Ship boat

The Air Force’s new ship-killing smart bomb has sunk its first ship

The US Air Force’s new air-launched maritime strike experiment, known as Quicksink, has, for the first time, destroyed a large-scale surface ship in the Gulf of Mexico. The experiment, which aims to provide a low-cost anti-ship capability using a modified 2,000-pound class GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, is now in its second round of trials. You can read our Phase One coverage here.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) announced the successful trial as part of the Quicksink Joint Capability Technology Demonstration, or JCTD, held yesterday at the test range and 120,000 square mile Gulf of Eglin training facility. The unique modified JDAM was launched from an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter as part of a collaborative effort between the AFRL, Eglin’s Integrated Test Team, the 780th Test Squadron of the 96th Test Wing and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron of the 53rd Wing. The Air Force statement did not mention the type of target ship that was hit, but we asked for more information about it.

Modified 2,000-pound GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions on an F-15E as part of the second test of the Quicksink Joint Capability Technology Demonstration. US Air Force Photo/1st Lt. Lindsey Heflin

Among the objectives of the last JCTD was the evaluation of the feasibility of the operational implementation of the Quicksink concept.

“The Quicksink mission was successful thanks to the hours of planning and preparation provided by the entire test team,” said Capt. J. Tucker Tipton, air-to-ground test flight commander, 780th Test Squadron, in an official statement. “This was another example of how the 780th Test Squadron supports weapons development testing customers and helps deliver unique capabilities to the warfighter.”

“Quicksink is a response to an urgent need to neutralize maritime threats to freedom around the world,” added Colonel Tony Meeks, Director of the AFRL Munitions Directorate. “The men and women of this leadership are constantly finding ways to solve our country’s greatest challenges.

Inert anti-ship JDAM on the F-15E Strike Eagle from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. US Air Force Photo/1st Lt. Lindsey Heflin

By reassigning a JDAM to the maritime strike mission, Quicksink aims to save money and quickly deploy a capability that can be used against stationary or moving maritime targets. To do this, the program also relies on the possibilities offered by an Open Weapons Systems Architecture, or WOSA, seeker for the JDAM, which allows different components of the seeker to be bolted together in a modular way, as needed.

“Quicksink is unique in that it can provide new capabilities to existing and future DOD weapon systems, providing combatant commanders and our national leaders with new ways to defend against maritime threats,” Kirk explained. Herzog, AFRL program manager.

Looking at the program more broadly, Quicksink aims to expand the options available to combatant commanders to pursue surface naval targets. While there is a range of precision-guided munitions and air-to-surface missiles that can be used for these scenarios, Quicksink seeks to provide the kind of effectiveness that would otherwise be guaranteed by a torpedo, such as the heavyweight Mk 48.

The USNS Ordnance Ship Kilauea (AE-26) breaks up and sinks after being hit by a Mk 48 torpedo from the Australian attack submarine Farncomb during the 2012 RimPac off Kauai, Hawaii. US Navy

“Heavy torpedoes are effective [at sinking large ships] but they are expensive and used by a small portion of naval assets,” said Major Andrew Swanson, 85 Test and Evaluation Squadron Advanced Programs Division Chief. “With Quicksink, we have demonstrated an inexpensive and more agile solution that has the potential to be used by the majority of Air Force combat aircraft, giving combat commanders and fighters more options. .”

“A navy submarine has the capability to launch and destroy a ship with a single torpedo at any time, but the Quicksink JCTD aims to develop an inexpensive method of killing torpedoes from the air at a much higher rate and over a much larger area,” Herzog continued.

The previous Quicksink test took place in August last year. On this occasion, three F-15Es from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron were involved in experiments against “moving and static maritime targets”.

Previously, in 2021, there had been another Quicksink experiment, this one involving JDAMs dropped from a B-52H bomber from the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron, “to assess the viability of specific maritime impact,” according to the Air Force.

What was unclear in these previous tests, as well as in this latest experiment, is exactly what type of guidance kit is installed on the modified JDAM, adding an ability to hit moving targets.

