Air Weapons: SPICEing Up The F-16

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November 27, 2016: Israel has equipped more of its F-16C fighters to use the SPICE 1000 guided bomb. Israel has 434 F-16s and until this upgrade only the most capable F-16s, the F-16I types (23 percent of the F-16 fleet) were so equipped. The F-16Cs are 31 percent of the fleet. In addition the 25 Israeli F-15Es can handle SPICE 1000 and so will the F-35s that will arrive over the next few years.

While Israel buys GPS JDAM smart bombs from the United States because they are the cheapest available, Israeli firms have developed a variation on the JDAM called SPICE (Stand-Off Precision Guidance Munition) that entered service in 2005. SPICE adds a camera in the nose, and the capability to store several digital photos of the target (a building, radar antennae, or a moving target, like a missile transporter) in the bomb. 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 have small wings and can be dropped up to 100 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. The latest version of SPICE has a much improved guidance sensor (camera) and computer and can store up to a hundred images of potential targets as well as instructions on what to hit when there are multiple choices. Many of these images are of the same target from different angles and such. The SPICE 1000 kit is for the 453 kg (1,000 pound) dumb bomb.

Meanwhile nearly 300,000 JDAM kits have been manufactured since 1998 and the U.S. has been the biggest customer. 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. The U.S. believes the key air weapon for the foreseeable future will be smart bombs, especially the JDAM and JSOW (powered JDAM). GPS guided 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). That’s one reason why Israel is equipping more of its fighters to handle SPICE.

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 $57,000 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 within a decade technological progress had given the pilots a much sharper vision of what's on the ground and where to put the smart bomb.

 


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