The History of Precision Munitions

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Podcast Transcript

In 1940, an investigation conducted by the British military found that only 1 in 5 of their bombers were actually landing bombs within five miles of their intended targets. 

This level of inaccuracy wasn’t just dangerous in terms of collateral damage, but it was horrible in terms of achieving military objectives. 

This inaccuracy has led to the development of ever more precise munitions, which is still going on today.

Learn more about precision munitions and how it is possible to drop a bomb in a pickle barrel, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


When firearms were first invented, they were woefully inaccurate. Early smooth bore mussel-loaded cannons would be pointed in the general direction of what you wanted to hit and then you would hope for the best. Artillery was more a matter of art than science. 

Over time, this got much better, especially with the development of cannons with rifling in the barrel, and the breach-loaded cannon, where you load it with a shell from the rear. 

It became possible to replicate the conditions of firing more precisely, and artillery became more of a science than an art. In World War I, in particular, artillery became accurate enough that you could land shells in front of advancing infantry, and not fire on your own troops. 

This, however, wasn’t a case of special munitions so much as it was that artillery and the science of firing them, just got much better. 

The story of precision munitions, however, really begins during World War II. 

The Second World War introduced the tactic of strategic bombing.  (And yes, I am aware that limited zeppelin bombing occurred in the first world war, but all the combined bombs dropped in that war, wouldn’t equal a single bombing run in the second world war.)

The idea behind strategic bombing was to attack economic or infrastructure targets to take away an enemy’s ability to wage war. 

Let’s say the enemy had a factory that made tanks. If you could bomb that factory and take it out of commission, then the enemy’s ability to make new tanks would be inhibited. 

These types of bombing missions were inherently dangerous. You had to fly very high to avoid being spotted and to be out of range of enemy anti-aircraft guns. 

Flying at night was safer than flying during the day, but nighttime bombing was horribly inaccurate. Daytime bombing was just plain old inaccurate.

As I mentioned in the introduction, at the start of the war the British had a hard time even getting within five miles of their target.  

There were efforts made on several fronts to solve this problem. The Americans spent an enormous amount of money on a program known as the Norden Bombsight. 

The Norden Bombsight program was second only to the Manhattan project in terms of investment during the war. The total program amounted to ? of the cost of creating an atomic bomb. 

Unlike the A-bomb, however, the Norden Bombsight didn’t have the same sort of impact. It was supposed to take into consideration altitude, speed, and wind and, according to supporters, was able to drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 30,000 feet.

It was never close to being that accurate. 

In a post-war study, the Air Force determined that using the Norden Bombsight only 31.8% of its bombs were able to be dropped within 300 meters or 1,000 feet of its intended target, from 21,000 feet. 

300 meters is bigger than most factories that were targeted, and certainly much bigger than something like a bridge, and that was only 32% of the successful bombs. 

If you have ever been at a very high height and dropped something off the edge, you probably have seen just how hard it is to drop something straight. Even a small gust of wind can take it wildly off course. 

Just having a good sight wasn’t good enough. 

The Germans began developing radio-controlled bombs. Instead of trying to accurately aim, they tried to make a bomb that could be guided to the target. These had an accuracy of about 91 meters, which was far better than what the Allies could achieve. 

Basically, the bomb would fall via gravity like a normal bomb, but a controller in the airplane would use radio waves to control the fins on the bomb to move it where it needed to be.

The average bomb was powerful enough that even one could do incredible damage, assuming that it could actually hit the target. 

Eventually, Allied bombing campaigns moved to area bombing of cities like Dresden and Tokyo, where they didn’t really care about accuracy. The goal was just to dump a whole lot of bombs everywhere, and cause massive damage. 

After the war it became obvious that the solution wasn’t going to be better aiming of dumb bombs, it was going to be dropping smarter bombs. 

The initial German attempts at radio-controlled bombs were not that successful. The allies also attempted to create a guided weapon in a program they dubbed Operation Aphrodite. Operation Aphrodite was an early attempt at a drone. 

The idea was to make take a B-17 bomber, make it radio-controlled with a television camera, fill it up with explosives, and then crash it into German bunkers. It was not a success.

During the Korean War, there were attempts at creating what was known as an electro-optical bomb, which again was just a bomb with a television camera on it that could be controlled by radio. This too didn’t work very well.

The problem was, that the ideas were there, but the technology just couldn’t deliver. 

Missiles were developed that could lock on to objects which emitted heat or radio waves. The Sidewinder missile was deployed by the US Navy in 1956 and by the Air Force in 1964. It is an air-to-air missile that was initially locked onto an infrared signature from the exhaust of a jet engine but has subsequently evolved to an “all aspect” missile that can be fired from any direction and doesn’t need a heat signature. 

Likewise, the AGM-45 Shrike missile was designed to lock on to radio waves to take out an enemy radar. 

With the development of the laser in the 1960s, the military identified a possible method of guiding a bomb to its target that didn’t involve a television camera. This led to the development of the BOLD-117, the world’s first laser-guided bomb, in 1967.

The BOLD-117 was developed by Texas Instruments, and it was a regular bomb with a laser seeker on the nose that controlled the fins of the bomb. It had an accuracy of 75 feet or 23 meters. It was quickly replaced by a next-generation weapon called the Paveway I, which had an accuracy of 20 feet or 6.1 meters.

