- The Development of Precision Guided Munitions
The U.S. Air Force's spectacular airpower capabilities have resulted from many innovations, including precision-guided munitions (PGMs). These capabilities, which were only a dream before World War II, emerged over several decades, becoming today's reality. The United States now has the ability to destroy strategic or tactical targets that could not have been attacked in the past because of the potential casualties or collateral damage to civilians or physical infrastructure. This change has given policymakers a choice of options never before envisioned. Weapons of Choice: The Development of Precision Guided Munitions by Paul G. Gillespie traces the drive by military officers, engineers, and scientists to create the capabilities that early airpower theorists believed aircraft one day would have. Gillespie provides a fast-paced examination of how and why the U.S. military and industry developed PGMs. Although PGMs have become commonplace in today's air forces, their evolution began in World War I and made a highly successful debut during the latter half of the Vietnam War.
Gillespie focuses on a particular PGM class, conventional bombs that are interactively guided to their targets, to demonstrate how a fusion of technology, military doctrine, wartime exigencies, and national security policy combined to change the way America wages war. He describes how air forces tried to bring precision to bomb delivery. These efforts gained speed during World War II, but technological limitations inhibited progress. Despite the military establishment's focus on nuclear weapons during the early Cold War, the desire to build PGMs never subsided. The loss of aircrew and aircraft, civilian casualties, the explosion of available aerial weapons, and the need to destroy strategic targets during the Korean War only fueled the U.S. Air Force's drive for greater precision. Technological advances based on previous capabilities or seemingly unrelated components, like lasers and the integrated circuit, led to the PGM advances of the 1960s.
The advent of nuclear weapons did not eliminate the desire for PGMs, but it did undercut much of the momentum behind their development. In the 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. Air Force and Navy continued only minimal PGM development, and much of the military's conventional tactical capability atrophied as airpower research [End Page 160] focused on nuclear weapon delivery. With the advent of limited war theory in the 1960s, the Kennedy administration worried that conventional forces might not be effective in fighting those sorts of wars. The Vietnam War demonstrated that existing tactical aircraft could conduct conventional attacks but the effectiveness and efficiency of the available ordnance were no better than in World War II or the Korean War. Aircrews failed to destroy targets like the Thanh Hoa Bridge using "dumb bombs" and had to carry out repeated attacks against other targets. These circumstances gave a spur to PGM experimentation. After repeatedly failing to destroy the bridge with unguided weapons, the Air Force tried PGMs and easily took out the bridge. With the new, more precise weapons, U.S. political and military leaders no longer had to bypass important military targets for fear that a misplaced conventional weapon would create undue collateral damage.
Some U.S. Air Force commanders had bemoaned the limitations of using conventional weapons. This encouraged engineers and scientists to apply existing technology to improve weapons that would later become the laser- and electro-optical-guided systems that are common today. Gillespie's description of the early efforts to bring these weapons into operation provides the reader with an interesting view of the problems and issues faced by government and industry in trying to prove the merits of such systems. Attack planes needed the ability to concentrate their firepower on the target. Designers approached this requirement by creating weapons that would actively seek out the target. Operation Linebacker, a bombing campaign against North Vietnam mounted in 1972, demonstrated that PGMs increased military commanders' attack options without requiring massive numbers of ground forces. The operation ultimately helped compel Hanoi to return to the bargaining table.
PGM use began...