Air Weapons: JDAM In Wonderland

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December 6, 2011: The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has ordered 4,900 American JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition, GPS and laser guided bomb kits.) JDAM kits convert 500 (227 kg), 1,000 (455 kg) and 2,000 (910 kg) pound unguided bombs into highly accurate guided "smart bombs". Interestingly, 600 of the kits are for the 2,000 pound BLU-109 ground penetrating bunker buster bomb. Most (3,000) are for the GBU-38 500 pound bomb. Iran is the reason for this purchase, and the most likely target.

The UAE armed forces are small, about 65,000 troops, and many of them (the exact number is kept secret, but is believed to be about a third) are foreigners with UAE citizenship. Most of the eight million people in the UAE are neither citizens, nor even Arabs. About 20 percent of the UAE population is citizens, and only about ten percent of the total population is Arab. The majority (80 percent) are foreigners, mostly from South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India). The rest are from the West, Africa and Iran. This is not unusual in the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf.

The problem is that all the oil wealth has, over the last sixty years, changed the lifestyles, and aspirations, of the citizenry. The Arab citizens of the UAE have become very picky when it comes to jobs. Most jobs available even to poorly educated young men, do not satisfy. Thus most UAE citizens prefer a government job, where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. In the non-government sector of the economy, 99 percent of the jobs are held by foreigners. The owners are often citizens, but the workers are almost always imported foreigners. Most are male, resulting in nearly 70 percent of the UAE population being male. The unemployment rate among citizens is 23 percent, but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. A survey indicated that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. The unemployment benefits are generous, so no one has any incentive to do something crazy, like joining the military.

While the thousands of aircraft, helicopters, armored vehicles and other high-tech systems UAE has bought in the last decade look impressive, the actual impact of all this lethal hardware depends a lot on the skill of those using it. In this department, the UAE has some serious problems. And it is generally very difficult to get the UAE to even discuss the situation. But the purchase of high-tech weapons indicates that the UAE wants to get the most out of the few UAE citizens they have in the military. Most of the pilots of their 155 F-16 fighter-bombers are UAE citizens, and these aircraft would be the primary weapon used to defeat an Iranian attack.

UAE military commanders have watched the use of JDAM over the last decade and decided that it is a decisive weapon that the UAE must have. Each UAE F-16 can carry four JDAMs per sortie. With JDAM, UAE aircraft could destroy Iranian bases on the other side of the Persian Gulf, and disrupt Iranian amphibious, air and missile forces. This plan seems to assume that the U.S. would be involved, to cripple Iranian radar systems and destroy anti-aircraft missile systems.

But the main attack weapon will be the smart bombs. JDAM were developed in the 1990s, shortly after the GPS network went live. These weapons entered service in time for the 1999 Kosovo campaign, and have been so successful, that their use has actually sharply reduced the number of bombs dropped, and the number of sorties required by bombers. The air force generals are still trying to figure out where this is all going.

After the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Air Force ordered a sharp increase in JDAM production, aiming for 5,000 JDAM a month. They ended up needing far less. In 2005, about 30,000 JDAM were ordered. That fell to 11,605 in 2006 and 10,661 in 2007. In 2008, only 5,000 were ordered. Most of those ordered in the past few years are being put into the war reserve. Only a few thousand a year are actually being used, and this includes those expended during training. The war reserve contains over 100,000 kits, to be used in some unspecified, but big, future conflict.

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 highly accurate 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. But analysis of the battlefield later revealed that the guided bombs had done 75 percent of the actual damage. 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, or about $53,000 adjusted for inflation).

So in 1996, production of JDAM began. During their first use, in Kosovo, 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. Since 1999, American aircraft have used less than 25,000. New versions have added more capabilities. The latest versions are even more accurate, putting half the bombs within ten meters of the aiming point. JDAMs are pretty rugged. F-22s have dropped half ton JDAMs, from 50,000 feet (16,100 meters), while moving at over 1,500 kilometers an hour. The UAE expects their custom made F-16s and well trained pilots to use JDAM to do a lot of damage. While well trained, the UAE pilots are not high quality. That's because they are drawn from a very small population (about 1.6 million UAE citizens) and are supported by a large number of foreign trainers and aircraft maintainers. Some of the pilots are foreigners, who are hired for their skills and well paid for loyalty in wartime. This is not a perfect air force, but with the addition of JDAM, it has become a more destructive one.

 

 


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