Smith was born in Mobile, Alabama, on August 20, 1939, and graduated from the Naval Academy with the Class of 1962 and received his wings in January 1964.
As a naval aviator, Smith flew carrier-based, A-7 Corsair II light attack jet aircraft during multiple deployments to the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. These included three cruises in waters off North Vietnam where he flew over 280 combat missions, primarily in the A-7 Corsair II. Smith has held command at sea in the aviation community at squadron and wing levels as well as major commands that included a deep draft vessel, the USS Kalamazoo (AOR-6), before taking command of the aircraft carrier USS America (CV 66) and subsequent command of Carrier Group 6 in 1986 as a flag officer. He has logged over 4,200 flying hours and accumulated over 1000 carrier arrested landings.
His early flag officer tours were Director for Operations, U. S. European Command, (1989–1991) and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Plans, Policy and Operations, (1991–1994). Appointed to four-star rank in April 1994, he became Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and concurrent NATO Commander in Chief Allied Forces Southern Europe (1994–1996). In December 1995, he assumed, concurrently, command of the NATO-led Implementation Force, (IFOR) in Bosnia, a position he held until August 1996.
His IFOR command in Bosnia was criticized by Richard Holbrooke for his refusal to use his authority to also perform nonmilitary implementation tasks, including arresting indicted war criminals:
Based on Shalikashvili's statement at White House meetings, Christopher and I had assumed that the IFOR commander would use his authority to do substantially more than he was obligated to do. The meeting with Smith shattered that hope. Smith and his British deputy, General Michael Walker, made clear that they intended to take a minimalist approach to all aspects of implementation other than force protection. Smith signaled this in his first extensive public statement to the Bosnian people, during a live call-in program on Pale Television — an odd choice for his first local media appearance. During the program, he answered a question in a manner that dangerously narrowed his own authority. He later told Newsweek about it with a curious pride:
One of the questions I was asked was, "Admiral, is it true that IFOR is going to arrest Serbs in the Serb suburbs of Sarajevo?" I said, "Absolutely not, I don't have the authority to arrest anybody."
This was an inaccurate way to describe IFOR's mandate. It was true IFOR was not supposed to make routine arrests of ordinary citizens. But IFOR had the authority to arrest indicted war criminals, and could also detain anyone who posed a threat to its forces. Knowing what the question meant, Smith had sent an unfortunate signal of reassurance to Karadžić – over his own network.
Smith retired from the United States Navy on 1 October 1996. He is currently serving as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, is President of Leighton Smith Associates and Vice President of Global Perspectives, Inc., both international consulting firms. He is Chairman of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, immediate past Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the U. S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association of Naval Aviation. He is also on the National Advisory Council to the Navy League and is a member of the Board of Directors of several corporations.
Smith was a supporter of Presidential candidate John McCain during the 2008 United States Presidential Election. Smith spoke out in defense of McCain after critical comments from General Wesley Clark regarding McCain's military experience. Prior to his retirement, Smith had previously served alongside General Clark for several years during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Smith is one of the senior signatories of the March 31, 2009 letter urging the president to maintain the policy excluding homosexuals from the armed forces. Defense Distinguished Service Medal (2 awards)
Navy Distinguished Service Medal
Legion of Merit (3 awards)
Distinguished Flying Cross (2 awards)
Meritorious Service Medal (2 awards)
Air Medal (29 awards; 4 individual and 25 strike/flight)
Navy Commendation Medal (3 awards with Combat V)
Navy Achievement Medal (with Combat V)
Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary
French Order of National Merit with the rank of Grand Officer
Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (invested personally by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom)
Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Gold Star