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The Ultimate Weapon

By Paul G. Gillespie
8/7/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Precision-guided munitions have changed the modern battlefield, and in the process created a new American way of war.

On March 30, 1972, as American troop strength in Vietnam fell to a seven-year low—well below the hundred-thousand mark—North Vietnam launched a massive three-pronged invasion into South Vietnam. Unwilling to send U.S. troops back to Vietnam yet determined to stabilize South Vietnamese lines, President Richard Nixon responded with Operation Linebacker, a sustained air campaign designed to smother this so-called Eastertide Offensive.

Within one week, the president recommitted fighters and bombers previously withdrawn from Southeast Asia, and recommenced bombing over North Vietnam, for the first time since November 1968. However, as twelve North Vietnamese army divisions supported by armor and artillery swarmed across the demilitarized zone and the Laotian and Cambodian borders, the most urgent call for American aid was for close air support of friendly troops.

Responding to the southernmost attack that originated from Cambodia near the Mekong Delta and menaced Saigon itself, U.S. Marines held at the My Canh River line, their meager numbers augmented by coordinated air cover. On the evening of May 10, a Marine observer in the church tower at My Canh spotted two enemy tanks several miles north of the river. A U.S. Air Force forward air controller, there within minutes, circled the target and identified a PT-76 tank attempting to tow a stranded T-54 tank from a streambed. After making several calls, the controller was finally handed a pair of F-4 Phantom fighters but was warned their fuel was low, giving them only about three minutes of “playtime.”

As the Marine watched, the first pass scored a direct hit on the PT-76, blew its turret off, flipped it over, and covered the second tank with mud. The same fighter quickly came over the top for a second pass, this time striking the T-54 in the turret with spectacular results, as shrapnel spread widely and set fire to dozens of enemy vehicles on the highway several hundred yards away. The Marine had never witnessed such a firepower display, and began “jumping up and down, excited about this new secret weapon.”

When the observer asked what in the world the fighter had used, the controller simply told him “it was a two-thousand-pound laser-guided bomb.” Subsequent aerial assaults against a variety of targets in the North blunted the offensive and eventually persuaded the North Vietnamese to resume peace negotiations.

Since their full capabilities were first demonstrated in Vietnam, so-called “smart weapons” have revolutionized warfare by reducing the danger of escalation and minimizing collateral damage. Put another way, precision conventional weapons promise both flexible response, in sharp contrast to the intrinsic rigidity of nuclear munitions, and the reassuring—though suspect—notion that such weapons surgically administer damage only where intended. As a result, American policymakers have come to view precision-guided munitions as a sort of “ultimate weapon,” providing them a humane military option for resolving a wide variety of previously intractable foreign affairs problems, and significantly shaping national security policy in the process.

Accurately dropping bombs on targets has been a century-old challenge. Even before the Wright brothers demonstrated successful powered flight for the first time in 1903, the prospect of aerial bombardment had begun to stir both interest and controversy. At the Hague Conference of 1899, convened in an attempt to promote reductions in armaments, Russian organizers proposed the permanent “prohibition of the discharge of any kind of projectile or explosive from balloons or by similar means.”

An American delegate, Captain William Crozier, convinced the great powers to ratify only a five-year ban, based on the hope that future advances in technology would produce bombs more effective than the current “indecisive quantities of explosives, which fall like useless hailstones, on both combatants and noncombatants alike.” The future air weapon, Crozier hoped, might “localize at important points the destruction of life and property [and] decrease the length of combat and consequently the evils of war.”

As it turned out, aerial bombardment did play a prominent role a few years later in World War I. Still, despite rapid technological improvements in both aircraft and explosives, bombing clearly failed to make that war any less bloody or indiscriminant than previous conflicts.

Even before the war’s end, however, attempts were underway in the United States to render air weapons more effective by increasing their precision. Two of the earliest attempts, a navy effort in 1917 involving Glenn Curtiss, and an army project in 1918 with Charles F. Kettering, produced small, unmanned aircraft dubbed “aerial torpedoes,” employing the gyroscope technology of Elmer Sperry for guidance. Clearly, though, imagination had outpaced existing technology, and both projects were cancelled after repeated launch and mechanical failures.

