By releasing a GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition from a MQ-9 Reaper in a live weapons exercise, the Air Force made history and vastly widened the attack envelope, target set and mission scope for its workhorse drone.
The GPS-guided GBU-38 precision bomb, dropped at Nellis Air Force Base Nevada, brings new offensive strike ability to the Reaper drone - a 66-foot medium altitude aircraft often used for both ISR and precision strikes on enemy targets.
The Reaper will now fire the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs - free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guidance kit, Air Force acquisition officials told Scout Warrior. JDAM technology allows the weapons to drop in adverse weather conditions and pinpoint targets with “smart” accuracy.
"For the past 10 years, skilled MQ-9 aircraft aircrew have been employing AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, but the JDAM brings new global positioning system capabilities," a statement from the Air Force News Service said.
"The GBU-38, just like the Hellfire and GBU-12, is a very accurate weapon and the fact that it’s GPS-guided gives us another versatile way to guide the weapon, specifically, through inclement weather onto targets,” Capt. Scott, a 26th WPS weapons instructor pilot, said in an Air Force statement.
Once released from the aircraft, the JDAM autonomously navigates to the designated target coordinates.
Air Force data on JDAMs says target coordinates can be loaded into the aircraft before takeoff, manually altered by the aircrew before weapon release, or automatically entered through target designation with onboard aircraft sensors.
"In its most accurate mode, the JDAM system will provide a weapon circular error probable of 5 meters or less during free flight when GPS data is available. If GPS data is denied, the JDAM will achieve a 30-meter CEP or less for free flight times up to 100 seconds with a GPS quality handoff from the aircraft," an Air Force statement said.
JDAMs can be launched from very low to very high altitudes in a dive, toss or loft and in straight and level flight with an on-axis or off-axis delivery, service information adds.
Adding more fire-power to the Reaper is an effort which has been underway for at least several years, senior Air Force officials explained.
In an interview in 2015, the Air Force Military Deputy for Acquisition, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, told Scout Warrior that the service had begun the process of adding new weapons to the Reaper, a process which will likely involve engineering a universal weapons interface.
“We are looking at what kind of weapons do we need to integrate in. We're looking at anything that is in our inventory, including the small diameter bomb. We're working to get universal armament interface with an open mission systems architecture,” Bunch said.
A universal interface would allow the Reaper to more quickly integrate new weapons technology as it emerges and efficiently swap or replace bombs on the drone without much difficulty, Bunch explained.
“If I can design to that interface, then it costs me less money and takes me less time to integrate a new weapon - I don’t want to go in and open up the software of the airplane. As long as I get the interface right, I can integrate that new weapon much sooner,” he added.
Drone attacks from further ranges could reduce risk to the platform and help strikes against Al Qaeda or ISIS targets to better achieve an element of surprise. At the same time, the GBU-38 is also designed for major-scale force-on-force warfare against a near-peer.
Furthermore, additional air-to-surface guided weapons could add mission possibilities to the current Hellfire and laser-guided bombs able to hit smaller and mobile targets, enabling the Reaper drone to have success with attacks against groups of ISIS or other enemy fighters that reduce the risk of hurting nearby civilians. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda are known for deliberately seeking to blend in with civilian populations to better protect themselves from U.S. drone strikes.
Other potential advantages to adding to the arsenal of weapons able to fire from the include an improved ability to strike smaller targets, mobile targets or terrorists, such as groups of enemy fighters on-the-move in pick-up trucks and enemies at further ranges.
Also, at some point in the future it may not be beyond the realm of possibility to arm the Reaper for air-to-air engagements as well.
Another new possibility for the Reaper drone could be the addition for the GBU-39B or Small Diameter Bomb, Bunch said.
The Small Diameter Bomb uses a smart weapons carrier able to include four 250-pound bombs with a range of 40 nautical miles. The bomb’s small size reduces collateral damage and would allow the Reaper to achieve more kills or attack strikes per mission, Air Force officials said.