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Weapons that Changed Warfare: Smart Bombs

Before Smart Bombs we had dumb bombs. They relied solely on the skill, reflexes and mathematic prowess of a pilot. Not only would a bomber have to fly a metal plane carrying a tonne of munition while dodging anti-aircraft fire, they’d also have to do complex trigonometry to calculate a ‘bombing triangle’ if they had any hope of hitting their target and making the whole risking their lives in a hail of bullets thing worthwhile.

Effectively, bombing was a numbers game. If you wanted something destroyed, dropping hundreds of bombs in the rough vicinity of your target, taking out whole streets and hundreds of civilians was your only option. To give you an idea of the accuracy of this carpet-bombing approach, in 1944, 47 bombers conducted a raid on one Steelworks in Japan. Of the 835 bombs released, only 1 made impact and 40 bombers were lost.

Unsurprisingly, the heavy civilian casualties and wasting of huge amounts of cash by dropping dumb bombs near, but not on target was losing popularity. Bombs with some kind of guidance system were needed and scientists were up for the challenge. But not all of their early attempts were good ideas.

My personal favourite being Project Pigeon. In World War II, American behaviourist B.F Skinner trained pigeons to sit inside a bomb and peck the image of the target displayed on a screen. If the bomb started to go off track, the target would move to the side. When the pigeon pecked it, sensors would pick up the movement and steer the bomb back in the right direction. Remarkably, the training was quite successful but the project was cancelled when the National Defence research committee ‘saw more promise in electronic guidance.’ And Skinner complained ‘Our problem was that no one would take us seriously.’ Shocking, I know.

Radio Guided Smart Bombs

Radio controlled smart bomb by Hugh Llewelyn is licensed under CC-BY-SA

World War II was the first time these electronic and poultry-free smart bombs or Precision Guidance Munitions were seen in combat. Before then, The German Condor legion had struggled with accuracy when attempting to bomb manoeuvring ships during the Spanish Civil War. So, in 1938, engineer Dr Max Kramer began experimenting with the use of radio-controlled spoilers on the tail of 250kg bombs. He wanted pilots to be able to guide them after launch. Fatally, his work was successful and by 1940 the 1400kg armour piercing Fritz bomb had been fitted with wings, an aerodynamic nose and a box shaped tail, housing guidance controls. This transformed it into the Fritz X and earned it the title of the World’s first smart bomb.

On the 3rd of September, 1943 the WWII armistice was signed between Italy and the Allies. The terms of which required delivery of the remains of Mussolini’s naval fleet to Malta. Germany had begun their attack on Italy quickly and the route was out of reach of Allied air defences. Before the Fritz X, the battleships would’ve been vulnerable to bombing by German planes but the bombers accuracy was low and the ships would’ve at least stood a chance. Instead, the guided Fritz X bombs hit with alarming precision. The first bomb to make impact with the flagship, Roma, struck its bridge and instantly killed Admiral Bergamini. The second buried itself deep into the bridge before detonating, creating a gaping hole in the hull and starting fires that raged throughout the vessel. It took 20 minutes of panicked efforts to save the ship before it exploded breaking the Rohna in two. 1350 crew members perished as the 2 halves of the ship sank.

Germany continued their assault on Allied vessels with ease. 2 days later, the Savannah, heading to support the landings of Allied forces in Italy, was next to encounter the Fritz X. US Army General Mark W. Clark recalled the scene cause by the smart bomb crashing deep into the ship before exploding. ‘Instantly, all was chaos, smoke, blood and death.’ Nearly 200 were killed by the resulting blazes, with many suffocating in their gun turrets. The boiler fires were put out and it seemed likely the remaining crew would go down with the ship. However, incredibly, they managed to relight the boilers and crawl, half sunk, to Malta. Unfortunately for 4 survivors, they’d become trapped in the radio room and had to wait another 60 hours before rescuers managed to breach the steel deck and get them to shore.

