The Ambiguities of Precision Warfare

The term precision is firmly embedded itself in the military, academic and popular discourse surrounding contemporary warfare. Despite appearing so regularly, however, it is often ill-defined and misunderstood. Ironically enough, the term precision evades precise definition. With different meanings to different people in different contexts, precision has become an amorphous concept which carries a great deal of discursive baggage from one domain to another. What does it mean to be “precise” in military engagement?

In understanding precision, it is helpful to disentangle the technical from the political. Precision has a very narrow, technical definition, which in turn has affected both its influence on and instrumentality in political discourse. Bridging these technical and political aspects of the term are the interpretations of precision in a tactical and a strategic manner. Precision guided munitions (PGMs) have long been regarded as tactically invaluable in military circles, which over time has arguably led to them being treated as a strategy in themselves. Furthermore, this has spilled over into political discourse as a means of justifying and legitimising military intervention.

By assessing these different dimensions of precision individually, we can see their co-constitutive nature more clearly. This is a term with technical origins which has gained such tactical significance it has grown to become almost a strategy in its own right, prompting a host of political questions regarding how we justify and legitimise war. 

Technical Precision

Warfare involves destruction; some of it intended, some of it not. Maximising the intended destruction while minimising the unintended destruction is a natural tactical aim (and ethical principle), one which precision technologies promise to achieve by striking the target and not its adjacent buildings or people (Zehfuss, 2011:2). The accuracy, blast radius and wider targeting cycle are all relevant to precision in this regard.

In technical terms, we should be careful to distinguish precision from accuracy, which can be defined as “a weapon’s capacity to strike the precise point at which it is aimed” (Schmitt, 2005:445). PGMs are more accurate than gravity-guided “dumb” bombs as their GPS or laser technologies enable them to change direction after launch (Cole, 2015). This ability to ‘follow’ a target is what allows modern militaries to “put warheads on foreheads” (Chamayou, 2016). As grimly impressive as these claims may appear, the reality is more complicated. 

The accuracy of PGMs is defined in terms of Circular Error Probability (CEP), a measure defined through tests in which several munitions are launched at a target and an circle is drawn around 50% of the strikes closest (Cole, 2015). The radius of that circle, i.e. the distance from the target which 50% of munitions land, is the CEP. The exact CEP varies between PGMs, but the point remains that the accuracy of weapons is defined on the basis of half of them landing within the target area. The other half, those landing outside the target radius, of course do not simply disappear but land elsewhere – every ‘miss’ is a hit, just a hit on something else (Zehfuss, 2011:27). Talk of putting ‘warheads on foreheads’ is therefore better understood as putting half the warheads in a strike on something near a forehead. 

Where the bomb lands is just the start. For a strike to be considered precise it must not only be accurate but also efficient. On impact, the detonation of a bomb produces a blast wave sending deadly shrapnel fragments fast, far and unpredictably. For this reason, it is a curious feature of precision technologies that, while the history of weapons development has generally focused on making weapons (including bombs) more destructive, the rise of PGMs has created incentives to reduce the blast radius, making them less destructive (Koplow, 2012:90). With less destructive bombs, militaries can strike more densely-populated environments, where a larger explosion may produce unacceptable levels of collateral damage (ibid.). Smaller blast radiuses render the difference between hitting the target and hitting only the target. Chamayou reminds us, however, that “less” destruction is a relative term. On hellfire missiles, he remarks:

“one cannot help wondering in what fictitious world killing an individual with an antitank missile that annihilates every living being within a radius of 15 meters and wounds all those within a radius of 20 meters can be reputed to be “more precise”.”

Chamayou, 2016

Tactical Tool or Strategic Silver Bullet?

Tactically-speaking, the appeal of precision strikes is obvious. Precision is a function of the accuracy and efficiency of a strike, which means expending minimal effort for maximum gains (implicitly, with minimal collateral damage) (Waddington, in Aaronsen and Johnson, 2013:80). It must be emphasised, however, that an accurate landing and restricted blast radius is not the whole story. This is clear from the US military’s own, more expansive definition of precision as:

“The ability of joint forces to locate, surveil, discern, and track objectives or targets; select, organize, and use the correct systems; generate desired effects; assess results; and reengage with decisive speed and overwhelming operational tempo as required, throughout the full range of military operations.” 

(Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2000, quoted in Schmitt, 2005:446)

Whatever their technological capabilities, then, it should be remembered that precision depends on accurate target selection. Countless civilians maimed and killed by “precise” bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria over the past two decades testify to this fact. A munition striking the wrong target, however accurately, cannot be said to be precise. “Precision,” elaborate Markham and Schmitt, “is just as dependent on command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (known as C4ISR) capabilities” (2013:670). PGMs are ultimately only as intelligent as the humans operating them. This is of particular concern in the “inaccessible” environments where drones operate, dependent largely on the basis of remote-sensing and local partners who may provide misguided or malicious intelligence for their own purposes (Zehfuss, 2011:13). 

Technological innovations have undoubtedly opened up new opportunities in terms of what is possible in warfare – e.g. bombing densely-populated areas. With these new possibilities come new responsibilities. Technological improvement has arguably placed greater pressure on these C4ISR capabilities and the targeting process because now that it is possible to avoid civilian casualties, it becomes imperative to do so (Zehfuss, 2011:8). This is reflected in the growing importance of legal experts in targeting (a phenomenon known as “lawfare”) and the role of Red Card Holders in coalition military interventions who can veto an airstrike if they deem the risk of collateral damage unacceptably high (Jacobsen and Saugman, 2019). 

