WASHINGTON — The Air Force last week tested its new ship-killing guided bomb by using it to destroy a full-scale target vessel in the Gulf of Mexico.
An F-15E Strike Eagle from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on April 28 released a GBU-31 joint direct attack munition, or JDAM, that had been modified to strike a maritime target, the Air Force said in a release.
This is the Air Force Research Laboratory’s second test of this maritime JDAM concept, called the QUICKSINK Joint Capability Technology Demonstration. The first test in August used dummy versions of the weapon to make sure the redesigned weapon could hit different points on a target once released.
It represents a major step forward in the Air Force’s ability to sink a ship. And it comes at a time of increasing concern about the potential for a conflict with a major power with a significant naval force.
The U.S. military is worried about China’s growing military capability and the possibility it could try to launch a swift invasion of the island nation of Taiwan.
And last month, the Ukrainian military sunk the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva in a stunning strike with its Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles.
“QUICKSINK is an answer to an urgent need to neutralize maritime threats to freedom around the world,” Col. Tony Meeks, director of AFRL’s munitions directorate, said in the release.
The 2,000-pound GBU-31 JDAM is GPS-guided, but not self-propelled. After being released from an aircraft, the launching plane’s speed and gravity give the JDAM velocity while fins guide it toward its intended target. The maritime version is intended to be able to hit both stationary and moving targets on the water.
In a September 2021 interview with Military.com, Meeks said one of the bomb’s modifications was a redesigned nose plug. This is intended to keep the bomb from veering off in an unintended direction if it hits the water before the target, which Meeks likened to skipping a stone across the surface of a pond.
“What we’re trying to understand is the physics, the dynamics, to prevent a JDAM from skipping off the surface of the water,” Meeks said last September.
The Air Force is hoping this JDAM will give the service a new way to kill ships at a lower cost. Unlike traditional torpedoes launched by submarines, it would not travel under the water’s surface to a target.
“Heavy-weight torpedoes are effective [at sinking large ships] but are expensive and employed by a small portion of naval assets,” Maj. Andrew Swanson, chief of advanced programs for the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron at the 53rd Wing, said in the release. “With QUICKSINK, we have demonstrated a low-cost and more agile solution that has the potential to be employed by the majority of Air Force combat aircraft, providing combatant commanders and warfighters with more options.”
The Air Force also said last year the GBU-31′s GPS guidance system would be a major step up from the older GBU-24′s laser guidance. If a laser-guided bomb were released against a ship, the pilot would have to loiter in the area and continue to illuminate the target with the laser until it strikes. This could put the pilot at risk of being shot down by the targeted ship.
But after releasing a GPS-guided maritime weapon, the pilot could get out of the ship’s range right away. And the GBU-31′s GPS guidance would be able to work in all weather conditions, as opposed to laser-guided weapons, which can have difficulty operating in cloudy environments.
AFRL said its scientists and engineers are using the open systems architecture concept to develop the bomb’s seeker that guides it in to the target. By using open systems architecture, AFRL said, the service will be able to “plug-and-play” components from different manufacturers, which it hopes will keep costs down and improve performance.
And any aircraft that can carry a standard JDAM will also be able to carry the modified maritime JDAMs, AFRL said last year.
The test was carried out by AFRL and Eglin’s Integrated Test Team.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.