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Inside the Air Force


Initial shipment of 10 BLU-118B warheads expected soon



Date: January 4, 2002 -

The Pentagon is preparing to deploy an initial batch of "thermobaric" warheads designed to destroy targets hidden in caves, according to defense officials.

The weapons have "fuel-rich" warheads that can fill tunnels with fireballs. The Defense Department believes this weapon will be more effective in destroying caves and tunnels than traditional explosives, according to Air Force and Defense Threat Reduction Agency officials. The first shipment of 10 units for use against targets in Afghanistan is expected soon, although officials declined to provide precise dates.

Pentagon acquisition chief Pete Aldridge announced Dec. 21 the plan to send two types of new penetrator weapons to Afghanistan. The weapons are being rushed into service to destroy hardened, underground facilities that are among the most difficult to eliminate.

The thermobaric BLU-118B warhead "was especially designed for internal blast applications," according to a summary of the program provided by the Air Force this week. The weapon is considered better than conventional explosives at destroying cave targets because it creates a blast similar to that of a fuel-air explosive. The blast wave rushes further through a tunnel, without causing a tunnel collapse around the initial explosion.

Weapons capable of destroying reinforced, underground targets are "something we clearly have a need for in Afghanistan, and they are on their way," Aldridge said at the Pentagon meeting with reporters.

"It's a new explosive [specifically] designed for tunnels," Aldridge said of the thermobaric warhead. "We have tested one out in Nevada just recently, where we skipped a laser-guided bomb into a tunnel, exploded it with a delay fuse [and] experienced a significant growth" in temperature and pressure throughout the tunnel, he said.

According to Air Force and DTRA officials, a Dec. 14 test proved the BLU-118B's utility for the war on terrorism. The Nevada test against a mock tunnel concluded a two-month accelerated development period.

The thermobaric fill warhead was designed by DTRA and the Naval Surface Weapons Center, co-sponsors of an advanced concept technology demonstration that led to its development. The Air Force was intended from the beginning to be the ACTD's service sponsor when the weapon became operational.

The BLU-118B warhead uses the same "penetrator body" as the 2,000-pound Lockheed Martin BLU-109 warhead, according to the Air Force summary, and can therefore be attached to a variety of weapons, including the GBU-24 Paveway laser-guided bomb. The new thermobaric warhead should ultimately be deliverable by a wide variety of Air Force and Navy strike aircraft, including the F-15, the F-16 and the F/A-18.

The thermobaric weapon is not the only new penetrator weapon intended to support Operation Enduring Freedom. Underground facilities are among the most difficult to destroy, and DOD is looking at a number of penetrating weapons to address these targets in the future.

"We have developed two new weapons. One is an earth penetrator, based on a cruise missile," Aldridge said at his briefing, without providing details. Public affairs officials would not reveal what the other weapon being prepared for use in Afghanistan is, but there are several options available, as many cruise missiles with penetrating warheads are already under development.

The Air Force is procuring 50 Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles with penetrating warheads, and according to contractor Boeing nearly all of these CALCMs have been delivered to the service.

The Air Force is also developing a penetrating warhead for the Lockheed Martin Joint Air-to-Surface Missile, an official said this week. Despite a successful test of the penetrating JASSM last month, the weapon is not scheduled for delivery to the field for another 18 months.

The Army Tactical Missile System Penetrator effort involves the integration of a Navy warhead that would make the 220-kilometer-range system better equipped to destroy secure, underground targets. TACM-P, as it is known, is an ACTD scheduled for initial operational capability in fiscal year 2004.

Also, the Navy is developing a penetrating variant of the Joint Standoff Weapon that will add the British Bomb Royal Ordnance Augmenting Charge. Plans call for BROACH JSOWs to be operational in FY-04.

A thermobaric weapon could also be useful for defeating chemical and biological weapons sites. Conventional explosives are problematic because they can spread the same deadly agents an attack is intended to destroy, but a thermobaric weapon could avoid this by incinerating chem-bio agents.

Weapons of mass destruction held in hardened facilities are "the most vexing [targeting] challenge" faced by the Defense Department, according to a recently completed DOD-Energy Department study.

Air Combat Command is conducting an analysis of alternatives to determine the best ways to defeat these chem-bio targets and is investigating thermobaric weapons as one option. The AOA had been scheduled for completion last year, but now has a completion date of mid 2002, officials say.

"It's been a difficult study," the official running the AOA said last year. ACC hopes to identify a single "fill" that can destroy chem-bio targets safely and effectively, with the ultimate goal being the ability to defeat any WMD target with a single weapon.

Fill concepts include weapons designed to destroy chem-bio targets with thermobarics, ultraviolet radiation, oxidizers or enzymes that cause chemical neutralization -- almost anything other than the baseline high-explosive method, Air Force officials have said

Moving beyond these conventional solutions, the DOD-DOE report states "nuclear weapons have a unique ability" to destroy WMD targets, compared to the limited options available now.

Development of a new, low-yield nuclear weapon for this purpose is an option because such a weapon could "achieve the needed neutralization" of WMD agents with fewer "weapon-produced collateral effects" than would be unleashed by using existing nuclear weapons not designed to destroy WMD targets, it adds.

The United States does not currently possess low-yield nuclear weapons for this purpose, and there are no official plans to begin such a program. -- Adam J. Hebert





_source: Inside the Air Force

_date: January 4, 2002

_issue: Vol. 13, No. 1


© Inside Washington Publishers - reproduced with permission


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