October 19, 2015:
Many observers were surprised when Russia moved several dozen warplanes to Syria in August and began bombing Syrian rebels with lots of unguided bombs. Since the 1990s the United States has increasingly used smart (laser or GPS) guided bombs and now over 99 percent of American air strikes use such weapons. Other Western nations also adopted smart bombs. Russia is known to have had such weapons since the 1970s, many of them based on American smart bombs (or fragments) captured in Vietnam. The problem was that Russia never built or used a lot of these weapons. For a long time Russia considered these special weapons for rare special occasions.
It wasn’t until the 1991 Gulf war that the full impact of these weapons was noted. There only 16 percent of the 250,000 bombs dropped were guided. But analysis of the battlefield later revealed that the guided bombs had done 75 percent of the actual damage. This pattern kept repeating itself and by the late 1990s the U.S. was on its way to using nothing but smart bombs. Not so Russia. While new smart bombs were developed in Russia very few were built. Moreover few Russian warplanes were equipped to use smart bombs and few pilots had any experience with these weapons. So it should be no surprise that Russia is using few smart bombs in Syria. The simple fact is that Russia has few of these weapons and even fewer aircraft and pilots able to handle them.
Meanwhile China is building a lot more smart bombs and equipping more (than Russia) of its aircraft to use them. Since the 1990s China could afford to do so while Russia could not. Meanwhile China is still learning from Russia. In 2010 China introduced a new laser guided bomb; the LT-2. This weapon looked very similar to the Russian KAB-500L 1100 pound laser guided bomb. The KAB-500L in turn is very similar to the American Paveway series of laser guided bombs. That is, a dumb bomb has a guidance kit attached. In 1994 China introduced a laser guided bomb that appeared to be reverse engineered U.S. Paveway. These apparently did not perform very well, so China apparently used Russian smart bombs as a model.
Laser guided bombs have been around since the late 1960s, when the U.S. developed the first weapons of this type. American bombers used laser guided bombs successfully in the final years of the Vietnam War. The technology required was not particularly difficult, although there are a lot of little things you needed, from trial and error, to make the weapons reliable. Until GPS guided bombs appeared in the early 1990s the major problem with smart bombs was cost (over $100,000 each). GPS guided bombs cut costs by over 70 percent and after the 1990s smaller, cheaper and more reliable electronics brought down the cost of laser guided bombs as well.