Airman Magazine, September 1996 --
by Tech. Sgt. Timothy P. Barela
photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds
Imagine a weapon so smart it can track a target, hunt it down, determine what it is, decide how best to kill it, then form the correct kill mechanism to deliver the lethal blow.
Imagine no longer.
Wright Laboratory's Armament Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is making the technology for this weapon a reality. The low-cost autonomous attack system, better known as LOCAAS, has the potential to annihilate tanks, surface-to-air missiles and theater ballistic missiles, and is so advanced it would make Luke Skywalker's eyes water.
"Making tanks obsolete sounds like a wild thing to say, but it's not that unrealistic [with this weapon]," said Kenneth Edwards, LOCAAS program manager. "At the very least, LOCAAS will change the nature of air-to-surface warfare. Because if enemy tanks are out in the open, chances are we're gonna kill 'em."
Up to 192 of these 30-inch-long, precision-guided munitions can be carried by aircraft such as B-1 or B-2 bombers, and could come in glider and powered versions. The gliders will have about a 40-mile range, while the powered units can travel up to 100 miles. That's especially useful to the B-1's mission survivability.
These miniature "cruise missiles" could be dropped in canisters with up to 12 units in each.
"That would be like launching 24 Maverick missiles from a fighter aircraft," Edwards said. "If only half of them found and destroyed a target, that would be 12 kills on one mission. Not a bad day's work."
Once they leave the dispenser, submunitions could fly up to 100 meters per second.
"Not bad for something that looks too ugly to fly," Edwards said. "But they not only fly, they fly right up to you and shoot you in the eyeball."
The "eyes" of this futuristic submunition is its LADAR seeker--a laser-radar sensor that provides high-resolution, three-dimensional imagery.
"LADAR is the weapon's most enabling technology," Edwards said. "It gives the weapon the ability to see, sense and distinguish targets."
After being launched, the seeker begins a relentless hunt. Aided by a global positioning system receiver, it starts a search pattern 750 meters wide and 100 miles long, scanning images at a million frames per second. When it finds a target, the LADAR draws a three-dimensional picture of it. It then has the ability to distinguish military targets from civilian vehicles. It can identify targets such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, radar and surface-to-air missile sites, etc. Then it can break it down even further and determine what kind of tank it's looking at.
That alone is enough to raise the hair on the necks of enemy tank commanders.
Once it decides a vehicle belongs to an enemy, the seeker continues to track it. On the way to the target, the seeker tells the warhead what kill mode would be best to use.
"It's a multimode warhead," Edwards said. "It has three different kill modes to destroy a target. It can hit the target with two different types of single slugs, like a big rifle bullet, or with fragments, like a shotgun blast."
The first type of slug is the long rod, which is the most devastating mode the munition can choose and is used for the hardest targets. Shaped like a giant icicle, it's used to penetrate tanks at close range. The aerostable slug, shaped like a big badminton birdie, also is used for tanks but at a more distant range. It makes a bigger hole than the long rod, but has less penetration.
"Once they penetrate, slugs cause chunks of metal to go crazy inside the tank, flying around at high energy levels to disable it and its occupants," Edwards said.
Fragments are used for softer targets, such as surface-to-air missiles. They strike a larger surface area, increasing the chances they'll hit a vital part, rendering the enemy vehicle useless.
The warhead shapes a copper plate, based on how a high explosive behind it detonates. "The amazing part is the unit decides on its own which mode to use, then forms it all by itself," Edwards said.
If one of these submunitions doesn't find a target, it is programmed to self-destruct, so the enemy can't get its hands on the technology, Edwards said.
Lasers, radar, space satellite receivers, bombs that form on their own and still low cost?
"Projected unit cost is $30,000-and that's for the powered version," Edwards said.
To put that in perspective, surface-to-air missiles, which the enemy will have to use to try to shoot down LOCAAS units, cost $300,000 to $400,000.
"And it would water your eyes to know how many SAMs it could take to shoot down one LOCAAS unit," Edwards said. "But no matter what, you have a $400,000 weapon trying to shoot down a $30,000 weapon. We basically can use LOCAAS as decoys. SAM sites will either have to use all their munitions to destroy our submunitions, or our submunitions will destroy them. Either way, enemy SAM sites are rendered ineffective."
The survivability of LOCAAS units has officials tickled pink.
"We've already done one flight test [July 1994], and three more are scheduled [one this year and two next year]," he said. "We're very pleased so far."
The Air Force obviously shares his optimism and is putting $44 million into the LOCAAS development program, Edwards said. If the Air Force decides to accept LOCAAS, Edwards said engineering manufacturing development can begin in a year, with an operational version ready a few years later.
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