It’s cloudy and almost dark when your cockpit display shows the president has given final approval for the carefully planned strike on the rogue mobile missile launchers. They told you before you catapulted from the aircraft carrier deck in your F-35C that the weather would suck. Can your bombs still hit the target precisely enough to knock it out, without causing collateral damage?
Yes, if your plane carries the Small Diameter Bomb II. Maybe you are flying the B-2, or the Air Force or Marine Corps variants of the F-35. No matter. SDB II is critical to each of the advanced, stealth platforms. Far-fetched scenario? Perhaps. But it shows how having the right weapon in the bomb bay really matters.
The SDB II is an air-launched, stand-off weapon quite different from bigger bombs. At just 250 pounds, it has enough accuracy and oomph to blast an armored tank. Not too many of those around today, but its size and punch will make it useful for targets like enemy ballistic missile launchers, as in the example above.
Existing air-launched weapons have to be able to see their targets to hit them. The SDB II, by contrast, can travel about 40 miles through bad weather, at night or in daytime, and still hit its target with incredibly high accuracy. Most important: It’s designed to be equally effective against moving and fixed targets.
The SDB II really is small, or rather, skinny. Its nose measures only 7 inches across. That’s good, because an F-35 stealth fighter can pack the weapons into its internal weapons bays. SDB II has an integrated tri-mode seeker including millimeter wave technology for use in clouds or fog. Raytheon manufactures it, and its officials recently said improved productivity on the assembly line helped the company drop manufacturing time from 75 hours to 40 hours.
Everything sounds like it’s going well — but weapons are all too likely to be cut or delayed during Pentagon budget cuts.
Budget-cutting has to be a part of the solution, no question. We need to be asking ourselves whether we are delivering to our military the maximum battlefield edge. We need systems that fully exploit our technological superiority to accomplish objectives as efficiently as possible, with as little collateral damage as possible, and with as little risk to our servicemembers as possible.
Precision weapons are not something we can do without. A case in point: The Joint Direct Attack Munition guidance kit turns free-fall bombs dropped from airplanes into precision-guided munitions. JDAMs can leave their launch platforms at greater distances from their targets, reducing the risks to planes and crews. Their GPS guidance systems make a precise hit more likely. Their accuracy ensures minimal damage outside the target area. B-2 bombers dropped the first JDAMs in combat in 1999. To date, the military has purchased 195,000 JDAM kits. Money well spent, because JDAMS are carried daily over Afghanistan and used to get U.S. and NATO troops out of danger.
The SDB II is part of the next generation of weapons that will be expected to deliver a lethal blow exactly where we want while substantially reducing the risk of civilian casualties. They’ll be even more important as the number of aircraft in our combat fleets declines. Let’s not forget: The ability to drop smarter bombs at greater distances from the target reduces the exposure of our planes and crews to threats such as surface-to-air missiles or anti-aircraft artillery.
SDB II will enable a huge gain in attacking power. For instance, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be able to carry eight SDBs internally — and when the mission favors firepower over stealth, it can carry an additional 16 externally. The only weapon an F-35 can carry today that can hit a moving target — albeit on a clear day — is a 2,000-pound laser-guided bomb. An F-35 can carry only two internally.
Say you’re a commander and need to destroy an armored convoy column of 48 vehicles advancing toward their objective. With the SDB II, you can destroy that column with two F-35s. In contrast, you’d need eight F-35s loaded with 2,000-pound laser-guided weapons to take out the same 48 targets. Multiply that for convoys in separate locations, and SDB II becomes vital.
That commanders can use fewer aircraft to accomplish the same mission also translates into major costs savings for taxpayers.
This kind of all-purpose combat flexibility is absolutely essential for modern warfare. Think Libya, Yemen, counter-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia. These operations involve relatively small groups of American military personnel operating next-generation weapons.
Fast forward to that cloudy night mission. Aren’t you glad the SDB II did not get delayed back during the budget battles of 2012?
Advanced weaponry can cut down on American casualties and save lives.
Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research, a public policy research organization in Washington. She is also director of the General William Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, the nonprofit research arm of the Air Force Association.