arms deal for Israel includes a weapon that could reduce collateral damage. The disparity in death counts between Israel and the Palestinians has made it harder for Israel to make its case to international critics.DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
The deal, orchestrated before current hostilities, is being touted by US as offering ‘newer, more accurate, and less destructive’ than the munitions Israel currently possesses.
The Biden administration’s $753 million smart bomb package for Israel includes a little-known weapon—one quarter the size of Israel’s current main smart bomb—that Pentagon sources think could calm critics of Israel’s bombing.
The State Department notification, sent to Congress on May 5, is classified, but Newsweek has learned that in justifying the new sale of this Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), the administration stated that the “size and accuracy of the SDB I allows for an effective munition with less collateral damage.”
In the latest conflict, Israeli strikes have killed more than 200 militants including 25 senior commanders, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the AP reported. The Islamic Jihad militant group and Hamas dispute that figure. The Gaza Health Ministry says at least 243 Palestinians have been killed, including 66 children; it does not distinguish militants from civilians. In Israel, 12 people were killed, 11 of them civilians including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl.
In Washington, the disparity in the body count and the vivid news coverage of destruction in Gaza prompted an unprecedented outcry in Congress: progressive Democrats in particular have been critical of Israel and outspoken in supporting Palestinians, citing as a main argument the divergent death tolls. They have opposed President Joe Biden‘s arms package.
Air Force and Pentagon officials say that the composition of the arms package should assuage many of their concerns.
“All of the weapons being offered to Israel are newer, more accurate, and less destructive than what Israel currently possesses,” one Pentagon official wrote to Newsweek in an email. Going into detail about the weapons is tricky, he says, because the Defense Department doesn’t want to suggest that it is facilitating Israeli bombing—but the SDB might have allowed Israel to retaliate against Hamas with less destruction. The official requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the matter.
A week before the rockets attacks from Gaza began, the Biden administration notified Congress of the proposed sales of air-delivered smart bombs to Israel. The package is made up predominantly of two weapons, the Boeing-made, satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMS)—a smart bomb long provided to Israel—and a newer Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), a Raytheon-made weapon that is not yet in Israel’s arsenal.
The GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb Increment I (SDB I) is a 250-lb. class, air-delivered weapon that is guided by both global positioning system (GPS) satellites and an inertial system that detects its position in space, correcting its flight path. The bomb’s diamond-shaped wings stabilize the weapon and increase glide time, allowing delivering planes to release the bomb from as far as 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the target, minimizing the vulnerability of aircraft.
SDB is intended to eventually replace the JDAM, a satellite-guided bomb that was first used in combat in 1999. That weapon, originally available only as a 2,000-lb. variant, has been updated over two decades of fighting in the Middle East to now include 1,000-lb. and 500-lb. versions. But more important, Air Force sources say, the accuracy of JDAM has been consistently improved from 15 meters (50 feet) achieved at the beginning of the Afghanistan war in 2001 to an astounding 2 meter (6.5 foot) accuracy today.
The improvements in accuracy have facilitated smaller warheads—that is, the use of less amounts of explosives—thus reducing the radius of blast and fragmentation, the dominant cause of civilian death and injury. Though the Pentagon keeps almost all of its analysis of accuracy, reliability and civilian-harm secret, airpower experts and critics agree that in combat there has been significant reduction in collateral damage associated with each generation of weapon.
The new all-weather SDB I, Air Force sources say, has demonstrated additional reductions in shear damage at the intended aimpoint, even in comparison to weapons of similar payloads.
“In hitting armored and fortified targets [such as buildings], we’ve essentially gone as small as we physically can with current explosives technology,” says a retired Air Force officer who used to teach at the service’s advanced school and still consults on airpower. “At the expense of many billions of dollars, we’ve tweaked every element to be able to conduct the mission while absolutely minimizing civilian harm.”
The officer admits, though, that the effort has not been altogether altruistic. The small size of SDB enables individual aircraft to carry more weapons per mission, allowing more aimpoints to be hit, ultimately increasing the effects.
And the improvements in guidance systems and the increase in range—SDB can glide 40 miles compared to a 15-mile slant delivery range for JDAM—have largely been to improve survivability for the attacking aircraft, particularly in conflict against integrated air defense systems and peer adversaries. A second “increment” improvement of SDB (the GBU-53 SDB II, called StormBreaker), initially deployed to the Air Force late last year, introduces even more guidance modes (including an active radar) as well as datalinks to increase the ability of the bomb to autonomously track and hit mobile targets such as Russian tanks—at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars—while the accuracy and explosive size remains the same.
“It is important to recognize that targeting tactics, techniques and procedures have a big impact on reducing collateral damage,” in addition to weapons size, says retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former head of Air Force intelligence and dean of The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Direction of delivery, angle of attack delivery, analysis of munitions effects, etc., are as important as warhead size and CEP [circular error of probability, that is, accuracy] for limiting potential civilian casualties.”
Deptula says that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) practices all aspects of meticulous targeting and weaponeering to reduce civilian harm, while Hamas neglects all of these techniques, its core objective being to cause maximum terror and damage.
Still, the divergence in casualties and damage makes it more difficult for Israel to make its case to critics that it is doing everything possible to reduce civilian harm.
“At a moment when U.S.-made bombs are devastating Gaza, and killing women and children, we cannot simply let another huge arms sale go through without even a Congressional debate,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Thursday in introducing a joint resolution blocking the proposed sale of SDBs and JDAMs. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Mark Pocan (D-WI), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) filed a similar resolution in the House.Read more
None of the Congressional critics (or supporters) have noted the SDB and its reduced size and greater accuracy. The media, when it has mentioned the small diameter bomb, has offered mistaken descriptions. CNN says the weapon is “not yet off production lines and ready for export.” Haaretz, Israel’s leading newspaper, describes the SDB as “a weapon developed for penetrating fortified facilities located deep underground.”
Though it is true that the supply of the new SDB probably wouldn’t have affected the current fighting—deliveries from Raytheon’s Missiles and Defense Company are not slated for months—the bomb entered the U.S. arsenal in 2006. It is also not intended in any way to hit underground facilities.
Behind the bigger debate, and of the ultimate benefit for either side in undertaking attacks and retaliations, is the central issue of bombing. Greater weapons accuracy, while indeed reducing the chances of killing or injuring civilians in individual attacks, has little meaning when adversaries hide in urban and populated areas, a practice followed by Hamas.
Smaller and more accurate weapons—when used by the United States and its allies—have also steadily heightened expectations of ever fewer numbers of civilians being killed and injured. As a result, there is little information advantage for the United States or Israel in using such weapons, especially when the bigger questions of the purpose of fighting is lost in the fog of battle.
“There is never ‘a strictly weapons solution’ to geopolitical issues, particularly in the Mideast,” says Lt. Gen. Deptula. “However, the U.S. can play a positive role in reducing the likelihood of unintentional civilian casualties by providing the latest precision weapons to the IDF. They will apply the targeting tactics, techniques and procedures, and operate in accordance with the international laws of armed conflict to reduce the potential of civilian casualties in the defense of not just the Israeli population, but innocent Palestinians as well.”