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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Ukraine War Makes The Case For Affordable Mass Fires

M142 HIMARS. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The war in Ukraine has been consuming munitions, both conventional arms and so-called “smart” weapons, at a prodigious rate. The use rate, particularly for the more capable (but also more complex and expensive) long-range precision weapons, has far exceeded pre-war inventories and the limits of current production capabilities. In addition, Western production lines and supply chains are proving insufficient to meet the demand of a relatively confined conflict.

In a prospective conflict with a great power adversary, the United States will need more munitions of all types, but particularly long-range precision strike systems. However, experts have warned that the U.S. military may find itself out of ammunition, such as the advanced long-range precision strike systems that provide it with a distinct advantage over prospective adversaries, early in this scenario. It is clear that the U.S. military needs to invest in affordable mass fires systems to complement its arsenal of high-performance precision strike capabilities.

When it comes to fires of all ranges, the war in Ukraine has become a war of quantity as well as quality. Both sides have used relatively large numbers of long-range precision strike systems of all types. Russia has employed nearly its full range of long-range strike systems, including Iskander ballistic missiles, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles and even the hypersonic Kinzhal air-launched weapon. Russia has also been firing S-300 and S-400 air-defense missiles in a ground attack mode.

Long-range precision strike systems, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) with Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) projectiles have proven extremely effective in the hands of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Ukraine has repeatedly requested the longer-range (300 km) Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) for its HIMARS. The U.K. and France are providing Ukraine with the 300 km Storm Shadow/SCALP air-launched cruise missiles. Recently, there have been reports that Ukraine was provided with the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition Extended Range (JDAM-ER), an air-delivered bomb with wings that give it a 45 km range.

The United States is focusing on building its arsenal of long-range precision strike systems. The U.S. military is deploying a number of advanced, long-range precision strike systems including the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM); Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM); Advanced Tomahawk, Precision Strike Missile (PrSM); the Army’s Mid-Range Capability (MRC), a ground-based combination of the advanced Tomahawk cruise missile and the SM-6; and air-, sea-, and ground-launched hypersonic weapons.

Both Ukraine and Russia have attempted to employ drones to achieve affordable mass fires. These systems play an important role on the tactical battlefield, but they have their limits. In order to conduct long-range strikes with a substantial payload, drones need to be large. Big drones have proven vulnerable to air defenses. In addition, drones cannot substitute for long-range missiles and rockets against time-urgent targets.

The emerging suite of long-range precision strike systems will result in a qualitative step function improvement in the lethality of U.S forces. The challenge lies in the quantity that will be available. The U.S. military is unlikely to have the budgets needed to acquire these systems in sufficient numbers to service the vast array of targets that will present themselves in conflicts involving Taiwan or in Europe. Their use is likely to be restricted to the most critical targets.

But U.S. forces will need long-range precision fires in mass both to saturate defenses and to attack the full range of targets an adversary will present. The solution may be in adapting existing shorter-range systems to achieve affordable mass fires at extended ranges. These are relatively low-cost systems with ranges in excess of 100 km and precision guidance, including the ability to go after mobile targets. The U.S. military can employ systems such as LRASM, Tomahawk, SM-6, JASSM, PrSM, and hypersonics against a more limited set of high-value, time-urgent targets.

Boeing appears to be leading the way in developing affordable mass-precision strikes with two systems: a powered variant of the venerable JDAM and a ground-launched version of the Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB). The powered JDAM (PJDAM) takes the existing 500-pound JDAM-ER and adds a commercially available rocket motor to extend the weapon’s range to between 300 and 350 km. Not only can the PJDAM be used for long-range land attacks, but it could also be adapted to go after maritime targets, serve as a jamming weapon, or even act as a decoy. Cost estimates for the PJDAM range from $165,000 to $350,000 depending on configuration.

The powered JDAM benefits from a hot production line and a large installed international user base. By relying on its existing production capabilities and using a commercial engine, Boeing can produce thousands of powered JDAMs. The system can be readily integrated with aircraft of any of the 34 current JDAM users.

Similarly to what it did for the PJDAM, Boeing took advantage of an existing production capability, mounting its highly accurate and maneuverable Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), an aircraft-delivered weapon, on a relatively cheap demilitarized M26 rocket (previously used by the GMLRS and HIMARS launchers) to create a long-range (150 km) affordable mass fires capability. One feature other than low cost that makes the GLSDB particularly attractive is that once the SDB separates from the rocket, it can maneuver independently to its target.

A limited number of GLSDBs have been provided to Ukraine, where they seem to have been successful in the current counter-offensive. Should the U.S. military decide to acquire this system, a new rocket motor would have to be provided. The SDB itself can be produced in large numbers. Overall, the system would probably cost around $200,000 per round.

Affordable mass precision fires systems are easily within reach. All it would take is a little bit of money and some vision by U.S. defense officials. The U.S. Navy has put money in its FY2024 budget for research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) on PJDAM, leading to a program of record. The Air Force is the agent for both SDB and GLSDB. While this program is currently limited to production of a number of weapons for Ukraine, it would make sense for the defense department to spend the money for the necessary RDT&E to also develop the Air Force systems into a program of record. 

A 19FortyFive Contribuitng Editor, Dr. Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.

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Written By

Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.