Most people's image of the Gulf War is an F-117 putting a smart-bomb through the air vent of a bunker. Clean, surgical, precise. Pentagon spokespersons and cable news networks ate this kind of thing up.
While that got all the headlines, what most people don't realize is that 40% of the bombs dropped in the Gulf War came off B-52s. In fact, fully half the bombs dropped by US forces were delivered by B-52s.
Now don't get me wrong. "Surgical" bombing is an amazing thing, but a scalpel isn't always the best tool for the job. Sometimes you need a great big sledgehammer.
That's where we came in.
So what does a B-52 bring to the table? 50,000 pounds of whatever you want to hang underneath it. We could carry 27 bombs internally and another 24 under the wings. 51 total.
Let's compare that to a typical fighter plane like an F-16. Wikipedia will tell you that an F-16 can carry 17,000 pounds of bombs. Yes he can, roughly to the edge of the airfield he took off from. By the time he loads up with drop tanks, jamming pods, air-to-air missiles and such he's probably going to carry two (count 'em) 2000-pound MK84s or maybe six 500-pound MK82s. He can deliver them very accurately, but that's all he's got.
We couldn't hit with the same kind of accuracy that an F-16 can. Even with dumb bombs his bombing computer can pretty much "shack" the target every time. For us 100 feet was considered a really good low-level bomb and 200 feet was a really good high-altitude bomb. Anything closer than that would be pure luck.
We also didn't normally put one bomb on one target. Today a B-52 orbiting over Afghanistan can put a single smart-bomb on coordinates called in by a Special Forces type, but we were still old-school in 1991. We'd just fly over World War II style and drop the whole bunch. By the time they all came off the plane there would be a "string" of bombs about a half mile long.
Brute Force - That about sums it up
Bombing people is a grisly business and I don't take it lightly. Have I lost sleep worrying that I may have bombed civilians? Damn right I have. I don't know if I did. I was 40,000 feet up and 6 miles downrange by the time the bombs even hit. It's one of those things I sometimes think about when I find myself lying awake at 3:00 AM.
That being said, the people we mostly went after were Saddam's Republican Guards. You would be hard pressed to find a bigger bunch of poison-gassing, murdering, raping and torturing bastards. I've never lost a minute of sleep over them. Sometimes we use the term "bad guys" generically to mean "the other side" but these really were bad guys.
So how are we going to take these guys out? We're going to put a 3-ship of B-52s on their position. Two of them will be carrying 750-lb MK117s. This is an old-fashioned iron bomb that dates back to the Korean War. We still had large stockpiles of them on Guam left over from Vietnam.
All that's going to go on one target. We're going to take a square mile of the planet and turn it into a waffle. Probably nothing in that square mile will live. Anyone that does will not be in much of a mood for murdering, raping, torturing or poison-gassing anybody for a while.
So how are we going to aim at a bunch of guys sitting in the desert? Most of our bombing techniques were developed by the British during WWII. We primarily aim by radar. If they have tanks or trucks, those will show up nicely. If the target doesn't show up on radar, we aim at something that does (called an offset) and the bombing computer will triangulate to hit the actual target. If it's not cloudy the Navigators can also point the FLIR and STV cameras downwards to eyeball the target.
As long as I have the course indicator centered up at bomb release everything should go where the Navs are aiming.
I always kept my speed up on the bomb run. It wouldn't get me through the target area noticeably quicker, but I wanted "energy" in case I had to maneuver. The fighter guys say "speed is life" and that works for us too.
The Iraqi Air Force is pretty much gone by this point but they still have things that can shoot us. There were still SAM engagements even on the very last day of the war. We're not picking up any missile radars but they still have guns. Lots of them.
At 40000 feet the vast majority of their guns can't reach us. They do have some 85mm and 100mm stuff that can get up here. Fortunately those are slow firing artillery pieces and not very accurate. Their odds of hitting anything are pretty low. At night the shells look like roman candles. In the day they look like every WWII movie you've ever seen.
Old school but it can still hurt you.
Almost there. Push the throttles up. The extra 10 knots will help if I need to dodge a SAM. Make sure the course deviation indicator is centered. Steady.....
The bombs ripple off the plane 3 at a time. It takes several seconds for them all to release. I'm watching bombs coming off the plane ahead of us.
The plane is suddenly 50,000 pounds lighter and it feels like it. As we make our turn off target I look back towards the target area. At our altitude it was rare to see anything but occasionally we'd get a glimpse of secondary explosions from the target.
Mostly I never saw them and they never saw us. It's a very impersonal way of waging war.
Sometimes at 3:00 AM I have to remind myself that a bunch of Army guys are probably still alive because of this and I sleep a little better.