During the interwar years, some work continued in the area of munitions guidance, with the focus shifting from preset, gyroscopic guidance to radio control. However, the real emphasis during that period was not on guidance per se but on strategic bombardment. Air power theorists such as Italian General Giulio Douhet and American Brigadier General Billy Mitchell thought bombardment would provide the solution to the failed land offensives of World War I. Using bombers to transcend geographic barriers, an entire country might be exposed to attack, leading Mitchell to the conclusion that “no longer will the tedious and expensive process of wearing down the enemy’s land forces by continuous attacks be resorted to. The air force will strike immediately at the enemy’s manufacturing and food centers, railways, bridges, canals, and harbors. The saving of lives, manpower, and expenditures will be tremendous for the winning side.”

Obviously, this aerial approach to warfare still required a measure of accuracy, but the resulting precision-bombing doctrine, as developed in the 1930s and implemented in World War II, relied primarily on technological improvements in heavy bombers like the Boeing B-17 and aiming devices like the M-series Norden bombsight. Yet, even by late 1944, General Carl Spaatz, overall commander of U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces, admitted, “We are becoming increasingly aware of our inability to achieve accurate bombing on some of our top priority targets.”

It was in response to this shortfall that the next generation of precision-guided munitions was developed. Both the Allies and the Axis came to appreciate the value of pinpoint accuracy in eliminating targets without the punishing losses traditionally associated with bombardment, but the technology to achieve such accuracy remained elusive.

The desire to precisely strike the launch sites of Germany’s semiguided V-2 rockets motivated the development of another mechanical, proto-precision weapon. Beginning on June 26, 1944, Eighth Air Force commander Lieutenant General James Doolittle involved his 3rd Bombardment Division in England in an experimental project code-named “Aphrodite.” Using a variety of technologies, including radio control and television imaging, Project Aphrodite created twenty-thousand-pound bombs out of war-weary bombers, and attempted to pilot them remotely to destroy V-2 launch sites in the Pas de Calais area of France.

After expending nineteen such “robot” aircraft, Aphrodite project managers concluded that while these experimental missions “proved the value and serviceability of the weapon and equipment,” the results were “not satisfactory as far as damage to enemy installations.” They attributed Aphrodite’s failure to such factors as vulnerability to flak defenses, unfavorable weather, and equipment failure.

In reality, the Aphrodite plane-bombs suffered from numerous technological shortcomings. For example, because they required manual takeoff, landing gear retraction, and throttle setting, pilots had to get them airborne and stabilized before parachuting to safety. Future President John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph, was killed while serving as a takeoff pilot on the third Aphrodite mission, when a faulty electrical arming panel detonated his massive bombload before he could bail out.

When subsequent trials demonstrated a low probability of destroying strongly defended targets, General Spaatz ordered the early termination of the project, and directed that the few remaining planes be used “to leave in the minds of the Germans the threat of robot attacks against cities [by targeting] an industrial objective in a large German city as far inland as practicable.” Aphrodite’s rapid transformation from guided bomb to terror weapon, not unlike the V-2 it was originally intended to destroy, brought this early attempt at precision guidance to an unfruitful end. However, the abortive American attempt to develop precision-guided munitions in World War II provided a foretaste of the precision weapons of the future, and helped identify those technological shortfalls that had kept the dream of precision from becoming a reality.

While the Korean War might seem like the logical setting for the development of guided tactical weapons to continue, it received little serious attention for almost two decades following World War II. This is hardly surprising given the strategic exigencies of the Cold War. To be sure, accuracy was critical in the ensuing arms race with the Soviet Union, but the sophisticated technology developed to guide long-range ballistic missiles halfway around the world with a circular error probability of a few hundred feet was hardly applicable to the combat environment. Vast resources were poured into developing ultra-precise gyroscopes, accelerometers, bearings, electromechanical transducers, and myriad other missile-guidance technologies.

The bombs used for conventional war, both in Korea and the early stages of Vietnam, were little changed from those dropped in World War II. The intensive bombing campaign in Korea, and the resulting aircraft and pilot losses, did rekindle a certain interest within the U.S. military for guided weapons. But with few available resources, the only guidance pursued during the war was a renewed attempt to perfect the radio control pioneered in the previous war. Predictably, the few primitive guided bombs dropped in Korea had little real impact on the overall prosecution of the war, even when they found their targets.

When America launched its massive Rolling Thunder air campaign over North Vietnam in 1965, it quickly became obvious just how difficult and costly it would be to destroy vital military targets using the same old “dumb” bombs, now delivered by supersonic aircraft designed with a nuclear mission in mind. Perhaps the most graphic example of the shortcomings of the existing technology was the effort to destroy the Thanh Hoa Bridge, a vital rail and highway artery spanning the Song Ma River, seventy miles south of Hanoi.

