The Coming Revolution in Munitions

Retired USAF Maj. Gen. Lawrence Stutzriem, one of the authors of a new report from AFA's Mitchell Institute speaks at AFA's 2018 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Sept. 17. Photo by Shaun Waterman.

Despite myriad advances in precision-guided technology, the actual effects of air-delivered munitions haven’t developed much over the past century, but all of that is about to change now, according to a new report from AFA’s Mitchell Institute.

“The combination of heat, blast, and fragmentation … the actual envelope of detonation, has remained relatively unchanged” for the last 100 years, explained retired Maj. Gen. Lawrence Stutzriem.

Stutzriem, one of the authors, unveiled the report—Securing 21st Century Combat Success: The Munition Effects Revolution—during a session at the 2018 Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

“We haven’t designed the fifth gen weapons yet for the fifth gen aircraft,” added John Wilcox, a former director of the munitions directorate at the Air Force Research Lab and now a Northrop Grumman executive. “We’re dropping third gen weapons from fifth gen planes.”

But advanced engineering and materials science technologies such as additive manufacturing and energetic materials are changing that, he added.

“We can actually, through additive manufacturing, build structures [into the bomb] that are energetic structures that can add to the effect [of the detonation]” added Wilcox, “We can get higher kinetics from those designs.”

Using these new technologies, Stutzriem said, “you can get a 200-pound weapon that will do what a [conventional] 500-pound weapon does.”

The new generation of weapons will also have much more precise effects.

“It’s like a flashlight—do you want that beam tight or wide?” asked Roderick Daebelliehm, director of tactical systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne, describing how the new generation munitions could direct their effects.

“Its explosive effects can be channeled in one direction or another” rather than the omnidirectional blast of conventional munitions, said Stutzriem.

Variability is a key capability of these new weapons, added Stutzriem. The Air Force’s “workhorse” bombs such as the 500-pound MK82 and 2,000-pound MK84 are based on 60-year-old designs.

They “are too big for close air support, because friendly forces are too close; too big for urban environments [because of the risk of collateral damage]; and too big when you want to, for instance, kill all the soldiers guarding the chemical munitions facility but you don’t want to breach the facility,” he said.

There’s always a role for specialized munitions, he continued, but to give commanders the maximum number of options, especially when they are dealing with fleeting targets of opportunity and pre-loaded aircraft, what is needed is more flexibility for the workhorse munitions.

The new munitions “can dial down the explosive effect,” said Wilcox, because they can use “segmented initiation of your energetics, so you could say, ‘I’m just going to use one’ [of four]” for a more limited blast radius.

But the key capability of the new generation of munitions, according to Stutzriem, is cockpit selectability—the ability for the pilot to determine the yield and directional characteristics of the weapon while he or she is in the air.

“The need for cockpit selectability really came out of [Operation Enduring Freedom]” said Col. Garry Haase of the Air Force Research Lab. He described a situation in which aircraft preloaded with 500- or 2,000-pound bombs for use against strategic targets would be redirected to engage fletting or emergent targets. “It was very difficult. You have weapons basically based on a 60-year-old design and you can’t get at them from the cockpit. … How do you take aircraft that are loaded out with weapons for the strategic target set and pair them with these pop-up targets?”

There are two issues with the new munitions, panelists said, and both of them are about cost.

The current “arena testing” regimen used by the Air Force was developed for “heritage weapons,” said Daebelliehm.

“They all assume the weapons are action symmetric” and are based on looking at effects caused by blast or shrapnel. They are also very expensive because they involve the actual detonation of munitions. But for a weapon designed to have several deployment modes, or to produce a directed blast, that could mean the need for multiple tests.

“We either need to break that paradigm [of testing] or get ready to spend a lot more money on testing.”

The new munitions will also be much more expensive, acknowledged Stutzriem, although he said that the “cost-per-effect is going to be comparable” to current munitions. He also argued that the opportunity costs of not having the flexibility the new weapons would bring should also be factored in.