Forget Smokey the Bear: Smart Bombs Put Out Forest Fires

July 31, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: SwedenMilitaryTechnologyWorldJas 39 Gripen

Forget Smokey the Bear: Smart Bombs Put Out Forest Fires

On July 25, the Swedish Air Force "dispatched two Jas 39 Gripen fighter jets to drop a bomb on the flames as a last resort, with the hope that the pressure from the blast would help contain the blaze," according to the Swedish news site The Local.

 

Forget Smokey the Bear. If you want to put out a forest fire, call in the Air Force.

As a fire raged through a forest in central Sweden, the normal solution would have been to send in the firefighters.

 

But what if the fires were in a forest that was part of a military training range, which meant there could be unexploded ordnance just waiting to explode in the fierce heat? Fighting fires is one thing, but fighting leftover bombs and rockets is another.

However, the Swedish government came up with another solution: bomb the fire out. And not with a regular bomb, but a laser-guided munition.

On July 25, the Swedish Air Force "dispatched two Jas 39 Gripen fighter jets to drop a bomb on the flames as a last resort, with the hope that the pressure from the blast would help contain the blaze," according to the Swedish news site The Local.

Johan Szymanski, who led the firefighting team, said "the oxygen from the fire can be removed with the help of a bomb and in this case it was possible to try it, because the fire is at a firing range."

The bomb was a U.S.-designed GBU-49 Paveway II, a 500-pound bomb equipped with laser and GPS guidance. The bomb was dropped from about 10,000 feet and reached a velocity of about 350 miles per hour before it landed with pinpoint precision with a few feet of the designated target point (see the video here).

The blast apparently put out fires within about 300 feet of the impact point. "Our preliminary assessment right now is that it had a good effect," Szymanki said.

Being located in the northern climes, Sweden usually doesn't worry that much about blazing hot weather setting the woods afire. But with record heat gripping Europe and other parts of the world, wildfires are plaguing Sweden. Many climate scientists warn that this is the consequence of global warming, and that heat, drought and wildfires will only get worse.

Which raises the question of whether smart bombs will the newest weapon against wildfires. At first glance, they do offer certain advantages. They can be dropped by aircraft, so they can tackle fires in remote and rough terrain that are difficult to reach by ground vehicles and firefighters. Smart bombs are also equipped with laser or GPS guidance to hit pinpoint targets, such as moving tanks, under difficult conditions of smoke or bad weather. This also allow precise targeting for fire suppression.

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Unlike firefighting tanker aircraft, which need to make hazardous low-level passes to accurately drop fire suppressant chemicals, a smart bomb can be released from high altitude.

On the other hand, bombs raise their own problems. What happens if the bomb is a dud? Assuming it isn't detonated by the flames, then the result is an unexploded bomb that, unless defused, would jeopardize hikers and loggers. Smart bombs have also been known to malfunction, which makes dropping them near, say, a residential neighborhood in California an interesting proposition.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.