The bridge was first attacked by seventy-nine F-105D fighter-bombers on April 3, 1965. American pilots dropped more than six hundred bombs, fired three hundred rockets and missiles, and lost five aircraft in the process, but the bridge, though hit several times, remained intact. In fact, seven years and 869 sorties later, traffic was still crossing Thanh Hoa unimpeded.

Greater bombing precision was obviously needed, and military authorities commissioned a variety of projects intended to make bombing in Southeast Asia more effective and less costly in terms of both lives and dollars. Colonel Joseph Davis Jr., director of technical assistance and support at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, explained what the air force needed to Texas Instruments engineer Weldon Word in the summer of 1965. They lacked a weapon that could be dropped from an altitude high enough to avoid deadly groundfire yet would have enough accuracy to preclude return trips to a target.

While not the only attempted solution, the innovative laser-guided bomb subsequently designed by Texas Instruments was a radical departure from all previous efforts to develop precision bombing weapons, and a vast improvement. More important, it became the prototype for future generations of precision-guided munitions, including many still in use.

The need to improve the accuracy of dive bomb delivery in a combat environment was already well known when Word first visited Eglin in 1965. When Davis showed him an aerial photograph of the recently attacked Thanh Hoa Bridge, Word stopped counting the craters when they exceeded eight hundred. Although divebombing in 1965 was extremely accurate by any historical standard, this graphic example illustrated its utter inadequacy when used against the dispersed and heavily defended targets of North Vietnam.

While destroying such a large, stationary target might seem a straightforward exercise for trained aircrews using modern technology, conventional dive bomb techniques have always required precise control of numerous flight parameters—dive angle, airspeed, release altitude, and the like. When mitigating factors such as unknown winds and the real-world stress and danger of a combat environment are considered, it is not surprising that tactical bombing, even with the jet aircraft of Korea and Vietnam, remained a costly proposition. Little wonder that pilots routinely flew multiple missions to ensure the destruction of a single important target.

The earliest attempts at guided weapons— the war-weary bombers of the Aphrodite project and other radio-controlled munitions—similarly failed to achieve a consistent precision-bombing capability because they did not eliminate complicated flight parameters from the trajectory equation. To be sure, they simplified the job of the pilot releasing the weapon, since he no longer had to skillfully fly a complicated, predetermined flight profile before and during bomb delivery. However, these early precision weapons required an equally demanding set of flight parameters from a bombardier who essentially had to “fly” the bombs from release to impact.

While they arguably made aerial bombing safer for the aircrews, early guided weapons never achieved a precision appreciably better than that of dive-bombing. What the U.S. military clearly wanted was a weapon “smart” enough to seek its designated target, thus simplifying the demands on the delivering aircrew. Yet all prior attempts at creating such a weapon had produced only disappointment. Knowing this, Word’s Texas Instruments team of engineers proposed a solution to the air force in 1965 that differed radically from all previous attempts.

Perhaps the most obvious and innovative difference in the Texas Instruments proposal was semiactive laser guidance. Using such guidance removed most requirements for accuracy from the delivery pilot, and placed them instead upon a separate laser operator. Because the weapon now had its own internal seeker, the laser operator would be required to control only a single parameter: aim point accuracy. So promising was this new approach that the air force funded a brief feasibility demonstration program in 1966, the results of which immediately enticed Seventh Air Force Headquarters in South Vietnam to establish terminal-guided munitions as a critical wartime need.

The ensuing program was designated Paveway, with Texas Instruments as the prime contractor. The program followed a very aggressive timeline, producing a weapon ready for flight tests in Florida ten months later and live combat evaluation in Vietnam by 1968. To meet this demanding schedule, Texas Instruments would fabricate only the guidance kits, subcontracting the laser illuminators to the Martin Company.

Since Texas Instruments was not a weapons manufacturer, nobody ever intended that the company produce an actual bomb. Rather, company engineers were contracted to design and build guidance kits that would be attached to M-117 general-purpose bombs at a forward operating base. The guidance kit consisted of an aerodynamically stabilized seeker head, which mounted on the nose of the warhead, and guidance electronics, a control assembly, and small wings mounted on the bomb’s tail. When assembled, the bomb weighed approximately 925 pounds and was almost ten feet long, with a maximum diameter of sixteen inches.