Attacks continued relentlessly, with Germany employing a second radio-controlled guided weapon, the Hs 239, and hitting a ship per day. Malta was filling up with battered allied vessels as scientists tried desperately to come up with ways to prevent the attacks. The obvious strategy was to jam the radio signals but they needed an intact bomb to determine the correct radio frequency and the Germans had equipped them all to self-destruct in the event of failed detonation.

Fortunately, their prayers were answered when 9 Donier Bombers were discovered, abandoned at Foggia, armed with both the Fritz X and the Hs 293s. Unfortunately, the breakthrough hadn’t come quickly enough to prevent the largest loss of US troops at sea, in a single incident. On the 25th of November, 1943, 14 Luftwaffe aircraft attacked a convoy of troop ships on their way to Alexandria. The Allies defended the ships with smokescreens anti-aircraft fire but one of the Fritz X bombs made it through and hit the Rohna. More than 1,100 died. They burnt in the fires that raged throughout the ship or drowned in the 5 to 6m swells that made it impossible for the rest of the fleet to launch lifeboats.

In the months that followed, successful attacks grew fewer as the Allies deployed electronic jamming to block guidance of the bombs. Antiship attacks reduced and German scientists worked to overcome the jamming with wire and television guidance. They also tried to develop new types of weapons such as jet fighters and long-range rockets. Fortunately, their work was fruitless and abruptly ended with Hitler’s demise in 1945.

While they were inventors, Germany weren’t the only nation to see the potential in a guided bomb. Inspired by the attack on the Rohna, the US took up the research and developed smart bombs of their own. Inventing the Bat, a radar guided glide bomb, and the Azon, a radio-controlled bomb. Both were semi-successful with the Bat sinking multiple enemy destroyers and Azon taking out 27 Japanese bridges. Including, the previously impervious 300-foot steel bridge at Pyinmana.

However, despite these innovations, the military still favoured ‘dumb’ bombs. The smart technology of the Bat and Azon just weren’t good enough to justify the cost. Their radio signals could be jammed just as the Allies had done to the Fritz X and the bombers were left at risk after deployment as they had to stay in the area to steer the bomb with a joystick. Plus, it had taken 450 Azons to take out those 27 Japanese bridges.

Laser-Guided Smart Bombs

A close-up view of two GBU-12 laser-guided bombs mounted aboard an F-4E Phantom II aircraft.

It wasn’t until the war in Vietnam that America would revisit the smart bomb. It was the well-defended bridges that posed a particular problem to the Rolling Thunder air campaign. The 540ft Dragon’s Jaw Bridge at Thanh Hoa, for example, had withstood a 1965 airstrike from 80 aircraft carrying 750lb bombs and bullpup missiles. They caused almost no damage with one pilot claiming the bullpups simply ‘bounced off’ the bridge. The next day they tried with 300 bombs, again they had little success. The only dent made was achieved by dropping large mines upstream and leaving them to float down and crash into the bridge. However, it was only a small dent and the bridge stayed standing.

One man particularly frustrated by the Vietnam bridge problem was Colonel Joseph Davis, commander of the Air Proving Ground at Eglin, Florida. He was looking for a weapon with the strength of a bomb that could be dropped from a great enough height to avoid enemy fire and hit within 30 feet of a target. He took an interest in the work of Weldon Word, an engineer at Texas Instruments, who’d proposed the idea of laser-guided missiles.

Davis called Word in for a meeting and presented him with photos of Dragons Jaw Bridge. In them, 800 pockmarks from previous, unsuccessful, bomb attacks could be seen and countless more were hidden under the water. Frustratingly, the bridge was still standing. Davis offered him the opportunity to develop his laser idea, provided he could deliver within 6 months, for less than $100,000 and have a proposal submitted by 7 a.m. Monday. Word rose to the challenge and for $99,000 exactly he invented the first Laser guided smart bomb kit. The beauty of it was that it consisted of a set of components that could be bolted onto an existing bomb. Lowering the cost to $4000 and providing great flexibility for the Air Force.

