Building Better “Razor Blades”

July 1, 2005

As the Defense Department wraps up its Quadrennial Defense Review deliberations, the state of the art in bomb technology is sure to be a big influence in its decisions. Ever smaller, longer ranged, and more precise than ever, new munitions have already changed the calculus of airpower and may do so again.

At the last QDR, in 2001, one of the few areas of military investment to win ringing endorsement from all the advisory panels were precision weapons. As President George W. Bush put it at a May 2001 Naval Academy speech, the military envisioned by his Administration would be “defined less by size and more by mobility and swiftness, … [relying] more heavily on stealth, precision weaponry, and information technologies.” (See “Bomber Questions,” September 2001, p. 38.)

Then-Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche explained at that time that new investments would emphasize “razor blades”—munitions—over more-expensive “razors”—new aircraft.

Four years later, the faith in these new wonder weapons is being vindicated. Thanks to the highly reliable, extremely accurate, and now ubiquitous Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), each US combat aircraft already can successfully attack multiple targets on a single mission, turning the old calculus of “airplanes per target” on its head.

New, smaller weapons will further increase the number of targets that an aircraft can hit with precision on every mission—sometimes by a factor of four—but also confine the damage done to the desired area. This last capability has become a critical requirement as the US has engaged in large-scale urban combat in Iraq over the past two years.

On the Horizon

Other new weapons now making their way into front-line service will allow US fighters and bombers to shoot from farther away, and with greater accuracy than ever before possible, reducing their exposure and increasing the chances that the crews will get back alive.

However, these systems work so well that, like airpower in general, there is a danger they will be taken for granted and not receive the funding needed to stay at the cutting edge. Some have already been cut back, likely due to misunderstanding of their purpose. There may also be a creeping overconfidence that they can accomplish more than yet is possible.

Inventories of precision weapons—an ever greater portion of the munitions arsenal—are good, according to Maj. Gen. Robert W. Chedister, Air Force program executive officer for weapons and commander of USAF’s Air Armament Center at Eglin AFB, Fla.

“We’re kind of living off our stockpiles, which are pretty beefed up right now,” Chedister said. The armament center is working closely with air logistics centers to make certain that munitions “are staying … available” and at healthy inventories, he said.

The numbers of munitions on hand are classified, but Chedister said that, except for cruise missiles, “we’re doing pretty good in almost all areas.”

The pace of munitions development is averaging “a new weapon about every four or five years,” Chedister noted, although during Gulf Wars I and II, new munitions designed for a specific type of target were rushed through development and production in about 90 days.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom, two of these were the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb, intended to create deadly overpressure in caves where enemies were thought to hide, and the Passive Attack Weapon, a cluster munition that released thousands of darts. The latter was prepared to pierce fermentation tanks and other chemical or biological weapons vessels that could not be destroyed with an explosive, because the blast would have scattered the contents over a wide area. The holes created by PAW darts would let the toxic materials drain into the ground for later cleanup.

Such efforts are not the norm, however. It usually takes about four years to bring a weapon ready to test and a few more to get it into production.

Importantly, the weapons spigot cannot simply be turned on at a moment’s notice. Long lead times affect weapons just as they do more sophisticated systems, like aircraft.

Chedister noted that, as Operation Iraqi Freedom was approaching, he was given about $1 billion to “hurry up and … ramp up the production and buy JDAM tail kits.”

However, the JDAM tail kit is not a whole bomb. The Army procures bomb bodies for the other services, and there weren’t enough on hand. Nor was there adequate supply of explosive fill, then undergoing a change from standard TNT to an explosive that can be handled more easily.

There was also a shortage of crystals needed in the tail kit; these crystals came from a foreign supplier. Fortunately, “Boeing quickly went out and got an onshore source,” Chedister recalled.

Holes in the Pipeline

Eventually, Chedister was able to organize all the elements of bomb assembly, and JDAM production “went from a few hundred to 3,000 in just a few months,” he noted. However, the experience illustrated that substantial coordination is needed to surge bomb production and that the supply is somewhat dependent on the global marketplace.

Asked where there are “holes” in the munitions pipeline, Chedister said more money is needed in the research end.

