The American B-52s flying raids out of Diego Garcia never crossed into Iraqi airspace, but their bombs did.
Cruise missiles were one of the technological stars of the campaign against Iraq that ended yesterday, penetrating deep into Iraq and homing in on targets without putting U.S. pilots at risk.
A B-52 with a load of about a dozen AGM-86 cruise missiles can loiter in friendly airspace, pop its missiles out of a revolving canister and return safely home without ever facing hostile fire.
Pentagon officials offered several examples of the cruise's almost delicate bombing accuracy. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday that cruise missiles were able to take out a particular wing of a particular building in downtown Baghdad, apparently without damaging a girls' school nearby.
First used in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, cruise missiles were developed in the 1980s to deliver nuclear warheads into the Soviet Union.
The military has been reconfiguring the weapons since the end of the Cold War to carry conventional explosives, and cruise missiles are becoming a popular -- if expensive -- enforcer of foreign policy.
"They cost about $1 million apiece, but you don't have the political consequence of losing a pilot," said Steve Zaloga, a munitions expert with the Teal Group defense consulting firm.
Just under 300 cruise missiles were fired in the gulf war, and the military sent roughly 400 of the weapons into Iraq in the recent raids. They were the first weapons deployed, sent in to wipe out Iraqi defense systems so that aircraft could fly in safely.
The Air Force and Navy have separate versions.
Air-launched missiles drop out of a B-52 at relatively high altitudes -- about 30,000 feet, ideally -- and can travel up to 1,500 miles to a preselected target. The missiles have a small turbo jet engine and fly at around 350 miles per hour.
The Navy's version is the Tomahawk missile, which shoots out of a vertical launcher on a ship or submarine with the power of a small rocket engine, then sheds the booster and turns on its turbo jet.
Both air- and sea-launched versions have small wings that pop out after launch. Then the missile's computer, programmed with the terrain it must cover to reach the target, uses radar to "see" its way there.
The newest types can use the satellites of the Global Positioning System for greater accuracy, and can be reprogrammed shortly before launch if objectives change.
The Air Force cruise missile has a 1,000-pound high-explosive warhead that detonates as soon as it hits something.
The Navy's Tomahawk can carry bombs that release a cluster of soda can-sized explosives that cause damage to a spread-out target such as a series of missile batteries and radars.
"The big disadvantage, of course, is the expense," said former Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald R. Fogleman. "But if you're going to do something like this [recent operation in Iraq] that's not going on for a long time, a cruise missile can have a lot of utility."
Pub Date: 12/20/98