Airman Magazine, September 1996 --
by Tech. Sgt. Timothy P. Barela
photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds
Imagine a weapon so smart it can track a target, hunt it down, determine
what it is, decide how best to kill it, then form the correct kill mechanism
to deliver the lethal blow.
Imagine no longer.
Wright Laboratory's Armament Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.,
is making the technology for this weapon a reality. The low-cost autonomous
attack system, better known as LOCAAS, has the potential to annihilate tanks,
surface-to-air missiles and theater ballistic missiles, and is so advanced
it would make Luke Skywalker's eyes water.
"Making tanks obsolete sounds like a wild thing to say, but it's not
that unrealistic [with this weapon]," said Kenneth Edwards, LOCAAS
program manager. "At the very least, LOCAAS will change the nature
of air-to-surface warfare. Because if enemy tanks are out in the open, chances
are we're gonna kill 'em."
Up to 192 of these 30-inch-long, precision-guided munitions can be carried
by aircraft such as B-1 or B-2 bombers, and could come in glider and powered
versions. The gliders will have about a 40-mile range, while the powered
units can travel up to 100 miles. That's especially useful to the B-1's
These miniature "cruise missiles" could be dropped in canisters
with up to 12 units in each.
"That would be like launching 24 Maverick missiles from a fighter aircraft,"
Edwards said. "If only half of them found and destroyed a target, that
would be 12 kills on one mission. Not a bad day's work."
Once they leave the dispenser, submunitions could fly up to 100 meters per
"Not bad for something that looks too ugly to fly," Edwards said.
"But they not only fly, they fly right up to you and shoot you in the
The "eyes" of this futuristic submunition is its LADAR seeker--a
laser-radar sensor that provides high-resolution, three-dimensional imagery.
"LADAR is the weapon's most enabling technology," Edwards said.
"It gives the weapon the ability to see, sense and distinguish targets."
After being launched, the seeker begins a relentless hunt. Aided by a global
positioning system receiver, it starts a search pattern 750 meters wide
and 100 miles long, scanning images at a million frames per second. When
it finds a target, the LADAR draws a three-dimensional picture of it. It
then has the ability to distinguish military targets from civilian vehicles.
It can identify targets such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks,
radar and surface-to-air missile sites, etc. Then it can break it down even
further and determine what kind of tank it's looking at.
That alone is enough to raise the hair on the necks of enemy tank commanders.
Once it decides a vehicle belongs to an enemy, the seeker continues to track
it. On the way to the target, the seeker tells the warhead what kill mode
would be best to use.
"It's a multimode warhead," Edwards said. "It has three different
kill modes to destroy a target. It can hit the target with two different
types of single slugs, like a big rifle bullet, or with fragments, like
a shotgun blast."
The first type of slug is the long rod, which is the most devastating mode
the munition can choose and is used for the hardest targets. Shaped like
a giant icicle, it's used to penetrate tanks at close range. The aerostable
slug, shaped like a big badminton birdie, also is used for tanks but at
a more distant range. It makes a bigger hole than the long rod, but has
"Once they penetrate, slugs cause chunks of metal to go crazy inside
the tank, flying around at high energy levels to disable it and its occupants,"
Fragments are used for softer targets, such as surface-to-air missiles.
They strike a larger surface area, increasing the chances they'll hit a
vital part, rendering the enemy vehicle useless.
The warhead shapes a copper plate, based on how a high explosive behind
it detonates. "The amazing part is the unit decides on its own which
mode to use, then forms it all by itself," Edwards said.
If one of these submunitions doesn't find a target, it is programmed to
self-destruct, so the enemy can't get its hands on the technology, Edwards
Lasers, radar, space satellite receivers, bombs that form on their own and
still low cost?
"Projected unit cost is $30,000-and that's for the powered version,"
To put that in perspective, surface-to-air missiles, which the enemy will
have to use to try to shoot down LOCAAS units, cost $300,000 to $400,000.
"And it would water your eyes to know how many SAMs it could take to
shoot down one LOCAAS unit," Edwards said. "But no matter what,
you have a $400,000 weapon trying to shoot down a $30,000 weapon. We basically
can use LOCAAS as decoys. SAM sites will either have to use all their munitions
to destroy our submunitions, or our submunitions will destroy them. Either
way, enemy SAM sites are rendered ineffective."
The survivability of LOCAAS units has officials tickled pink.
"We've already done one flight test [July 1994], and three more are
scheduled [one this year and two next year]," he said. "We're
very pleased so far."
The Air Force obviously shares his optimism and is putting $44 million into
the LOCAAS development program, Edwards said. If the Air Force decides to
accept LOCAAS, Edwards said engineering manufacturing development can begin
in a year, with an operational version ready a few years later.