February 3, 2023

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What are JDAMs? And what will they do for Ukraine?

An American weapon first dropped by stealth bombers over Kosovo in 1999 and then dropped during fighting in the post-9/11 wars will soon be used by Ukrainian pilots with Russian-made jets to kill Russian soldiers.

Called Joint Direct Attack Munition, the weapon consists of a kit that turns a cheap unguided bomb into a highly accurate, GPS-guided weapon. It is usually referred to as JDAM (pronounced JAY-dam).

The Biden administration announced this week that the weapons would be part of a new $1.85 billion military aid package that would give Kyiv a precision-guided anti-bombing capability it never had.

If dropped from a higher altitude, the bomb can fly about 15 miles to its target before detonating.

With the right equipment, Ukrainian jets could potentially carry multiple JDAMs on a single mission, just like US and NATO fighter jets do.

Technically, JDAM refers to a kit that bolts onto the US military’s Mark 80 series general-purpose bomb, turning it into a GPS-guided weapon.

Developed shortly after World War II, the Mark 80 warhead was designed to be easily fitted with a variety of tail fins and fuzes for use in a range of situations. Various attachments have been used for decades – for low-level bombing and to transform them into land and sea mines and eventually into various types of guided missiles.

The Mark 80 warhead was developed shortly after World War II as a modular weapon that could be fitted with various types of tail fins and fuses, and was streamlined to create less drag when carried by supersonic jets. It usually comes in three sizes ranging from 500 to 2,000 pounds. However, it is unclear which model or models will be made available to Ukraine.

Since their first combat use in the late 1990s, JDAMs have been improved and new capabilities added. They can work with a variety of detonators that control whether they explode above ground, on the surface, or after burrowing into the ground. An updated kit adds a pair of wings that open after the bomb is dropped, allowing it to fly more than 40 miles to a target.

They’re also relatively cheap, in Pentagon math. A Navy datasheet updated in 2021 put the average price of the JDAM base kit at just over $24,000 each.

JDAM arose out of frustration pilots and air force commanders had with a different type of guided bomb during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

This bomb, first used in small numbers towards the end of the Vietnam War, was called the Paveway II. At the time, the idea was considered revolutionary: an expensive kit attached to the nose and tail of a Mark-80 could make the otherwise unguided bomb manoeuvrable, along the trajectory of a laser beamed from the ground or overhead from an aircraft. But in Iraq, sandstorms and smoke often blocked the path of the laser beams, causing the bomb to miss its target.

Months after the war ended, the Air Force decided that military pilots needed a kit that cost no more than Paveway II and could guide bombs in all weather conditions. A new constellation of GPS satellites provided a solution that continuously broadcast radio signals that could guide bombs day or night, rain or shine.

Air Force executives accelerated work on a similar device to produce what eventually became JDAMs, now manufactured by Boeing at a factory in St. Charles, Mo.

Unlike some US-provided weapons, the problem isn’t length of training or maintenance costs. Some basic hardware and software issues had to be resolved: JDAM kits were not designed for use with Ukraine’s Russian-made bombs, and the country’s Russian warplanes cannot carry American-made bombs, nor can Russian flight computers electronically link American guided munitions communicate .

Since Poland, a former satellite of the Soviet Union, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, some of its Russian MIG-29 fighter jets have been modified to carry Western munitions, but this required replacing their Soviet-designed computer systems and some cables with Western ones. gear made. Faster action was required for Ukraine.

The Pentagon has said little about how it made this work.

It took some MacGyvering, but the problem here was not dissimilar to that seen in the Apollo 13 movie, where NASA engineers had to put various pieces together to save the lives of astronauts in space – figuring out how to “put a square pin in a round one.” hole” as the story continued.

In 2022, engineers had to do essentially this and much more to make JDAMs work on Russian jets with minimal modifications.

The standard bombs used by the United States and Russia are very different in design, as are the devices used to attach them to fighter planes and drop them over targets.

American-made bombs have two small steel lugs that attach them to racks designed to hold them tight at high speeds and quickly push them away from the plane’s fuselage when a pilot presses a button to drop them.

In comparison, many Russian bombs have only one suspension lug, and the racks they drop are incompatible with US-made weapons.

The US military solved the hardest part of this problem months ago, when Ukrainian pilots first began shooting down the American-made high-velocity anti-radiation missile, or HARM. An adapter was developed to connect a device called a pylon and other parts that hold the gun to the jet.

At Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, a US Air Force and Air National Guard team called Gray Wolf is assisting the Ukrainian Air Force, including in terms of tactics and techniques, a military spokesman said.

Yes, quite a bit.

Carrying the bomb safely is one thing, but there are other problems. The electrical signal produced when a pilot presses the button to drop this bomb must be converted into a signal that American-made equipment can detect. And before it is jettisoned, a JDAM needs data on the aircraft’s position and speed, as well as the location of the target, fed to it electronically during flight.

Newer types of American bomb racks and pylons offer solutions. A “smart” pylon used with the HARM missile is now in service with the Ukrainian Air Force.

The final step is to transfer data from the cockpit to the pylon once all the other conversions and adapters have been figured out, said Mike Pietrucha, a retired Air Force colonel who has flown for decades as a weapons officer on F-4G and F-15E fighters .

More than a decade ago, he said, the US military developed a system to link a US-made GPS-based weapon to a foreign one using a laptop with a GPS device connected to the smart pylon via Bluetooth adjust aircraft.

“Today the same function could probably be achieved with a tablet with a GPS connection and maybe commercial flight software,” he added. “From there, the pylon would transmit the data to the bomb itself.”

Boeing says on its website that it has manufactured more than 500,000 JDAM kits for the United States and allied countries.

How many are going to Kyiv has not been released, although it is likely £500 JDAMs will be provided initially. It marks a significant increase in Ukraine’s capabilities in the field of precision guided ammunition.

“It’s very important,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister who advises the government.

Eric Schmitt contributed to the reporting.