The seeker head, clearly the most original component of the guidance subsystem, consisted of an optical detector assembly contained in a stabilized, gimbal-mounted housing. At the heart of the detector assembly was a two-inch circular wafer of silicon, covered with photodiodes, and divided into four quadrants. In flight, if any quadrant received more laser energy than another, an electronic signal was sent to the appropriate pair of tail fins to change the bomb’s glide path and center the energy.

The technology of the tail-mounted subassemblies, both guidance electronics and control hardware, was less dazzling. For example, the guidance computer consisted of only five printed circuit boards to perform the relatively simple comparator and control logic. Even so, such electronics incorporated relatively novel semiconductor technology, including early transistors.

The Texas Instruments guidance kit, even when mated to a powerful bomb, produced a weapon no more useful than existing dumb bombs without an effective laser to illuminate, or paint, the target. The complementary laser subsystem developed by the Martin Company was a versatile device able to designate targets from the ground, from a slow-moving forward air controller aircraft, or from the rear cockpit of an F-4 Phantom fighter. Using laser technology pioneered in the early 1960s at U.S. Army Missile Command in Huntsville, Alabama, the Martin illuminator accurately aimed and projected a pencil-width beam of invisible infrared light over distances exceeding four miles. To ensure that the bomb’s seeker head guided only to the reflected laser light and not some other proximate light source, both the illuminator and optical detector were calibrated to emit and receive, respectively, only monochromatic light of a specific wavelength and modulation.

While the laser illuminator was successfully tested from a variety of ground and airborne platforms, with slightly better results from the stationary ground stations, combat considerations quickly convinced program managers of the desirability of using a two-seat fighter for illuminating targets. As an interim solution, Martin fabricated an unstabilized F-4 cockpit illuminator to be mounted on the left cockpit wall beside the rear crewman, allowing targets to be designated directly through the canopy. This solution imposed severe restrictions on the illuminating aircraft, which had to remain in a gentle left turn throughout weapon delivery to keep the target within view. It took several more years to field a stabilized illuminator, mounted beneath the wings of a fighter aircraft. In the meantime, tactics were developed to use this early version immediately in Vietnam.

The first operational tests of Paveway M-117 laser-guided bombs, beginning in November 1967, did not produce spectacular results. Two of the first four bombs fell completely unguided because of battery problems, and the remaining two missed their targets by more than a hundred feet. However, as the engineers and operators involved made minor modifications to their equipment and delivery procedures over the next five months, it became obvious that consistent precision bombing had at last become a real possibility.

In April 1968, just before the weapon was deployed to Southeast Asia for combat evaluation, air force fighters dropped eight laser-guided bombs against realistic tactical targets. The results were quite impressive, with all targets destroyed beyond economical repair, and a circular error probability of just forty-five feet. At the conclusion of the initial development program, air force acquisition managers announced that “the capability…to vastly improve bombing impact accuracy was emphatically demonstrated,” and concluded that the new weapon would dramatically reduce sortie requirements, aircraft attrition, aircrew losses, and operational and logistic costs.

There is, however, a marked difference between optimized test conditions and the chaos of real combat. When the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon, Thailand, tested the laser-guided M-117 bomb against enemy targets in North Vietnam from May to August 1968, the results differed significantly from the stateside tests. The bombs left numerous undestroyed targets and missed by an average of seventy-five feet. Fortunately for its development team, weaknesses in the bomb’s design had been identified early in its testing, and recommendations for improvement resulted in the simultaneous development of a second Paveway weapon, the laser-guided Mark 84.

Although minor modifications were made to improve seeker sensitivity, two obvious differences in external design accounted for most of the Mark 84’s improved performance. First, while both were general-purpose bombs, the M-117 was a holdover from World War II, with the stereotypical ogival (pointed) nose and consequent bulbous appearance typical of that era. In contrast, the Mark 84 was designed as part of the Mark 80 low-drag bomb series, and its improved aerodynamics led to fewer anomalous drops.

Second, and of far greater significance, the guidance kit designed for the Mark 84 used canards (stabilizers mounted ahead of the wings) for control rather than tail fins. This eliminated the troublesome conduit running the length of the M-117, simplified weapon assembly, and markedly improved in-flight response.

Although development of the precision-guided Mark 84 lagged behind the original M-117 by several months, they were tested concurrently in Vietnam in July and August of 1968, by the same flying unit. In contrast to the M-117 results, the Mark 84 recorded an unprecedented average miss of just twenty feet, with one in every four bombs scoring direct hits.

