WASHINGTON -- Only about 60 percent of the U.S. laser-guided bombs dropped in Operation Desert Storm have hit their targets, and the other 40 percent have missed by as much as thousands of feet, according to past and present government officials who are familiar with U.S. intelligence reports.
The low scores may help explain why the air campaign against Iraq is proceeding more slowly than many officers had anticipated, those officials say.
Before the war began, Pentagon officials estimated it would take about 10 days to complete the air campaign, according to members of Congress who were briefed. By then, they said, the U.S. bombing would have destroyed Iraq's air force, air-defense sites, command-control systems, Scud missile launchers and its nuclear, chemical and biological-weapons facilities.
However, 12 days into the war, Pentagon spokesmen have reported that while all these targets have been damaged, none except the nuclear weapons factories have been destroyed.
The Desert Storm results are consistent with the most recent tests of laser-guided bombs, known as the Paveway III program. Out of 39 bombs dropped in those tests, only 19 hit their targets, according to a retired Air Force officer familiar with the tests.
There are four types of laser-guided bombs in the U.S. arsenal, with payloads ranging from 500 to 2,000 pounds, but they all work on the same principle. A laser beam is aimed at the target and the bomb homes in on the beam, following it all the way to the target, where it explodes on impact. However, several officials say the beam does not shine through smoke, dust, clouds or rain.
John F. Lehman Jr., the secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, told CNN-TV Saturday that laser-guided bombs "do go ballistic if . . . suddenly a cloud comes between the plane and the target . . . and they'll go wide."
He said yesterday that, as secretary, he had to pay settlement costs "at least once a month" when unarmed laser-guided bombs smacked into resort towns after going "2 or 3 miles off-course" on test ranges in Nevada or California.
Mr. Lehman, who remains enthusiastic about high-tech weapons, said friends in the Pentagon tell him about 60 percent of laser-guided bombs have hit their targets in Iraq, which he said was "consistent with the test performances."
An administration official familiar with preliminary assessments of the gulf war confirmed this finding yesterday.