B-52 Tested 2,000lb Quickstrike-ER Winged Standoff Naval Mines During Valiant Shield
Being able to lay entire minefields with pinpoint accuracy from high altitude, over 40 miles away, and on a single pass is a total game changer.
The B-52 is at it again. The relatively ancient bomber is on a path to become far more capable than it ever has been as the USAF now plans for it to serve into the second half of the century and even possibly past its 100th birthday. New engines, communications equipment, weapons racks, and sensors are included in an emerging upgrade roadmap that will keep the bomber relevant for decades to come, but the BUFF's new arsenal of weapons is probably what's most exciting about this initiative.
Beyond a number of hypersonic weapons and guileful air-launched decoy jammers, this new weapons menu includes the Quickstrike family of naval mines equipped with JDAM-ER guided wing kits. This weapon gives the big bomber the unprecedented ability to lay down entire minefields over wide areas, in a single pass, with pinpoint accuracy, and all while standing-off at over 40 miles away.
Proof of this emerging capability was recently captured on video showing a B-52H launching on a training sortie from Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam during exercise Valiant Shield—a biennial U.S. only set of drills that focus on interoperability and high-end tactics employment. In the video, the bomber is clearly seen equipped with four of these still very rare weapons. A P-8 Poseidon is also seen monitoring their impact on the water's surface.
A Quickstrike mine is used in relatively shallow waters of about 300 feet or less. It is delivered by aircraft and sits on the seafloor awaiting targets of opportunity. The weapon itself is a Mark 80 series general purpose bomb that has been adapted into a mine via the installation of an arming device in its nose and a target detection device in its tail. The target detection device will detonate when a vessel passes within lethal range of its position on the seafloor. Arming devices and target detection devices can be used in tandem to activate a mind field for a certain window in time and to only detonate when the acoustic/seismic/magnetic signature of certain vessels is detected.
Advanced naval mines can be very discriminating as to which vessels qualify to receive their deadly payload and when. The Quickstrike family of components has been upgraded in recent years to keep pace with these developments, although their exact capabilities aren't known.
Quickstrike mines have to be delivered using a ballute or folding-fin retarder tail kit as they have a fairly narrow envelope for deployment—usually below 500 feet and around 300 knots or less. In this day and age, sauntering into an area where there is supposed to be enemy vessel traffic at low altitude and at turboprop speeds and carefully laying a minefield is likely to get an aircrew a one-way ticket to Davy Jones' locker. So deploying minefields using the Quickstrike would only be possible under a narrow set of tactical circumstances without taking on extreme risk.
This is a major problem because mine warfare is coming back in vogue along with pretty much every other anti-access/area-denial capability as the U.S. confronts peer state threats from China and Russia and as threats by rogue state actors and non-state actors evolve. But just the idea that the U.S. can rapidly deploy deadly minefields via strategic bombers or tactical aircraft impacts the enemy's decision cycle. That's one reason why the USAF has been showing off this capability during international exercises that occur right in Russia's backyard. But still, Quickstrike's tactical limitations are a glaring issue.
Enter JDAM-ER, the GPS and inertial navigation-guided free-fall Joint Direct Attack Munition's winged cousin. While the Pentagon has largely passed over JDAM-ER, Australia has embraced the concept and has fielded it for use by their Hornets and Super Hornets. The kit allows a MK80 series-JDAM combination to be transformed into a standoff weapon, which is great for striking highly defended targets or wiping out air defense sites. But the kit also presents another opportunity, one that the Pentagon is capitalizing on.
Because Quickstrike mines are basically Mk80 series general purpose bombs with some modifications, including sharing their same form factor, the JDAM-ER kit can just as easily equip a mine as a general purpose bomb. In fact, it doesn't know the difference. Its only goal is to get the bomb to a specific point on the planet's surface, whether that's water or land makes no difference.
By pairing Quickstrike with JDAM-ER, the Pentagon solved its mine-laying issues with Quickstrike alone. Instead of an aircraft having to troll around low and slow over a potentially contested waterway while laying out a complex field of Quickstrikes, that same bomber or maritime patrol plane can now standoff nearly 50 miles and release its entire payload in one pass. Alternatively, a formation of tactical jets can relate a barrage of JDAM-ERs to obtain the same effects. The JDAM-ER kitted Quickstrikes fly to their pre-planned impact points on the surface of the water, in effect, laying a complex minefield without actually having to directly lay one at all, and doing so with robotic precision.
We are talking about a major game-changing and super relevant capability here—one that is the definition of 'totally off-the-shelf.'
The first major test of the weapon by the U.S. came four years ago during an earlier iteration of Valiant Shield in Guam. Then in 2016, Navy Hornets released a number of inert GBU-62 Quickstrike-ERs during the next Valiant Shield and the results were clearly impressive:
In additional tests, the weapons have proven so accurate that if targeted to hit the same spot on the surface of the water, the mines would actually be found touching on the seafloor when divers went to recover them.
Because of the precision and standoff range of Quickstrike-ER, American aircraft can deliver them not just over broad areas around open bodies of water, but they can plant them in rivers, tributaries, canals, and inside port facilities without having to even get near the targeted area. This makes Quickstrike-ER an incredibly nasty and insidious weapon that could wreak havoc on an enemy's naval forces and deny them the ability to make amphibious landings or even leave port.
You can also imagine how this same capability could be paired with low-observable combat aircraft—namely the B-2 Spirit and upcoming B-21 Raider—to mine very high-value littoral waterways deep in enemy territory. 40 plus miles is a good margin for very stealthy aircraft even in highly defended airspace, but when you consider that the B-21 is likely to operate at altitudes well in excess of 50,000 feet, Quickstrike-ER's range would increase quite significantly.
What's significant about the video taken on Guam just days ago is that the B-52 appears to be carrying a Mk84 2,000lb derivative of the Quickstrike-ER. This is the first time I have seen this configuration. 2,000lbs of high explosives detonating in shallow water would mean certain death for even the largest vessels passing overhead. Just showing off the weapon is a reminder to America's potential adversaries that the shallow waters of regions like the South China Sea could easily be turned into a minefield via aerial delivery without even putting an aircraft directly over the kill zone. B-52s, in particular, have spent a lot of time plowing the skies around China's manmade islands as of late.
In addition to Quickstrike-ER, the Pentagon has adapted the standard JDAM kit for use with Quickstrike mines as well. This variant is called the Quickstrike-J and offers far less standoff range, but provides the ability to accurately mine a large area on one or a small number of passes and higher altitudes.
Maybe the promise of Quickstrike-ER will make the Pentagon reevaluate the merits of JDAM-ER. It's a relatively low-cost way to achieve some standoff range against highly defended targets, which will add much-needed flexibility even for stealthy fighters as enemy integrated air defense systems continue to mature.
In the meantime, the B-52 has gotten a little bit more versatile and a whole hell of a lot more threatening to adversary's vessels. Just knowing that the 60-year-old bombers could shutdown waterways within 40 to 50 miles of either side of their flight path at any given time will help make America's enemy's think twice about their maritime actions.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com