Smart Bombs: The History and Future of Strategic Bombardment

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Smart Bombs: The History and Future of Strategic Bombardment


Every kid loves to hear stories from their grandparents about something that they have experienced in their life. For me, some of the best stories came from my father about the air war that was waged over Europe during World War II. He often told me of a day that a formation of almost 1,000 bombers flew over his base:

"The drone of the planes could be heard for miles and made us on the ground feel as small as ants. There were over 1,000 of them overhead, in a perfect formation, each one with four engines roaring. They looked invincible to us on the ground; there were so many of them. After seeing the destruction that they brought upon the German cities and factories, I was thankful they were on our side."

Those "invincible" planes my father told me of were American B-17 Bombers. With a range of 1,850 miles, a maximum ceiling of 35,600 ft. and a bomb load of 8,000 pounds, the B-17 Flying Fortress was one of the most capable of the long range bombers of World War II. Though these statistics are impressive, the technology that made this bomber so impressive was its bomb sight.

The United States Army Air Corps claimed that its Norden Bomb sight, which was used in the B-17, could "place a bomb in a pickle barrel at 20,000 feet." Though it was not quite as accurate as claimed, it could hit a 100 foot square target area consistently from 20,000 feet. Using this bomb sight, which was considered top secret for the first years of the war, formations of up to 1,000 B-17's would be able to hit a target in broad daylight accurately. The effects of these bombing runs were felt heavily in the Germans manufacturing industry. On October 14, 1943, 229 B-17s struck the ball bearing plants in Schweinfurt, Germany, resulting in a white out in ball bearing production from those factories.

In 1943, it was necessary to use 229 planes to complete a mission of that sort effectively. Today, it would be considered a waste of time and resources. With the use of radar, GPS and laser technology, we are able to destroy the same manufacturing plants with fewer than four strategic bombers such as the F-1, B-2, or F-117. The use of smart bomb technology in these planes has taken aerial bombing into the 21st century. Instead of bombing large areas, our bombers can hit specific points in buildings. Rather than using 1,000 tons of bombs in one run against a manufacturing plant, the use of little more than four 2,000 pound bombs are needed to destroy the same building. Smart bombs have made aerial bombing more efficient as well as safer for our aerial personnel.


Ever since the dawn of military aviation, man has attempted to bombard their enemy from the air. The first planes could not create enough lift to carry an effective bomb load, so air ships were used to complete the task. By the end of World War I, German Zeppelin air ships had been designed that could "reach a maximum speed of 136 kph and reach a height of 4,250 meters. They had five machine-guns and could carry 2,000 kg (4,400 lbs) of bombs (Zeppelin ZI)." These airships, though psychologically effective, were too vulnerable with their flammable gasses to achieve much success. With modifications in airplanes, effective bombers would be made by the end of World War I.

Before these modifications would be made, however, pilots would still attempt to use what they had. The first bombing mission occurred in the Italo-Turkish War in 1911, when a single Italian pilot dropped four grenades on Turkish positions. Though this bomb raid was completely ineffective, it was the start of strategic bombing as it is known today ("War, Technology...").

As planes evolved that could carry a reasonable bomb load, one major problem emerged: how to aim the bombs. At a low level, pilots or observers serving as bombardiers could guess when to release the bombs, but it was near impossible to release a bomb accurately from a high altitude. Bomb accuracy was such an issue that the United States Military believed that air powers should be focused only on observation and reconnaissance, as bombers would be no more than a waist.

However, General Billy Mitchell would not stand for it. He had seen the effects that bombing could have upon enemy, as well as his own forces during World War I and was very outspoken on the subject. His statements upon the subjects made his relations with his superiors "sour as he began to attack both the War and Navy Departments for being insufficiently farsighted regarding airpower (CADRE/ARJ)." As the fight between Mitchell and the United States Navy was aroused so did a challenge. The Navy believed that no plane could sink a ship by bombardment. Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy at the time, went as far as to say that he would "stand bareheaded on the deck of any ship Mitchell was going to bomb (Feltus)."

Mitchell blew them all away, literally. The Navy, which was not in favor of the test but felt that a failure by Mitchell would make him go away, provided him with six ships to "sink." Three of the ships were decommissioned United States Navy ships, and three were captured German ships from World War I. One of the three German-made ships, the Ostfriedland, was considered unsinkable. It was the pride of the German Navy and not only was it sunk, but it was only "Twenty-one minutes after the test began. The Ostfriedland plunged to the bottom of the ocean. The final plane dropped its bombs into the foam rising from the sinking ship (Feltus)."

With the humiliation of the Navy command, the government was forced to recognize airplanes as a liable source of air power and a weapon to use against any enemy, near or far, even ships. Though not long after, because of his bull headed attitude and willingness to speak out with his opinion, Mitchell was court marshaled and striped of his pay and rank. Soon, heavy bombers such as those used in World War II, would evolve.

