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What's New With Smart Weapons

In 1944, it took 108 B-17s dropping 648 bombs to destroy a point target. In Vietnam, similar targets required 176 bombs. Now, a few precision guided munitions (PGM) can do the job. Precision munitions also enhance strategic agility. For example, just over three C-5 sorties per day could have supplied every PGM used by the Air Force during the Gulf War. But the types of weapons in the US inventory remained largely unchanged since the end of the Vietnam War. During the 1980s a variety of "transitional" weapons were acquired in small numbers, carried on a limited number of platforms. Desert Storm demonstrated the current weapons’ effectiveness, and revealed their shortcomings.

Since Desert Storm, the Air Force has: Although a number of these new-generation precision munitions are entering production, as of late 1998 only relativey trivial numbers are actually available for combat. While tens of thousands of these weapons are slated for delivery over the coming decade, no more than a few dozen are currently combat ready.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the Air Force and Navy began development of "next generation" weapons to fulfill the shortcomings of the earlier weapons. All of these are now in development, or in the initial stages of production.

These new weapons are all autonomously guided and have adverse weather capability. These weapons are being integrated into virtually every American combat aircraft.

Laser Guided Bombs

Laser guided bombs [LGBs] remain the most numerous precision guided munition, with roughly 25,000 in the current inventory. During Desert Storm, the F-111F and the F-117 accounted for the majority of the guided bomb tonnage delivered against strategic targets. The Navy's A-6E, which is no longer in service, and other aircraft, were used to deliver LGBs was used only sparingly. Demonstrated accuracies are estimated at between three and eight meters. Subsequent improvements include: Although laser-guided bombs have demonstrated the ability to destroy point targets with only a few rounds per aim point, their employment faces several constraints. The primary limitation on their use is the requirement for a clear line of sight between the bomb's laser seeker and the laser spot-beam designating the target, which is not possible under adverse weather conditions [rain, clouds, dust, etc]. Additionally, laser designators are deployed on only a limited number of aircraft, and the number of platforms that can deliver LGBs is much larger than the number that have independent target designation capabilities.

Global Positioning System Munitions

The impending massive expansion of precision munition inventories is largely a product of the introduction of relatively inexpensive and highly accurate guidance systems incorporating receivers for the Navstar Global Positioning System [GPS]. These new munitions will provide accuracies comparable to LGBs, while overcoming adverse weather limitations, and eliminating the need for laser target designation systems.

These GPS munitions will also facilitate accurate delivery of area munitions from the higher altitudes that are characteristic of post-Cold War air operations. Low level employment is one of the most demanding tasks facing fighter/attack crews, but during the Cold War these tactics were dictated by the nature of the Warsaw Pact air defense threat. The major disadvantage of a low level delivery is the requirement to fly over the target and its associated air defense weapons. During the Gulf War air campaign initial aircraft losses early in the air campaign resulted from low-altitude munition deliveries. Subsequently the majority of bombs were released from aircraft flying above 12,000 to 15,000 feet. Higher altitudes provided a relative sanctuary from most air defenses but resulted in a major compromise in terms of bomb accuracy and, ultimately, effectiveness. Although quite inexpensive and less restricted by low visibility, unguided munitions cannot reliably be employed against point targets from medium and high altitudes. The addition of JDAM and WCMD will solve these problems.

But pending the arrival of these new munitions, American air operations in Kosovo during early 1999 largely depended on the same precision munitions used [or available for use] in Desert Storm in 1991, or Deliberate Force in 1995. These were supplemented, though not yet replaced, by the small numbers of more sophisticated "transitional" weapons that entered the inventory in the early 1990s, as well as very limited numbers of the newer "next generation" weapons now transitioning to operational units.

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Maintained by Robert Sherman
Originally created by John Pike
Updated Saturday, March 04, 2000 6:27:51 PM