The Air Force isn’t waiting to make its arsenal more efficient — and more deadly

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — “Lessons learned” are a key element to the close of any war, and the preparation for the next.

But airmen and engineers at the Air Armament Center here aren’t waiting for the final report. They’re busy pushing several weapons programs — 24 in all — into production or modification.

That’s not to say that after-action reports from maintainers and operators won’t play a critical role. They will, according to Gen. Lester Lyles, commander of Air Materiel Command.

“We are still prosecuting a war. We have yet to sit down with the operators and get their feedback,” Lyles said at the annual Air Armament Summit in March. The summit is the primary Defense Department-to-industry forum for conventional munitions programs.

Still, some changes couldn’t wait for all the campaign feedback.

Evolution of the JDAM

Stashed in ammo dumps across the globe, the Air Force had thousands of dumb bombs, the 2,000-pound Mk-84 and the 1,000-pound Mk-83. By strapping a GPS guidance system called the Joint Direct Attack Munition kit to the tail of the dumb bombs, the Air Force was able to make the bombs smart — smart enough to come within a few feet of a target. After being tested through the mid-1990s, the JDAM has become the weapon of choice for heavy bombers.

The resounding accuracy of the JDAM has made it a favorite weapon in the war on terrorism. What once took many aircraft, many dumb bombs and many runs can be handled by one B-52 Stratofortress, for example, flying one run over multiple targets.

More than 8,500 tons of munitions have been dropped over Afghanistan, said Air Force Secretary James G. Roche at the summit. JDAMs accounted for half the bombs dropped in Afghanistan, said Gen. Ed Eberhart, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Space Command, in February.

But being a favorite on everyone’s dance card took a toll on the JDAM stockpile.

“It was very clear that the utilization rate that we had in Afghanistan was certainly above what our peacetime stockpile would support, so we’ve had to go back and readjust the production rates,” Edward “Pete” Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, told reporters March 22.

The full-rate production of 87,496 JDAMs began in March 2001, and Air Armament Center officials say the goal now is up to 236,000 JDAMs. An emergency supplemental bill, passed in late 2001, stepped up the monthly production rate of 700 JDAMs to 1,500. That is supposed to start by June. According to the Defense Department’s fiscal 2002 supplemental request, the goal is to eventually have 2,800 JDAMs roll off the production line each month at the Boeing Co. factory in St. Charles, Mo. With additional funding, according to the request, this can happen by August 2003. Without it, that goal won’t be reached until July 2004, the Pentagon says.

Aldridge said the production rate was revised “so the stockpile can handle any contingency for the future that might be anticipated.”

“That’s anybody’s guess as to what that might be and where it might be.”

Iraq passes as many people’s guess these days.

In a Dec. 6 interview with the Military Times newspapers, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned the war might expand to other fronts, though he did not pinpoint Iraq. President Bush and other members of his administration have indicated that the United States could once again confront its Desert Storm foe.

As many as 250,000 troops may be called upon to launch an extensive air and ground campaign in Iraq, according to an article in the April 28 New York Times. A large external force would be needed, according to the story, because internal forces would not be as helpful as they have been to the United States in Afghanistan.

However, this offensive would not take place until next year, the article cited senior officials as saying.

Small bomb, big power

Don’t judge this bomb by its size. At 250 pounds, the Small-Diameter Bomb incorporates new warhead and fuzing technologies along with GPS-inertial guidance to provide the same firepower in a bomb half the size of the 500-pound Mk-82. That’s the plan, although no contractor has been chosen yet.

More SDBs can be carried per payload, and the SDB’s smaller size makes it much easier to store, transport and mount on aircraft.

The SDB creeps into the speeches of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper when he talks about the capabilities of the F-22 Raptor.

“I submit to you that the most work we will get out of the F-22 is to take out those most difficult surface-to-air threats on the ground with precision weapons like the Small-Diameter Bomb,” he said at an aerospace conference last October.

The SDB will have internal wings that give the bomb a stand-off range of more than 50 miles straight ahead and 40 miles on either side, Jumper told another audience last summer.

“You can fly your predicted route and still have great impact on creating a corridor for the follow-on B-2s and other stealth assets,” he said.

The SDB development program has been accelerated.

Development contracts, which were awarded to Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp., were moved from the first quarter of fiscal 2002 to the last quarter of fiscal 2001. The Air Force will choose one of the contractors to manufacture the SDB after a two-year development period.

The Air Force expects to receive the first version of the SDB, which will be used to strike fixed targets, in 2006. It initially will be used on the F-15E. In addition to the F-22, the Air Force envisions SDBs integrating well with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Both the F-22 and the JSF will carry SDBs internally because externally mounted weapons increase the radar signature of the aircraft and reduce their stealthiness.

A key Air Force requirement for the SDB is that it must be able to be released safely from the F-22 at its supercruise speed of Mach 1.7.

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles also are on track to get the SDB, a logical outgrowth of the concept of arming UAVs as successfully demonstrated by the Predator, which was equipped with Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan.

The Phase II version of the SDB, the mobile-target variant, is expected to be ready by 2009. The Air Force plans an initial purchase of 12,000 of each variant and 2,000 carriage systems.

More convenient cruise missile

When the Air Force needs to attack a target from hundreds of miles away, a cruise missile often is the weapon of choice. The problem is that cruise missiles will fit only on large bombers.

The Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile is intended to solve that problem. At 2,250 pounds and 14 feet in length, JASSM is small enough to be flown by an Air Force fighter. The JASSM’s small jet engine and GPS guidance system gives the missile a range of 200 miles to deliver a 1,000-pound warhead. To fine-tune its final approach, JASSM uses an infrared seeker programmed to find a specific kind of target.

