Air Weapons: October 19, 2004


The US Air Force wants to ultimately cut the time it takes to attack any target on the ground fixed or moving -- to within one minute. But this is roughly the time it takes a bomb to fall from 50,000 feet to strike the ground. They also want to be able to so to at distances of up to 1600 kilometers away. It is an aggressive goal that may not be feasible without substantial breakthroughs. 

During late 2001 combat operations in Afghanistan, it took around a day or so to work up the various orders to strike a target, but the Air Force now says it can strike moving targets of opportunity within an hour. For several years, the Air Force had a goal of cutting the time to put a bomb on a moving target, such as a SCUD mobile missile launcher, within 10 minutes from the time it was detected by a battlefield sensor. To meet the 10 minute goal, improvements are being made in target identification and "machine to machine" communication to improve passing along data directly from sensors to an orbiting aircraft's bombs. One of the current bottlenecks is getting approval from commanders to strike an emerging target. Commanders don't want to hit either friendly forces or inadvertently hit civilians or culturally sensitive sites. 

Another issue is to have a weapons system capable of striking targets within the minute time frame. If there's an orbiting manned or unmanned aircraft overhead, it's a simple matter of dropping a bomb. Pentagon and Air Force officials are pushing to develop "persistent" smart bombs and long-endurance UAVs "hunter-killer" that can loiter over target areas, at altitudes as low as 10,000 feet,  for at least 24 hours, striking targets as they appear. This appears to be the key to the "one minute" program. 

Striking well-protected targets under an air defense umbrella from longer distances within a shorter time-span is expected to be much more difficult. Currently. It takes a cruise missile an hour or more to fly to a target several hundred kilometers away. The Air Force and Navy have been working on high-speed "hypersonic" cruise missiles for the past decade. A hypersonic cruise missile traveling at Mach 5 would be capable covering around 100 kilometers in under a minute not bad, but it would still take 16 minutes to reach a target 1600 kilometers away. Doug Mohney


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