How Air Force database is preventing its old bombs from claiming new victims
The work of one amateur historian in the US Air Force is quietly upending the conventional wisdom and history of America’s wars.
It is also helping to map the unexploded bombs of America’s air campaigns across Europe and Southeast Asia, saving hundreds of lives each year, by US military estimates.
It has the weighty warrior acronym of the old Nordic god of thunder: THOR, the Theater History of Operations Report, which is fast becoming a critical tool for Air Force officials.
Lt. Col. Jenns Robertson, a space strategist by training, was working in a staff job in 2005, and his bosses routinely wanted to know how many bombs various US planes had dropped during a particular battle or air campaign.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be a database for this,’ but much to my surprise, there was no database,” Robertson says. “We’re using all of this energy finding targets, but we weren’t keeping track of whether we were hitting them or not.”
Robertson put together a database of the bombs America has dropped since 2001, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and posted it to a classified network that US troops use to plan attacks and chat with one another. “In the process, it got quite popular,” he says.
In the process of putting the database together, Robertson began to turn his attention to America’s air campaigns in previous wars – World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam – to learn what targets US forces bombed, and when.
He began culling through the shelves of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. “There was data that had been sitting on the shelves since 1946 or 1947,” Robertson says.
In the process of putting these databases together, a “hidden history” of America’s wars was emerging. “We were finding the conventional wisdom of what we thought happened didn’t actually happen,” he adds. “We’re starting to see what we think we know of history isn’t the case.”
It turns out that the biggest divergence in data – and from long-held beliefs – has come in his analysis of World War I.
Between 1914 and 1918, military planes made more than 17,000 bombing sorties and dropped almost eight million pounds of bombs. “That’s much more than anyone thought,” Robertson says.
The history books have long held that the German forces didn’t excel at logistics planning, which enabled ground forces to overwhelm them.
But in light of the new history he is compiling, “It looks like aerial bombing gutted the German spring offensive and caused the German lines to collapse,” he says.
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.
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.
The government of Laos had contacted the US State Department, trying to figure out this information in an effort to clean up after the wars, and prevent deaths from unexploded bombs.
“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.”