April 19, 2011: The six NATO nations that are providing air support for the Libyan rebels are openly complaining that they are running out of smart bombs. Most of the bombing is being done by Britain and France, both of whom use American smart bombs. So far, (mostly in the last decade) the United States has produced about 300,000 laser and GPS guided smart bombs. About 12 percent have been used in combat, and only about ten percent of those bombs have been exported. Britain and France also make guided missiles that can be used to attack ground targets, but not in large quantities. NATO nations did not start acquiring smart bombs until after the Cold War ended, about the same time their procurement budgets were cut sharply. European defense spending continues to shrink, and war reserve stocks (large quantities of munitions stockpiled to keep the troops supplied during the initial month or so of a war) are not a high priority. Moreover, the nations delivering most of the bombs in Libya, have already used many of them in Afghanistan over the last few years.
The U.S. could supply more bombs from its own large war reserve stocks, but it appears that the decision has been made to send in more such bombs, if needed, via U.S. aircraft. This would be a good idea, because the U.S. has more pilots who are experienced in using targeting pods (which allow the pods vidcam to zoom in on potential targets to the point where you can make out what kind of weapon, if any, someone down there is holding) while flying at 6,500 meters (20,000 feet).
Meanwhile, based on their Afghanistan experience, some European nations are designing and building their own smart bombs. Russia and China are already been doing this. But European efforts have been slowed by sluggish demand, and competition from American weapons.
For example, last year, France successfully tested a new AASM laser guided smart bomb kit, that enabled a 250 kg (550 pound) bomb to hit the target directly from above. Previously, laser and GPS guided bombs have all come in at the target horizontally. By coming in vertically, collateral damage, to nearby structures occupied by civilians, is limited. The AASM has been in service since 2007, after a decade of development. Two years ago, France ordered 3,400 of these new bomb kits from manufacturer Sagem, which use GPS, inertial and laser guidance. Max glide range is 50 kilometers (from higher altitudes). Currently, the new kit only fits 250 kg bombs, but versions for 125, 500 and 1,000 kg bombs are in development.
The French GPS bomb will have to compete on features in the export market. That's because American smart bombs, produced in larger quantities, and with a long history of battlefield success, are hard to beat on price. A few AASM bombs have been used in Libya, but large quantities have not yet been built. AASM has been used in Afghanistan over the last few years, but in small quantities.