Air Weapons: Another Hundred Pound Wonder Weapon

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May 29,2008: The U.S. Air Force has a new lightweight bomb, to compete with all the lightweight precision missiles and smart bombs out there. The Scalpel is a hundred pound smart bomb that uses the same laser guidance as existing air force Paveway weapons. The air force recently conducted successful tests of the basic Scalpel design, and wants to get it into action as quickly as possible. There's a lot of competition, and existing air force smart bombs are too often too big.

Sometimes too much of a good thing is bad. Although the air force has had smart (GPS guided) bombs for decades, these came in only two sizes; half ton and one ton. This was too much blast for urban fighting. The need for less firepower in Iraq and Afghanistan compelled the air force, four years ago, to modify its GPS guidance kit to fit on a 500 pound bomb. But that's still 280 pounds of explosives. The troops wanted precision, but with a lot less bang. In response, the air force (actually, the navy) developed a 500 pound bomb, last year, with all but 30 pounds of the explosives removed. Then, two years ago, there appeared a completely new smart bomb design, the 250 pound SDB (small diameter bomb). This weapon has a shape that's more like that of a missile than a bomb (70 inches long, 190 millimeters in diameter), with the guidance system built in. The smaller blast from the SDB is still pretty substantial (51 pounds of explosives). A year ago, a new SDB design, with a Focused Lethality Munition (FLM) warhead, appeared. This reduces the number of metal fragments created when the bomb explodes, and increases the blast effect. This is meant to reduce casualties to nearby civilians, but it's still a bigger bang than the low-explosive 500 pound JDAM. Moreover, the low-explosive JDAM costs about half as much as the SDB. The one advantage of the SDB is that you can carry more of them, as they are much more compact than 500 pound bombs.

The hundred pound Scalpel is a low cost, and lighter weight, version of the SDB concept. Scalpel is 6.25 feet long and 100mm in diameter. The "bang" is about twice that of the hundred pound Hellfire missile. Scalpel can glide for a few kilometers, giving it about half the range of the Hellfire. The laser guidance of Scalpel is accurate to within two meters (six feet) of the aim point. Scalpel will be cheaper than the $60,000 SDB, perhaps by half, but it's main selling point is its small bang and high accuracy.

There is no guarantee that Scalpel will be seen as a breakthrough weapon. The troops have plenty of precision weapons available. There is the 26 pound Javelin, with its nine pound warhead, and the larger (fifty pound) TOW with a 13 pound warhead. These two missiles are expensive, with TOW costing $25,000 each, and Javelin $75,000. But even that can be too much bang for the infantry. That's why the AT4 rocket launcher, and its four pound warhead is so popular. It's not laser guided, and you have to be pretty close to use it. But at the normal ranges its used (a hundred meters or so), it's very accurate, and it's cheap ($2,700). The LAW is similar, smaller (2.2 pound warhead) and cheaper ($2,000).

Helicopters and UAVs use Hellfire missiles, which weigh 100 pounds, and have a 20 pound warhead. A little less than half of a missile warhead is explosives. Hellfire is laser guided, and good for taking out vehicles full of bad guys. Hellfire costs $50,000 each. For about the same price you can use the 44 pound Viper Strike, and its four pound warhead. Even cheaper ($25,000 each), and smaller, are the new, laser guided 70mm rockets. There weigh 25 pounds and have a six pound warhead. The Viper Strike is a laser guided glide bomb that basically comes straight down. The 70mm rocket has a range of about six kilometers.

The army also has 155mm GPS guided 155mm shells (Excalibur). Each hundred pound shell has about 20 pounds of explosives. This makes for a bigger bang than Hellfire or Tow, but much less than smart bombs. There's also a 227mm MLRS GPS rocket. But this carries over 150 pounds of explosives. About half the bang of a 500 pound JDAM. The GPS guided 155mm shell and MLRS rocket each cost over $50,000 each. The big advantage of these GPS artillery munitions is that they are available to the troops 24/7, and the need for fewer rounds per mission means there are fewer problems with running out, or low, on supplies.

Price is not really a factor when it comes to these weapons. The whole point of smart (much more accurate) munitions is to reduce the number of explosions, and to only blow up what needs to be destroyed. The proliferation of rockets, smart bombs and missiles, from those with a pound of explosives (LAW) to 500 pound bombs (with 280 pounds), gives troops a lot of flexibility on the battlefield. This makes American troops much more lethal, and greatly reduces friendly, and civilian, casualties.

The enemy had had a hard time adapting to smart weapons. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the enemy largely gave up trying to fight American troops head on. Ambush, roadside bombs and boobytraps became the preferred methods of attacking U.S. troops. This is a major concession by the enemy, and has been a major factor in the success of American forces since JDAM became available. You cannot win if you cannot eventually confront and defeat the enemy ground troops.

As long as the U.S. maintains air superiority, as it has since 1944, enemy forces will not benefit from the new precision bombs. They will still be able to use precision ground launched missiles and artillery shells, but that will be small consolation when your forces are being pounded by thousands of JDAMs.

 


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