Desert Storm began with a bull’s-eye: The very first bomb dropped by the allies plowed through the roof of a massive building in downtown Baghdad and exploded inside Saddam Hussein’s main communications center. It was released by a $100 million-plus F-117A whose high-tech Stealth design allowed it to penetrate Iraqi airspace undetected. Yet the bomb itself was a simple, gravity-propelled 2,000 pounder: what enabled it to seek out and hit the right building was a Paveway target-and-glide kit, a low-tech add-on system costing less than the average family sedan.
When the Pentagon passed the pilot’s videotape of the precision hit to the networks, one startled viewer was Weldon Word, 60, of tiny (pop: 1,308) Hawkins, Texas. He and second wife Selma, 58, had spent a hard day fixing up their retirement home. That night, he says, “We turn the TV on—and all of a sudden. I see that picture, and I know exactly what’s going on.” Word should: he ran the team that dreamed up the Paveway back in 1965 and, despite bureaucratic scorn and a shoestring budget, Rube Goldberged it into reality.
A Texas Instruments engineer at the time, Word remembers his boss mentioning that the Air Force bombing in Vietnam had a 1,000-foot margin of error. “I said, ‘Well, how about laser-guided stuff? We never built any, but we’re sure talking the hell out of it.’ ” Word was quickly sent to meet with Pentagon brass. “They took great offense at our “Buck Rogers’ idea.” he reports. “You have bomb-damage assessment photos with 800 craters, and you ain’t hit the target yet, but they say, ‘We don’t have any goddamned bombing problems!’ ” Finally, Air Force Col. Joe Davis agreed to back the project—if it could be done in six months and for less than $ 100,000.
Word, a born problem solver, was unfazed. Raised a Navy brat in so many cities that he managed to skip two grades, the native of Muskogee, Okla.. earned an engineering degree at North Carolina State and served an Army hitch before joining Texas Instruments. Further, his first wife, Lorita, had died of cancer, leaving him to raise their four kids.
Word’s Paveway team realized that their deadline precluded them from starting from scratch. Instead, they decided to develop a seeker-guidance kit that could be screwed onto existing bombs. This meant first developing an airplane-mounted laser to illuminate the target with a spot. Then they had to equip the bomb with a nose-mounted seeker to find and lock onto the laser spot. Finally, they had to devise controllable fins to steer the bomb to the laser-painted target.
“It wasn’t a formal program,” says Word with a smile. “It was bootleg.” His team began by cloning a device invented by a scientist working in Alabama that pulsed out 10 laser beams per second. They based the design of the nose-mounted seeker on a simple, readily available test instrument called a birdy head. The material for the silicon chips inside the seeker, which enabled it to detect laser spots, was available only from a West German plant that, Word says, was “10 miles from the Iron Curtain. And they didn’t make it to order—-you had to buy out of their surplus catalog.” Just before a key test of the seeker system. Word’s men learned that the target was a junked truck so rusty that it wouldn’t reflect a laser beam. Their solution: emptying a local hardware store of aerosol paint cans and spraying the truck a shiny green in the middle of the night. The bomb hit the truck.
Unable to afford wind-tunnel time to test the stability of the glide fins, Word and his team built model bombs the size of barroom darts and dropped them into a swimming pool. In just eight months (“Sometimes we wouldn’t go to bed for two days,” says Word), the team produced a prototype that worked well enough to justify an Air Force order. Of the 25,000 Paveways eventually dropped on Vietnam. 17,000 hit their targets.
Word believes the success of the low-tech Paveways—the U.S. military says 90 percent hit smack-on in the gulf, versus only 25 percent of the “dumb” bombs—holds an important lesson for a military fond of gold-plated systems. “One of our key men, Jack Sickel, always said, ‘Keep it simple, because you’re depending on kids two years out of high school to put this stuff together and make it work.’ ”
The gulf war taught Word another lesson: “When I saw what Paveway was doing over there, I really had some down moments. Early on in the missile business, I came to realize I was working on something designed to kill somebody. That worried me: I went to the hilltop several times to think about it and to pray. But if you can justify war, this one was justified. War is hell.” he concludes, “but if it starts, let’s save lives by getting it over with surgically and quick.”