Procurement: June 28, 2005

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In the United States, Congress continues to go after expensive weapons projects that appear too expensive, too ineffective or too redundant. The most recent example is the  AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile). These 2,300 pound weapon costs about $400,000 each and are basically 1,000 pound JDAMs (GPS guided bombs) with a motor added and wrapped in a stealthy shell. JASSM has a range of 350 kilometers and is designed to go after enemy air defense systems, or targets deep in heavily defended (against air attack) enemy territory. The air force and navy planned to buy over 5,000 JASSM, but there has long been some opposition in the military and in Congress. The missiles are ten times as expensive as 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 to soften them up. However, the navy pulled out of the JASSM program because they already had a weapon that could do the job. This is the SLAM-ER (the ER stands for Expanded Response), which can reach out to 280 kilometers, and has an armor-piercing 800-pound warhead. The SLAM-ER is meant for going after ships, but can be modified to deal with all the targets JASSM goes after. Why doesnt the air force just use SLAM-ER, instead of spending over a billion dollars to develop JASSM? The official reason is that JASSM has more new features. But JASSM has also failed several reliability tests. The air force has no satisfactory answers for either the SLAM-ER or reliability questions. Congress sees it as another gold plated weapons project. SLAM-ER could do the job, although the air force has already bought 216 JASSMs. Since Congress wont provide money to buy any more, the air force is going to have to be content with that number, or buy SLAM-ER. For the moment, the only likely uses for JASSM are against China or North Korea, and only for the opening stages of a battle, to take out air defense targets. Once the enemy air defense targets are gone, aircraft can go in with much cheaper JDAMs.

However, the reliability problems of JASSM can also be fixed. Its not unusual for weapons like this to have a lot of test failures. But the major problem people had with JASSM was the air force spending this money on a weapon that essentially duplicated one already available. The air force is also a victim of its own success. The U.S. Air Force is the dominant air force on the planet. Not only that, but its been that way for over half a century. Thus, inside the air force, theres a tendency to believe that success comes from doing things the air force way, and not borrowing a weapon, like SLAM-ER, from the navy. Not that the air force has not adopted navy weapons before. The Harpoon anti-ship missile (from which the SLAM-ER was adopted), was modified to be launched by B-52s in the 1980s. The U.S. Navy was not really happy about this, as the air force was basically trying to horn in on the navys war-at-sea function. But the air force rarely overlooks an opportunity to develop new air weapons. JASSM, however, turned out to be one too many.

 


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