Zarqawi Raid Made Possible by New Defense Technology

David Axe explains how recent innovations in defense technology made the rapid strike that killed Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi possible.

Ten years ago, taking out Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi with F-16s would have been an impossible task. Air strikes were planned days or even weeks in advance. Pilots weren’t trained to change missions mid-stream. Sensors and weapons weren’t accurate and flexible enough to spot and hit fleeting targets.

F-16 with TSTs PHOTO But during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Air Force pioneered the prosecution of what it calls Time Sensitive Targets, or TSTs. Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have gotten in on the game too, and these days, over Iraq, it’s typical for jets to launch with only the vaguest idea of what’s out there. New sensors and weapons, high-tech surveillance drones and better training have resulted in a minor revolution of which the Zarqawi attack is just one result.

The Air Force has been mum on the subject, but it’s entirely possible that the F-16 drivers who eliminated Zarqawi were just flying a routine patrol before orders came to hit the safehouse. In stark contrast to the rigid preplanned sorties that were typical during the 1991 Gulf War, these days over Iraq, fighters from the Air Force and its sister services launch in two-jet sections carrying sensor pods and laser- and satellite-guided bombs. They have no specific targets in mind. Orbiting over their assigned areas, they scan the ground below with sensor pods and helmet-mounted sights, use datalinks to pass around video imagery and the GPS coordinates of potential targets and coordinate with ground-based forward air controllers to hit insurgents who appear in crowded cities or crawl onto highway medians to plant improvised explosive devices. Hitting a safehouse is relatively easy by comparison.

Sensor pods are perhaps the most visible technology in the military’s efforts to take on TSTs. Pods contain day and night cameras, GPS for employing satellite-guided bombs and laser designators and trackers for laser-guided bombs. The cigar-shaped pods are slung under jets’ wings or fuselages.

Axe discusses several more recent additions to the defense tech arsenal in the piece and a companion article at TCS Daily. The latter notes,

Prior to Wednesday, the only successful major “decapitation” strike had been in Yemen on Nov. 4, 2002, when a CIA-operated Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile that killed Abu Ali, one of the masterminds of the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole destroyer that killed 17 sailors.

Drones such as Predator and the larger, unarmed Global Hawk are critical nodes in an expanding adaptive network of sensors and shooters combining aircraft and ground forces from all the U.S. services. The military’s aim is to blanket a combat zone in this network, spotting and killing Time-Sensitive Targets (TSTs) in minutes’ time. The Zarqawi raid represents the network’s first headline-worthy success.

The 1991 Gulf War transfixed a global television audience with its awesome display of high tech warfare. It was the culmination of the Offset Strategy initiated under Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, and given massive funding under Ronald Reagan and Cap Weinberger. It proved to the world that the United States had no peer competitor and, perversely, helped motivate the creation of al Qaeda and a new era of assymetric warfare.

That, despite 1991 technology still being more than good enough to defeat any feasible opponent, we have continued to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into getting even better is a testament to both our immense wealth and our high valuation on human life–both that of our military personnel and of non-combatants.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The US went to war thinking the Sherman tank was a world class tank. Against what the German’s had in Poland, it was. Against what the German’s had in Normandy, it was very much over classed by much of the German arsenal.

    A very good argument could be made that MiG-29 or SU-27 were superior to the US F-16, F-15 counterparts that they would have gone up against.

    Standing still on technology is not the way to prevent wars. You want your technology to continue to evolve so that any nation re-thinks thoughts of military action. This doesn’t necessarily help in asymmetrical war (though the article points out capabilities that are useful there), but it does help in symmetrical war. And as difficult as asymmetrical war is to fight, it gets a lot worse if you have a symmetrical war going on at the same time.

    While I know many on the left would not agree, the US is a country I would trust to have a serious military superiority and not choose the military option as the first choice.