Long Island Newsday
November 14, 1999
The Bargain Basement Bomb
U.S. generals: JDAM is cheap and accurate
By Patrick J. Sloyan, Washington Bureau
Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. -- Take a steel part from a lawnmower, add an antique computer chip, get some automobile plastic from Detroit and you have the ingredients of the most accurate cheap bomb ever produced.
It is called JDAM, the not-so-catchy acronym for Joint Direct Attack Munition, which stunned NATO generals with its accuracy during last spring's Operation Allied Force in Kosovo. "It's incredible," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Leroy Barnidge Jr., who oversaw the use of 650 JDAMs on Serbia.
Critics of Pentagon weapon programs, which routinely cost twice as much and perform half as well as defense contractors promise, also said they were impressed. A $14,000 JDAM kit has transformed vintage, Vietnam War-era bombs into such lethal and reliable weapons that by next year, the kit will be carried by every Air Force, Navy and Marine fighter-bomber.
One such skeptic, John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, sees JDAM as a last-minute addition to the 20th Century's pantheon to human destruction.
"It's right up there with the machine gun and the atomic bomb," Pike said of the $4 billion program.
It takes 10 minutes to add JDAM technology to the tail section of the one-ton, Vietnam-era MK48. "It's easy to handle," said Air Force Master Sgt. William Mansey, 35, of Panama City, Fla. "You only need to tighten 12 set screws." Mansey directed the arming and loading of 18 JDAMS onto each B-2 bomber that flew roundtrip missions from Missouri to Serb targets. Only two of the 650 JDAM launches failed; they were traced to faulty wiring in the plane, not the bomb, Mansey said.
The success of JDAM is tied to the new Air Force Global Positioning System. The network of 24 satellites beamed locations so precise that they permitted B-2 Spirit bomber pilots uncommon accuracy in all weather and at night.
The JDAM bombs were released up to 15 miles from their targets, and as they fell, the satellite signals were captured by a tiny radio receiver which in turn updated a small inertial navigation system. An electric motor then moved fins on the tail assembly so the JDAM bomb moves up or down, left or right until it hones in on the precise pre-programed longitude and latitude. The system resulted in an unprecedented number of "shacks"-direct hits-program directors said.
"It will go miles in any direction," said Barnidge, of JDAM's maneuverability.
"It will hit the targets you can pick out with radar, or it can hit targets you can't see but you know their exact location." JDAM was also strapped to BLU109 bombs, which burrow into the earth before detonating to destroy underground bunkers. Mostly, however, JDAM kits were attached to the MK48, the Vietnam-era bomb stockpiled in warehouses around the globe. "We have hundreds of thousands of these bombs," said Jake Schwenk, an Air Force spokesman at Eglin.
During the Kosovo conflict, JDAM outperformed laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles costing between $350,000 and $1 million each. Rain, snow, ice and fog-an almost daily springtime event in the Balkans-disrupted the focused ray of laser light needed to designate targets. Scores of missions were scrubbed.
Usually, two-plane packages are needed-one designates the target with a laser beam, while the second fires the missile.
By contrast, JDAM planes need only an on-board targeting computer that updates the weapon until the moment it is dropped. With wars increasingly conducted in and around civilian population centers, accuracy has become a top demand for U.S. commanders anxious to avoid so-called "collateral damage," the inadvertent killing of children, women and other civilians living near the targeted surface-to-air missile battery or enemy headquarters. As the Kosovo conflict escalated, JDAM was increasingly picked for the most sensitive targets.
Barnidge, who commands the 509th Bomber Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., said his stealth bomber crews took out Danube River bridges that had defied laser-guided strikes on Serbia's second-largest city, Novi Sad.
And, JDAM was picked to take out the Serb Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement in downtown Belgrade. Two JDAMs leveled the structure without serious damage to surrounding buildings. The trouble with the May 7 strike was that the Central Intelligence Agency, in picking the target, had used an outdated map and mistakenly targeted the building occupied by the Embassy of the People's Republic of China.
In addition to rebuilding the embassy, the United States so far has paid $4.5 million to the families of three Chinese citizens killed in the attack.
"They hit what they were aiming for," said Oscar Soler, defending the weapon he helped develop at the Air Force Research Center at Eglin. Soler attributes the creation of JDAM to another Air Force civilian, Louis Cerrato, an electrical engineer. But Cerrato shuns the title of inventor.
"It came from our labs," said Cerrato, who married existing technologies to the satellite system.
JDAM was also the result of failures from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Despite Pentagon publicity footage showing laser and television-guided munitions destroying an array of buildings and bridges, only 7 percent of the bombs used during Desert Storm were considered precision-guided munitions.
Even those weapons were foiled by the sandstorms, smoke and dust of the battlefield. Iraqi forces routinely set oil drum fires near tank emplacements to block laser-guided bombs. And intense, radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns forced allied warplanes to higher altitudes after initial losses. At 15,000 feet and above-the lower limit for Desert Storm warplanes-the vaunted guided munitions lost their precision.
After Desert Storm, Air Force Chief Merrill McPeak called for development of a bomb launched from 35,000 feet or higher hitting a target with precision but without the high pricetag. Eglin experts initially estimated it would cost at least $40,000 per bomb. JDAM bombs are released at 35,000 feet, and the kits cost $14,000 each.
The low cost was achieved as part of new Pentagon purchasing practices launched by former Defense Secretary William Perry. Essentially, Soler and Cerrato were permitted to use commercial products instead of materials required to meet Defense Department regulations. Strips of steel wrapped around the body of the bomb would have been required to meet these specifications under prior Pentagon purchasing practices. For JDAM the steel strakes that stabilize the bomb for guided flight were obtained from a Midwest firm that normally manufactures lawnmower housings. "They supply Toro," Soler said.
Instead of ceramics for the satellite radio receiver and inertial guidance system, the Air Force opted for rugged plastics. "The automotive industry has significantly improved plastics which can withstand engine compartment heat," Soler explained. The $2,000 computer uses a Motorola chip cloned from an old Apple design. "It runs at 24 Megahertz," Cerrato said. "Pretty slow, but OK." The inertial navigation system cost $6,500. Cerrato said the global positioning system receiver came in at $1,500, and the electric motor that maneuvers the guidance fins cost $3,000.
But the most effective reduction, which cut the unit cost by more than half, was McDonnell-Douglas' agreement to build 87,496 JDAMS for a fixed price-$14,000 each.
Usually, the Pentagon pays higher prices for initial products but then recoups later when production costs drop. With JDAM, McDonnell-Douglas agreed to the straight-line pricing. The deal includes increases for inflation, which, so far, have raised the JDAM cost to $19,000 each.
U.S. allies are beating a path to the JDAM plant near St. Louis, Mo. "Israel is first on line," said Soler, followed by 18 NATO partners who are all anxious to transform their aging air forces at minimal cost. "This is the Model T of the weapons business," said Soler. "It's cheap and reliable just like Henry Ford's first cars."