There were tests involved during the Vietnam War, but they never saw large-scale adoption. 

They could have used it too, as bombing in Vietnam was also highly inaccurate.  There was a classic example that really highlighted the need for precision bombs. 

The Americans identified 27 different bridges that needed to be destroyed. They managed to blow up 26 of the bridges, but the last one, the Thanh Hóa Bridge, eluded destruction. Over a period of five years, the US military flew over 871 sorties, and lost 11 aircraft with their crews, before the bridge was finally destroyed.

It was destroyed when they finally used a laser-guided bomb on it. 

These bombs were extremely expensive as computer chips were not yet cheap nor powerful, which limited their use.

In the aftermath of the not-so-successful Vietnam war, the US military did a critical assessment of their entire way of fighting. One of the things they looked at was developing more and better precision munitions. 

Despite a few minor uses in the Falkland Islands War of 1982, the first major use of smart weapons was in 1991 in the Gulf War. The vast majority of bombs dropped were still dumb bombs, but this time smart laser-guided weapons made up less than 9% of all bombs dropped. That 9%, however, was 35x more effective than the dumb bombs which were dropped. 

The military claimed that the smart bombs dropped during the Gulf War hit their targets 80% of the time, however, those claims are difficult to verify. Some independent military analysts have put the actual success rate as only half that…..which would still be overwhelmingly more successful than dumb bombs. 

The smart bombs used during the Gulf War were almost all of the laser-guided variety. There is one big problem with laser-guided bombs. The person operating the targeting laser has to be able to see the target. If there is smoke or cloud cover, then they won’t work. 

This problem was solved with the development of satellite-guided munitions. 

Satellite-guided bombs, like the US Joint Direct Attack Munition or JDAM, can be used in any weather conditions. They use the GPS system to find their target. It is a system that is designed to be attached at both the nose and tail to standard dumb bombs. 

With the advances in technology over just the course of 12 years, the number of smart munitions used in the second Iraq war increased from 8% to 67%. 

The weakness of satellite-guided bombs is that they require the correct input of coordinates. This was the problem in 1999 when NATO forces accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrad, Serbia.  

Both laser and satellite-guided bombs are in use today and they serve different purposes. Satellite-guided bombs are preferred in that you can drop it and forget it. However, lasers can be used by infantry to identify a target, even if they don’t know the exact coordinates. They can radio an aircraft that can drop it in the vicinity of where the target is, and let the team on the ground do the rest. 

These bombs have become so accurate that it has led to an oddly surprising new kind of weapon. Bombs with no explosives. 

The R9X is a munition that doesn’t explode. Instead, it has metal blades that stick out the side, which is why it has been dubbed the Ninja Bomb. The bomb is designed for extreme pinpoint that would have no collateral damage.

One was used in June 2020 in an attack on an al-Qaeda leader in Syria. The bomb went through the roof of the vehicle he was in, and didn’t even break the windows on the side. 

With the success of smart bombs, it was only a matter of time before the technology was brought even smaller munitions. There are a host of guided projectiles for all sorts of cannons, from tanks to ships, to artillery.

Of special note is the M982 Excalibur 155 millimeter guided artillery shell. 

These can be launched from any number of cannons and can hit a circle only 4 meters in diameter from a range of 70 kilometers or 43.5 miles.

This is an extremely powerful weapon for counter artillery. If you can get a target on where the enemy is firing at you, you can just fire one of these and take out their cannon. 

The problem is that they are extremely expensive. A normal artillery shell is only a few hundred dollars. The Excalibur currently costs around $68,000 per shell. 

This trend has gone even further and there are rumors of guided bullets. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA supposedly, again this is a rumor, designed a 50-caliber guided bullet that could be used by snipers. It is a laser-guided system with the laser coming from the gun itself. 

Reportedly when it was tested, a novice was able to hit targets as well as an experienced long-distance marksman, even hitting moving targets. 

Today it is estimated there are 57 countries that have precision munitions in their arsenals. That number is increasing all the time as countries modernize and upgrade their armed forces. 

These weapons dramatically reduce collateral damage by hitting exactly the target which is selected. They also help solve the problem of unexploded ordnance which can be left over from wars for decades. 

The downside is that these weapons are still incredibly expensive, but as computing costs come down, the prices of these systems probably will as well. 

Precision munitions now allow a single bomb to achieve what 1,000s of bombs would have been required to do in World War II. It has been one of the biggest areas of military innovation in the last 50 years and probably will see continued innovation in the decades to come.


Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Rollins250 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

Compelling

I’m blown away about how effectively you pare down complex topics to their essentials, and yet make it interesting and compelling. You could probably edit my review to 1/3 the length and more effectively encapsulate my meaning. It feels like I’m listening to a kindred spirit in regards to topics, though I have not been very interested in small island nations until this podcast.

Thanks, Rollins250! I’ve been fascinated with tiny countries ever since I used to read about them in encyclopedias. When I began traveling around the world, I made it a point to visit many of these smaller countries just to see them for myself. That are parts of the world that are often overlooked and forgotten, but I feel that most people should at least be aware of them.

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