“We could always use more development money,” he said. “The munitions budget has gone down more, percentage-wise, than any other of the directorates” in the Air Force Research Laboratory, he said.

“So, some of us worry that we’re not working on the new technologies of the future that we need to be.”

On the top of that list is fuzes, Chedister said.

“I’m worried about the fuzes because we’ve taken them for granted and they’ve been so uncomplicated over the years. That’s now starting to become a major complication [given] the sophistication we’re demanding of our fuzes and the price we’re expecting [to pay].”

Already a requirement, he pointed out, is the need for data links between the cockpit and the fuze. In addition, bombs and their fuzes are expected to survive penetrating “some of the hardest granite overburdens” or to “count floors as [they’re] going down.” Some weapons can already count the voids they pass through as they penetrate a bunker, to detonate in the desired space—a spin-off of the desire to reduce collateral damage.

Chedister said that the fuzes on hand are “not smart enough, … not rugged enough, … not durable enough at the price we’ve been paying for them, and we’re not putting enough money into the R&D of making them better.” This is the “biggest hole in the weapons world.”

Although he reported that the munitions stockpile is adequate, the Air Force is “running out” of AGM-86Cs, the Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM), Chedister said. No more of the long-range strike missiles are to be converted from their original, nuclear configuration. The Air Force has seen delays in fielding the replacement, the stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. However, JASSM seems to have cleared some teething problems, is in production, and was expected to be declared operational on B-52s and possibly B-2s this year.

The Air Force plans to acquire about 4,900 JASSMs, of which 2,400 will be the “baseline” weapon, with a range of more than 200 miles, and 2,500 of an “extended range” model that can go more than 500 miles. The JASSM-ER will have exactly the same external dimensions as the baseline version, but will feature more fuel and a different engine. The stealthy JASSMs have made many pinpoint hits on targets in testing, but the program slowed due to mechanical malfunctions.

“Vigorous Involvement” Needed

The program is back on track, according to Gerry L. Freisthler, the center’s director of engineering. After a Red Team examined why some missiles failed in tests, the team determined that both Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, and the Air Force should maintain “vigorous involvement … with some of the second- and third-tier” suppliers, Freisthler said.

The fourth lot of JASSMs was recently awarded; some 700 are now on contract.

“As we start fielding more JASSMs, our cruise missile inventory is going to go ‘green’ again, and we’ll be fine,” Chedister asserted.

The JASSM is a “wooden round,” meaning it can be stored until needed, without periodic teardown inspections or parts replacements. Theoretically, it can stay in storage for 20 years and still work. “All you do is run a bit test and you’re ready to go,” Freisthler said.

When the CALCM was first used in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, its existence and its then-unprecedented guidance system—the use of Global Positioning System satellite signals—were kept secret for more than a year. Now, GPS-aided munitions—in the form of JDAMs, which come in 2,000, 1,000, and, recently, 500-pound varie­ties—equip nearly all combat wings of the service. So successful has it been in combat—not a single JDAM is known to have struck other than the programmed coordinates—that it is the targeteer’s weapon of choice.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF vice chief of staff, was the air boss of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Shortly before the end of major operations, he said that, as impressive as JDAM was, there was a crying need for something smaller, to limit collateral damage, especially in urban areas where a destructive miss would pose an enormous political setback.

“I wish we had the 250- and 500-pound class JDAM now, but we don’t,” Moseley said in a teleconference to the Pentagon pressroom in April 2003. In the incessant effort to limit unintended damage in the urban setting, the Air Force had even used precision bombs filled with concrete, rather than TNT, relying on the sheer kinetic force of the dropping weapon to destroy the target.

The 250-pound class weapon that Moseley wished for is now in production, and it promises to again alter the way the Air Force thinks about its combat air fleet.

That weapon is the Small Diameter Bomb, which is more of a system than a specific munition. The bomb itself has about a 30-pound warhead. It is guided to its target by GPS, backed up by an inertial guidance system. Its exact expected accuracy is classified, but is characterized as “better” than the JDAM’s 10 feet. To accomplish this, it relies on differential GPS, utilizing a series of ground stations that refine the GPS signal.

Tunable Accuracy

The SDB will be so accurate, and its effect so tunable, that it will be able to destroy a particular room in a building, without knocking the whole building down and maybe not even damaging the floors above and below.

