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Precision Strike: Growth of the Regime

18 March 2020
Dartboard with one dart in centre

This blog is Part One of a four-part series on Precision Strike, written by the author during his completion of a research internship at the Australian Army Research Centre.

Precision strike is the ability to sense and strike targets at range with sufficient accuracy for a high probability of a mission kill. It is a capability that allow commanders the capacity to influence the battlespace at enormous range across the land, air and sea. The US-led coalition demonstrated the power of this capability in the 1991 Gulf War, when precision-guided munitions played an outsized role in eliminating high value targets such as command centres and armoured convoys. Despite this success, precision strike remains in the early stages of development as a potential warfighting regime. Outside the United States, few countries have both the resources and the need to develop a mature precision capability. However, this is changing. Technological advances in the reach, accuracy and versatility of conventional missiles are accelerating the maturation of the precision strike regime. This paper shall be the first in a series of articles exploring how precision strike will shape the future operating environment. In this article, we will look at some of the key trends, enablers and constraints that have and will define the growth of the precision strike regime.

One major impact of the growth of precision strike has been the emerging trend amongst regional powers toward ‘counter-intervention’ strategies.[1] China currently employs the most credible counter-intervention strategy, but it is not alone. Other regional powers such as Russia and Iran are also eyeing precision capabilities as a means of keeping the United States and its allies out of their backyards. Counter-intervention strategies have been enabled militarily by what are commonly referred to as Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems. These systems leverage a suite of capabilities that are collectively designed to both increase the risk associated with access to a contested environment and maintain a latent capacity to impose costs on forces operating in that area. Precision strike is a lynchpin of A2/AD systems, as it allows defenders to influence and shape a battlespace at enormous depth across the air, land and sea. As the threshold for cost and access to precision capabilities drops, more state and non-state actors will seek to incorporate A2/AD systems and their associated precision capabilities.[2] However, it is likely that few countries will have both the need and resources for a mature precision capability, and this will likely remain in the near future the domain of a select few large and determined states such as the United States, China and perhaps Russia.

Precision strike is a regime in its infancy.[3] However, technological advances in the reach, precision and versatility of conventional missiles are acting as key enablers in its emergence as a mature suite of capabilities. The growing reach of conventional missiles are placing targets that were previously invulnerable to conventional armaments at risk.[4] A quick study that demonstrates the diversity of different missile types and their putative ranges is China’s arsenal of conventional theater-level missiles; by far the most expansive of any major power.[5] China’s missile arsenal is an assortment of different missiles designed for different effects. From a force of over 1,200 Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs) with a range of 1,000 km designed primarily for use against targets in its Near Seas area (specifically Taiwan), to a far smaller force of Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) with an estimated range of between 3,000 km and 5,500 km, designed to strike out to targets in the Second Island Chain such as Guam, China fields a relatively large number of ballistic missiles.[6] These ballistic missiles are supplemented by a range of cruise missiles, which are in general cheaper and less expensive, with a flatter flight trajectory.[7]

Perhaps the most revolutionary impact of precision munitions are that they have removed range as a constraint on accuracy.[8] Whereas traditional artillery engaging in indirect fires may have a Circular Error Probable (CEP)[9] of several hundred metres the further they are from the target area, precision strike weapons are often intended to have a CEP of metres or even inches and designed to hit the target on the first strike. This move toward precision is perhaps best demonstrated in the evolution of the US Multiple Launcher Rocket System (MLRS). This rocket artillery system was initially envisioned as an ‘area weapon’ similar to other artillery pieces.[10] However, this system is now being repurposed with precision munitions, providing effective ranges of up to seventy kilometres and a CEP of less than five metres.[11] In short, as opposed to artillery shells whose CEP deteriorates with distance, the accuracy of precision munitions is range-independent at ‘launch, firing or release.’[12]

Finally, the versatility of conventional missiles has been key to the utility of these systems in delivering a diverse range of mission effects. Developments of ‘unconventional precision strike’ are an example of this versatility, as conventional missiles may not necessarily be used purely for a kinetic kill effect.[13] High-Powered Microwave (HPM) warheads could be used to neutralise C4ISR[14] nodes, and Aerogel warheads could be used against hardened structures to prevent the escape from or the recovery of these installations.[15] Some observers have also noted that the utility of conventional missiles could eventually approach that of their low yield nuclear weapons, in terms of sheer destructiveness, demonstrating their utility as first strike and stand-off weapons.[16]

