It is by now common knowledge that precision-guided weapons and the precise
battlefield effects they create have helped the United States achieve tremendous
military successes in recent years. Our success is not only due to precision
targeting and delivery, but also to the warheads themselves.
A neophyte might think that we already have discovered all we need to know
about warheads and energetics. However, not only has the technology improved
dramatically, but we also seem to continue to find new and innovative ways to
employ the latest smart munitions.
The performance of PGMs in conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq during
the past decade proves that it is no longer a question of how many sorties it
takes to kill a target, but rather how many targets can be killed in one sortie.
In the years ahead, however, it is fair to predict that further improvements
in precision strike are in the offing. Not generally appreciated are ongoing
advances in warhead technology and concepts for how weapons fit into the concept
of Network Centric Warfare.
Researchers and engineers in government and industry are working diligently
to develop new technology—with a heavy emphasis on rapid transition from
the laboratory to the assembly line.
Military planners, meanwhile, continue to create new concepts of operations
for smart munitions, based on lessons learned from each conflict. At the Air
Armaments Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., for example, researchers and
developers want to be able to “data link” every weapon in the battle
zone, effectively creating a network of cruise missiles and smart bombs embedded
in the operational network of weapons and sensors platforms. That would allow
commanders to retarget weapons in flight, significantly expanding the options
available for killing targets. It also would help prevent friendly fire and
civilian casualties. The mantra at Eglin has three components: network-capable
weapons, plug-and-play architectures and data-linked weapons. New capabilities
in this area could emerge within the next three to 10 years.
Another example of the remarkable evolution that we are seeing in weaponry,
including precision-guided munitions, is in the area of warheads and explosives.
These are not necessarily the glamorous technologies—like GPS guidance
or advanced sensors—but are vital pieces of what makes a weapon effective.
The extraordinary work that government laboratories and private firms are doing
in this arena was the focus of the 2003 NDIA Warhead and Ballistics Symposium,
in Monterey, Calif.
Designers are rapidly improving the performance of weapon warhead effects and,
in the process, have solved some very tough problems. Operation Iraqi Freedom,
for example, proved that we still face significant challenges in urban combat,
where civilian casualties are of utmost concern. Warheads now are being designed
for military operations in urban terrain.
Innovations in warheads and explosives can capitalize on the attributes of
new weaponry and give rise to novel designs—smaller, more discriminant
and more lethal. For example, advances in warhead designs can take advantage
of increased targeting capabilities, immediate availability (such as loitering
or remotely piloted aircraft over the theater), high speed and going after different
types of targets—from underground bunkers to moving vehicles and urban
Flexible warhead designs make weapons more adaptable to new platforms and changing
missions. The same warhead design, for instance, can be applicable to an earth-penetration
or earth-surface function, as needed. Advanced warheads are needed to positively
defeat and attack difficult, emerging targets.
Experts at the symposium agreed that warheads should be more of an upfront
priority in the development of weapons and precision-guided munitions, rather
than an afterthought. They are hopeful that the close cooperation among government
labs, industry and academia will lead to innovative technology for all the services.
Most smart munitions today are, after all, employed by more than one service.
One of the most impressive elements of the symposium in Monterey was the truly
joint nature of the effort. Presenters were from industry (such as Battelle
and ATK), academia (Lawrence Livermore), Army (Army Research Lab), Air Force
(Air Armaments Center) and Navy (Naval Surface Warfare Center). The cross-service
support, synergy and impressive levels of cooperation were much in evidence.
Not only could better warheads and energetics take advantage of the current
state of precision, but the cross-service cooperation is saving the government
money. Warhead upgrades can improve the accuracy of a weapon—possibly
precluding the need to develop new costly guidance systems. Electronics generally
are much more expensive than explosives and warheads.
One of the panel discussions at the symposium addressed “low-collateral
effects technology.” Technologies that show promise include a thermobaric
Hellfire warhead, novel explosives, multi-phase blast explosives and electrically
Without getting into sensitive technical details, it would be safe to say that
future advances in warheads (such as the so-called jacketed-rod kinetic energy
penetrators) will help defeat the world’s most advanced tanks.
Despite these achievements, lots of unknowns remain. But the message here is
that government and industry are collaborating successfully, in an effort to
attack difficult weapons effects problems.
What we are seeing in the warheads and energetics sector is gratifying for
a number of reasons. It is a heartening story of people pushing the state of
technology and enthusiastically engaged in vigorous and competent research work.
They are not content just with reaching success in the lab, but want to see
their work put into operational use.
The warheads and explosives sectors of our defense industrial base, like many
others, are made up of a vibrant group of dedicated scientists and researchers.
They remind us that, no matter how successful we may be in war today, there
is much more we can do and are doing. We are fortunate that this sector of our
industrial base has creative leadership and focused activity. NDIA passes kudos
to the organizations and leaders who are working quietly to provide our military
forces with new and better capabilities.
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