The bombs required 2 aeroplanes to work. The first would identify the target and focus a laser beam on it. The 2nd would drop the bomb. Once launched, the bomb’s seeker head would find its target by sensing the reflected energy of the laser. A smart bomb has no means of propulsion beyond gravity so it’d steer by moving control fins to generate drag. The team spent the next few years overcoming the internal politics of the Air force and development issues until it was ready to be combat tested in Vietnam in 1968. But, just before it was fully deployed, the White House called a stop to the bombing of North Vietnam. While delaying its debut, it allowed the Air force 4 more years of development and training, aiding in its future success.

The first ever laser-guided bomb run was mind-blowing for both the pilot and the troops on the ground. Ed Cobleigh, former fighter pilot and author of War for the Hell of It: A Fighter Pilot’s View of Vietnam, described the experience. He was one of the 4 pilots involved and had been tasked with aiming the laser at North Vietnamese gun installations. These had anti-aircraft capabilities and were so well defended that conventional bombers couldn’t touch them without being shot down. Cobleigh’s team was sent in, communicating with a troop on the ground who was unaware he was about to witness a Laser-Guided Bomb. He seemed pretty unconvinced further bombing would do any more than rile up the gun teams who’d punish him with a night of fire. But, Cobleigh found his target and the first bomb launched scored a direct hit, completely obliterating the gun and the whole team. When they went in for a second go and decimated another gun, the man on the ground couldn’t believe it, coming on the radio to say ‘That was the best bombing I have ever seen. Come back and work with me anytime, you guys are shit hot.’ Instead of spending that evening being shot at by angry gun teams, he was now faced with a retreating enemy and renewed hope.

In fact, he might’ve been forgiven for thinking he’d just witnessed war-winning technology. But, this wasn’t the case. While laser-guided smart bombs were impressive, they had many flaws. The main one being that the laser pilot had to keep the target in view at all times. Impossible through smoke, dust or even bad weather and Vietnam had plenty of that.

That’s not to say they had no impact, between February 1972 and February 1973 the Air force dropped more than 10,500 laser-guided bombs scoring 5,100 direct hits and 4000 within 25 feet. That’s an incredible probability of taking out your target. In the first 3 months alone they destroyed 100 bridges. Remember the Dragon’s Jaw Bridge? After a false start in April 1972 which was foiled by the wrong type of clouds… They tried again in May and ust 14 jets managed to achieve what the previous 871 had not. They launched only 26 laser-guided bombs and destroyed the western span of the bridge, cutting off a key North Vietnamese Supply route.

Satellite Guided Smart Bombs

Photo by Greg Goebel on Pixnio

Vietnam proved smart bombs to be an effective weapon. But, the US Air force couldn’t exactly have their strike schedule dictated by clouds forever. A new method of guidance would need to be developed. Their bombing campaign during Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf was being disrupted by dust, fog and smoke and so, research began into an all-weather guided munition in 1992. One controversial method stood out – GPS. There were relatively few GPS satellites at the time and their use in weapons was completely untested. However, they went ahead with it and development took place at Eglin Air Force Base. With the help of a few electronics and technology companies, they had the first system ready to go in 1993 and testing began in various weather conditions.

Tests were successful, not as accurate as laser-guided bombs but capable of use when it was cloudy, so that was a plus. Also, the pilot could ‘fire and forget’. They didn’t need to hang around to guide the bomb and could get out of harm’s way more quickly. It took some years of development but by 1997 the first Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kits were created and are still in use today. Just like Word’s lasers, the kits are guidance systems that can be attached to conventional bombs. They use an internal computer to position themselves and acquire their targets. It’s even possible for the pilot to update the target after launch by sending new coordinates. The only downside is that price is higher, at $25,000, but this is still much cheaper per hit than conventional bombs.

