Smart Plane, Dumb Bombs, Bad Maps?: Part Two

Back to Part One

Designed around bleeding-edge 1960s avionics  the F-111 was built to would take the guesswork out of high speed, low-level navigation. Its avionics included an inertial navigation system (INS), terrain-following and attack radars, and a navigation computer that used these inputs to determine the airplane’s current location. Since an INS tends to drift over time, due to small errors in the measurements made by its gyros and accelerometers, the F-111’s navigator provided updates by taking a radar fix on a nearby landmark, usually known as an offset aimpoint, or OAP. Though they might be taken for granted by an observer, the entire process was dependent on good maps and geodetic information. F-111 pilot Richard Crandall’s description of Operation EL DORADO CANYON, the 1986 air attacks on Libya, explains what could go wrong when the F-111 flew with bad information.

Three groups of F-111Fs were involved in the operation, two equipped with laser-guided bombs (LGBs) and a third – attacking Tripoli airport – with “dumb” bombs that would be slowed by ballutes to allow for low-level delivery. All carried the PAVE TACK laser-designating pod, which also included an infra-red camera.

An F-111F aircraft releases Mark 82 bombs equipped with ballutes over a training range in 1986. Air Force photo via Wikimedia Commons

An F-111F aircraft releases Mark 82 bombs equipped with ballutes over a training range in 1986. Air Force photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Crandall focuses on the attack on Tripoli airport, where five aircraft carrying seventy-two bombs reached Tripoli airport but only one succesfully hit the Libyan aircraft parked on the tarmac. Why? According to Crandall, the attacking planes had been provided with the distance between a very visible radar target at the airport and where their bombs were supposed to land (“the radar offset”), and that information was wrong.

The aircrew that hit the airport, hats off to them! I knew the WSO extremely well, a good friend and fellow instructor for several years. In watching his tape, he nailed the radar offset for the airport. The radar was not good at burning out flat concrete but did much better on targets with more radar reflectivity. He went to narrow sector expand mode on the offset and then switched back to the Pave Tack infrared video, and nothing appeared. He went back and checked the offset again, and still dead on. The he switched back to the Pave Tack. Every other aircraft let the bombs fly using the radar offset. Their bombs hit the airfield between the taxiway and the runway. The coordinates on the offset were evidently bad. My friend went from narrow sector to wide sector in the Pave Tack and in the right side edge of the field of view he caught sight of the IL-76s. You hear him shout “come right come right” to the Pilot who is seeing nothing except tons of anti-aircraft artillery exploding and his TFR screen. The pilot made a hard turn. As he rolls out, his WSO has fired the lasers and the bombs immediately flew off. You see in the video the Pave Tack’s video rotate to upside down due to the mechanics of the pod rotating to see the target behind the aircraft. The WSOs had to learn how to track upside down when guiding LGBs. You then see a huge explosion rip through the airplanes. That was incredible teamwork in the cockpit. Good on the WSO to switch to wide field of view—it went from a really narrow straw to a slightly fatter straw to look through, but got him onto the target.

All the aircraft attacking the Tripoli area seem to have had trouble with navigational updates, not just those at the airport. The final update by radar OAP before crossing the Libyan coastline was the island of Lampedusa, and the aircrew were given coordinates for their OAP that were off by several hundred feet. James A. Jimenez, who flew one of the F-111s attacking Bab al-Aziziyah, wrote his recollections of the mission for the December 2008 issue of Air and Space Magzine. He remembers the last radar update point as being a tower at the western tip of Lampedusa.

Our navigation system had been running sweet, but when Mike [his WSO] selected the tower, the cursors fell about one mile to the west. An error during the planning process had resulted in incorrect coordinates being issued to all crews. Mike recognized the error and did not use the coordinates to update our navigation system. His decision was probably the single greatest factor enabling us to hit our target: those who updated their nav systems based on the bad coordinates missed.

Among those who ran into trouble was one F-111 targeting the Bab al-Aziziyah barracks whose error at Lampedusa was compounded upon reaching Tripoli and which ended up a mile and half off target. Its bombs ended up hitting and damaging the French embassy.

I’m still not entirely clear on where the offset coordinates for EL DORADO CANYON came from. According to an official US Air Force history, during the F-111s first combat deployments to Vietnam the offset aiming points came from a photo-positioning database called SENTINEL DATE at the Defense Mapping Agency Aerospace Center in St. Louis, or an equivalent database called SENTINEL LOCK that was deployed to Takhli and Nakhon Phanom air force bases in Thailand. SENTINEL DATE/LOCK “provide[d] a menthod for precisely determing the latitude, longitude, and elevation of navigational fix-points, offset aim points, and targets.”

However, a student paper for Air Command and Staff College by Major James M. Giesken explains that the update points for EL DORADO CANYON were geolocated by the F-111 fighter wing staff using the Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System (APPS), an analog system for determing the location of an object on photo imagery. APPS’s output used the WGS 84 standard datum, while the target coordinates were expressed in the European Datum used by American units in Europe, and this was the source of the location error. (There’s no source for that information in the paper, but Giesken was an instructor at the Defense Mapping School from 1986 to 1988, then aide to the director of the Defense Mapping Agency for fourteen months and executive officer for the director for another seventeen. Hopefully he had a good source for the information.)

The Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System. From Army Research & Development, May-June 1976, p.24

An early version of the Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System. From Army Research & Development, May-June 1976, p.24

What happened during Operation EL DORADO CANYON demonstrated the obstacles to accuracy that could not be erased by the use of advanced technology, whether in a bomb or an airplane. Regardless of the precision in the weapon, an attack was only as accurate as the underlying information – and problems with that information could end up embedded in the relationships between the very systems that were supposed to provide a more precise attack than ever before.


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