Air Weapons: JASSM Lives


June 2, 2014: On May 28th the American AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) was certified to be used by Australian F-18. The acquisition and certification process took a lot longer than expected. In 1999 Australia was the first foreign country to win approval to buy JASSM. At that time JASSM was expected to enter production by 2002 but that was delayed two years. Australia finally ordered over $200 million worth of JASSM in 2006 for delivery by 2009. There were more delays, lots of delays.

From 2006 to 2009 the U.S. Department of Defense was on the verge of cancelling the $6 billion JASSM program. Lobbying, pleading, large orders from Australia and South Korea, and the growing possibility that the missile would be useful against Iranian, Chinese or North Korean air defense systems, gave the program a few more lives. The only problem JASSM had was that, well, it often didn't work. Until 2009 the tests had been mostly failures. But the manufacturer was able to identify all the problems, and convinced the government that these were the result of poor manufacturing. This issue, the builder promised, was fixed. Fortunately tests in late 2009 were over 90 percent successful. That kind of good news has arrived just in time and JASSM finally entered service. Although the U.S. Air Force ordered the AGM-158 JASSM into full production in early 2004 only a few were produced because of test failures. Air force purchasing plans were cut way back because of the reliability problems, and this delayed shipment of the missiles to combat units until 2011. To help this along the U.S. Air Force ordered 160 AGM-158 JASSM air-to-ground missiles in 2010 at a cost of about $1.5 million each.

JASSM is the third family of GPS guided smart bombs to be developed and is the most expensive. The original JDAM bomb kit (added to 500, 1,000 and 2,000 pound bombs), cost $26,000 each. The longer range JSOW (JDAM with wings and more powerful guidance system), cost $460,000 each. The even longer range JASSM cost over half a million dollars (the 400 kilometer version) to over a million dollars (the 900 kilometer JASSM ER) each. Then there is the SDB (Small Diameter Bomb), a 250 pound JDAM that can also punch through concrete bunkers and other structures. These cost $75,000 each. All these are basically GPS guided smart bombs.

JASSM missiles are 1,045 kg (2,300 pound) weapons that are basically 455 kg (1,000 pound) JDAMS (GPS guided bombs) with a motor added. JASSM was designed to go after enemy air defense systems or targets deep in heavily defended (against air attack) enemy territory. The reason for buying these is to have something to deal with air defenses of a nation like China. The air force and navy planned to buy over 5,000 JASSM, but there has been opposition in the military and in Congress. The missiles are ten times more expensive than a JADM bomb of the same weight. But the aviators make the argument that many aircraft and pilots would be lost if the air defenses of a nation like, perhaps China, were attacked without using JASSM.

JASSM is stealthy and uses GPS and terminal (infrared) guidance to zero in on heavily defended targets (like air defense sites.) The terminal guidance enables the missile to land within three meters (ten feet) of the aiming point. If there were a war with North Korea, for example, JASSM would be essential to taking out enemy air defenses, or any other targets that have to be hit early in a war (before air defenses can be shut down.) This capability is apparently what attracted the South Koreans, who now have F-15K aircraft that can carry JASSM.

JASSM was designed to handle the most modern Russian surface to air missiles, which are also being sold to China. North Korea has older stuff, and can't afford the newer Russian SAMs. But even these older air defenses can be dangerous, and are best addressed with long range missiles. So there is a need for a missile like JASSM, at least one that works.

Development work on JASSM continues. The next version of JASSM, LRASM (Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile), is apparently meant to go after the growing number of Chinese warships showing up on the high seas. A ship-launched version of LRASM is also in development. These are launched from VLS cells on most American warships (and many other Western vessels). The first version of LRASM should be ready for deployment in a few years, and development will continue on the sensors and electronic countermeasures as well as the stealth features even after LRASM enters service.

LRASM is part of an effort to develop autonomous hunter-killer missiles that can seek out targets without remote control and in the midst of enemy countermeasures (electronic and otherwise). The LRASM underwent its first field test in 2013 when one was launched from a B-1B bomber and sent off in the direction where three destroyer size unmanned ships were moving about. LRASM flew via GPS waypoints for several hundred kilometers and then began flying a search pattern, seeking electronic or visual signs of one of the target ships. One was found and LRASM, armed with an inert warhead hit it.

LRASM is not just equipped to seek out targets in a general area (of several thousand square kilometers) but is also fitted out with electronics to resist GPS jamming and other anti-missile electronic defenses warships carry. LRASM also has a highly accurate INS (inertial guidance system) that cannot be jammed and serves as a backup to  GPS. The ultimate LRASM design will also incorporate stealth features (a special shape and largely passive sensors). The current LRASM development model is basically an existing long range bomb (JASSM ER) with a much improved guidance system.



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