When a Bomb's a Bomb

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Iraqis gather at the site of a bomb crater resulting from recent U.S. raids

This has been a decidedly embarrassing week for the U.S. military. On Wednesday, sandwiched between press conferences about the February 9 submarine disaster off Hawaii, the Pentagon took a look back at last week's bombing of Iraq, and quietly dislosed that one of its bombs hadn't done as well as initially advertised. Of the "20 to 22" Iraqi radar sites targeted by its much ballyhooed J-SOW bombs, only half were damaged at all, and most were left unscathed.

The $150,000 Joint Stand Off Weapon, which is guided by a high-tech global positioning system (GPS) can be launched as far away as 120 miles from its target, and in ideal conditions detonates within a few yards of its "aim point." That was obviously not the case during last week's bombings, and the Navy is currently investigating the data input and tracking systems on the weapons, in hopes of pinpointing the problem.

Worried that your tax dollars are being ill-used? Well, the good news is that other weapons used in the raids appear to have behaved better than the J-SOWs. And if you're wondering why there's a disjunction between the immediate post-bombing announcements of a super-successful mission and the current mea culpa, then you haven't been pounding the Pentagon corridors long enough. TIME's Mark Thompson, however, has, and herewith offers his take.

TIME.com: What's the history of these J-SOW bombs?

Thompson They're new weapons, but we've used them before, in the Balkans. When we look at this story, we need to keep in mind that these things were launched from 40 miles away and landed tens of yards from their targets. And considering that 10 years ago we couldn't get anywhere near the target, this is actually a pretty good performance.

These stories are predictable as mushrooms after rain because the Pentagon always exaggerates at the front end, and so of course the reality never meets expectations.

We used a couple of different types of bombs last week?

Thompson: We used four types of weapons; the other three had more extensive track records than the J-SOW, and at least two of them are very accurate.

So this high-profile J-SOW debacle doesn't make the Pentagon particularly nervous?

Thompson:No — people I've talked to suggest that while this wasn't a perfect performance, it was good enough to do what we wanted to do. With this kind of bomb, which the Pentagon calls a "near-precision" weapon, you want to protect pilots, so you need to fire from long ways off, and the challenge is to develop weapons that can be fired from a long distance with great precision.

Plainly, the J-SOW should have done a better job — I don't think the range they hit last week falls under the "near-precision" umbrella.