Watch The Air Force’s New Ship-Killing Smart Bomb Snap A Vessel In Two (Updated)

The Air Force has said it wants its new anti-ship version of the ubiquitous Joint Direct Attack Munition to have “torpedo-like” capabilities.

byMay 2, 2022 7:56 PM
A frame from a video the US Air Force released showing a modified JDAM precision-guided bomb striking a target ship in the Gulf of Mexico during a test in April 2022.
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The U.S. Air Force has released a video showing a modified 2,000-pound class GBU-31/B Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, breaking a target ship in half during a recent experimental demonstration. This guided bomb is being developed as part of a program called Quicksink and you can read more about it in The War Zone's initial reporting about this test, which took place last week in the Gulf of Mexico.

The video clip shows the still-unidentified target ship bobbing in the water and possibly moving very slowly forward. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which is managing the Quicksink program, told The War Zone that the vessel was an "old cargo ship," but did not provide any more granular details about it.

A single Quicksink munition is then seen striking what Air Force previously described simply as a "full-scale surface vessel," causing it to rise out of the water and its keel to visibly snap. What's left of the target then smashes back down into the water and quickly sinks. "AFRL and the 96th Test Wing took precautions to meet environmental requirements consistent with U.S. Navy ship sinking practices and the state of Florida environmental practices," AFRL told The War Zone.

The effect of the weapon's impact, at least superficially when it comes to this particular target, is reminiscent of what it looks like when a ship is hit by a heavyweight torpedo, such as the U.S.-made Mk 48. Since the Air Force first publicly announced the Quicksink program last year, it has been talking about its desire for the new munition to achieve "torpedo-like" kills.

A picture that the Air Force released after the Quicksink test on April 28, 2022, showing live GBU-31/B Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs without anything fitted to their noses loaded on an F-15E Strike Eagle combat jet. The modified GBU-31/B being developed as part of Quicksink includes a new nose-mounted seeker, which has never been seen publicly to date.

From what we know so far, the Quicksink munition is a modified GBU-31/B that combines its existing GPS-assisted inertial navigation system (INS) guidance package in the tail with a new seeker mounted on the nose. This "all-weather maritime seeker," which appears to include at least an RF/radar seeker and could very well be a multi-mode design, allows the weapon to search for and then lock onto its target in the terminal phase of its flight. The bomb is first cued to the general target via the launch platform or off-board sensors. The computer-generated video below shows a full notional attack profile utilizing this weapon.

Whether or not the Quicksink munition has any additional modifications to its warhead to optimize it for the anti-ship role is unclear. Multiple fuzing operations are available for JDAMs already and one intended to delay the bomb's detonation until it breaches a ship's bottom hull could create the 'lift-and-break' effect seen in the test video.

At the same time, it is important to note that the target ship in this recent test was clearly not built to naval standards and it is not clear whether the munition would be able to achieve similar effects when striking an actual naval vessel. Since a typical JDAM has a maximum effective range of only around 15 miles, it is also likely that the Quicksink weapon would be employed against more lightly defended targets or in areas where air defenses had already been neutralized given how close the launch platform would have to get before releasing it.

Still, an anti-ship JDAM variant, especially combined with other capabilities now in development or that are already available for those bombs, such as range-extending wing kits, could provide a valuable additional means of engaging maritime threats. It could also be one that is very flexible and low-cost compared to traditional air-launched anti-ship missiles.

Regardless, the video that the Air Force has now released from the recent Quicksink test would certainly seem to underscore that the service truly is looking to recreate keel-breaking torpedo-like anti-ship effects, at least outwardly, with its new munition.

UPDATE 5/3/2022—

After this story was published, a reader reached out to point out that the Quicksink munition in this test does not actually directly strike the target ship, but instead appears to enter the water right next to the vessel and then detonate underneath. Designing the weapon to be employed in this way would again be very in line with a desire to create "torpedo-like" effects, since torpedoes also strike their targets below the waterline.

Interestingly, while the older computer-generated video outlining the Quicksink concept does not specifically call attention to this, it looks to also show a similar impact in the water next to the target ship, rather than a direct hit.

The War Zone has noted in past reporting on the Quicksink program that it could be difficult to develop a precision-guided bomb that is reliably capable of targeting portions of a ship below the waves.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

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