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Boston Globe October 9, 2001 WEAPONS
New devices offer promise in air war

By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 10/9/2001

NEW YORK - In its bombing runs over Afghanistan, the US Air Force is using two new weapons that could dramatically change the nature of air warfare.

This claim was made by many in the 1991 Gulf War as well, with the introduction of laser-guided or ''smart'' bombs. But in fact, only 2 percent of all the US bombs dropped in that war were ''smart.'' And, because the laser sensors could not ''see'' through clouds or smoke, they were not as consistently lethal as early videotapes suggested.

However, officials and analysts say, the new weapons now being used are cheap, plentiful, and - if test results mean anything - promise to be truly effective.

The two new devices are the Sensor Fuzed Weapon, or SFW, and the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or J-DAM.

Both have been in development for years, but Pentagon officials have said this is the first time SFWs have been used in combat. A small number of J-DAMs were used in the Kosovo airstrikes; now, thousands are available.

It is unclear at this stage how many of both weapons actually will be used. Reports of Sunday's airstrikes indicate a great deal of ''carpet bombing'' - massive drops of old-fashioned iron or ''dumb'' bombs - on the Taliban's more concentrated assemblages of targets.

However, to hit more discrete targets - or targets that are surrounded by people - these newer, more accurate weapons are more likely to be used.

The J-DAM, manufactured by Boeing, is a guidance package that can be fitted onto a wide variety of US and NATO bombs. Equipped with a Global Positioning System receiver, similar to the GPS navigation devices in many cars, it transforms a ''dumb'' bomb into a ''smart'' bomb.

According to public Pentagon documents, each J-DAM costs $20,000 - a small fraction of the cost of a laser-guided bomb - meaning they can be purchased and installed in large numbers.

''The GPS receiver tells the bomb the coordinates of where it is, where it's going, and where it needs to go,'' explained John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. ''This means, unlike laser-guided bombs, it finds the target in all weather, regardless of smoke or dust or clouds.''

J-DAM kits went into full production just last year. The Air Force has 62,000 of them in its inventory. They can be attached to bombs carried by B-2 and B-52 bombers, F-22 fighters, and the Navy's F-18 fighters, and launched 15 miles away from their targets.

The SFW, built by Textron Systems, is more complicated. When dropped from a plane, it releases 10 submunitions. Each submunition splits into four Skeet warheads, which drop from their carriers by parachute.

Each warhead is packed with an infrared sensor, which homes in on the heat emitted by whatever target it's programmed to attack - typically a tank, armored personnel carrier, self-propelled artillery gun, or airplane.

When the sensor finds the target, an electronic pulse fires the warhead, which explodes on impact in fragments, like a little cluster bomb.

According to public Pentagon documents, the SFW went into production five years ago, and the Air Force now has a stockpile of 5,000. They cost about $334,000 apiece.

''This thing had all sorts of problems in the '80s and early '90s,'' said a Pentagon official who is familiar with the history of the SFW program. ''We used to say there'd have to be 1,000 miracles for it to work.

''But,'' he added, ''at least 900 of the miracles happened. They worked out the bugs. It will find a tank in a combat environment.''

While still not perfect, ''it works well enough so that it can be of some utility.''

An unclassified report last year by the Pentagon's office of development testing and evaluation noted that, owing to the effects of ''ballistic errors and unknown winds,'' the SFW might not find its targets if dropped from higher than 3,000 feet. But it would work well if dropped from lower altitudes.

A modification called the Wind Correction Munition Dispenser, to be added to the weapon's tail, was designed to correct this problem. If it works, a plane could drop the SFW from as high as 40,000 feet.

Tests of this device began 18 months ago. The results are not known. In any case, there are two versions of the SFW: the CBU-97, which does not include this correction, and the CBU-105, which does.

A Pentagon spokesman yesterday declined to say which version was being used in this war.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 10/9/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.


Copyright 2001 National Broadcasting Co. Inc.