Stealth Bombers Are Amazing Weapons of War (But What About the Bombs)

Kris Osborn

Key point: Researchers wonder if they can make better bombs to match their high-tech bomber planes.

US Air Force researchers and bomb-makers are expressing concerns that the modernization of air-dropped weapons has been lagging-behind the many technical advances built into the larger platforms that drop them, such as the B-2, F-35 and the emerging B-21.

While advances in stealth technology, targeting, aerodynamics and computer avionics all continue to progress at alarming speeds, innovations when it comes to bomb configurations have not seen a commensurate technical acceleration, service leaders say.

“The bomb body, minus the guidance unit, is relatively unchanged. A 500-lb. bomb body was flown in 1918, and the F-35 is now dropping these. You can’t have an airplane and not have the same generation of munitions associated with it” Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem, USAF (Ret.) said at the Air Force Association Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

Naturally, seeker technology and advances with guidance systems and targeting are vastly different than they were years ago. Yet, the fundamental configurations, or bomb structures themselves, have been somewhat stagnant, service observers say.

Stutzriem, a former fighter pilot and current Director of Research for the Mitchell Institute, cited research now exploring precision bomb technology intended to pursue weapons technologies with more precision and “variable-yield effects”

Current areas of inquiry, according to the Mitchell Institute’s study, explain that, for decades, most bombs have operated with “fixed-explosive envelopes.” As a result, current developers are looking for innovative methods of achieving increased lethality with precision and variable yields—meaning bombs can be configured to tailor explosions depending on the target.

As co-author of the Mitchell Institute study, Stutzriem characterized the research as an effort to seek wider explosive ranges through a “combination of heat blast and fragmentation.”

Developing what Air Force engineers call “flight selectability” is essential to these developmental efforts, as it will enable dynamic combat-targeting to adapt while an aircraft is airborne. This can be done with a range of technologies to enable improved precision using multi-mode energetics and specialized structures engineered into the warhead itself, Col. Gary Haase, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), said at AFA.

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