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With the heavy fighting over in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force (along with the navy, marines, and army) are all moving away from using air power against terrorists and irregular troops, towards what they all refer to as “The Big One.” Less discreet air power planners describe their current work directed at developing winning techniques for “Bombing Beijing.”
This is a major change from how American air power has been used for the past two decades. In that time there has been a lot of bombing but not much opposition to the American aircraft. 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 targeting pods contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 6,300meters/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 highly accurate 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, 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 over ten years of technological progress have given the pilots a much sharper vision of what's on the ground.
JDAM smart bombs were developed in the 1990s, shortly after the GPS network went live. These weapons entered service in time for the 1999 Kosovo campaign and have been so successful that their use has actually 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 opponent like China (or Iran or North Korea, two more feisty but less well equipped foes).
Meanwhile, the U.S. has built up a huge arsenal of smart bombs. After the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Air Force ordered a sharp increase in JDAM production, aiming for 5,000 JDAM a month. They ended up needing far less. In 2005, about 30,000 JDAM were ordered. That fell to 11,605 in 2006, and 10,661 in 2007. In 2008, only 5,000 were ordered. Most of those ordered in the past few years are being put into the war reserve. Only a few thousand a year are actually being used, and this includes those expended during training. The war reserve contains over 100,000 kits, to be used in some unspecified, but big, future conflict. Air warfare planners see the most likely major conflict as one involving China.
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 laser guided bombs 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 $55,000 adjusted for inflation).
So in 1996, production of JDAM began. 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 30,000. 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 50,000 feet (16,100 meters), while moving at over 1,500 kilometers an hour.
But now planners have to develop techniques for overcoming modern anti-aircraft systems and GPS jammers. The U.S. Air Force and Navy have long been working on such problems, but those efforts took a back seat (and got less money) during the last decade, in order to concentrate on the wars at hand. The smart bomb techniques developed, including the use of UAVs to find targets, and to attack some of them with guided missiles, were very successful. But against a better prepared and equipped foe success is less certain.
Throughout the Cold War (1947-91) the U.S. worked hard to develop methods for dealing with tough air defenses. This work got tested in Vietnam and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. These conflicts showed that with the right equipment and tactics the attacker could succeed, and without debilitating losses. But this kind of air warfare is full of dangers, surprises, and much higher potential for defeat.