- Near Miss: The Army Air Forces’ Guided Bomb Program in World War II
Early in this book, Donald Hanle, a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, notes that he set out to write a dissertation on the rise of precision-guided munitions, expecting that World War II would only be a precursor. Instead, he was "amazed" (p. ix) to find so many records in the National Archives that the subject warranted its own study. His book demonstrates that the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and civilian research agencies did indeed expend major resources on guided weapons development during World War II—and that is leaving aside the substantial efforts of the Navy that he does not treat. Yet very few of these weapons were deployed in that war.
The book is organized by subject because there were many parallel developments, which the author divides into four basic types: glide bombs, vertical bombs, powered bombs, and jet bombs. Glide bombs had wings and a stabilization and control system to create a stand-off weapon that a bomber might launch outside the target's defenses. Vertical bombs had tails with control surfaces that permitted either an operator in an aircraft or an automated seeker in the bomb's nose to modify the trajectory of a gravity bomb. Powered bombs were piston-engine aircraft designed to dive on a target—including, late in the war, "war-weary" heavy bombers directed at German V-weapons sites on the Continent. Jet bombs, finally, were precursors of the modern cruise missile—the main one, the JB-2, being simply a copy of the V-1. Of these four types, only a few were deployed: the GB-1 glide bomb, which proved less accurate than "dumb bombs" when dropped on Cologne in spring 1944, the VB-1 Azon ("azimuth-only"-guidance) vertical bomb, which saw some success against bridges in the China-Burma-India [End Page 1278] theater and was the only guided weapon declared operational, and the Aphrodite and Castor war-weary bombers, none of which ever hit its intended target.
Hanle explains this unimpressive record as being the product of: (1) "immature" technology, notably in electronics; (2) poorly coordinated USAAF and civilian efforts; (3) resistance in the operational air force; and (4) USAAF chief-of-staff "Hap" Arnold's "leadership style." Indeed, the book will not please Arnold's hero-worshippers, as Hanle notes the deleterious effects of the general's weak organizational skills, violent temper, and arbitrary interventions that, for one, forced the GB-1 into an operational test even though it was unpromising. He is especially critical of Arnold's push for the JB-2, which was to be manufactured in huge quantities for the invasion of Japan, even though it would have diverted a significant percentage of U.S. munitions production and overseas shipping.
Near Miss is fairly well-written, but its organization leads to some confusion and to the use of too many "signposts" in the narrative pointing to subjects treated elsewhere. Some of his points get lost as a result. The book is a somewhat dry, specialist work likely to be of interest mainly to historians of strategic bombing, precision-guided weapons, and guided-missile development. Nonetheless, it is valuable, as it opens up a topic too long neglected.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.