Nobody else is going to save you but yourself-but how?
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Even the most high-tech warplane in the world is useless without its weapons. From the earliest days of aerial combat, fighter planes succeeded or failed depending on the accuracy, lethality and reliability of their machine guns, cannons, rockets and bombs. That's why the U.S. military is hard at work on a dizzying array of pricey new guided munitions to match its trillion-dollar investment in stealth fighters, bombers and killer drones. Some are super smart. Others, super fast. A few are designed to be tiny. All of them have one purpose: to blow away the target, and only the target.
Unblinking Radar Killer
Fifty years ago in the skies over Vietnam, Russian-made SA-2 surface-to-air missiles wreaked havoc on U.S. warplanes. The telephone-pole-size, radar-guided missile destroyed hundreds of fighter-bombers and no fewer than a dozen B-52 bombers. To counter the SA-2, a desperate Pentagon fitted air-launched missiles with sensors capable of following a radar wave to its source.
The resulting Anti-Radiation Missile helped staunch the aerial bloodletting. But with every advancement in radar technology and tactics, the Pentagon has to improve its radar-killing missiles. The latest model is the AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile built by ATK. With its super-smart sensors, including a radar homer and a highly precise millimeter-wave radar, the $1-million AGM-88E needs just a short burst of radar activity to know exactly where the enemy missile facility is located -- and streak down for the kill. A high-speed camera in the AGM-88E's nose beams back snapshots of the target in the instant before the blast, helping planners know what exactly they hit.
That's the theory, at least. After a string of test failures last year, the Pentagon put the AGM-88E on hold. Testing restarted after a few months. Now the military expects the new-and-improved radar-killer to enter service on Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18s and EA-18G radar-jamming planes in February. Photo: U.S. Navy
Next to machine guns and plain old gravity bombs, unguided rockets are the oldest aerial weapons in the world. U.S. military attack jets and helicopters fire them from pods carrying up to 19 2.75-inch-diameter rockets, each with the explosive power of a hand grenade. The diminutive rockets take the shotgun approach to aerial bombardment.
But what if your shotgun fired a super-accurate, laser-guided shot? It was that sort of thought that inspired the U.S. Army's Advanced Precision-Kill Weapon System program, aimed at fitting a tiny, smart seeker to each rocket.
The Army gave up on APKWS in 2008, but the Navy revived it. Marine gunship helicopters and Harrier jump jets could carry the smart rockets. So could the Air Force's A-10 tank-killers and the Navy's MQ-8 Fire Scout drone helicopters, among other aircraft. BAE Systems should start delivering the rockets in the next couple of months. Photo: U.S. Army
Spoofing, Jamming, Exploding Aerial Drone
Most air-launched weapons are designed to destroy. The Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, built by Raytheon, is designed to confuse. The 300-pound, seven-foot-long device -- ADM-160 is its military designation -- shares the qualities of a cruise missile, an aerial drone and an electronic noisemaker. Its mission: to mimic the profile of U.S. warplanes, in order to spoof enemy air defenses.
The basic MALD, which entered service last year, works something like this: F-16s or B-52s launch the decoys ahead of the main strike force. The 300-pound, jet-powered 'bots cruise for up to 500 miles, more or less inviting enemy defenders to unload their guns and missiles at them. Meanwhile, Air Force and Navy planes carrying anti-radiation missiles sneak around to destroy the enemy air defenses as they're busily killing the MALDs.
Raytheon was quick to improve on the initial design. Today the company is adding a radar jammer to the MALD so it can screw with enemy defenses while also posing as a strike plane. The so-called MALD-J -- "J" for "jammer" -- should be ready sometime next year. Raytheon has also proposed adding a warhead, too, allowing the decoy to transform into a lethal cruise missile at the end of its mission.