JDAMs quickly took over from Laser-guided bombs and became the weapon of choice in the Kosovo air war, Operation Allied force. While guided bombs only accounted for 35% of the munition used, they were responsible for 74% of the targets destroyed. Today, every squadron deployed with JDAMs has a staggering hit rate of 97%.

By the time Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003, 68% of bombs were guided. With 22.4% as JDAMs. Now, instead of sending in large forces and suffering heavy casualties, the US was able to conduct warfare much more remotely. Destroying supply lines and command centres without a single troop on the ground nearby. It was also possible to reduce civilian casualties as the precision of the guided bombs could pick off individual buildings rather than destroy whole streets.

However, the system isn’t infallible. GPS is as vulnerable to GPS jammers as the old radio smart bombs were to radio frequency jammers. And, when you throw in EMPs, hacking and any number of electronic attacks there are as many ways for a target to fight back as there always have been.

In addition to this, human error when using JDAMs has led to a number of tragedies. The single largest case of civilian casualties during operation desert storm resulted from 2 smart bombs that hit an air raid shelter in Baghdad in 1991. Tragically, the majority of victims were women and children who’d sought shelter from the near-constant bombings. Sabiyha Abood recalled leaving her 4 children in the shelter as they were too scared of the bombs to sleep at home. They felt safe there as the US would have no reason to attack a civilian shelter. Unfortunately, US intelligence had identified it as a military command centre. When she heard the roar and explosions Sabiyha raced to the shelter but it was completely destroyed and in flames. She only managed to recover one of the burned bodies of her children. The tragedy illustrates the problem of reliance on satellites for intelligence gathering and launching attacks. From space, it looked like a command centre. A person on the ground could have told you that kids were inside.

In Operation Allied Force another devastating mistake claimed the lives of 3 civilians. A JDAM operation intended to destroy the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement hit the nearby Chinese embassy instead. What caused the fatal error? Intelligence officers planning the attack had relied on a bad map. Yes really, it was outdated and had the buildings labelled incorrectly. Had someone been on the ground they might’ve noticed the distinct Chinese roof style, bright red Chinese flag, or, you know, the large bronze plaque that read Chinese Embassy. When a dumb bomb misses its target and kills civilians it’s unfortunate luck. When a smart bomb does it, it feels much more deliberate. China were quick to call foul play, riots broke out and the US embassy in Beijing was attacked by stone throwing protestors in retaliation.

Artificial Intelligence in Smart Bombs

You might conclude, therefore, that no matter how smart your bomb, human error will always have the potential to make it dumb. But what if we took humans out of the equation? Let the computers decide their targets. I mean, it sounds like the fast way to a terrifying, dystopian Terminator style future. But near certainty of horrific consequences has never stood in the way of human developments before and won’t prevent handing over to control of smart bombs to artificial intelligence either.

And when I say future, I mean 2019. It’s already been done. Israeli manufacturer Rafael has named the technology Automatic Target Recognition and installed it in their SPICE-250 smart bomb. Using AI and deep learning techniques the bomb can recognise a target based on many characteristics and guide itself to hit it. All the pilot has to do is select the target type and the bomb does the rest. Beyond that, if the bomb is on its way to destroy, let’s say a tank, and spots a more high-value target like an anti-aircraft defence it can decide to switch targets and take that out instead. Even better, if its communication with the pilot is cut off, it can make these decisions all by itself. And it’s not at all alarming that this is based on recognition software that has mistaken a moonrise over Norway for a Soviet missile launch and allows my phone to recognise my face about 50% of the time.

America are in on the AI action too, developing collaborative small diameter bombs (CSDBs). Potentially more frightening than a single deadly robot bomb, these are launched en masse and designed to swarm like insects. Explosive insects. The idea is that they’d work together to make decisions about target priorities and, if cut off from their human or attacked with a GPS jammer, they’d communicate with each other to share information and inform their choices. Because flying bombs that can think for themselves and plot, sorry plan, together, sounds incredibly reassuring.


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