The SDB contract went to Boeing in October 2004. However, the subsequent revelations in the Darleen A. Druyun scandal called the legitimacy of the SDB contract into doubt. Druyun, at the time the top civilian acquisition official in the Air Force, chose Boeing to develop the SDB. She later admitted she was throwing work to the company that it might not deserve. (See “Washington Watch: Acquisition Gets a Scrub Down,” January, p. 9.) Druyun is in jail for assisting Boeing in getting Air Force contracts while she was still on the government payroll.

Partly in response to a protest from Lockheed Martin, which lost out on the SDB competition, the Government Accountability Office reviewed the SDB contract, along with others called into question by Druyun’s revelations. It recommended that, since Boeing’s development of the first phase of the program was a fait accompli, the second phase of the program should be competed.

“The Air Force is going to follow the GAO recommendations,” said Freisthler.

“We’ve got a wall up, if you will: total segregation between SDB1 and SDB2,” he explained. The second part of the program—previously known as Spiral 2—calls for a similar-size weapon which will also have a terminal seeker and some device, likely spring-loaded wings, to extend the range of the weapon, giving it greater standoff range, as well as the ability to find and hit moving targets.

The Air Force is still working out an acquisition strategy for the SDB program, which is expected to get a go-ahead in late summer or fall. The advanced SDB program is set to begin in Fiscal 2006.

Despite the tarnish of the Druyun affair, Freisthler praised the SDB project for its speed.

“We set out on the most aggressive weapon development program ever undertaken, as far as I know,” he observed.

“In a matter of three years, we’re going to go from start of development to a fielded weapon system … able to go against fixed or relocatable—not moving—targets.” The program thus far also includes a new “smart rack” that will carry the weapons in groups of four, either on a wing or in a bomb bay, and the differential GPS ground stations. The improved signal from these stations can also be used to improve the accuracy of other weapons, such as JDAM and JASSM.

“This accuracy support infrastructure will be available to anybody” with a military receiver, Freisthler said. “The Air Force bought the rights to this,” so that even if Boeing does not win the second phase of SDB, the selected weapon will be able to use the same infrastructure.

In the meantime, Boeing won production contracts from the Air Force in April that call for 158 SDB units the first year and 512 the second year, with increases thereafter, Freisthler said.

New Niche

He also noted that the SDB does not replace JDAM but fills a new niche in the weapons portfolio. However, the two weapons will be weighed against each other in various scenarios to determine the right inventory objectives.

In the notorious Program Budget Decision 753—which, among other things, slashed planned production of the F/A-22—the Wind-Corrected Munitions Dispenser-Extended Range, was also terminated. The Air Force had planned to build 7,500 WCMD-ERs, Freisthler noted.

The WCMD-ER consists of a clamshell container with a tail kit on the back that corrects the drift of the weapon as it falls through the air. It extends the release range from six miles to about 40 miles, depending on the aircraft’s altitude, by using spring-loaded wings, meaning the launch aircraft can keep farther away from the target and its defenses.

The WCMD carries submunitions. They can be antitank weapons, like the Sensor Fuzed Weapon, or cluster bombs, which have been criticized in Congress and around the world because unexploded units pose a grave risk to civilians after the fighting is over.

The WCMD-ER program “does not build submunitions,” he said. “It’s a tail kit.” There was “confusion” in the budgeting process, Freisthler said, between the generic carrier and the specific weapon.

Regardless of what’s in the munition, the WCMD tail kit enables the weapon to strike targets far more accurately than it could without it, Freisthler said. “We allow a pilot to launch from 40,000 feet instead of down on the deck, … [and] instead of launching eight or 10 of them to take out some convoy, he’ll launch two or three, maybe.”

If cluster bombs must be used, Freisth­ler said, “WCMD makes it so you use less, not more. At the same time, you keep aircrews out of harm’s way. Seems like a good idea.”

The Air Force and the Pentagon concurred with the armament center’s proposal to finish WCMD-ER’s development and produce the first 100 units. That will complete the previously funded Fiscal 2005 program but goes no further.

The Air Force had planned to use the WCMD-ER as a substitute for the stealthy Joint Standoff Weapon, from which USAF withdrew a few years ago. There is no plan to go back to JSOW, however.