Evolution of the Smart Bomb

The first use of "smart bombs" occurred in World War II. The project, known as the Pelican Project, began in 1942 as a radar-guided anti-shipping glide bomb. Though the project was discontinued in 1943 due to the short range of the bomb, it led the way for the development of the Bat, a bomb of similar design that had its own homing device. The radar would come from the bomb and bounce off the target; much like a bat finds its prey by echo-ranging and homing. The Bat was officially known as Bomb MK-57, but was soon modified and changed to SWOD MK-9 ( SWOD- Special Weapon Ordnance Device). With the successful tests of the Bat in late 1944, the bomb was declared combat ready in January 1945.

The Bat was the first "smart bomb" to ever be diploid in combat. Though its combat use was severely limited, due to its tendency to home in on other "targets" such as docks or mountains, it did see some success. The bomb was used against Japanese shipping for the remainder of the war, being diploid from long range PB4Y-2 patrol bombers (Wade).

Radar was the only technology that could be used for several years after World War II, but there would be new developments before long. With the start of the Korean War came the use of the first laser guided smart bomb. The bomb, known as the BOLT-117 (Bomb Laser Terminal), was the very first laser-guided bomb. It consisted of a standard 750 pound general purpose bomb "with a KMU-342 laser seeker and control fins attached." The Kmu-342 laser seeker tracked laser energy directed at the target by an outside source and guided the bomb through the fins to hit the laser energy. This, though often unsuccessful, was more precise than dropping unguided, or "dumb bombs" at a specific target. Though its service was short, the idea of turning dumb bombs into smart ones, as was the case with BOLT-117, created a new arsenal for the United States Air Forces and Strategic Air Command (Pike).

The use of the BOLT was discontinued due to its new counterpart, the GBU-10 (Guided Bomb Unit), which was much larger (2000 pounds) and more accurate. The GBU-10, under controlled circumstances, could hit within a 9 meter radius of the intended target (Machtres). Which is plenty close enough for 2000 pounds to demolish most anything, or at least cause substantial damage. In Operation Desert Storm, GBU-10's and GBU-10I's, which were used by F-15E's and F-111F's, hit 78 percent of their targets which consisted of bridges, Scud missile sights, and bunkers. (Webmaster)

The GBU-10 was the first of many in the GBU family of smart bombs. To follow were the GBU-12 (a smaller model of the GBU-10, only 500 pounds), the 1000 pound GBU-16, the 2000 pound GBU-24, as well as a 5000 pound bunker buster. The GBU-28 "Bunker Buster" is a wonder in engineering. Robert Sherman, an expert from the Military Analyses Network, says that the "GBU 28 'Bunker Buster' was put together in record time to support targeting of the Iraqi hardened command bunker by adapting existing materiel." When American forces invaded Kuwait, the bomb was not even into the early development stages. The fabrication of the bomb began on the first of February, no more than a week after Operation Desert Storm had begun. By February 27, two operational bombs had been made, both to be used effectively by the end of the conflict (Webmaster).

Advantages of "Smart Bombs" Over "Dumb Bombs"

With the birth of these laser guided bombs, the days of the heavy bomber and "dumb bombs" ended. A large formation of heavy bombers was no longer needed to destroy a target. Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment shows that technology has advanced so much that "A single F-117 with two laser-guided bombs could in some situations achieve the same degree of target destruction that in World War II had required 108 B-17's dropping 648 bombs" (P. 575). these technological advancements have made the lives of our pilots much safer. For 108 B-17's to run a mission during World War II, over 1,080 men would have been put at risk. World War II Statistics show that for every bomber crewmen wounded, six were killed; totaling over 100,000 allied bomber crewmen killed during the war.

On the contrary, for an F-117 to accomplish the same mission, only one man would be put at risk. During the Gulf War, the United States Armed Forces as a whole reported only 148 total combat deaths (Nofi). When compared, this many men if not more, could have been killed in one mission during World War II. This is due to the fact that smart bombs have shaped the modern bombers, creating missions that do not require the use of over a thousand men and can be run in the cover of darkness with greater accuracy than those run during the day in World War II.

Though laser guided bombs were quite the improvement over dumb bombs, they did have their let downs. To successfully deliver a laser guided bomb, there must be a clear line of sight from the plane, or the source of laser energy, to the target. If there is an obstruction over the target, such as clouds or smoke, the bomb will not be able to track the laser energy. Therefore, to successfully destroy a target, the weather has to be near perfect. The solution to this problem came from an every day tool used by many hikers, travelers, and more than ever today, the military because of its applications in city warfare: Global Positioning Systems (A.K.A- GPS).

GPS technologies first emerged in 1978 and were fully operational by the mid-1990s, though military counter parts would not be perfected for use in Operation Desert Storm. The first concept GPS bomb guidance system, approved in 1999, is known as the Inertial Terrain-Aided Guidance or ITAG system, and is capable of hitting within a 3 meter radius of a specific target. To do this, a combination of GPS, radar and infrared technologies are used, which can be used in weather conditions where laser guided bombs cannot be used. These units are still on the drawing boards, but once perfected will be the next step in strategic warfare.

