FAST HISTORY: The BOLT-117 Laser Guided Bomb

The BOLT-117 (BOLT standing for BOmb Laser Terminal) paved the way for the legendary Paveway series of laser guided bombs (LGBs) that have changed the course of modern warfare as we know it.

The BOLT-117 was born out of the great need during the Vietnam War to be able to accurately hit key logistical targets such as bridges on a single strike. Traditionally, massive strike packages of aircraft had to be risked to attack a single, highly defended, target with standard “dumb” bombs. With this in mind, the promise of relatively inexpensive laser guidance kits for off the shelf bombs was truly a dream for mission planners and aircrews who were tired of sending good men and expensive hardware on death missions with no guarantee that the target would even be destroyed.

The BOLT-117 utilized a standard 750lb bomb with a tail guidance kit and a nose mounted laser seeker. This proved less than ideal as the rear mounted control surfaces has a tough time controlling the bomb’s course. Launched from an F-4 Phantom, the Weapon System Officer used a cumbersome and less than stable hand held target designator to give the laser seeker a point to home in on. The weapon system had a success rate of about 50% in the real world battlefield conditions of SE Asia. None the less, the technology proved very promising and many of the BOLT-117’s difficulties were corrected for in the subsequent Paveway series of LGBs.

The BOLT-117 and its legendary successor, the Paveways, changed the way modern warfare was fought. On the tactical level, attacking aircrews would no longer have to put their lives directly on the line by dive or toss bombing their targets, which had a fairly low probability of success. With LGBs the launching aircraft can standoff from over flying the target directly, thus making the whole exercise more survivable. On a strategic level it allowed for 1 or 2 aircraft to destroy a high value target with a good probability of success, an outcome that use to take tens, or even hundreds of aircraft. In effect, it would allow for air campaigns that would have taken months or years to complete, could now be executed in a matter of weeks or even days. A truly game changing evolution in air power. Further, without the BOLT-117s and its successors, there would have been a much smaller case for tactical stealth technology as seen in the pioneering F-117 Nighthawk, whose stealth shaping was only slightly more important than its advanced laser designation system. In effect, the F-117 and the Paveway class of LGBs were the right weapon systems fused into the right design at the right time. Even some 45 years later, LGBs are a weapon of choice for aircrews around the world who need precision attack capabilities at a reasonable cost.

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