The Air Force’s new munitions are so good and require so much less maintenance that the service is divesting itself of interim weapons that don’t work as well or as efficiently, Freisthler said.

Take, for example, the AGM-130 rocket-powered glide bomb. “We’re done with those,” said Freisthler. “We’ve taken them out of the inventory. Now that we have JASSM, we don’t need those.”

The same is true of the AGM-142 Have Nap TV-guided 2,000-pound bomb, adapted in the early 1990s from the Israeli Popeye missile.

Next Big Thing

Freisthler said the “next big thing” in USAF weapons development will be data links. These will allow weapons to be retargeted after they have left the launching aircraft.

Some weapons—like JASSM-ER or WCMD-ER—will fly many miles en route to the target, which might move after launch. A data link will enable the launch aircraft to send new coordinates fed by intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets.

Conversely, “it could be you send [it] a new seeker image. … It could be [that] you get video from it and can do something with that.”

He said an advanced concept technology demonstration (ACTD) is being prepared that would experiment with a universal data link that would work on all weapons, so that there won’t be “a gigantic pile of equipment because every data link is different.”

Given that “all these weapons have long times of flight, it makes a lot of sense,” said Freisthler.

Another improvement will be antijam versions of the GPS antenna on the new weapons. Until now, if the GPS signal was lost, the weapon would revert to inertial navigation and try to regain the GPS signal. The antijam feature will cost a bit more per weapon, “but it’s something the warfighter wants,” Freisthler noted.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper has described his vision of aircraft flying over the battlefield, able to dispense just the right weapon for whatever “effect” troops below call for. The ability for aircraft to carry highly dissimilar loads is another area getting the armament center’s attention.

“We’re getting very close to that,” Freisthler reported. “I know the lab is working on the ability to ‘dial an effect.’?” He also said the B-52 program office “for sure [is] doing work on mixed loads.”

He explained that the Air Force is now working on the Universal Armament Interface, which would allow all USAF aircraft to communicate with any new weapon hung on their racks. It would be analogous to a “plug and play” peripheral to a computer.

Cut the Tape

“Right now, if we want to put a new weapon or a major change to a weapon on an airplane, we have to get in line for the next OFP update, right?” said Freisthler. The Operational Flight Program is a periodic reloading of an aircraft’s computers with new software. The updates can be as much as three years apart. “We are trying to get a standard interface that allows that to be cut to a small number of months,” said Freisthler.

Still another system that Eglin has been working on for a long time is the Low Cost Autonomous Attack System, or LOCAAS. This Lockheed Martin vehicle is an ACTD, meaning it is exploring technology that will either become a weapon or be a pathfinder for other systems that will use the technology it develops.

The LOCAAS, which is only about three feet long, has a motor, employs a laser radar seeker, and has demonstrated that it can loiter over an area and scan for objects—such as tanks, surface-to-air missiles, etc.—that match templates in its database. When it finds one, LOCAAS can either report back to the operator for instructions or attack the target. It has also demonstrated the killing of targets using a shaped copper disk charge.

So far, there is no concept of operations demanding a LOCAAS, Chedister said. However, it is a “showcase” for a concept called the Dominator, a larger weapon that would loiter around the battlefield collecting intelligence and attacking targets. The Dominator—or something like it—solves what Jumper has called the “?‘one time of flight’ problem for fleeting targets,” Chedister noted. This is the notion of being able to hit any target within a few minutes of the order, rather than hours.

“It’s done everything we wanted it to do, and right now, we’re just waiting to spin some of that technology off into something else.”

However, LOCAAS is an example of the fact that the future is looking smaller, Chedister said.

“The rave is unmanned aerial systems,” he said, and USAF has “some initiatives for weaponizing them.” Such devices will need weapons “lighter than the Small Diameter Bomb—much lighter.” The armament center is ready to work on “as small a weapon that anyone needs, for as small of a micro-UAV as anybody wants.” He noted that there are some UAVs that can only carry a few ounces of payload, “and we’ll be glad to go work on a weapon that would only weigh ounces.”

The area of weaponizing UAVs is an “exploding market area, … [and] we’re going to get into it as big and furious and fast as we can,” he asserted.