Weapons of Choice: The Development of Precision Guided Munitions

Weapons of Choice: The Development of Precision Guided Munitions

Weapons of Choice: The Development of Precision Guided Munitions

Weapons of Choice: The Development of Precision Guided Munitions


History and deployment of smart weapons.

In the United States, efforts to develop precision guided munitions began during the First World War and resulted in an ''aerial torpedo'' by the 1920s. While World War II was dominated by large-scale strategic bombing essentially throwing out tons of free-falling munitions in the hope they hit something important both sides in the war worked to develop airborne munitions that could be steered toward a target. However after that war, U.S. national security policy focused on the atomic bomb, hardly a weapon that needed to be directed with accuracy.

The cost of emphasis on atomic weapons was revealed in the general unsuitability of American tactics and weapons deployment systems during the Vietnam War. Lessons learned in that conflict, coupled with rapid technological developments in aerodynamics, lasers, and solid-state electronics, brought air power dramatically closer to the surgical strike now seen as crucial to modern warfare. New technology created attractive choices and options for American policymakers as well as field commanders, and events in the Arab-Israeli wars, the U.S. raid on Libya, and most dramatically in the first Gulf War created an ever-increasing demand for the precision weapons.

The prospect of pinpoint delivery of weapons right to the enemy''s door by speeding aircraft seems to presage war in which the messy and politically risky deployment of ground troops is unnecessary. The potential of such weapons, and their strategic limitations, made the Gulf War and Iraqi War living theater for assessing what such weapons can and cannot do and have important implications for planning for future warfare."


While there is perhaps some inherent value in examining any technology used by a society, clearly some choices will be more instructive than others. At the dawning of the twenty-first century, the real challenge for anyone hoping to better understand technology lies not in finding a suitable subject but in making sense of the exponentially expanding spectrum of technology that has inundated human existence. Studying an individual technological innovation may provide valuable insight, but only if a particular technology from which broader conclusions might be drawn is selected. Even among military technologies there is no shortage of potential subjects. Limiting oneself to the current U.S. arsenal, the scope and variety of high-tech weaponry is still so wide-ranging that isolating a decisive technology seems akin to selecting the largest tree in the forest. Why, then, have precision guided munitions, or PGMs, been singled out as the subject of this historical study? in order to better demonstrate the relevance of this particular class of weapons, the point of a spear provides a much more apt metaphor than the trees of a forest. If the entire armed forces of a nation are thought of as a spear, logically those personnel and weapons that directly inflict damage and determine outcomes equate to the tip, or point of that spear. At first glance this lethal tip might seem to include much, if not all, of a nation's fielded forces.

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