- Historic Sites
From Saigon To Desert Storm
How the U. S. military reinvented itself after Vietnam
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
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The solution did not come from an intensive Manhattan Project–style crash program of the kind that had produced the moon landing and the atomic bomb. Rather, a stroke of serendipity inspired the Air Force colonel Joe Davis, Jr., to set in motion the first laser-guided bomb project, in 1964. As deputy commander of an Air Force armaments laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Davis was dazzled by a demonstration of a laser invented in 1960 by the physicist Theodore Maiman. The scientists who showed off the device had no intention of using it to guide bombs, but that was the first thing Davis, a fighter ace in World War II and Korea, thought of. He even went aloft with a handheld movie camera to prove that a beam from a cockpit could be consistently directed at a fixed point on the ground. Using discretionary funds that did not need approval from the cumbersome Pentagon procurement bureaucracy, Davis awarded a $99,000 contract to Texas Instruments to develop a laser bomb-aiming system. The result was the Paveway, which initially required two aircraft to deliver—one to drop a bomb with small, movable wings, the other to aim a laser beam at its target. Eventually a single aircraft was equipped with both the laser-guidance pod and the bomb. As soon as the Paveway had proved its effectiveness, it was rushed to Vietnam.
It was later determined that 48 percent of Paveways dropped in 1972–73 around Hanoi and Haiphong achieved direct hits, compared with only 5.5 percent of unguided bombs dropped on the same area a few years earlier. The average Paveway landed within 23 feet of its target, as opposed to 447 feet for a “dumb” bomb. The leap in accuracy brought about primarily by laser guidance made it possible to take out tough objectives that had eluded earlier air raids. The most dramatic example was the Thanh Hoa Bridge, 70 miles south of Hanoi, a crucial supply artery for the North. Starting in 1965, U.S. pilots had flown 871 sorties against it, losing 11 planes without managing to put it out of commission. In 1972 the “Dragon’s Jaw” bridge was attacked with Paveway bombs, and 14 jets managed to do what the previous 871 had not: send the span into the Red River.
In World War II a tank needed 17 shots to kill an enemy tank; in the Gulf War the Abrams came close to the ideal of one shot, one kill.
The United States wound up employing 28,000 Paveways in Southeast Asia, more smart bombs than have been used in any conflict before or since. They did not save the United States from defeat, partially because they were introduced late in the war (only 0.2 percent of all munitions dropped were precision guided), but mainly because a guerrilla foe hiding in the jungles was not very vulnerable to air attack. Still, the Vietnam experience set the U.S. military on the path to future smart-bomb developments. Better microelectronics led to the invention of improved bombs and missiles with aiming systems utilizing radar, lasers, thermal sensors, satellite navigation, inertial guidance, and electro-optical sensors.
By the time of the Gulf War the most common ground-attack precision munitions in the U.S. arsenal were laser-guided Paveway III bombs, guided missiles like the Maverick and Hellfire, and ship-launched cruise missiles directed by internal computers programmed with precise target coordinates. Though laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles were relatively few in number, they would have a disproportionate impact in the war’s early days by hitting Iraq’s best-protected targets with unprecedented accuracy. The journalist David Halberstam later paraphrased the airpower strategist John Warden: “During World War II, an average B-17 bomb during a bombing run missed its target by some 2,300 feet. Therefore, if you wanted a 90 percent probability of having hit a particular target, you had to drop some nine thousand bombs. That required a bombing run of one thousand bombers and placed ten thousand men at risk. By contrast, with the new weaponry one plane flown by one man with one bomb could have the same level of probability. That was an improvement in effectiveness of approximately ten-thousand-fold.”
The most revolutionary weapons system of all in 1991 was a stealth aircraft equipped with two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs. Its genesis lay in Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works, the top-secret research lab in Burbank, California, that had produced such revolutionary Cold War aircraft as the U-2 and SR-71 high-altitude spy planes. In the mid-1970s Skunk Works engineers figured out how an airplane could be made virtually invisible at night by using special composite materials and flat panels that absorbed rather than reflected radar emissions. President Carter’s Defense Secretary, Harold Brown, a physicist by training, and his undersecretary for research and engineering, William Perry, another scientist, grasped the possibilities immediately and gave the project their enthusiastic support.
Because it was so highly classified, the stealth work (known initially as Project Harvey, after the invisible rabbit in the 1950 James Stewart movie) cut through normal Pentagon red tape. The prototype of the F-117A stealth fighter was ready to fly in 1977, and the first production-line model was delivered in 1981, a remarkably fast procurement cycle. In the Gulf War, F-117As would fly only 2 percent of all attack sorties, but they hit 40 percent of Iraq’s best-defended targets.