One such design, that has been operational in B-2 Spirits since July of 1997, is known as the JDAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munitions, which have been employed in Iraq in the last year. The JDAM's are tail kits which use GPS guidance to guide an attached explosive unit to within 10.3 meters, well under the required maximum radius of 13 meters (Webmaster). This may not be as impressive as the 3 meter radius of the ITAG, but a JDAM has the capability to be launched from up to and including 15 miles. This not only increases the range of the bomber, but keeps the pilot away from the danger over the target.

Another advantage of smart weapons can be found in the statistics of the Gulf War. Though 88,500 tons of munitions were used, the war was not very costly. According to a Statistical Study of Americas Major Wars, the Gulf war cost the United States about 61 billion dollars in 1990 to 1991.

Now, before judging that number, think of what was involved in the war. That total includes the soldiers pay, food, armament, gas, transportation, ammunition, and much more. That same total would have barely covered 21 percent of the cost of World War II, which was an astonishing 288 billion dollars between 1941 and 1945. With inflation, that number would have been approximately 2091.3 billion dollars, over 33 times the cost of the Gulf War. (Nofi) Why is this?

The duration of the war must be looked at, but even when looking at one year of World War II, the cost still comes to 522.8 billion dollars (with inflation to a dollar in the 1990's). One reason why World War II cost the United States so much more than the Gulf is the simple fact that over 3.4 million tons were used from 1939-1945 by the allied forces. Over 38 times as many tons of bombs were dropped during World War II than were dropped in the Gulf. This is due to the fact that the use of smart bombs allowed for one or two 2,000 bombs to destroy the same target that took the use of 2,000 or more 500 pound bombs.

In this way, smart bomb technology has made aerial bombing more efficient for our government. Each GBU is more expensive to make, but in the long run, is more efficient because it will do the work that would take as many as 1,000 dumb bombs.

What is Next?

When compared to those of World War II, our bombers of today are not much better. They are more technologically advanced &emdash; with pressurized cabins and radar tracking devices of their own &emdash; and have crews of three or less, but they do not have much larger bomb capacities than those of World War II. So why are they so much more effective? Though the electronics do help, it is not the plane that makes our strategic bombing so much more effective.

If we used the same planes today, with modified electronics, we could get the same results. This is because today, it is not the release system that makes our strategic bombing so effective, it is the guidance system. All our planes have to do today is carry the bomb and get it out of the bomb bay, and the bomb will do the rest of the work. Once away from the plane, even if it is 15 miles from the target, the bomb, not the plane, makes sure that it makes it to the target that has been chosen.

This has proved effective. We do not have to use as many bombs to destroy a target, which is cheaper and has more of an impact on an enemy. Pilots are not only put at less risk on each mission, but fewer pilots are put at risk with each mission. The days of 1,000 bombers raiding a factory in broad daylight are over. Laser and GPS guidance systems cannot tell the difference between night and day, which allows our pilots to work under the cover of darkness. Bombs with guidance systems are smarter than "dumb bombs" and can find their targets on their own. They do not need the assistance of a bomb sight any longer.

It may be weird, but I am more interested in these stories today than I was when I was a kid. Not to hear the glory of war, but of how bombing raids were back then. Hearing it from someone that was there is twice the experience as reading it. Then, I can compare it to what I hear from the news. Strategic bombing has come so far from what it used to be that it is almost scary to think of what will come in the 21st century.

Works Cited

CADRE/ARJ. "Billy Mitchell." April 4. 2004. 5/4/04.

Feltus, Pamela. "Billy Mitchell Sinks the Ships." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. 19 March. 2004.

Hall, R. Cargill, Ed. "Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment." Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data. 1998.

Lindberg, J. "Gulf War Chronology: Statistics." 2000. 4/4/04. <>
Machtres Arms. "GBU-10 Paveway II."

Neufeld, Jacob. Watson, M George. Chenoweth, David, Eds. "Technology and the Air Force A Retrospective Assessment." Library of Congress Cataloging-in Publication Data. 1997.

Nofi, Al. "Statistical Summary: America's Major Wars." 6/13/01. 4/7/04.

Pike, John. "BOLT-117 (BOmb, Laser Terminal-117)." Global 17 December. 2003. 19 March. 2004.


Radio Shack. "A Brief History of Navigation and GPS." 2002.

"War, Technology of; Military Aircraft." The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th Ed. 2002.

Wade, Mark. "Bat ASM-N-2." Encyclopedia Astronautica. 9 Aug. 2003. 19 March. 2004.

Webmaster. "GBU-15." Military Analysis Network. May 13. 2003. 19 March. 2004.

Webmaster. "Guided Bomb Unit-10 (GBU-10)." Military Analysis Network. 19 February. 1998. 19 March. 2004.


Webmaster. "Guided Bomb Unit-28 (GBU-28) Bunker Buster." Military Analysis Network. 28 February. 1998. 19 March. 2004.


Webmaster. "Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)." May 13. 2003. 19 March. 2004.

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WWII Statistics. 1999. <>
` "Zeppelin ZI." Spartacus School Net. <>

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MLA Citation:
"Smart Bombs: The History and Future of Strategic Bombardment." 28 Nov 2015

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