Israel has ordered another 3,000 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) GPS guided bomb kits from the United States. Each kit cost about $27,600. Although Israel makes a JDAM system of its own design, the American version is cheaper and, in most situations, just as effective. In addition, having stockpiles of American JDAM has other advantages, That can be seen in what happened back in late 2012 when Israel ordered over 10,350 JDAM from the United States. A third were 909 kg (2,000 pound) bombs, another third were 127 kg (280 pound) SDB (Small Diameter Bombs), while the rest were 1,000 and 500 pound bombs. This order included the dumb bombs, JDAM guidance kits, fuzes, jamming countermeasures, and other maintenance equipment and parts. The average price per bomb was about $64,000.
Many of these JDAMs shipped to Israel weren’t owned by Israel but by the United States. This was because, starting in 2009, the U.S. began storing weapons and military equipment in Israel. These emergency supplies served a dual purpose. The primary reason for this gear being in Israel was because it could be quickly flown to American forces in the region as needed. A secondary purpose was as an emergency reserve for Israeli forces, if Israel got involved in an intense war and needed rapid resupply. In this situation the United States could simply declare an Israeli purchase and release the ammo and spare parts stored in Israel to Israel. Because of this dual purpose, all the weapons and spare parts in the warehouses and bunkers are material in use by both the U.S. and Israeli forces. Currently, there's nearly a billion dollars-worth of stuff in these emergency stores, which include JDAM bomb kits, missiles, other ammunition, spare parts, armored vehicles, and electronic equipment.
In theory Israel does not have to buy JDAM from the United States because Israeli firms have developed similar gear. Back in 2007 an Israeli firm introduced a variation on the JDAM called SPICE (Stand-Off Precision Guidance Munition). SPICE adds a camera in the nose, where you can store several digital photos of the target (a building, radar antennae, or a moving target, like a missile transporter). When SPICE gets close enough to see what's down there, the guidance camera compares what it sees in front of it with what is stored in its memory. If it gets a match, it heads right for it. If no target can be found, SPICE hits a specific GPS location or just self-destructs. SPICE equipped bombs can be dropped up to 60 kilometers from the target they will glide to. SPICE costs about twice as much as JDAM kits and is similar to earlier (pre-JDAM), and much more expensive, U.S. smart bomb designs (like Paveway).
Meanwhile at the end of 2013 the U.S. Department of Defense suddenly increased the number of JDAM ordered 17 percent (to 212,588). Over 250,000 JDAM kits have been manufactured since 1998 and the U.S. has been the biggest customer. The 2013 purchase order was all about stocking up for “The Big One.” The U.S. Air Force (along with the navy, marines, and army) are all moving away from using air power against terrorists and irregular troops, towards what they all refer to as “Bombing Beijing” or North Korea or Iran. This is a major change from how American air power has been used for the past two decades. In that time there has been a lot of bombing but not much opposition (missiles or jet interceptors) to the American aircraft. Since GPS smart bombs and targeting pods were introduced in the 1990s, bomber pilots have had their job reduced to that of a bomb-truck driver.
Nevertheless the U.S. believes the key air weapon for the forcible future will be smart bombs, especially the JDAM and JSOW (powered JDAM). Thus the heavy orders for JDAM, to build up the war reserve in case there is what the planners call a “major war”. Meanwhile, the U.S. has already built up a huge arsenal of smart bombs. 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. But as of 2013 the orders are over 10,000 a year again. 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. Air warfare planners see the most likely major conflict as one involving China. Despite the dependence on GPS, JDAM has been adapted to resist the jamming and, if that fails there is a backup INS guidance system that, while not as accurate as GPS is accurate enough for most targets.
JDAM smart bombs were developed in the 1990s, shortly after the GPS satellite network went live. These weapons entered service in time for the 1999 Kosovo campaign and have been so successful that their use has 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. Now the big effort is directed towards using all this new tech to shut down a more feisty and capable opponent like China (or Iran or North Korea, two more feisty but less well equipped foes).
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 and reliable laser guidance systems were developed in the 1960s. A decade later TV guided bombs came into service. But these guided bombs were expensive, costing over $100,000 each. 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 $55,000 adjusted for inflation).
Production of JDAM began in 1996. 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 40,000. 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 16,100 meters (50,000 feet), while moving at over 1,500 kilometers an hour.
JDAM arrived at about the same time that targeting pods became very effective and affordable. These pods proved to greatly enhance the effectiveness of JDAM. The targeting pods contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 6,300 meters (20,000 feet) to clearly make out what is going on down there. The pods also contain laser designators for laser guided bombs and laser range finders that enable pilots to get coordinates for JDAM (GPS guided) bombs.
Safely outside the range of most anti-aircraft fire, pilots can literally see the progress of ground fighting and have even been acting as aerial observers for ground forces. But these new capabilities also enable pilots to more easily find targets themselves and hit them with laser guided or JDAM bombs. While bombers still get target information from ground controllers for close (to friendly troops) air support, they can now go searching on their own, especially in areas where there are no friendly ground troops. The first such targeting pods were used in the 1991 Gulf War. Those LANTRIN pods had, by current standards, poor camera resolution for the pilots looking at what's down there. But over ten years of technological progress have given the pilots a much sharper vision of what's on the ground.
But now planners have to develop techniques for overcoming modern anti-aircraft systems and GPS jammers. The U.S. Air Force and Navy have long been working on such problems, but those efforts took a back seat (and got less money) since 2002 in order to concentrate on the wars at hand. The smart bomb techniques developed, including the use of UAVs to find targets, and to attack some of them with guided missiles, were very successful. But against a better prepared and equipped foe success is less certain.
Throughout the Cold War (1947-91) the U.S. worked hard to develop methods for dealing with tough air defenses. This work got tested in Vietnam and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. These conflicts showed that with the right equipment and tactics the attacker could succeed, and without debilitating losses. But this kind of air warfare is full of dangers, surprises, and much higher potential for defeat.
Meanwhile many other nations (Russia, China, Israel, Taiwan and so on) are producing their own versions of JDAM and laser guided bombs and competing with the U.S. for export sales.