Near Miss: The Army Air Forces' Guided Bomb Program in World War II

  • Published

Near Miss: The Army Air Forces’ Guided Bomb Program in World War II by Donald J. Hanle. Scarecrow Press (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group), 2007, 368 pp.

Operation Desert Storm’s air campaign began at 2:10 a.m., Baghdad time, 17 January 1991. During the following days, television stations treated millions of people around the world to scenes of precision-guided munitions (PGM) hitting targets with near-pinpoint accuracy in “downtown” Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq and Kuwait. The US Air Force had finally realized its long-sought-after but rarely achieved goal of precision strike. In a real sense, these modern air-to-surface weapons were the “grandchildren” of developmental weapons from various PGM programs initiated by Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the US Army Air Forces (AAF) during World War II. Before the publication of Donald Hanle’s Near Miss—the first in-depth, book-length treatment of these programs—very few people knew about these early attempts to develop PGMs.

Using organizational histories, records in the National Archives and those of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, World War II technical reports, and the personal papers of Arnold and Gen Carl Spaatz, supplemented by numerous secondary works, Hanle has produced a comprehensive history of the AAF’s PGM programs of World War II. A retired US Air Force intelligence officer with a long and deep interest in airpower and World War II, he was a professor at the National Defense Intelligence University, Washington, DC, where he served as director of Terrorism and Asymmetric Warfare Studies and taught courses in intelligence analysis and military capabilities analysis. He also wrote Terrorism: The Newest Face of Warfare (Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1989). In Near Miss, readers will see the author’s intelligence background at work as he extracts data and information from technical reports and other sources, weaving the material into a scholarly yet easily read and understood account of General Arnold’s PGM programs.

By mid-1943, a year after the AAF began bombing German industries, it had become evident to all but the most devoted advocates of high-altitude daylight precision bombing that the actualization of this doctrine did not even come close to the prewar boast that bombers with the Norden bombsight could place a 250-pound bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. The reality of the air war over Germany—overcast skies, smoke from factories, German antiaircraft defenses, and a myriad of other factors—produced an average circular error probable of about half a mile (that is, half of the bombs dropped fell inside a circle a half of a mile in diameter, and the other half fell outside) with many bombs hitting the ground up to five miles from the designated target. By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the strategic bombing of Germany had killed between 350,000 and 700,000 civilians.

Because of this poor performance, General Arnold sought to improve bombing accuracy significantly and reduce collateral damage by developing various types of PGMs. By the end of the war, the AAF had experimented with glide bombs, vertical bombs (VB), jet bombs (JB), and war-weary bombers that used “primitive” radio and television control systems to direct the weapon to its intended target (Operation Aphrodite). Despite the money, effort, and Arnold’s personal influence and effort, these programs had produced very little by the end of the war: the VB-2 Azimuth Only (AZON), used with limited success in Holland and Burma by September 1945; the VB-3 Range and Azimuth Only (RAZON), used with limited but good success in the Korean War; and the JB-2 “Loon,” an American version of the German V-1 “buzz bomb,” a prototype that became the ancestor of the US military’s cruise missile programs.

In his book, Hanle examines every major PGM program that the AAF developed during the war. He first presents the origins of the general PGM program, mainly the fruit of General Arnold’s personal efforts to obtain weapons with significantly greater accuracy than contemporary gravity bombs. Arnold hoped that their expected combat use would speed up the destruction of German industry, limit collateral damage, and reduce aircraft and aircrew losses—goals sought by today’s air leaders. The author discusses the research, development, and combat employment (what the Air Force now calls operational testing) of each weapon system in sufficient detail but without devolving into minutiae. Finally, he offers an extensive discussion of the reasons for the general failure of these early PGM programs. Consequently, readers will acquire a thorough understanding of the origins, development, and problems of Arnold’s programs.

Hanle correctly cites three main reasons for the general failure of the “primitive” PGM efforts. As the reader might suspect, the most significant reason involved the rudimentary state of technology for the radio- and television-control systems. Today’s PGMs utilize satellites, computers, microprocessors, laser beams, digital networks, and circuit boards to achieve pinpoint accuracy—sophisticated technology not available in the 1940s when radios used fragile vacuum tubes and copper wiring. Second, the author discovered significant resistance to the PGM program from operational commanders who generally saw these “Buck Rogers fantasy weapons” lying outside accepted strategic bombing doctrine and wartime operational practice, generally considering them a waste of resources. Finally, he found that the success and momentum of these programs depended, to a significant degree, on Arnold’s personal interest and involvement (especially so, given the resistance from the operational commanders to the PGM programs), which many design developers saw as meddling.

In summary, Near Miss is an outstanding and scholarly, yet highly readable, history of the AAF’s PGM programs of World War II, perhaps the last major subject of this war to remain unexplored from unclassified documents. Until several years ago, I knew only about the JB-2 Loon and Operation Aphrodite. (President John F. Kennedy’s oldest brother Joseph died when his radio-controlled and explosive-filled B-24 prematurely exploded on 22 August 1944.) Then in July 2005, I became an Air Force historian at Eglin AFB, Florida, where the AAF conducted much of the testing for these first-generation PGMs, and learned more about them from the material in the Air Armament Center’s history office. Thus, from a historical, professional, and personal perspective, it was exciting to discover that someone had finally written about this previously almost forgotten aspect of World War II that portended so much, once the technology and the commitment to pursue the development of PGMs became available after the late 1960s.

Dr. Robert B. Kane

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."