Damn, America Has Dropped a Lot of Glide Bombs on Islamic State
So many that stocks are running low
by JAMES DREW
Weapons-manufacturer Boeing started developing the 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb back in 2003, and the U.S. Air Force purchased about 12,000 of them for $40,000 a piece.
Despite possessing such a large stockpile of the smart glide-bombs, the flying branch dropped only a few of them in Iraq and Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasions and occupations of those countries. Simpler munitions apparently sufficed for those conflicts.
But Islamic State’s bloody romp in Iraq starting last year changed that calculus … and fast.
American F-15E Strike Eagles and B-1B bombers are now dropping so many of the lightweight bombs that stocks are running low, according to senior Air Force officials.
Pres. Barack Obama is unwilling to deploy ground combat troops back into Iraq, so America’s war on Islamic State has been mainly an air campaign.
And the once-neglected SDB has become one of the Air Force’s favorite weapons for striking the militants. The Air Force needs 1,700 SDBs to replenish its rapidly depleting stockpile, the officials claim. The branch also can’t let its stockpile drop too low in case another shooting war sparks up somewhere else.
U.S. Central Command recently claimed that coalition strikes have damaged or destroyed more than 5,780 targets in Iraq and Syria since September — but it’s impossible to verify this number. If all the SDBs are hitting their marks, it’s possible the diminutive glide bombs account for around a quarter of all strikes.
“It’s been doing very well,” Maj. Gen. Scott Jansson, the flying branch’s top munitions buyer, said of the SDB. “It’s been used quite extensively since last August off of primarily F-15 Strike Eagles and B-1s. But it’s on F-16s, as well.”
Luckily, Boeing still makes SDBs.
“[The SDB] remained in production for foreign military sales and direct commercial sales to foreign partners,” Jansson said. “That line has remained open, and now the planned buys are to replenish inventory that’s been expended primarily against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and some expenditures in Afghanistan,” he added.
The Air Force placed its last big SDB order in 2011, and then directed money and attention toward a newer version designed by Boeing competitor Raytheon. Luckily for the flying branch, international orders kept the production line in St. Charles, Missouri running hot.
Guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions continue to be the go-to weapons for targeted airstrikes on the Sunni jihadist group. But there are several reasons why a fighter or bomber pilot might drop an SDB, instead.
The glide bomb can maneuver onto a target from more than 40 nautical miles away with deadly accuracy. The slender bomb has a smaller blast radius than the JDAM, which means it kills fewer civilians and can hit targets closer to friendly forces.
The SDB weighs half as much as the smallest general-purpose JDAM — the 500-pound Mark 82 bomb — so fighter jets can carry more SDBs per sortie and take out several targets on a single pass. A B-1 bomber can destroy dozens of targets in one drop.
“The reason they go to an SDB over a JDAM is that it’s a smaller warhead, so it has less collateral damage — plus it has additional standoff capability,” Jansson said. “It can fly farther with its wings than a JDAM tail kit weapon.”
The bomb can bust through three feet of reinforced concrete, as seen in this video of an SDB taking out an aircraft shelter. It’s so precise, that a fighter or bomber equipped with a Sniper targeting pod could send one gliding through your bedroom window.
The Air Force argues that American troops would die faster — and in greater numbers — without more SDBs and new Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles produced by Lockheed Martin.
That is, if the U.S. ever enters a potential war with a major adversary such as Russia, China, North Korea or Iran.
“All three mission areas — standoff, direct attack, and penetrator munitions — in the air-to-surface munitions inventory are short of inventory objectives,” Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski and Lt. Gen. James Holmes said in written testimony to Congress on March 26.
Pawlikowski is the Air Force’s senior uniformed acquisition official. Holmes is the flying branch’s strategic plans and requirements czar.
“JASSM and SDB weapons along with low-observable platforms are force multipliers in a highly-contested environment and their shortage could increase friendly force attrition, driving a much higher level of effort enabling the attack of other critical targets.”
The SDB was one of the first air-to-ground weapons that the Air Force added to the stealthy F-22 Raptor, and the flying branch recently tested it on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The bombs fit snugly into both jets’ internal bomb bays, allowing them to remain stealthy while carrying a hefty weapons load.
The super-expensive F-22 — designed specifically for air-to-air combat — made its combat debut over Syria last September during Operation Inherent Resolve. Other aircraft dropping the SDB in the Middle East likely include the remotely-piloted MQ-9 Reaper and Air Force Special Operations Command’s AC-130 Stinger gunship.
The Air Force also wants versions of the weapon that can hit moving targets in lousy weather conditions.
Boeing produced a laser-guided version of the SDB that can hit moving targets such as the Toyota “technical” trucks commonplace in the Middle East and Africa, but the weapon lost out to Raytheon’s tri-mode seeker design.
Since 2009, the Air Force and Raytheon have been building a new version known simply as the Small Diameter Bomb Increment II. This version has a sophisticated seeker that can distinguish between cars, tanks and boats.
In addition, the SDB II has in-flight data link that allows pilots to re-target or even cancel a strike.
The SDB II’s development phase just wrapped up. The Air Force is due begin scaling up production at Raytheon’s manufacturing plant in Arizona during the next couple of months once it receives clearance from the Pentagon.
The Pentagon intends to buy 17,000 SDB IIs for the Air Force and Navy. The first aircraft to carry the weapon will be the Air Force’s Strike Eagle and AC-130W gunship, the Navy F-35B/C and Super Hornet. Jansson said the new bombs won’t be operational on the F-35 until 2022.
The SDB II should enter service by 2017.