Retreating insurgents will have a harder time escaping US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan now that the United States Air Force has begun using the next generation of guided bombs designed specifically to destroy moving targets. While guided munitions have been key to air operations for years, most were developed to hit stationary targets.
On Wednesday, Air Force officials announced that F-16s had dropped the guided bomb unit-54 (GBU-54) in combat for the first time, destroying a moving insurgent truck in Iraq’s Diyala Province on Aug. 12.
Designed largely to meet the battlefield needs of commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new bomb shows how the Air Force has begun adapting its arsenal to conduct counterinsurgency missions where accuracy is critical.
“In COIN [counterinsurgency operations] we’ve got to be more precise,” says Brig. Gen. Brian Bishop, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing commander stationed in Balad, Iraq. “Hitting moving targets has always been very, very difficult, and I would say that it’s not until recent years that we’ve been able to truly have technology that allows us to do that with a pretty good degree of certainty.”
Created by Boeing Company, the GBU-54 works by combining Global Position Systems (GPS) targeting capabilities with a laser guidance system in a 500-pound bomb, a standard piece of ordnance that most airplanes can carry. The pilot sets an initial GPS coordinate as the target and then releases the bomb. He then follows the target with a laser and the bomb continually updates its GPS destination until it makes contact.
Prior to the GBU-54, most bombs intended for vehicles or other moving targets were meant for tanks, which move more slowly and cannot access many of the back roads used by insurgents in civilian vehicles. To take out many militants on the run, pilots had to improvise with existing weapons platforms, adjusting their techniques to make the bomb delivery fit the mission requirements.
Consequently, it was easy for pilots to miss their target, and strikes lacked the necessary element of precision required in a counterinsurgency. Often times insurgents got away because commanders had to abort an airstrike to avoid potentially unacceptable levels of collateral damage.
“One of the things we noticed here is how many targets that we didn’t hit because we didn’t have a weapon that was designed to go after a mover,” says Lt. Col. Dave Lujan, 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group deputy commander who also helped leverage the development of the new weapon. “It became an urgent operational need to have a weapon that would be able to engage a mover.”
In early 2007, Boeing began developing the GBU-54 in conjunction with the Air Force and the Navy. Traditionally, designing a new weapon can take up to 10 years, depending on the requirements, but engineers managed to deliver a completed product to airmen in
Iraq and Afghanistan only 17 months later. Air Force officials attribute the rapid turnaround to the intense operational demand for the system in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Lieutenant Colonel Lujan says that the GBU-54 will allow for a more efficient Air Force. "It’s a very flexible weapon," he says, "especially in an urban warfare environment where you need that flexibility."