Logistics: The Great Smart Bomb Shortage Of 2011


July 6, 2011: The air campaign in Libya has depleted the smart bomb inventories of some participants. Only eight of 28 NATO nations are participating, with France and Britain dropping most of the bombs. Even so, Denmark and Norway recently exhausted their supplies and are receiving additional smart bombs from Germany, which has not taken part in the Libya operation. The U.S. is also believed to have helped out some other nations who are running low.

Some 2,000 smart bombs have been used in Libya so far. Since these weapons first appeared in the late 1960s, over half a million have been produced, mostly by the U.S. Most of these, especially the laser guided bombs that have been manufactured since the 1960s, have been retired because of age or obsolescence. In the last two decades, the U.S. has used over 25,000 of these weapons (mostly since September 11, 2001). The U.S. has a war reserve of over 100,000 smart bombs. Most American allies take advantage of this, and maintain tiny reserves themselves.

Until the 1990s, only laser guided (Paveway) versions were available. These were expensive, and could not be used if fog, smoke or similar obstacles hid the target from the laser. All that changed when GPS guided bombs (like JDAM) were perfected in the early 1990s. The United States has them, most of them, and the ability to stop others from using them (because America controls the GPS satellites). The impact of JDAM has been enormous. It has made air power much more effective, reduced casualties for the force using them, and speeded up combat operations. Few non-professionals have noticed this, but generals and admirals of the major military powers have. These changes are enormous, but the mass media has not really noticed what is going on here. So few people are aware of how much JDAM has changed the way wars are fought.

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 more accurate and easier-to-use laser guided bombs were developed in the 1960s. A decade later, advances in video technology allowed TV guided bombs to enter service. But these guided bombs were expensive, costing over $100,000 per bomb. Even as late as the 1991 Gulf war, only 16 percent of the 250,000 bombs dropped then were guided. Analysis of the battlefield later revealed that the guided bombs had done 75 percent of the actual damage. But 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). Even $40,000 was much less than what laser and TV guided bombs cost.

So in 1996, production of JDAM began. The bombs got their first workout in the 1999 Kosovo campaign. To everyone's surprise, 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 its 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 about 25,000. Since 1996 over 250,000 JDAM have been produced. Since the late 1960s, about the same number of laser and optical (TV) guided bombs have been manufactured.

New JDAM versions have added more capabilities. The latest models 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, while flying at over 1,500 kilometers an hour. JDAMs have actually become less in demand because GPS guidance has been added to other weapons (artillery rockets and shells, as well as 120mm mortar shells).

The accuracy and reliability of JDAM has greatly increased the effectiveness of air and artillery support. There are far fewer friendly fire (getting hit by your own bombs or shells) casualties, and much more damage to the enemy. Because of the greater damage done to the enemy, friendly casualties in general are down. Civilian casualties are way down, and the number of bombs dropped has decreased by over 95 percent. Because of smart bombs, the battlefield is a quieter, and more dangerous, place.




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