Despite these results, for the next three years laser-guided bombs were used only nominally in Vietnam, primarily because President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 curtailment of the bombing campaign north of the 19th parallel virtually eliminated suitable targets. During those three years, however, the new family of laser-guided bombs, now designated Paveway I—along with another family of similar weapons using electro-optical (TV-guided) seeker heads— were improved, incorporated into training and doctrine, and stockpiled for future contingencies.

When the North Vietnamese launched their massive spring offensive in March 1972, the relatively few remaining Americans in Southeast Asia relied heavily on the proven technology of precision guidance, with spectacular results. The subsequent air effort, Operation Linebacker, succeeded in destroying numerous high-value targets. These included the Paul Doumer Bridge linking Hanoi and China and the Bac Mai underground command-and-control center previously off-limits because of the political risks associated with inaccurate conventional bombing. Perhaps most telling of all, on May 13, 1972, F-4s armed with laser-guided bombs rendered the infamous Thanh Hoa Bridge completely unusable, achieving in a single mission what seven years of nonprecision bombing had failed to do.

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact precision-guided munitions had on U.S. military strategy in 1972. The previous restrictive rules of engagement were dramatically relaxed as military and government officials realized that, for the first time ever, they could apply decisive military force at key points without the high costs and political risks that had traditionally accompanied such airstrikes.

In a series of press conferences throughout June and July 1972, President Nixon repeatedly emphasized that the new bombing campaign in Vietnam was only going after military targets and avoiding civilian casualties. He specifically said that dams, irrigation dikes, and populated areas were being strictly avoided, because such strikes “might shorten the war, but would leave a legacy of hatred throughout that part of the world from which we might never recover.”

In fact, the U.S. military was avoiding civilian casualties, just as it had during the earlier Rolling Thunder campaign. The difference with Linebacker, however, was that proximity to a sensitive area no longer precluded aerial bombardment. For example, a June 10, 1972, airstrike against the Lang Chi hydroelectric power plant, the largest power-producing facility in North Vietnam, destroyed the turbines and generators in the main building and the transformer yard, without breaching the adjacent dam and spillway.

As America emerged from the Vietnam conflict, military and government officials were convinced that “surgical” airstrikes were not only possible but the new reality. The following statement from the air force secretary’s June 1972 “Policy Letter for Commanders” typifies the official assessment of this newly demonstrated capability: “New weapons and tactics resulting from the accelerated air war have significance not only in this war but also in evaluations of strategy to be used elsewhere in the future. The unprecedented accuracy of laser-guided or TV-guided ‘smart’ bombs and airborne sensors now being used by U.S. aircraft is making interdiction far more effective than before.”

After withdrawing from Vietnam in early 1973, the United States did not use precision-guided weapons again for thirteen years, yet the radical implications of this new breed of weapon did not escape postwar security analysts. One 1976 Rand Corporation study identified two important political consequences stemming from these new weapons. First, they provided the morally attractive and mutually beneficial possibility of disabling military targets without collateral damage, thus offering the political leadership a variety of military options to fit “the tone and intent of the political discourse.” Second, they greatly reduced the need to use nuclear weapons in certain cases, thus raising the nuclear threshold.

Another policy study the following year noted that precision-guided munitions “constitute a quantum leap in technological capability of a degree equal to that involved in the advent of nuclear weapons.” It expressed little surprise that, given the budgetary and political pressures of the day, both the United States and NATO had embraced precision weapons, with their promise of flexible response, enhanced deterrence, lower cost, and reduced manpower, as a panacea for the many problems of Western defense.

By the mid-1970s, a revolution was taking place. In the process, precision-guided munitions were catapulted to center stage, replacing the nuclear bombs and missiles of the Cold War as the ultimate weapon in the U.S. arsenal. National security policy has been dramatically altered as a result.

Defined in its broadest sense, national security policy includes those courses of action adopted by the U.S. government in pursuit of national security objectives. Of course, the primary national security objective in the past has been the preservation of the United States as a free nation, with its fundamental institutions and values intact. More recently, policymakers have expanded this objective to both “deter military attack against the United States, allies, or friends, and to encourage political reform and liberalization.”

