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USAF Target Designators and Precision Guided Munitions

Target DesignatorsU.S. Air Force target designators are both wide-ranging and diverse in scope and content. Their history can be traced back to visual observations of targets, to the use of markers such as a smoke, weapon sites or panels, later moving into radio, lasers, infrared, radar and/or GPS to direct precision guided munitions (PGMs) against enemy targets. Also called "smart bombs," PGMs use guidance systems to direct a weapon to a ground target. Most PGMs in World War II and Korea were directed by human control. During the Southeast Asia War, PGM technology took a great leap forward with the advent of the Laser Guided Bomb (LGB), which was significantly more accurate. Target designators and PGMs have played a vital role in expanding the flexibility, efficiency and accuracy of weapons delivery and target destruction while also helping to minimize collateral damage.

Note: This online exhibit is continually being developed and more content will be added as we move forward. Please revisit this page often for updates.

World War II

World War II saw the advent of precision guided munitions. Nazi Germany became the first country to use them, sinking the Italian battleship Roma in 1943 with a Fritz X PGM. The U.S. experimented with many different types of PGMs, most of which did not see combat. One notable exception was the VB-1 Azon, which was successfully used in Europe and the China-Burma-India Theaters, primarily against bridges.

VB-1 Azon Guided Bomb
VB-6 Felix Guided Bomb
VB-9 Guided Bomb
VB-10 Guided Bomb
German "Fritz X" Guided Bomb

Korean War

The Air Force used two guided bombs in Korea, the VB-3 Razon and VB-13 Tarzon, primarily against bridges. After these weapons were dropped from the aircraft, the bombardier visually guided the bomb to the target by radio control. The Razon and Tarzon bombs' flight control surfaces allowed them to be controlled in two axes (range, or up and down, and azimuth, left or right). They also carried a flare to assist visual tracking after release. Although the USAF had mixed results in Korea with the Razon and Tarzon, they foreshadowed the later widespread use of precision-guided weapons.

VB-3 Razon Bomb
VB-13 Tarzon Bomb

Southeast Asia War

Despite early developmental problems, PGMs revolutionized the air war in Southeast Asia. Early in the war, the USAF used radio-guided AGM-12 Bullpup missiles, however with just a 250-pound warhead, they proved too lightweight to cause significant damage. The USAF also employed television guided GBU-8 and AGM-62 Walleye bombs, but these PGMs had trouble distinguishing the target, were too expensive or still too small for hardened targets like large bridges.

In 1968, the USAF tested the world's first laser-guided bomb (LGB) -- the BOLT-117 -- in combat. The BOLT-117 marked a major leap in PGM technology. A hand-held or pod-mounted laser designator illuminated a target with a laser beam and a seeker head in the bomb guided it to where the laser pointed. The success of the BOLT-117 led to the more powerful GBU-10 Paveway I, a conventional 2,000-pound MK 84 bomb with a laser guidance kit attached.

Almost half of all LGBs dropped in Southeast Asia directly hit their target and most others hit within 25 feet. By the war's end, laser guidance kits turned standard bombs into "smart bombs," making them 100 times more effective than free-fall, unguided bombs.

The USAF also successfully used guided AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-78 Standard Anti-radiation missiles against Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) sites.

Martin AGM-12B Bullpup A
Martin Marietta AGM-12C Bullpup B
Rockwell International GBU-8 Electro-Optical Guided Bomb
Martin Marietta AGM-62 Walleye I
Texas Instruments BOLT-117 Laser Guided Bomb
AGM-45 Shrike Anti-Radar Missile
AGM-78 Standard Anti-radiation Missile

1970s to Desert Storm

The USAF continued to develop even more effective PGMs in the 1970s and 1980s. The USAF also introduced more advanced targeting designation systems like the Pave Tack and LANTIRN. These new PGMs and systems produced unprecedented effects during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. For the first time, the general public saw the spectacular results of these weapons, leading to the widespread use of the term "smart weapons."

AN/AVQ-23 Pave Spike
GBU-15 Modular Guided Weapon System
AGM-65 Maverick
Ford Aerospace AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack
GBU-24 Paveway III
Martin Marietta LANTIRN Navigation and Targeting System

1990s to Today

Building on the success of laser guided bombs, the USAF developed targeting designators that used additional means -- such as GPS -- to guide PGMs to their targets. These targeting designators can be found in aircraft sensor turrets, pods and even in hand-held ground systems.

Moreover, the increased accuracy of PGMs have led to smaller -- but just as effective -- weapons, which allow aircraft to carry more bombs and strike more targets than in the past. Some of these bombs employ pop-out wings that allow them to "fly" long distances, allowing the bombing aircraft to stay outside the range of enemy air defenses.

AN/ASQ-213A HARM Targeting System
GBU-31/32 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM)


The Early Wild Weasel Days: The Air Force's First Anti-SAM Efforts
Col. (Ret.) Mike Gilroy
Col. Gilroy talks about the challenges and opportunities facing the Wild Weasels and Strike crews at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in the mid-1960s.
Gilroy Transcript

Note: These materials are directed to an adult audience and may contain visual material or language which may be considered inappropriate for young viewers. The museum strongly suggests videotapes be previewed prior to student viewing in the classroom. Additionally, the expressed comments and opinions presented by guest speakers are solely those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of the museum or the U.S. Air Force.

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