Air Weapons: May 24, 2004


As U.S. weapons developers examine potential new designs for new smart weapons, several different design choices have emerged. Among the more interesting questions  is what mix of weapons (and the funding to develop them) will be dedicated to high-speed standoff weapons or endurance systems that would loiter over a target region and attack whatever shows its head. Currently, the endurance crowd is gaining points with the concept of expendable "persistent munitions", falling between the capabilities and price tags of guided weapons and UAVs. Advocates argue persistent munitions can offer a deterrent before the outbreak of hostilities, while hypersonic munitions (very high speed and long range missiles) are more costly and technically difficult to implement. Hypersonics would have a role against a limited and "extremely high-value" target set.

The leading candidate for the "persistent munition" is the "Dominator" low speed missile. A Dominator weighs about a 100 pounds, has a pop-out wingspan of around twelve feet, length of around three feet, and is expected to have a loiter time of 12 hours or more. Basically, the Dominator is a low speed, propeller driven glider, which is how it can stay in the air for so long. Each one can patrol several square kilometers. The Dominator uses off-the-shelf components, to keep the price down. Dominator is basically an expendable UAV that warplanes can carry deep into enemy territory. They could be used, for example, to disrupt enemy vehicle traffic on roads.

Launched in groups of three or four at high altitude out of the F/A-22 weapons bay, a swarm of 24 Dominator endurance weapons would loiter over an area of interest at a few thousand feet. Attacks are coordinated using a Dominator equipped with sensors and control software that would keep track of activity on the ground and order the other Dominators to attack specific targets. This would avoid multiple attacks on the same target. When targets are spotted, each Dominator can eject one or two anti-tank weapons that float to the ground and use built in radar and heat seeking sensors to home in on the target and attack it with a special shaped charge that penetrates the thin upper armor of armored vehicles. This weapon is similar to the one already used in the air force SADARM bomb. The Dominator can then dive into a third target and explode. 

As always, finding funding for new munitions has become a challenge. USAF managers are considering selling off some older JDAM overseas and using the money to buy newer versions of the GPS-guided bomb kits. The Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) is actually a kit that includes a GPS receiver, inertial measuring unit and steering fins fitted to a 500 lbs to 2,000 lbs "dumb" free-fall bomb to create a weapon capable of striking within 13 meters or less of a target. 

One upgrade might include a 500-lb. JDAM with a different explosive fill to generate higher-velocity fragments, which would have  less range, to cut back on collateral damage; call it a poor-man's Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). The 250 pound SDB is being developed as a follow-on weapon to JDAM. The Navy and Marines are considering JDAM as a mine-clearing tool. Tests indicate JDAM is accurate and powerful enough to eliminate light obstacles and surface-laid mines in beach zones. Doug Mohney


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