We are told (old news now that Azovstal has been relieved or evacuated or however the West now spells surrendered) that Russia is so short of smart bombs that it’s hitting Azovstal with dumb bombs.
Well, the short and the simple is this – Russia doesn’t have any dumb bombs – they’ve all been sent to school.
Let me explain.
It’s World War 2, you’re in a bomber flying from a base in England to a target in Germany 500 miles away. You have a sophisticated bomb sight that can “put a bomb in a pickle barrel” but only if it has really accurate inputs. What’s your altitude? That is calculated by a barometer; you set it when you left your base but you’re 500 miles away and the air pressure is different. So the altitude your gauge tells you has a big plus or minus. What’s your speed over the ground? You have a reasonably good take on your airspeed (plus or minus) but that’s not – given winds – what your ground speed is. So that’s another estimate. And where are you anyway? You have a navigator and a lot of maps but it’s really only dead reckoning and there are plenty of ways that that can go wrong; so a huge plus or minus on that input. Later in the war you have Oboe and that makes the plus or minus a lot smaller but still not zero. And the Germans have turned all the lights off and done everything they can think of to make your target look like a forest and a forest look like your target. And where is the target anyway? The bomb sight only works if you can actually see it. So clouds, smoke pots, camouflage add another level to the estimation. In actual use, your bomb sight is 16 times less accurate than you were told it was.
In short, in World War 2, the safest place to be was on the actual aiming point – you could be pretty confident that no bomb would actually hit you but, all around you, lots of random destruction.
And that was the way things were for a long time. Japanese kamikaze planes were a sort of guided missile, the Germans had a few early radar guided missiles, the Soviets were working on prototypes but the Americans got there first.
The famous Thanh Hóa Bridge in Vietnam. A perfect illustration that the safest place to be is on the aiming point. Many, many WW2 style raids with no effect. So the Americans figured out the first smart bomb that really worked. Illuminate the target with a laser; put a doohickey on a dumb bomb that 1) can detect the reflected laser beam and 2) move the falling bomb just enough to keep it in the beam; down it goes and breaks the bridge.
Since then, the Americans have developed three families of smart bombs. The laser-guided ones; the TV camera in the nose missiles, the GPS-guided ones. But – note this, because it’s important – all of them have the doohickey in the bomb itself. Here are the doohickeys on the 1) laser-guided 2) TV guided 3) GPS-guided. The doohickeys detect the signal and have enough movement to keep the bomb on line. But, when they hit, the doohickeys are blown up too. Good for the military-industrial complex, of course, because they have to be replaced and they’re not cheap.
There’s a story – maybe it’s not true but it is illustrative – that the Americans spent huge sums of money developing a ball-point pen that would work in space; the Soviets used a pencil. But the point of this is clear: the US approach is always high-tech; the Russian is KISS.
So, let’s go back to your WW2 bomber. Suppose you knew – to a really high degree of precision – what your altitude was, what your ground speed was, precisely where you were and where the target was. Imagine if you had a set of satellites up there that could tell you all these things. And you also knew a lot of other esoteric things (like the glide characteristics of your bombs) and you had the best possible weather information over your target. All this and every other scrap of information you needed. If you knew all this, and had a computer to work it out, then you could just drop your dumb bomb when the computer told you to and it would passively glide to the target.
And that is what the Russians have done. Explained here with more detail but by now you have the idea. The Russian global positioning system – GLONASS – gives them the necessary data, the computer doohickey in the plane calculates and drops the dumb bomb at exactly the right time. All the data inputs are known to a very high degree of accuracy. The bomb is just as dumb as it ever was but the doohickey on the plane makes it fall at precisely the moment when its dumbness doesn’t matter. For the American solution communication has to be continuous – break the link and Mr Smart Bomb’s IQ drops into single digits. For the Russians, it doesn’t matter – gravity and inertia will get Mr Dumbo to the target – fly in the general direction, push the button, let the computer do the work and forget it.
Therefore, Russia doesn’t have any more dumb bombs because it’s figured out a way to make them all smart; and one thing Russia has learned from the World War 2 experience is that you can’t have too much ammunition – there are lots of bombs.
But, maybe this is too complicated for our generals – computer game, whatever.