EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Florida, Feb. 16, 2008 — -- Strapped into the back seat of an F-16 fighter jet as it tore through the sky at more than 700 miles an hour, I listened intently to Col. Bill "Thunder" Thornton, who sat up front, his hands on the controls.
"We are three miles from release," his voice crackled in my helmet. Then he asked me how I was holding up.
"Doing good here," I told him, speaking into the microphone in my oxygen mask as my hands reached for something stable to hold on to.
"You should be watching the bottom of his aircraft, and the weapon should be coming off shortly," the colonel advised.
Despite a murmur of nausea, my eyes focused intently on the belly of the F-15E Strike Eagle that was flying just a few feet from our wing tip. A single bomb hung from the jet's belly.
"Thunder One, clear to release," I heard in my headset, recognizing the voice of Maj. Verun "Stinger" Puri, the commander of this mission and the pilot of the F-15E.
"Pickle," he said, using the familiar code word for release, "weapon away." As he said it, the 4-foot-long bomb fell free from the fighter jet, and for a moment it seemed to float in the air. I strained to follow its path as it flipped itself over and released a set of wings before plunging out of sight.
"Weapon is initiating glide," said Puri in that calm pilot drone immortalized in the movie "The Right Stuff."
"It's started to nose over now," added Thornton from the front seat.
Fifteen thousand feet below, in the Command Control Center of Eglin Air Force Base, the eyes of the Bomb Development Team were glued to a series of tracking screens. They were watching a solitary truck sitting somewhere on the base's 900-square-mile firing range. On the roof of the truck sat an orange highway cone: the target.
From my front-row seat in the sky I am witnessing the test of the latest weapon in the arsenal of the U.S. Air Force. They call it the Small Diameter Bomb, or SDB. As its name suggests, it is a very small bomb, carrying less than 40 pounds of explosives. By comparison, the JDAM (short for Joint Direct Attack Munition), the workhorse of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, comes in a variety of sizes, the smallest of which carries 200 pounds of explosives.
Preparation for today's mission began long before sunrise when a single SDB was rolled out and mounted on the F-15. A few early versions of these new small bombs have been in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan since last November, although only about 14 have been dropped. This test flight is to check out a new guidance system for this very new weapon, one that is cheaper and — they hope — better.
As the Air Force now sees it, in today's warfare smaller is better. With these new Small Diameter Bombs, it hopes to accomplish three things at once: get more weapons on each aircraft; fire those weapons from much further away than JDAMs allow; and, critically, with much less explosive inside, aim to strike with surgical precision.
What that last point means is that when the new SDB strikes a target, its blast range is about 50 feet. Compare that to the impact radius of the smallest JDAM: 100 feet … and the 2,000-pound JDAM: 175 feet.
To understand why that matters you simply have look at some of the Air Force's "successful" airstrikes that have had catastrophic consequences. In one Afghanistan bombing earlier this year, two 2,000-pound bombs not only killed their targets, they also killed nine innocent civilians in a neighboring house, including four women and four children. In warfare they call that collateral damage, and it is uncomfortably common. If numbers are a guide, it is also getting worse: In 2007 airstrikes by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan killed nearly 300 civilians, compared to 116 in 2006.
The day before the test flight, I met with Col. Dick Justice, the man in charge of developing Small Diameter Bombs. As he showed me a model of the very small bomb, he candidly told me that the Air Force cannot afford to ignore the consequences of collateral damage.
"Part of warfare is you have to be responsible to the civilian population," said Justice. "We are not at war with a population. We are not at war with the Iraqi people or the people of Afghanistan. We are at war with people who are hiding within their communities. So you have to be very sensitive to the damages that you cause that are not against the intended target."
In short, the U.S. military has learned that the anger incited when bombs kill innocent civilians plays right into the hands of the insurgents who are always eager to welcome new recruits.
"We are looking to minimize those effects that we don't intend," said the colonel.
Even critics of this war say the new SDB is a welcome addition to the Air Force arsenal. One of them is former Pentagon intelligence analyst Marc Garlasco, now senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch.
"It is not the role of Human Rights Watch to advocate for a weapon or to say 'You know, this is a better way to bomb.' But clearly it shows that the Air Force is taking the right steps as far as improving civilian protections," said Garlasco. "They are recognizing that you don't want to kill civilians in conflict, that it's counterproductive for their work and what they need to do. So absolutely it's a step in the right direction."
Back on the ground in the Control Center the bomb suddenly came into view on the giant screens.
"5, 4, 3, 2, 1," said a voice over the room's loudspeaker.
"Impact!" At that very moment cameras recorded a bright flash and a huge boom.
The bomb hit the orange cone right in the center. Even though this was a test bomb with just a fuse and no explosives, the cab of the truck was destroyed.
"Direct hit!" said the voice on the loudspeakers. "Very nice. Beautiful. Rock 'n' roll!"
This is exactly what they mean when they talk about a "smart bomb."
Technology has brought warfare a very long way from those carpet bombs that were dropped randomly from the skies in Vietnam. From 15,000 feet in the sky and 20 miles away, the computer guidance system steered the SDB to within an inch or two of its target.
"The bomb will go where it is told to go," said Justice.
But even with staggering advances in technology, a bomb is only as smart as the intelligence the military feeds it. That means the military has to know precisely where the bad guys are. And in the guerilla warfare of Iraq and Afghanistan, that is still the hardest part.
of Human Rights Watch says that is why the Air Force cannot afford to get too confident about its new technology.
"Well, historically it's been problematic," said Garlasco. "When you look at what's gone on in recent conflicts, we've seen a lot of the high collateral damage when they thought they knew a bad guy was in a place, and either he wasn't, or they knew where he was but they didn't really know where the civilians were."
For all of the investment in technology, Garlasco says the Air Force has to continue to put just as much emphasis on developing better intelligence by working closely with U.S. troops on the ground.
Less than two hours after the jets left, they returned to the airfield at Eglin. Their part of the mission: accomplished without incident. While today's test seemed to go flawlessly, it will take weeks analyze the data.
Meanwhile, the next generation of Small Diameter Bomb is already in early development. The FLM, or Focused Lethality Munition, will take surgical precision to a new level. It will be made of hardened plastics that disintegrate on explosion, eliminating the deadly metal fragments, or shrapnel, that causes so much unintended damage and destruction. Clearly, the Air Force is determined to refine what it believes will be the surgical strike weapon of choice for 21st century warfare.