A fuller understanding of precision must move beyond the technology itself, and what it can or can’t do (Beier, 2003:413). Drones, for example, have effectively become “fetishised” as iconic weapon-warriors in themselves, obscuring the human social relations they mediate (Shaw and Akhter, 2012:1501). Waddington similarly questions if a “blind faith in technological improvement” and an overreliance on precision airstrikes at the tactical level is being conflated with strategic effectiveness (in Aaronsen and Johnson, 2013:79). He posits that even if a perfectly precise weapon capable of killing only the intended target could be developed, there is no guarantee of strategic success. The idea of “blowback” from remote interventions supports this. Indeed Pape (2004) argued long ago that the strategy of “decapitating” enemy regimes and networks through targeted strikes has never worked. By placing too much faith in precision technologies themselves, at the neglect of the strategy guiding their use, precision airstrikes risk becoming a militaristic Maslow’s Hammer – “if all you have is a hammer… then all problems might start to look like nails” (Waddington, in Aaronsen and Johnson, 2013:80). This feels especially pertinent in an age of armed drones endlessly scouring battlefields for unidentified targets, waiting to carry out “signature strikes” on the basis of pattern-of-life analysis.

Politically-Guided Munitions

Precision, as a catch-all term, has gained extraordinary currency in contemporary political debates surrounding military interventions. In one of the most egregious examples, Operation Inherent Resolve, the ongoing American-led coalition bombing of ISIS targets, has been touted as “one of the most precise air campaigns in military history” (New York Times, 2017). On the eve of British involvement in this war, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon similarly boasted of the RAF’s new Brimstone missile being so precise it “eliminates civilian casualties” (Cole, 2015). The pre-eminence of “precision” in the discourse of intervention serves to legitimise both the act of going to war and the conduct that takes place in it, i.e. the jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

With regards to legitimising the act of going to war, precision rhetoric has generated public perceptions of “near-bloodless campaigns where enemy civilians are successfully avoided and only the regime is targeted” (McInnes, 2012, quoted in Sanderød, 2009:227). Ever since people saw reports of missiles “turning left at the traffic lights” to strike Iraqi bunkers, the Western public has come to think of war like laser surgery (Ignatieff, 2000, quoted in Zehfuss, 2011:4). Western militaries thus appear increasingly in control of the devastation caused in war. And because they appear more in control of force, they are more inclined to use it.

As well as lowering the threshold for going to war, precision has served to open up new theatres of combat which might have previously been off-limits to airpower. Urban environments and dual-use objectives considered too risky to target in the past are now fair game for precision weaponry (Schmitt, 2005:453). This may inadvertently lead to greater “downstream” casualties where infrastructural damage is involved. In the 1991 Gulf War, as many as 100,000 were estimated to have died indirectly from the destruction of water purification and electricity plants, a phenomenon dubbed “bomb now, die later” (Smith, 2002, quoted in Zehfuss, 2011:20). 

Precision and Civilian Harm

Civilian casualties are the unfortunate but predictable outcome of weapons that are not as accurate as they purport; intelligence that is not as reliable as is claimed; a greater willingness to go to war; and fewer restraints on conduct within it. In this regard, precision has become charged with meaning. With the greatest expressions of regret, politicians solemnly but invariably declare civilian casualties from airstrikes ‘mistakes’ or ‘accidental’. Shaw astutely observes that civilian casualties are accidental by definition, as no military intends to target civilians (2005, quoted in Zehfuss, 2011:24). One can reasonably question, then, how ‘accidental’ civilian casualties really are, when they are caused by extremely powerful bombs fired at residential, urban areas (ibid.). For this reason Zehfuss argues:

“It is not possible to have precision bombing without collateral damage. If you choose to bomb, even with precision weapons, you always already choose to kill ‘innocents’… The killing of innocents is a structural possibility; it is not an aberration, something that happens when things go wrong.” 

(Zehfuss, 2011:26)

Interestingly, the narrative of accidental killings is inadvertently reinforced by the very actors scrutinising it. Accounting for damage inevitably risks justifying it, and counting the bodies to say “this is too high” implicitly grants that there is a level which would be acceptable (ibid.). This phenomenon has been dubbed ‘humanitised violence’ and can be characterised by a discourse of precision and care which never questions the logic of the violence itself (Bonds, 2019). This can also be seen in claims that the US military, by virtue of its precision, holds itself to a standard higher than what is required by IHL (Owens, 2003; Roblyer, 2003). This has the effect of privileging ‘our’ methods of warfare as the only ones legitimate (Beier, 2006:413). This should not be interpreted as calling for less precision, or willfully indiscriminate bombing. However, it is important we reflect on the very real possibility that, by setting the standard for legitimate and permissible conduct in war so high that only the most wealthy and technologically advanced militaries can meet it, leaving others to take nothing other than a defensive stature, the effect may be effectively sanctioning predation. Suddenly the “Predator” moniker for the MQ-1 drone appears especially apt.


So what do we talk about when we talk about precision? Despite its prevalence in popular, political and academic discourse, precision is often used ambiguously. Its technical, tactical, strategic and political definitions are evidently all closely interlinked. Unpacking them in detail is difficult but necessary work. The outsize influence of narrow technical definitions indicates a wider reliance on technological progress which may prove strategically short-sighted. Finally, at a time when electorates are increasingly distanced from the violence waged on their behalf, it is imperative that we question how terms like ‘precision’ may relate to the justification and legitimisation of war. Clarifying the ambiguities of precision warfare therefore remains a necessary and ongoing challenge.


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