Seeking to meet growing demands for small precision-guided bombs, the U.S. Air Force is rushing to develop a new weapon that is more accurate but with less destructive power than current systems, such as the 2,000-pound joint direct attack munition (JDAM).
The smaller bomb ideally will help pilots hit specific targets in urban areas, for example, where traditional air strikes generally endanger civilians.
The 250-pound small-diameter bomb (SDB) also will make aircraft more productive by allowing them to carry more weapons and hit more targets per sortie. The F-15E Strike Eagle, which can load a single 2,000-pound JDAM, will be able to carry four SDBs.
“We basically quadruple load-out, and we’re able to prosecute around 80 percent of the fixed targets,” said Col. Jim McClendon, program director for the direct attack joint program office at the Air Force Air Armaments Center.
To achieve its accuracy, the SDB—officially called GBU-39/B—employs an advanced technology known as wide-area differential GPS (global positioning system) support infrastructure. It also introduces new mission planning software that will enable Air Force crews to program fixed targets via computer workstations on the ground or aboard aircraft in flight. The system was tested on an F-15E at Eglin Air Force Base in the first SDB guided flight April 22. An upgraded SDB with a moving target seeker will begin development in 2006.
Boeing, the system’s prime contractor, demonstrated the technology in a series of Air Force Research Laboratory programs at Eglin from 1995 to 2000. It now leads an industry team providing the weapon, carriage system, GPS stations and other elements. “The real challenge was coming up with a system that was fieldable and could be supported in the Air Force infrastructure,” explained Dan Jaspering, SDB program manager at Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.
The contract was awarded to Boeing in October 2003, and the Air Force chief of staff ordered the weapon operational by the fourth quarter of 2006. “We are doing one of the most aggressive, if not the most aggressive, full-up weapons acquisitions that’s ever been done,” said McClendon. “Meeting the schedule is our top risk.”
The abbreviated development schedule means that the development tests and operational tests will be combined. Operational testers will participate in the program far earlier than traditional programs. The upshot is that problems uncovered early in the program by operational aircrews and maintainers can be fixed more quickly, said McClendon.
After fielding on the F-15E, the small diameter bomb will be integrated with the F-16, B-2, F-22, F-35, unmanned aircraft and other strike platforms.
Unlike the JDAM kit applied to “dumb” bombs in the field, the SDB is stored, shipped and loaded as a complete weapon.