Despite its formidable advantages, there are several notable constraints that must be considered with respect to precision capabilities. First and foremost, precision capabilities are expensive. Though precision strike has made accuracy independent of range, it has not made range independent of cost.[17] Both the cost and complexity of conventional missiles increases proportionate to their range and payload.[18] Conventional missiles will remain of highest utility in a battlespace rich in high-value targets, such as armor and mechanised forces or C4ISR networks, rather than in low-intensity conflicts such as in Iraq or Afghanistan.[19] Closely related to the constraint of cost is numbers. Few countries have both the resources and need to develop large quantities of conventional missiles. However, even for wealthier states such as the US and China, the cost differentials matter, leading to procurement constraints and limited stockpiles of these weapons available at the outset of hostilities.[20]

Another constraint is complexity. For example, radar is an essential element of a precision capability, as only it allows a reliable ability to sense mobile targets over wide areas.[21] Even in a non-complex environment such as open seas or clear skies, factors including the curvature of the earth and the physical horizon limit their sensors to a range between 400 and 600 kilometres.[22] This means that outside this range, radar must be supplemented by less effective sensors such as Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, ‘Over the horizon’ (OTH) radars, or satellites to connect links in the ‘kill chain’.[23] This complex kill chain includes ‘detection, munition delivery, guidance, damage assessment and a potential restrike’.[24] Some steps are more robust than others, but every step of this process is nonetheless vulnerable to countermeasures, and the challenge only increases with range, multiplying exponentially when countermeasures are accounted for.[25] Closely related to this constraint are the significant supporting infrastructure requirements of a mature precision capability, including radar, unmanned aircraft, bases, launchers, munitions, and maintenance.[26]

These constraints are amongst some of the major reasons why a mature precision capability will remain outside the need or resources of most state and non-state actors. Given the high costs, limited numbers, sheer complexity, and extensive infrastructure associated with this capability, it is likely in the near to mid-term to be of highest utility against strategic or high value targets. Furthermore, for a middle power such as Australia, it is unlikely that the Joint Force will be able to develop a precision capability comparable in quality or quantity to the mature capabilities of other states such as the US and China. This will mean that the Australian Army must consider how it can deal with this potential capability mismatch. The growth of the precision strike regime is well underway, and it is accelerating due to improvements in the reach, accuracy and versatility of conventional missiles. However, as with any emerging technology, there are both enablers and constraints that will together affect how the precision strike regime grows and matures. In the next article in our series, we will move to looking at how precision strike will shape the future operating environment.


[1] Vincent DePinto, “Avoiding the Archer: We must focus on tactical and technological innovation” Marine Corps Gazette 98, no. 3, (2014): 39.

[2] COL Chris Smith, Dr Al Palazzo, “Coming to terms with the modern way of war: Precision missiles and the land component of Australia’s Joint Force” Australian land warfare concept series (2016): 4.

[3] Barry D. Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (2013): 19.

[4] Thomas G. Mahnken, ‘Weapons: The Growth and Spread of the Precision-Strike Regime’ (2011) 140 Deadalus 3, 52.

[5] Jacob Cohn, Timothy A. Walton, Adam Lemon, Toshi Yoshihara, “Leveling the Playing Field: Reintroducing U.S. Theater Range Missiles in a Post-INF World” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (2019): 3.

[6] Andrew F. Krepinevich, “The Japan-U.S. Alliance and Preserving Peace and Stability in the Western Pacific” Sasakawa Peace Foundation (2015): 37.

[7] Cohn, Walton, Lemon, Yoshihara, “Leveling the Playing Field,” 12.

[8] Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike,” 20.

[9] CEP in military ballistics, is the measurement of the precision of a weapons system. It is a median error radius.

[10] John K. Yager, Jeffrey L. Froysland, “Improving the Effects of Fires with Precision Munitions” Field Artillery no. 5 (1997): 5.

[11] Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike,” 17.

[12] Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike,” 20.

[13] John Birkler, Myron Hura, David Shalpak, David Frelinger, Gary McLeod, Glenn Kent, Josh Matsumura, James Chiesa, Bruce Davis, “A Framework for Precision Conventional Strike in Post-Cold War Military Strategy” RAND Corporation (1996): 42.

[14] Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR).

[15] RAND, “Precision Conventional Strike,” 42.

[16] Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike,” 5.

[17] Andrew F. Krepinevich, “War Like No Other: Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision-Strike Regime” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (2015): 6.

[18] Smith, Palazzo, “Precision missiles,” 10.

[19] RAND, “Precision Conventional Strike,” 2; Mahnken, “Growth and Spread of the Precision-Strike Regime,” 52.

[20] Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike,” 21.

[21] Stephen Biddle, Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia” International Security 41, no. 1 (2016): 13.

[22] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 12, 13.

[23] Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike,” 26.

[24] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 22.

[25] Biddle, Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific,” 22.; Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike,” 26.

[26] Cohn, Walton, Lemon, Yoshihara, “Leveling the Playing Field,” 14.


The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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