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USA TODAY March 23, 2003

JDAM smart bombs prove to be accurate - and a good buy

By Gary Stoller

Pound for dollar, the Joint Direct Attack Munition bomb may be the best armament in the high-tech arsenal used in the effort to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Relatively cheap and extremely accurate, satellite-guided JDAMs were launched at the onset of hostilities when two F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters each dropped two 2,000-pounders at a Baghdad facility where Saddam, his two sons and other senior Iraqi leaders were meeting last week.

While reports that Saddam was injured in the attack remain unconfirmed, JDAMs and other guided weapons clearly obliterated Saddam's main palace and scores of government and military structures. They will likely see extensive use in the days ahead.

JDAMs are also proving to be a boon for Boeing, which this year could have higher profits from defense contracts than from commercial aircraft for the first time in decades.

The weapons are at the forefront of a battle "as precise as ever in the history of warfare," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday, just before a fresh round of guided munitions was launched against key targets in Baghdad.

Military analysts are particularly effusive about JDAMS, calling them the new top performers in the military's smart bomb arsenal and the weapon of choice against the Saddam regime.

JDAMs use a computer-navigation system and global-satellite-positioning data to pinpoint targets and avoid civilian causalities. They can be programmed before the start of a mission or by pilots in flight.

"It's definitely the signature weapon of modern warfare," says defense policy analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. "It's 10 times more accurate than an unguided bomb but 10 times cheaper than laser-guided bombs."

Boeing workers assemble the 5-foot-long JDAM tail kits, which the Air Force and Navy use to smarten "dumb" bombs weighing up to 2,000 lbs.

A kit - containing a circuit board, a navigation unit, tail fins and a global-positioning receiver and antenna - is placed on each bomb. The bombs are then sent to military bases, where warheads and fuses are added.

Each kit sells for about $20,000. Warheads and fuses bring the cost to $24,000 apiece, Boeing spokesman Robert Algarotti says. Laser-guided bombs, which are more precise, can cost thousands of dollars, while even more precise television-guided munitions can cost $1 million.

JDAM kit are far cheaper because they require no laser or TV "seeker" components and can be used on inexpensive gravity bombs stockpiled since the Vietnam War, says spokesman Jake Swinson at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base. Boeing's production costs also have been cut because JDAM kits were initially developed under a pilot program to test new defense concepts. Federal acquisition rules were waived, allowing the use of off-the-shelf parts instead of putting each through a costlier government qualification process, Algarotti says.

Boeing began producing kits in 1997. From September 2001 to October 2002, the JDAM program generated more than $1 billion dollars worth of contracts, Algarotti says. He says the program is profitable but refuses to release financial details.

The Air Force originally ordered about 87,000 kits but has since expanded its contract to more than 230,000. Boeing expects to boost production 40% to 2,800 kits per month this summer, Algarotti says. The increase is unrelated to Iraq. It's part of an Air Force decision in December 2001 to buy more kits, he says.

Boeing also has contracts to make JDAM kits for five other countries, but Algarotti wouldn't name them.

Weatherproof

"JDAM may be the most successful munitions program of this generation," says defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank. "It costs less than anticipated, delivers higher accuracy than expected and turned out to be more needed than the military anticipated."

Perhaps most important, JDAM bombs perform well in all kinds of weather. In the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo war, the more expensive laser-guided weapons didn't work properly in bad or cloudy weather or smoky conditions, defense experts say.

In need of an all-weather precision-guided weapon, the Air Force launched the JDAM program after the Gulf War. McDonnell Douglas was selected as the contractor a few years before the company's 1997 merger with Boeing.

During the Gulf War, guided weapons' effectiveness was "often limited by weather, target location uncertainty and other factors," a 1998 General Accounting Office report said. "As a consequence, bombing accuracy was poor, and multiple weapons - in some cases, multiple attacks - were used on each target."

Military experts and defense analysts say those days are ended; JDAMs shouldn't encounter the problems that guided weapons faced in the Gulf War.

The first JDAM bombs - 652 - were dropped by the Air Force in the Kosovo war. Thousands more were used in 2001 against the Taliban and the al-Qaeda terrorist group in Afghanistan, says Swinson.

Military officials concede that JDAMs aren't foolproof. About 2% experience mechanical or electronic failures, the Air Force says. During the Kosovo war, a JDAM bomb killed several people inside the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, triggering a diplomatic dispute. Military experts blame intelligence reports that mistakenly targeted the embassy, not JDAM. In Afghanistan, a JDAM bomb killed three U.S. soldiers and wounded 20 others in December 2001. Again, military experts say the cause was human error: The wrong coordinates were programmed in.

Made in Missouri

JDAM kits are assembled by 36 Boeing workers at a 30,000-square-foot factory in St. Charles, Mo. The town, near Lambert-St.Louis International Airport, is perhaps best known as the starting point of Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition. More than 150 employees work on the program off the assembly line.

JDAM productionline workers, members of the machinists' union, work one of two eight-hour weekday shifts. All have the same job classification and can perform each others' tasks. Each kit has parts from 44 suppliers that are put together at 15 productionline stations. It takes about 90 minutes to assemble each kit, which has a 20-year warranty. After assembly, each is packed in foam inside a vapor-sealed bag. Two sealed kits are then placed in a shipping container and loaded onto a truck. Nearly every weekday, a shipment goes to a U.S. military base, where it takes about 10 minutes to put the complete weapon together.

Boeing and the Air Force are now developing JDAM kits for 500-pound bombs, but Air Force officials say they probably won't be ready for use in Iraq. A 500-pound JDAM would offer various advantages. It could be deployed by smaller aircraft, cost less and minimize damage outside the target area.

Boeing says it has a commitment from the military to produce kits until the end of the decade. "Beyond that, we don't know," says Algarotti. "It will be determined by events and new technologies."

Defense analysts are bullish. "There's not much on the horizon that surpasses the accuracy of the JDAM," says the Lexington Institute's Thompson, who teaches emerging technologies at Georgetown University. "It delivers high precision at an amazingly low cost."


Copyright 2003, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.