JDAM continues to be warfighter's weapon of choice
by Staff Sgt. Ryan Hansen
Air Armament Center Public Affairs
3/17/2006 - EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFPN) -- To call yourself the Airman warfighter's weapon of choice is one thing, but it's quite another to go out and back it up.
Since its debut in 1999, the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, has been called upon more than 15,000 times and continues to be used in the global war on terror.
JDAM is a tail kit that turns an unguided dumb bomb, already in the warfigther's arsenal, into an accurate smart munition. These new smart weapons are available to the warfighter in four variants: the 2,000-pound MK-84, the 2,000-pound BLU-109, the 1,000-pound MK-83 and the 500-pound MK-82.
With a range of about 15 nautical miles, the autonomous JDAM can be released from almost every aircraft in the Air Force and Navy inventory from a very low or very high altitude in almost any type of weather. Once in the air, the weapon uses its inertial navigation and Global Positioning System to find its target.
But even though JDAM is now a staple of America's arsenal, the Direct Attack Systems Group here continues to upgrade the weapon and find new ways for the warfighter to use it to their advantage.
New weapon needed
In 1991 when Air Force leaders reviewed its performance following Operation Desert Storm they saw an operational need for a precision-guided weapon that could be used in any weather.
The United States used mostly unguided munitions during the first conflict with Iraq. These weapons were not very accurate, which caused a variety of problems. The Air Force did use some laser-guided weapons, but they were only effective in near perfect weather and were very expensive. So an alternative was needed.
Fortunately some researchers and engineers at Eglin had already been looking at a new way to guide a bomb to its target since the 1980s. This group came up with the idea of using inertial navigation to make it work.
"We had done a (technology demonstration) and the (Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate) actually conducted the initial study," said Dr. Louis Cerrato, chief engineer of the JDAM Squadron, who was part of that original team. "But after the demo it languished for a couple of years and it was put on the shelf."
After the service's review of the conflict and its subsequent findings, the technology was ready to be taken off the shelf.
Keep costs down
Many issues still had to be overcome even though the Air Force was ready to move forward with the project. The most important factor was affordability. The service did not want to pay a lot for this new weapon technology.
Luckily for the new program office, acquisition reform was taking place inside the Department of Defense. JDAM was picked by Congress to be one of seven pilot programs given waivers that allowed them to avoid some government regulations that were often very costly.
"Previously, companies dealing with the government were required to provide extensive cost data to justify prices," said Roy Handsel, a project manager with the JDAM Squadron. "This complicated and labor intensive information gathering put many small manufacturing shops out of the running for government contracts. But with waivers ... small businesses across America could be subcontracted ... to produce the subassemblies that make up a JDAM."
In 1995 McDonnell Douglas, which later merged with Boeing, was picked to develop the low-cost JDAM. The Air Force and Navy were on board to purchase 87,000 tail kits at just $18,000 a piece -- which has since increased to more than 200,000 units because of the weapon's affordable price and operational success.
"JDAM has been one of the most successful acquisition reform programs," said Norma Taylor, program development flight director for the JDAM Squadron. "It has really been an example for other programs."
The weapon was called upon for the first time in Operation Allied Force. B-2 Spirits flew 30-hour, nonstop, round trip missions from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., releasing more than 650 JDAMs during the conflict.
"Accuracy and reliability numbers on paper is one thing, but seeing results in combat is the real proof that our troops have seen and now they know they can count on JDAM," said Lt. Col. Richard Hyde, JDAM Squadron commander.
The weapon showed it could do even more for the warfighter with the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. B-52 Stratofortresses flying high above the battlefield and loaded to the hilt with JDAMs were regularly called in to provide close air support in addition to their regular missions.
"This type of performance has led to using JDAM in roles ... that we didn't envision," Colonel Hyde said. "It has really transformed our bomber fleet and the roles they can perform."
The same was true in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Warfighters knew they could rely on JDAMs and were able to use the 500-pound version of the weapon for the first time.
"Its smaller size really allows us to use the JDAM in more of an urban operation," Ms. Taylor said. "With the war being brought into the cities we really have to be not only precise, but also have very little collateral damage, and the 500-pounder really does that for us."
Its continued performance in the war on terrorism leaves no doubts about the JDAM's importance to the warfighter.
JDAM will be one of the first weapons in the inventory to be universal armament interface compliant. This technology will allow the Air Force and Navy to incorporate new precision-guided munitions and current weapon upgrades onto its aircraft without major changes to aircraft software -- a process that takes years and is very costly.
"Once we are implemented on a platform with UAI we'll be able to bring in new upgrades ... and integrate them significantly quicker than what we could before," Ms. Taylor said. "It used to take years but now with UAI the process will be a lot quicker."
The jointly manned JDAM Squadron is also working with the Department of the Navy to add a laser seeker to the weapon. This will help the warfighter in two ways.
"If we do not have an exact GPS coordinate for a target, but we have the ability to put a laser spot on it, we'll still be able to drop JDAMs in that application," Ms. Taylor said. "Plus a laser JDAM will be very effective against moving targets."
Another way the JDAM Squadron is looking at making the weapon more useful against moving targets is by adding a data link. The Affordable Moving Surface Target Engagement effort is doing just that.
"In the AMSTE scenario, once a JDAM is released, E-8C Joint Stars will be able to provide the weapon with continuous updates of a target's position to the weapon until impact," Colonel Hyde said. "This effort is being focused on maritime interdiction."
The weapon remains the warfighter's weapon of choice, but it's definitely not the same JDAM that rolled off the assembly line in the 1990s. They have significantly increased accuracy, satellite acquisition, anti-jamming and electronic processing.
"This is not your father's JDAM," Colonel Hyde said. "We're more than just a production weapon, we're continuously on the leading edge of technology and we're always looking toward the future."
(Courtesy of Air Force Materiel Command News Service)
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list