As if that weren't enough, Raytheon recently tested a high-capacity rack that would enable Air Force cargo planes to "deliver hundreds of MALDs during a single combat sortie,” according to vice president Harry Schulte. Swarms of decoys -- some blaring electronic noise, others bearing high explosives -- would descend on enemy defenders like angry, buzzing bees. Photo: U.S. Air Force
As air-dropped bombs got more accurate, ground forces learned to dig in deeper. Today, "rogue" states such as Iran and North Korea are experts at burying their most important military facilities deep underground. The Pentagon's countermeasure was to build bombs that were accurate and gigantic, with the mass and explosive power to punch through thick layers of earth and concrete.
The problem is, there aren't many warplanes that can carry the biggest bunker-busting bombs. The GBU-28, at 5,000 pounds, barely fits on an F-15E fighter-bomber. The more powerful Massive Ordnance Penetrator, weighing a whopping 30,000 pounds, is compatible with only the Air Force's B-2 stealth bomber. To give more jets bunker-busting power, the Air Force needs a smaller earth-penetrating bomb.
This year the Air Force Research Laboratories announced they're working on a bunker-buster that trades mass for velocity. With a rocket booster propelling it to Mach-5 speed, a 2,000-pound bomb could do the same damage as an unboosted 5,000-pound weapon, according to AFRL. The High-Velocity Penetrating Weapon would also boast "intelligent fuzing and optimized explosive." In other words, it will be able to sense how far through a structure it has traveled, so it knows just when to blow up for maximum damage.
The Air Force claims the new bunker-buster could be ready by 2014. Photo: U.S. Air Force
Tiny Glide Bomb
A 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition can reportedly kill people standing 400 yards from the point of impact. In close urban fighting, that kind of explosive power can hurt a lot of innocent people. During the early days of the Iraq war, the Pentagon had nothing useful in its bomb arsenal lighter than 500 pounds -- still too big for many battlefields. For a quick fix, the Navy reportedly added concrete warheads to some Paveway laser-guided bombs; their kinetic energy was enough to flatten most targets. Still, a permanent solution was needed.
Enter the Small Diameter Bomb, a 300-pound, GPS-guided mini-munition built by Boeing that combines a lower explosive yield with a high degree accuracy to minimize the danger to innocent bystanders. Snap-out wings allow the tiny killer to glide 40 miles or more, if released at high speed and altitude.
The original SDB I entered service in 2006. This year, the military began testing a more accurate SDB II, built by Raytheon under a half-billion-dollar contract. V2.0 of the tiny bomb adds three additional guidance modes to the existing GPS, including laser, millimeter radar and infrared. If smoke, rain or cloud cover foils one sensor, the bomb switches to another one.
Besides a minimal blast, the Small Diameter Bomb has the advantage of being, well, small in diameter. The B-2 stealth bomber can to carry more than 80 SDBs at a time on special racks. In World War II, just half of the bombs dropped by Allied bombers struck within two miles of their targets, meaning it could take hundreds of warplanes to destroy, say, a factory. In 2018, when the SDB II is supposed to enter service, a single B-2 with two pilots could achieve what once required an entire air force with thousands of bombers and tens of thousands of crew. Photo: Boeing
Today you need a unique missile or bomb for each different kind of target. But in a decade or so, U.S. warplanes could carry a single missile for taking out all but the most heavily armored ground targets. The Triple-Target Terminator, in development by Darpa and missile-maker Raytheon since last fall, is meant as a "high-speed, long-range missile that can engage air, cruise-missile, and air-defense targets," according to the fringe-science agency.
Taking out air and ground targets with the same basic weapon requires some serious technological gymnastics -- a challenge Darpa acknowledges. "The enabling technologies are: propulsion, multi-mode seekers, data links, digital guidance and control and advanced warheads." In other words, Raytheon and Darpa are going to have to make huge advancements in pretty much every aspect of aerial weapon design.
But there are hints that the Terminator is technically feasible. The latest version of the short-range Sidewinder heat-seeking, air-to-air missile is capable of also striking certain ground targets -- a rudimentary preview of the Pentagon's future do-everything missile. Illo: Darpa
Picture air-defense systems parked atop downtown hotels, or enemy command posts hidden in refugee camps. Sometimes you need to take out an enemy's weapons and communications without actually blowing up anything. That's the thinking behind Boeing's Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project.