The AFRL video shows a concept Quickstrike weapon launched from an F-35 against a container ship armed with a secret missile launcher. There is no confirmation that this reflects the actual appearance of the Quicksink JDAM seeker head, at this point, but the video shows the F-35 launch receiving targeting data from a P-8. He then throws the weapon after uploading the targeting data to it. The weapon then flies to the intended vicinity of the target, after which it activates its “all-weather maritime seeker”, searches for it autonomously, and then locks onto it. Once locked, it performs its final attack on the ship.

Previously there was speculation that one option would be an add-on laser guidance kit, as used in the dual-mode Laser JDAM. In 2004, the Air Force demonstrated something similar, with a Paveway-style laser seeker head added to a JDAM in a test known as Resultant Fury.

Laser joint direct attack munitions are prepared for loading onto a B-52 from the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Boeing

Video of an earlier maritime JDAM test under Resultant Fury:

At the same time, however, the Air Force said it considered the GBU-24/B Paveway-class 2000-pound laser-guided bomb to be increasingly unreliable and risky for anti-shipping strikes, due to of its line of sight requirement. laser lighting. Adding a laser guidance kit to the JDAM would not seem to offer any real advantage over an LGB.

Again, photos released during the latest test show JDAMs, alive and inert, with no rockets or additional seekers mounted on their noses, which are instead covered in stickers with the program’s emblem, as seen in the photo at the top of this story. .

An F-15E Strike Eagle equipped with the 2,000-pound modified GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions prepares to take off from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., April 28, 2022. US Air Force Photo/1st Lt. Lindsey Heflin

The most likely guidance option we’ve discussed in the past includes some type of multi-mode guidance, perhaps combining millimeter wave radar and an imaginative infrared seeker, similar to that used in the GBU-53/B StormBreaker. Even the radar seeker alone would do the job and fit the “all weather” description.

A US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron carrying GBU-53/B StormBreaker munitions. USAF photo by William Lewis

Yet another guidance option could involve a data link. In this way, the target would be tracked by an external sensor, such as an aircraft radar, and targeting telemetry would be continuously transmitted to the JDAM after release. This data could then be combined with the JDAM’s existing GPS-assisted Inertial Guidance System (INS), which works much like an autopilot, so that it finds its way to the moving target. This is unlikely given the description of the video.

A combination of these capabilities could also be employed.

A very schematic and not necessarily precise rendering of the anti-ship JDAM. AFRL

Regardless of the type of guidance used, it appears the Air Force is making progress in its plans to adapt the existing 2,000-pound class JDAM as a heavy anti-ship weapon. Although trials so far have involved the F-15E and B-52H, the weapon could also be carried by a variety of other platforms.

There remains a question as to the ultimate destructive power of the anti-ship JDAM, compared to a torpedo designed to smash the back of a ship by hitting it under its hull. However, the Quicksink program underscores the Air Force’s growing interest in anti-ship munitions and tactics. Other weapons in this portfolio include the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and new air-dropped naval remote mines for the B-52H.

Compared to LRSAM, for example, anti-ship JDAM has significant limitations. The basic JDAM has a relatively very short range even when launched from altitude – it has a range of about 15 miles, which is deep in most major naval anti-aircraft threat rings – and is susceptible to naval close air defense systems. This could significantly reduce the range of targets it could pursue, with better defended and higher priority targets likely requiring a more sophisticated solution.

Airmen from the 7th Ordnance Squadron carry a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) toward a B-1B at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Damon Kasberg/Released

Ultimately, however, the anti-ship JDAM should offer a number of key advantages. First, being one of the most important airdrop weapons in the US inventory, supplies are plentiful and the availability of a seagoing kit should allow existing weapons to be configured fairly quickly for this new role. The adaptability of the JDAM could also mean that the anti-ship version can also be modified, perhaps adding one of the wing kits available to the weapon, for a very useful range extension, or upgrading to one of the anti-bunker corps. for better penetration.

Finally, Quicksink emphasizes the low cost of this anti-shipping solution, which means that potentially the Air Force can procure a large number of these weapons. Having a large stockpile or ready availability of such weapons could be of particular importance in the kinds of high-end maritime warfare scenarios that would likely unfold in a future confrontation with Russia or China.

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