Air Weapons: Listen To The Customer

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July 28, 2017: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has decided to adopt a new lightweight air-to-ground missile (the SGM, or small glide munition) for use on its AC-130 gunships. If the first batch of SGMs perform as well in combat has it did in field testing SGM will largely replace existing Griffin, G-Claw and Viper Strike weapons. These three are all similar but SGM proved more capable and was also able to use the existing CLT (Common Launch Tube) installed on AC-130s to load and launch these small weapons from inside the aircraft.

The GBU-69B SGM weighs 27 kg (59 pounds) each with a 16 kg (35 pound) warhead. Using GPS and laser guidance, the SGM can glide from the AC-130 or a UAV for eight kilometers or more. Unlike Griffin SGM can go after any target (in any direction) within range once launched. Griffin has a limited target arc. SGM was more reliable than G-Claw and had a larger and more effective warhead than Viper Strike or Griffin.

SGM is similar to the existing AGM-176 Griffin and was able to replace it without months or years of competitive tests, litigation and whatnot because SOCOM operates under Rapid Acquisition rules which allow commanders to buy new weapons and equipment if they believe there is an immediate need for it in combat.

Thus while it’s unusual for an existing weapon like Griffin, with a good performance record to be replaced, SOCOM has been doing this sort of thing for decades. This encourages firms to develop new weapons that will provide superior performance and reliability to existing systems and not worry about the usual procurement politics (which is very expensive and time consuming).

Entering service in 2010 Griffin has become popular because it weighs only 15 kg (33 pounds, or 20.5 kg/45 pounds with the launch tube) and has a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead. It was first used in Afghanistan and because it had GPS and laser guidance and was light and small it proved successful. The unpowered Griffin has a greater range (20 kilometers from aircraft for the B and C versions) than the rocket powered Hellfire because of pop-out wings that allow it to glide after launch. The latest version also has two way communications. But Griffin did not pay attention to what was more important to SOCOM users.

By early 2014 only about 2,000 of the Griffin missiles had been produced. From the beginning Griffin has been pitched as a replacement for Hellfire. But only SOCOM and the CIA have bought many, and in much smaller quantities than Hellfire, which weighs three times as much as Griffin. In early 2014 a much improved Griffin Block III was introduced. This version could hit stationary and moving targets more reliably and accurately. This was largely due to a new guidance system which still used a laser seeker but one with improved electronics. There was also an improved warhead that was more lethal against a wide range of targets. The Block III Griffin cost $90,000 each. The new version made Griffin more useful and popular, thus there were more orders. Yet SOCOM let it be known that it was seeking a similar but superior weapon in terms of capabilities like guidance system and warhead. SGM showed up in 2016 and SOCOM testing led to an initial order for 70-100 of them followed by larger orders (of a thousand or more). Crews on AC-130s will be able to use both Griffin and SGM for a while and report back. SOCOM personnel are accustomed to doing just that because they know SOCOM will respond quickly.

The firm that developed SGM has a reputation in this area. They rapidly developed the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) and MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator) bombs and are now developing the Gremlin, a small UAV that can be launched and recovered by an AC-130 in flight.

 

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