During the first half of the twentieth century, each time military power was used to pursue national security objectives, aircraft and the lethal array of weapons they carried wrought ever-increasing death and destruction. Ironically, it was also air power, with its newly acquired capacity for pinpoint accuracy during the second half of the century, that provided the means to achieve military objectives while minimizing casualties on both sides.

Major antiwar demonstrations in America as early as 1967 clearly indicated a growing dissatisfaction with a national security policy predicated upon what was perceived as inflicting needless human suffering. Particularly since the new capability of precision weapons was demonstrated in the 1970s, Americans have routinely refused to accept heavy casualties, either our own or enemy deaths, especially when the United States itself was not directly threatened.

Thus, the advent of precision guidance technology has dramatically shaped the way the United States pursues national security objectives. This shift has ironically led to an increasing use of military force to achieve those objectives.

Policy analysts had warned military leaders and policymakers this could happen. For example, the Rand Corporation study cited previously expressed the concern that the widespread availability of precision weapons might “make resort to military action more likely,” since minimized collateral damage would “increase the decisionmakers’ willingness to employ military force.”

This warning has proven almost prophetic in the past two decades, with America increasingly resorting to air power as a means of projecting force, even when political circumstances make military objectives hard to define. Humanitarian and peace implementation missions, antiterrorism, and anti-drug-trafficking efforts certainly fall within this category, and represent a common use of air power during this period. In these instances, precision-guided munitions have been used to achieve national objectives that before would have been pursued using exclusively economic, diplomatic, or other nonmilitary instruments of national power.

The largest conventional war fought during this period, Gulf War I, was likewise characterized by its overwhelming dependence on sophisticated precision weapons. In its final report to Congress, the Department of Defense repeatedly focused on the role precision-guided munitions played in achieving such a quick, decisive victory in 1991. It concluded that “Operation Desert Storm validated the concept of a campaign in which air power, applied precisely, and nearly simultaneously against centers of gravity, significantly degraded enemy capabilities.”

Furthermore, it identified the lack of precision-guided munitions capability on many U.S. aircraft as one of the most serious shortcomings of the operation, stating, “Results argue that a higher percentage of U.S. attack aircraft should have PGM capability to increase the amount of target damage that can be inflicted by a finite number of aircraft.” Even so, during just six weeks of Desert Storm the U.S. military dropped 9,342 laser-guided bombs, more than double the number released over North Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. Moreover, although only eight percent of the total bombs expended in the first Gulf War had precision guidance, these seventeen thousand weapons inflicted well over 75 percent of the serious damage on Iraqi targets.

Because of the vivid images of the destruction of Iraqi bridges and other structures shown on the television news, many in the American public accepted laser-guided bombs as being virtually infallible. Not surprisingly, this particular weapon was also singled out as indispensable by both the 1992 Congressional report and the more in-depth Gulf War Air Power Survey published the following year.

While there was a public perception that this war was fought with a new arsenal of high-tech weapons, in fact the precision weapons used in Desert Storm were only slightly changed from their Vietnam-era predecessors. At the core was still a Mark 84 or other general-purpose bomb, but to compensate for the relatively short standoff ranges of Paveway I, post-Vietnam innovations resulted in the Paveway II and III variants, with larger fins and proportional guidance extending their range. So well did this follow-on generation of weapons perform that analysts concluded what the American public no doubt already believed: “Desert Storm reconfirmed that laser-guided bombs possessed a near single-bomb target destruction capability, an unprecedented if not revolutionary development in aerial warfare.”

The United States entered the Gulf War with an impressive precision capability, but it developed and demonstrated ever-greater missile dexterity as the war progressed. First, in response to a growing oil spill that Iraq deliberately unleashed off the coast of Kuwait just nine days into the air campaign, on January 26, 1991, air force F-111 aircraft used precision-guided munitions normally targeted against airfields and bridges to destroy the manifolds directing oil to an offshore terminal, and averted a major environmental calamity.

A few days later, F-111 aircrews flying night missions capitalized on the fact that armored vehicles, even when camouflaged, showed up clearly on their infrared screens. On February 5, they experimented to see if a jet originally designed to fly low-level strategic bombing missions could destroy individual tanks with five-hundred-pound laser-guided bombs. They could. By the end of the war, they had destroyed more than fifteen hundred tanks and other mechanized vehicles this way.

Finally, a massive five-thousand-pound laser-guided bomb was rushed through development and testing, for use against hardened underground bunkers. Airmen used it successfully in combat just before the cease-fire.

