Air Weapons: How Many JDAM Is Enough

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September 24, 2008:  The U.S. has produced 200,000 JDAM (GPS guided smart bombs) so far, with another 11,670 on order. So far, nearly 24,000 have been dropped in combat, and nearly as many for training. There are five models of these kits (which are usually just added to an unguided bomb), including a new one that adds the option of laser guidance. The U.S. Air Force and Navy are the heaviest users, but JDAM is also exported to most American allies as well. China and Russia have built their own versions, but not used, or produced, them much.

JDAM has only been in production for twelve years, and production had reached 750 a month five years ago, and was then increased to 2,000 a months. This was done to build a large war reserve. In 2003, the air force only had 17,000 JDAMs, and back then wanted to build up a supply of at least 40,000. A larger stockpile is now been built up.

Military commanders the world over are struggling to figure out how to deal with the massive changes created by the arrival of JDAM. The United States has them, most of them, and the ability to stop others from using them (because America control the GPS satellites). The impact of JDAM has been enormous. It has made air power much more effective, reduced casualties for the force using them, and speeded up combat operations. Few non-professionals have noticed this, but generals and admirals of the major military powers have. These changes are will go down in history as a major shift in military capabilities, but the mass media has not really noticed what is going on here. Thus few people are aware of how much JDAM has changed the way wars are fought.

The appearance, and impact, of JDAM has been sudden. While guided bombs first appeared towards the end of World War II, they did not really become a factor until laser guided bombs were developed in the 1960s. A decade later, TV guided bombs came into service. But these guided bombs were expensive, costing over $100,000 per bomb. Even as late as the 1991 Gulf war, only 16 percent of the 250,000 bombs dropped were guided. However, analysis of the battlefield later revealed that guided bombs had done 75 percent of the actual damage. But the guided bombs were still too expensive, and lasers were blocked by many weather conditions (rain, mist, sand storms). Something new was needed to replace dumb bombs completely. The solution was GPS guided bombs.

In 1991, the GPS system was just coming into service. There were already plans for something like JDAM, but no one was sure that it would work. Once the engineers got onto it, it was discovered that JDAM not only worked, but cost less than half as much to build ($18,000 per bomb) as the air force expected ($40,000 a bomb). That price is now up to about $26,000 per kit (a more reliable one).

So in 1996, production of JDAM began. The bombs got their first workout in the 1999 Kosovo campaign. To everyone's surprise, 98 percent of the 652 JDAMs used, hit their targets. In 2001, JDAM proved the ideal weapon for supporting the few hundred Special Forces and CIA personnel the U.S. had on the ground in Afghanistan. The JDAM was more accurate, and effective, than anticipated. By January, 2002, the U.S. had dropped about half their inventory, of 10,000 JDAMs, in Afghanistan.

In 2003, 6,500 JDAM were used in the three week 2003 Iraq invasion. Usage of JDAM has since gone down, partly because of the growing use of other GPS guided weapons, like artillery shells and rockets. But new JDAM versions have added more capabilities. The latest versions are even more accurate, putting half the bombs within ten meters of the aiming point. A  250 pound version (the SDB) entered service last year. Another new version, with wings, was developed, which enabled a bomber to drop the bomb up to 100 kilometers from the target. JDAMs are pretty rugged. F-22s have dropped half ton JDAMs, from 50,000 feet, while flying at over 1,500 kilometers an hour.

Even American war planners are not completely sure what the overall impact of JDAM is going to be. Sorting out all the impacts on military operations is complicated by what the enemy will do. So far, JDAM has only been used against tribal warriors and urban guerillas. These foes have been resourceful, but have not been able to do much to degrade the impact of JDAM. Against professional troops, that might be different, but no one is sure yet. And that has generals in places like China, Iran and North Korea worried.

The U.S. is currently producing 3,000 JDAM a month, and is planning to build an inventory of about 200,000. China, Russia and the European Union are building their own GPS systems which, among other things, will enable them to build JDAM type bombs that the U.S. cannot shut down. Even then, using satellite guided bombs against U.S. forces will still be complicated by the need to get your aircraft into the air. No enemy air force has been able to do that for over half a century. So, for the moment, JDAM is an American advantage, and enormous one at that, and one that has changed the way wars are fought in more ways than most people realize.

 


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