CHAMP is supposed to emit a burst of microwave energy capable of frying electronics without hurting nearby people. Think of it as an "e-missile." Before, the only way to generate a circuitry-destroying electromagnetic pulse was to detonate a nuclear weapon high in the atmosphere. Boeing's challenge with CHAMP is to harness the effects of a nuke without the, ahem, nasty side effects of a fission weapon.
Boeing tested CHAMP for the very first time in Utah sometime prior to September. The test "sets the stage for a new breed of nonlethal but highly effective weapon systems," the company crowed. The $38-million development effort wraps up in 2012. Illo: Boeing
During the Cold War, the Navy constantly drilled for open-ocean warfare with the Soviets -- and developed anti-ship missiles suitable for the task, including the now-classic Harpoon. But in the 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, the sailing branch allowed its ship-killing prowess to languish. When China began building up its fleet of frigates, destroyers and even an aircraft carrier, the Navy discovered it didn't have modern anti-ship missiles to meet the threat.
This summer, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded Lockheed Martin a $10-million contract to develop a new Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile compatible with naval vessels and warplanes. The new ship-killer must be faster, smarter and more lethal than the Harpoon. Plus, it has to be ready for production in just a few years.
LRASM should be capable of some neat tricks. It'll be supersonic and long-legged, with a range up to 500 miles. “Once the missile flies that far, it has a requirement to be able to independently detect and validate the target that it was shot at,” program manager Rob McHenry said. Plus, the missile will be smart enough to detect and strike the most vulnerable part of a ship. Illo: Darpa
Smaller, More Accurate Nuke
With around 1,000 in the inventory, the B61 is America's primary nuclear gravity bomb -- and has been since the 1960s. Current plans anticipate a smaller future inventory of just 400 B61s. In part to compensate for the reduced stockpile, the unguided B61 will get a new GPS guidance kit fitted to the bomb's tail. The upgrade is scheduled to be completed in 2018.
GPS will give the B61-12 the same pinpoint accuracy as the conventional Joint Direct Attack Munition. Better accuracy means the nuke doesn't have to be as powerful as before to achieve the same effect. "The upgrade would also improve the capability of U.S. strategic bombers to destroy targets with lower yield and less radioactive fallout," noted Hans Kristensen, from the Federation of American Scientists. The B61-12 will carry a 50-kiloton warhead, compared to the 340 kilotons for some older B61s.
But the upgrade is not without controversy. Better accuracy and a smaller warhead could make nuclear bombs seem "more useable," and that could "potentially lower the nuclear threshold in a conflict," Kristensen warned. The same fear scuttled Pentagon plans in the 1990s for less powerful nukes. Photo: U.S. Air Force
Mach-5 Cruise Missile
When it comes to air-launched missiles, supersonic is good. Hypersonic -- any speed over Mach 5 -- is even better. For decades the Pentagon has tried and failed to build a cruise missile that can travel that fast. But the military isn't giving up just yet.
The benefits of high speed are many. A super-fast missile leaves the enemy no time to shoot back or evade attack. Plus, speed equals energy. A missile traveling fast enough wouldn't even need an explosive warhead in order to obliterate its target -- the kinetic energy alone would do the job.
But mastering the propulsion, materials and guidance to pull off controlled, Mach-5 flight with a reasonably sized missile has proved challenging, to put it lightly. Just ask the Navy, which for years tinkered with a hypersonic missile called RATTLRS. Or the Air Force, which has experienced test failure after test failure with its Mach-20 Hypersonic Test Vehicle and the slimmer, slower X-51 Waverider, pictured.
The Boeing-built X-51 is perhaps the closest to producing a real-world weapon. Last year the X-51 flew at hypersonic speed for several minutes after launching from a B-52 bomber. The latest test of the 26-foot test missile, on June 13, ended prematurely when the its main engine failed to start. "Obviously we're disappointed and expected better results, but we are very pleased with the data collected on this flight," researcher Charlie Brink said. The X-51 is scheduled to fly again in coming months. Photo: Boeing