Modern warfare has come a long way since the time of carpet-bombing national infrastructures to force your opponent to yield. Civilian casualties, once considered just another unfortunate byproduct of war, are now seen as nearly unacceptable. Nations now use allegations of civilian casualties as an important tool in propaganda ploys meant to deter public support for ongoing combat operations in a state or region—so powerful our distaste for collateral damage has become.
Concerning human progress, this concern about innocent lives is objectively a good thing (even when advanced as part of a more nefarious narrative). Our shifting perceptions of warfare now demand that we strive to prevent civilian casualties as earnestly as we work to accomplish our warfare objectives, and on the scale of overall human suffering, the effort has not been for naught. However positive this shift can be considered, it does present one serious problem: it runs counter to the natural progression of warfighting technologies.
Weapons are designed, built and improved with the singular goal of maximizing their efficiency. The aim is to kill as many bad guys as you can for as little as you can.
Nuclear weapons were the first to present the American military with the dilemma. They offered so much destructive power that officials worried they might be too powerful to use strategically, and as a result, a method of “dialing in” the yield of certain nuclear platforms was born. The concept, now employed in nuclear bombs like the B61-12, allows the Air Force to choose from yields ranging from just 300 equivalent tons of dynamite to a massive 50,000 tons, thus increasing the number of potential applications for the same bomb and reducing overall production costs.
Now, in the face of this new kind of warfare that places a higher emphasis on only killing combatants, the Air Force wants to adopt a similar approach for their conventional weapons. By developing a single bomb with a dialable yield, they could more effectively engage targets in areas with larger civilian populations without having to scramble jets with specialized low yield weapons. This means that aircraft carrying a high but adjustable yield bomb payload could engage just about any potential target without the need to be rearmed.
As an example, an F-15 tasked with policing the skies over Syria may need to engage a large military force in open terrain—a scenario Syrian Democratic Forces and their U.S. Special Operations advisers were faced with earlier this year. A high yield bomb could be dialed all the way up to maximum destruction. However, that same aircraft may find itself tasked with engaging a smaller entrenched force of Islamic extremists engaging allied troops from a building on the outskirts of a town. That same bomb could be “dialed down” to destroy that target without destroying nearby buildings occupied by civilians.
Currently, the Air Force has a technology demonstrator of this Dialable Effects Munition (DEM) that isn’t likely to see combat any time soon. But as the program progresses, it seems likely that its success could change the way all air-to-surface munitions are fielded in the future. Setting your bomb or missile to exactly the right yield to accomplish your mission could not only reduce civilian casualty rates, it could also increase combat effectiveness in close air support roles.