July 2, 2007:
Why is the U.S.
Navy buying only enough special bomb racks (130) to equip four percent of its
F-18 fighters? The new BRU-55 racks can each carry two 500 pound JDAM smart
bombs. This doubles the number of smart bombs carried under the wings, from
four to eight. The special racks cost $83,000 each.
The problem here is that the
JDAM is so efficient that most F-18s are lucky to drop one of them per sortie.
Before smart bombs, an F-18 could go out with four or more 2,000 pound "dumb
bombs," use them all, and considered themselves lucky if they took out one
target. There are more "multi-bomb" designs like the BRU-55, especially for
carrying the new 250 pound SDB (small diameter bomb). But these are not being
rushed into mass production.
The air force and navy
consider such bomb racks a future need, for a future war when there will be a
lot more targets. Against North Korea, Iran or China, there would be a lot more
targets. Once the enemy anti-aircraft missiles were destroyed, at least the
high altitude ones, American fighters and bombers can stay at 20,000 feet
(above the range of anti-aircraft guns and portable anti-aircraft missiles) and
either drop bombs using GPS coordinates provided by ground troops, or employ
their targeting pods to identify targets. The next big thing is software and
hardware modifications that will enable the pilots, using their targeting pods,
to hit moving targets with smart bombs. Thus an F-18 could take out ten or more
enemy tanks per sortie. This isn't exactly revolutionary. Back in 1944,
hundreds of American and British fighters swarmed over battlefields in France,
destroying German vehicles with heavy machine-gun and rocket fire. The
fighters could get two or three vehicles per sortie, and forced the Germans to only move vehicles at night. In subsequent
decades, fighters got jet engines, and the ability to carry six or more times
more bombs than the ton their World War II predecessors hauled. But the jet engine meant the fighters moved
faster, which was not good if you were coming in low to zap a tank with cannon
fire, or to drop a bomb. Moreover, the jet fighters were more expensive, so
there were fewer of them, and more reluctance to risk them down low.
The smart bombs have
eliminated speed as a problem, and made that larger bomb carrying capacity a
virtue. The targeting pods enable the pilots to make out armored vehicles from
20,000 feet up, and twenty kilometers away. The fighter pilots keep quiet about
it, but they are eager to strut their new stuff against a large enemy armor
force. In theory, a force of fifty fighters (F-16s, F-15s, F-18s, F-35s, even
F-22s) could destroy an enemy tank division in a few hours. The potential
enemies, particularly the Chinese, are alarmed at this prospect, and are
desperately seeking a solution. So far, they haven't found one. Not yet.