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Air Force S&T targets speed, guided weapons

Air Force scientists want to beef up bunker-buster type munitions such as the current GBU-28 to go after deeper, more fortified enemy targets.

“We know that a lot of our adversary targets are going further underground and using more complex systems, so we do want to figure out how you can do a better job of taking out those targets with penetrating weapons,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, Military Deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.

The biggest challenge with next-generation munitions, however, is working on technologies that allow air-to-ground weapons to attack re-locatable, moving targets, Davis explained.

To illustrate this point, Davis referenced the now-in-development Small Diameter Bomb II, a guided, air-dropped munition engineered to track targets in a variety of ways; the weapon uses a tri-mode seeker and can locate targets using RF guidance, semi-active laser guidance or millimeter wave technology.

The tri-mode seeker allows the weapon to travel through obscurants such as dust or clouds and track moving targets, according to statements from its maker -- Raytheon.

“We are trying to make sure we have weapons that are flexible enough to allow us to go after moving targets. The Small Diameter Bomb II is very useful because it has three modes and a data-link which in some cases can autonomously find and track moving targets,” Davis said.

The Air Force’s roughly $2 billion a year Science and Technology budget is focused on a wide-ranging set of challenges, such as assessing the latest in hypersonic propulsion, tracking moving targets with air-to-ground munitions, analyzing ISR data and looking at whether fighter planes armed with missiles could help with ballistic missile defense, senior service leaders said.

“Our two billion a year in S&T cuts across every area you could imagine. We’re in the business of trying to maintain 50-year old airframes and trying to look at what the next hypersonic propulsion vehicle is going to be. There is a range – a mix to the balance of where that money goes,” Davis said.

The service made headlines recently when the Air Force Research Lab’s Hypersonic X-51A WaveRider aircraft launched off of a B-52, reaching speeds greater than Mach 5, Davis explained.

“Now we have to figure out how you go Mach 5 and do something once you get there. That is the next big step,” Davis said.

Davis was referring to a May 1, 2013 flight wherein the X-51A took off from the Air Force Test Center at Edwards AFB, Calif., under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress.

“It was released at approximately 50,000 feet and accelerated to Mach 4.8 in about 26 seconds powered by a solid rocket booster.  After separating from the booster, the cruiser’s scramjet engine then lit and accelerated to Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet,” an Air Force press statement reads. “After exhausting its 240-second fuel supply, the vehicle continued to send back telemetry data until it splashed down into the ocean and was destroyed as designed.  All told, 370 seconds of data was collected from the experiment.”

Alongside hypersonic propulsion, the Air Force’s S&T portfolio is also prioritizing a wide-range of next generation weaponry and munitions. For instance, the service is looking at the potential use of non-kinetic weapons such as electromagnetic warfare to achieve a specific sought after battlefield “effect” without necessarily damaging infrastructure or people, Davis explained.

“We’re looking at how we use electronic pulses to shut down computer systems if we need to, We’ve flown demonstrators that show you can do that,” he said.

The Air Force is also exploring an approach referred to as Airborne Weapons Layer (AWL), an effort to explore the feasibility of using fighter jets to shoot down long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles during the initial or final phase of flight, Davis said.

“You have a lot of flexibility with these planes, which is why they talk about layered defenses. There is a wide variety of thought regarding whether you attack them in the re-entry phase or attack them during the boost {initial} phase where they launch,” he said.

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