JASSM flew its first live warhead test in April 2001, striking a mock air-defense site at the end of an 18-minute flight.

The Air Force also has increased its total buy of the JASSM, a joint Air Force-Navy program, from 2,400 units to 3,700. It now is in low-rate initial production and is expected to be in the Air Force’s hands by next year.

The JASSM is designed to be launched from the F-16, B-1B, B-2 and B-52, and the Navy’s F/A-18. The Air Force plans to extend the range to 500 miles by installing a new engine that allows more room for fuel without making the weapon bigger.

Navy plans call for buying 450 JASSMs.

The rest of the pack

Smart and small are common characteristics among several Air Force weapons under development.

One of the up-and-comers is the LOCAAS, short for Low-Cost Autonomous Attack System, which is part miniature unmanned air vehicle and part smart bomb.

LOCAAS can tell the difference between a friendly and enemy tank or between a travel trailer and a mobile command post, said Ken Edwards, LOCAAS program director at the Air Force Research Lab’s Munitions Directorate.

In terms of “low cost,” the Air Force goal is $33,000.

LOCAAS would be released like a missile and then fly itself, using a turbojet engine to reach a target area. Over the zone, LOCAAS’s laser scanner would search the ground for the type of prey it was instructed to find. Once the target was found, LOCAAS would release a metal warhead that could be shaped as a penetrating rod, a slug or a cloud of shrapnel.

LOCAAS still is in the development phase and isn’t likely to be in wide use until around 2010.

One of the Air Force’s current challenges is to build a bomb that can destroy stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons without spreading the deadly poisons.

The service is looking at several ways a bomb, called an “agent defeat weapon,” could be used against the toxic stockpiles, said Bruce Simpson of Eglin’s Armament Product Group.

A bunker-busting bomb could incinerate toxins stored underground, Simpson said. The same bomb likely wouldn’t be the first choice for destroying chemical weapons stored in an open area where wind could carry away poisons not destroyed in the explosion.

Better accuracy isn’t the only change for bombs.

What if you had a bomb that could be programmed to explode not on impact or above a target, but after it passed through two or three floors of a bunker? That’s idea behind the Hard Target Smart Fuze, said Maj. Glenn Vaughn, the fuze’s program manager at Eglin.

The fuze, about the size of a 16-ounce beer can, measures how many floors it has passed through by counting how often the bomb speeds up through open space and slows down through bunker walls and floors.

Each fuze would cost around $17,500 and be used in large bombs such as the 2,000-pound GBU-27 and in the bunker-busting version of the cruise missile.

The Air Force also is developing a fuse for penetrating bombs that would set off two explosions.

The Air Force has upgraded one of its weapons of choice for air-to-air combat, the AIM-9 Sidewinder, and plans to improve the AMRAAM AIM-120, short for Advance Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, also.

The AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, which Raytheon Missile Systems started delivering to the military in early May, “will revolutionize the way we dogfight,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Art Crain.

With the AIM-9X, a pilot no longer needs to aim the aircraft in the direction of a target to destroy it, Crain said.

Raytheon expects to sell about 15,000 of the missiles over an 18-year production period, AIM-9X program manager Rick Olafson said.

The Navy and Air Force each are expected to purchase about 5,000 missiles, and allied military forces likely will buy another 5,000, he said.

Delivery began May 1 and widespread U.S. military deployment will be in place by mid-2003.

The missile’s high-tech guidance capabilities allow it to make quick, sharp turns and find and hit targets beside or even behind the aircraft launching it, Olafson said.

The AIM-9X seeker mechanism can designate and destroy targets beyond the 10- to 12-mile range that normally is the limit for short-range combat, said Navy Rear Adm.-select David Venlet, the Navy’s air-to-air-missile program manager.

The AIM-9X will cost about $200,000 per unit during initial manufacture, but the price should drop once numbers increase and production speeds up, Venlet said.

If the AIM-9X is for close-in combat, then the AMRAAM is the Air Force’s version of the sniper rifle.

A decade after AMRAAM missiles began flying under fighter wings of fighters, weapons developers are continuing to find ways to make the AMRAAM more lethal.

The latest change will make the AMRAAM more effective at shooting down cruise missiles, said Judy Stockley, the AMRAAM’s program manager.

The improvement is done with a new warhead design.

When the old warhead, actually located a few feet from the front of the missile, exploded, it sent out rectangular shards in a spoke pattern that left room for a small missile to fly through, Stockley said. The redesigned warhead produces a cloud of diamond-shaped shrapnel that closes the gaps.

Combine the new warhead with an upgraded rocket motor, and today’s AMRAAM has improved its lethality by 10 percent.

Also on the way for the AMRAAM is a new radar guidance system with improved electronic countermeasures.

Depending on the size of the order, the AMRAAM costs $300,000 to $350,000. The Air Force has more than 4,000 AMRAAMs in stock.

The future

In another 50 years, today’s bombs and missiles could seem as much a relic as a World War I biplane.

One project is looking at a high-energy laser-beam weapon small enough to fit inside a container the size of an extra fuel tank and be mounted under the wing of a fighter.

Don’t expect to see the laser ray pod on a jet anytime soon. The Air Force still is working out how to fit a lethal laser inside a Boeing 747, the Airborne Laser project.

The Air Force also is looking at bombs that would use anti-matter to set off explosions. For example, a bomb small enough to be held with one hand would have the same explosive force as today’s 2,000-pound bombs. The earliest these anti-matter bombs might be ready is 2025.

“It’s just terribly exciting,” the research lab’s Edwards said about the future weaponry.

Bruce Rolfsen can be reached at (703) 750-8647 or


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