How Air Force database is preventing its old bombs from claiming new victims
The US military estimates that an Air Force lieutenant colonel is saving hundreds of lives a year through a new database he is creating of past bombing campaigns. He's also challenging the history books.
(Page 2 of 2)
And while ground forces may have overwhelmed the German troops, it was likely because they didn’t have any supplies as a result of the bombings.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The French alone dropped three million pounds of bombs at a time when each bomb weighed about 112 pounds. That’s far more sorties than had previously been realized, Robertson adds.
Yet that was hard to discern in the aftermath of battle. “Did people recognize what the Air Force had done? Probably not. Seven miles beyond the front lines, nobody sees the planes,” he says. “There were no military forensics back then. Ground troops see craters, think it must be artillery, and move on. Do they give you credit?”
The implications, he adds, go beyond any inter-service rivalry. “What if the French had taken the Air Force they had in 1918 and continued to invest in it?” he wonders. “You probably would have had a very different World War II.”
Robertson found historical comparisons with World War II that could have informed recent US Air Force bombing campaigns as well, and made them more effective.
The US Air Force was desperate, for example, to put an end to the German’s V2 rocket attacks on London during World War II. These missiles were based, to the best of Allied knowledge, in western France.
But though the Air Force spent 15 percent of its bombing runs –that’s 50,000 sorties – trying to find these mobile V2 bases, they never had any great success until they began to attack the rail systems. It turns out the liquid oxygen vital to the V2s was transported by rail, and when the supply dried up, so did the V2s.
This knowledge would have been helpful when America was prosecuting the Gulf War, says Robertson. In 1991, America spent 15 percent of its sorties – the same percentage as in World War II – tracking down Iraqi Scud missile sites “to try to keep them from bombing Israel,” Robertson says. “We didn’t have much luck with that, either.”
Not, that is, until US Air Force bombers began focusing on culverts and roads. Soon afterwards, the Scud missile attacks began to cease. “It turns out both mobile systems had a dependence on the transportation system,” Robertson adds.
In the months to come, he and others hope to get all of the bombing records from World War I to Vietnam into a database that’s accessible to the public. “There are all sorts of folks who do research on this – all sorts of experts and also just smart people with good ideas,” he says. “Why not put the data in their hands?”
In the meantime, the process of digitizing much of the data – in the past nine months, Robertson and his team have digitized 10,000 pages of bombing data – has already begun to have life-saving impacts.
When Robertson began culling through the 1.8-plus million records on Vietnam, for example, he began mapping where the bombs were dropped.
“Apparently they didn’t have access to the data, or didn’t know where to find it in the past,” Robertson says.
In 2012, he learned that the information he and his team had provided to Laos – which they had culled from Vietnam data – “was instrumental in helping to inform the unexploded ordnance guys in mapping out areas that weren’t safe.”
That in turn helped “cut the death rate from 300 a year to 97 per year,” from unexploded bombs, Robertson says – a total of some 525 people.
“That,” he adds, “was a pretty awesome feeling.”
IN PICTURES: US military muscle