With such unimpeachable results from tactics and technology, the lesson most Americans took away from the first Gulf War was the one articulated by President George H.W. Bush shortly after the conflict: “Gulf lesson one is the value of air power…our air strikes were the most effective, yet humane, in the history of warfare.” Consequently, since Desert Storm the United States has expanded its reliance on these weapons almost exponentially.

Subsequent military operations in the Balkans—Deliberate Force in 1995 and Allied Force in 1999—avoided ground fighting altogether by deploying an impressive combination of Gulf-era precision weaponry and cutting-edge new munitions that intertwine seeker technology with Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite links. More recently, Operation Enduring Freedom seemed an unlikely case for precision airstrikes given that both the al Qaeda terrorist network and the terrorist-friendly Taliban government were firmly entrenched in Afghanistan, a nation with little traditional infrastructure and few military targets vital enough to bomb. Yet the objectives of Enduring Freedom’s first phases were accomplished almost exclusively using such strikes, leading a prominent newspaper to editorialize, “After September 11, President [George W.] Bush promised that this would not be another bloodless, pushbutton war, but that is precisely what it has been.”

The most recent U.S. military intervention, Operation Iraqi Freedom, commenced with a precision strike on one of Saddam Hussein’s strongholds, where he was suspected to be staying. While this decapitation strike did not eliminate Saddam, it was a precursor to an air operation that would have been unimaginable without guided munitions—one in which heavy bombers armed with dozens of guided weapons and able to respond within minutes created a “suffocating presence” over Iraq.

Furthermore, potential new uses for precision munitions seem to emerge every day. One recent study concluded that the United States could effectively deter terrorism using precision-guided munitions. Another went even further, suggesting that technology well within our grasp may soon make feasible “a strike aircraft releasing a laser-guided soft and lightweight sticky foam bomb that could burst in a room and kill or disable a sniper without damaging or endangering the surrounding structure or building inhabitants.”

Precision guidance has made it possible to apply lethal force under tightly controlled parameters, reducing the probability of escalating conflict while minimizing casualties, both friendly and enemy. Indeed, the result might best be described as a new American way of war—one that has proven unprecedentedly humane. In essence, modern guidance technology has fulfilled the romantic predictions of William Crozier, Billy Mitchell, and other early visionaries, for precision-guided munitions unquestionably “localize at important points the destruction of life and property.” The resultant savings in lives, manpower, and expenditures have been tremendous. From a military standpoint, the technology of precision guidance has created the ultimate weapon.

Admittedly, precision weapons have failed in the past, and can certainly be expected to fail again. Even the most reliable technology will occasionally inflict unintended damage, because equipment, operators, maintainers, and intelligence simply cannot be perfect all the time. Although the Al Firdos command-and-control bunker in Baghdad seemed a justifiable military target, media revelations that its bombing on February 13, 1991, resulted in four hundred civilian deaths generated a strong international reaction that shut down the strategic bombing campaign against Baghdad for ten days. A recent study estimated that only twenty of twenty-three thousand munitions dropped by NATO in the 1999 Kosovo campaign caused collateral damage or civilian casualties, and yet even two misfires might prove excessive when one is a crowded passenger train and one a Chinese embassy.

Less obvious but far more important, precision-guided munitions have been and undoubtedly will continue to be limited in the strategic and political results they can deliver. The danger is that military options driven by tactical capabilities and not linked to clear, attainable objectives will usually entail greater cost in terms of time, treasure, and lives.

The past decade seems to have validated the assumption that newer and better precision weapons in ever-increasing numbers can deliver desired political results, and do it with a minimum of casualties and risks. However, with a considerable U.S. military presence still in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, it is not clear that the desired end state can, in fact, be achieved in these ethnically volatile regions. The U.S. national security policy that has emerged in recent decades takes full advantage of the decisive combat power inherent in precision guidance technology. Thanks in large measure to the development and employment of superior precision-guided munitions, winning at combat has proven almost routine for the U.S. military. If there is a flaw in such heavy reliance on this technology by American policymakers, however, it is in the reality that winning and maintaining the peace has not proven equally facile.

Munitions of any kind, guided or unguided, are of limited use in the critical final phase of a campaign, when the desired outcome is not capitulation but stabilization, reconstruction, and political access. Smart bombs have clearly rendered the military instrument of power vastly more potent. How effectively military might can be used to achieve national security objectives, particularly amid the ideological warfare of the twenty-first century, will eventually determine the true value of this ultimate weapon.

 

Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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