It may be hard to imagine today, but when I was a lad an entire generation of naval aviators had grown up to fill middle and even upper leadership roles in line squadrons without ever having “seen the wolf.” The long peace between Vietnam and Desert Storm meant that nearly 20 years had gone by with little more than the occasional drive by shooting.
My first CO was a Vietnam vet, as was his XO. After that were a long succession of folks who’d never been in actual combat. It was all too possible in that environment to get a “blue bomb” mentality.
A blue bomb is a MK76 (low drag) or a BDU-48 (high drag). These were twenty-five pound practice bombs with phosphorous marker cartridges in their nose. Their ballistic profile was very similar to that of a general purpose bomb like the 500 pound MK82, but they were vastly cheaper to expend in training and there was next to no danger in doing so – the marker charge sent up a lovely little column of smoke but had no “frag envelope” to avoid.
In the days before precision guided ordnance became the norm, hitting small targets like tanks, arty tubes and trucks often meant getting down low and groveling with them. It’s great fun in training, but hard work in combat – being in gun range works both ways. But, it’s hard to hit what you can’t see, so we trained extensively in the low altitude environment.
We always trained to fight in two-ship pairs (at a minimum) for mutual support – it was good to have someone to watch your six for AAA or SAMs when you were on government time in the final attack. To make a low altitude simultaneous attack on a target required that both strikers be off target within 5 seconds of each other, or else the trailing attacker would end up flying through the frag pattern of his leader’s bombs. That could lead to dash 2 taking engine or airframe damage and potentially going for a walk in the proximity of some fairly agitated bad guys. Alternate deconfliction schemes were also devised to put greater than 30 seconds of time (and a multi-axis attack) between detonations using relatively simple spacing patterns.
Practicing these drills at low altitude was great fun, but it wasn’t until you’d tried them carrying live ordnance that the real importance of flawless execution became apparent. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve been in a 15 degree dive on final attack at 1500 feet or so above the ground in a low altitude run and realized suddenly that the timing had gotten gooned and lead’s bombs – heading towards the same target you were approaching at 500 knots – hadn’t gone off yet.
It’s very exciting.
Another example of the benefits of experience and the blue bombing mentality was driven home for me when a new change came out to our weapons computer software in the late 80′s. Someone had spent good government money to enable a “hot gun” capability during ground attack with bombs.
Now, the 20mm cannon on the FA-18 is, when selected as the primary ground attack weapon, an incredibly accurate and lethal weapon. Relatively simple ballistics and short times of flight combined with accurate air-to-ground radar ranging meant that the bullets would go exactly where the aiming dot was placed. The hot gun cross had none of that however – it was necessarily austere, since most of the processing power of the weapons computer in a dive bombing attack was dedicated towards displaying either a release point or an impact point. The hot gun cross was little more than a selectable option on the weapons display and a static cross hair drawn on the HUD.
“This software change is useless,” I told my CO one day in the ready room at sea. “You’ll never hit anything with a static gun cross, and anyway your attention will be focused on the bomb run. Why on earth did we pay good money for this software change?”
The CO, a compact, taciturn man with extensive combat experience on Yankee Station, gave one of the longest speeches I ever heard him make: “You’re not supposed to hit anything with it. You just use it to hose the target area down when you’re on the wire. Fire a long burst and rudder her around a little bit. Gives the bad guys something else to think about besides tracking you in their gunsights.”
“Oh,” I replied. Feeling – not for the last time – simultaneously better educated and a great deal more stupid.