TCS Daily

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

By Melana Zyla Vickers - March 7, 2002 12:00 AM

While U.S. soldiers in the line of fire are clearly the heroes of the renewed campaign to wipe out the Al Qaeda terrorists in eastern Afghanistan this week, a fair amount of awestruck praise has been reserved for an inanimate warrior that made its debut alongside the men - the thermobaric bomb.

Targeted at tunnels and caves, the bomb first releases solid-fuel particles and then ignites them. Pressure from the resulting ball of fire kills any terrorists or others who might be in the tunnels and caves. The U.S. has been rushing to develop and deploy the 2,000-lb bomb in recent months.

There's no question it's an impressive munition. But it isn't new - the Soviets used fuel-air explosives based on similar principles in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Moreover, thermobaric weapons, along with the 15,000-lb "daisycutters" that got so much attention last fall, are relatively low-tech compared to other munitions the Pentagon is working on. Indeed, research, development and production of high-tech munitions will be funded to the tune of $1.8 billion in the '03 budget, according to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. The munitions range from the newly familiar to the truly eye-popping:

  • JDAMs: The Joint Direct Attack Munition is a bomb fitted with technology that allows it to be directed toward its target by Global Positioning System satellites. The satellite guidance makes the JDAM usable even when clouds or smoke obscures targets. Over 4,000 JDAMs have been dropped in Afghanistan, making this intelligent munition the mainstay of the Afghanistan war. With a shortage imminent, the Pentagon has asked manufacturer Boeing to step up production of JDAMs.

  • Advanced earth-penetrating weapons: The earth-penetrators will build on the technology of the "bunker buster" (GBU-28). Those 5,000-lb bombs used in Afghanistan featured a concrete-penetrator and that detonate some time after they smash through the surface rather than on impact. The Air Force is weighing a proposal for a 30,000-lb earth-penetrating weapon.

  • Stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (Stealthy JASSM): The missile, to be fired from an aircraft, promises to have a range of some 300 km and accuracy within three meters. It will be almost imperceptible to enemy radar, meaning the enemy won't be able to shoot it down.

  • Directed-energy weapons: Among the directed-energy technologies the services are exploring are high-energy lasers and microwaves, which promise to reduce collateral damage to buildings and noncombatants.

  • Small-diameter bombs: Because the 250-lb munition is much smaller and lighter than the typical JDAMs, yet maintains great precision in its targeting, fighters and bombers can carry more of them and thus provide more kills per sortie. For instance, the B-2 stealth bomber can carry sixteen 2000-lb JDAMs but will be able to carry hundreds of small-diameter bombs.

  • Loitering munitions such as the Low-Cost Autonomous Attack System (LOCAAS): After being dropped from an aircraft such as an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, the small, winged munitions promise to be able to hover in the air for up to 30 minutes seeking their target across an 80 square-km area. Then they pounce.

  • Pack hunters: Munitions such as the Sensor-Fused Weapon are to comprise submunitions, which themselves contain skeet warheads that scan the ground with an infrared sensor, looking for a target upon which to fire a penetrating slug. The submunitions descend by parachute, then fire out the skeets, thus allowing each Sensor-Fused Weapon to cover a 30-acre area.

If Congress supports the Pentagon's research efforts with funding, U.S. ground forces can expect in future to be supported to an even greater degree by these intelligent munitions.

Consider that 60% of munitions being used in the Afghanistan war are intelligent, precision-guided weapons, up from 8% in the Persian Gulf War. Clearly, these smart bombs have become not only indispensable, they're redefining the military's way of winning wars.


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