What was old is once again new. In an effort reminiscent of U.S. aerial attacks in the Pacific theater during World War II, the Air Force announced that an F-15E used a specially developed GBU-31 2,000lb Joint Direct Attack Munition, along with new tactics, on a moving ship.
However, unlike the SBD Dauntless or Helldivers of yesteryear, the F-15E isn’t designed for naval warfare. Nor, according to the Air Force, is the JDAM an “ideal” weapon for attacking ships.
“For any large moving ship, the Air Force’s primary weapon is the 2,000-pound laser-guided GBU-24,” Maj. Andrew Swanson, 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron F-15E weapons system officer, said in a release. “Not only is this weapon less than ideal, it also reduces our survivability based on how it must be employed.”
But the Air Force wants to deliver the kind of lethality that a submarine can, without exposing a boat to detection.
The test, called the QUICKSINK Joint Capability Technology Demonstration, is “an effort to rapidly develop and demonstrate a low-cost USAF capability to defeat surface vessels from the air,” Air Force 1st Lt. Lindsey Heflin, Public Affairs Advisor for the 53rd Wing, told Air Force Times via email.
The effort “includes the development of a low-cost seeker for precise placement of the weapon as well as a warhead optimized for maritime conditions,” Heflin said. “The initial demonstrations use a JDAM weapon for its ability to rapidly integrate and demonstrate the technologies. While the technology could be used on a JDAM, the goal is to transition the technology to future systems with longer ranges.”
While details on precisely what tactics and techniques Air Force pilots adjusted and or developed for naval warfare aren’t public, the Air force has been testing various platforms for naval warfare for at least a year.
According to the Air Force, this most recent test utilizing an F-15E “builds” off a similar exercise conducted last year. A B-52H Stratofortress from the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron dropped multiple JDAMs in “specific” maritime conditions to check out the viability of such operations.
Does this signal a return to scenarios such as the Battle of Midway, where U.S. dive bombers and B-17′s pelted a fleet on the move with munitions?
Probably not. But, as the Defense Department looks to counter great power competitors like Russia and China, specifically in the Pacific theater, many services have been exploring “outside the box” methods of naval warfare. For example, the Marine Corps has refined its ability to deliver rocket-based artillery into sea lanes, thereby denying movement. Which traditionally has not been a mission associated with the Marine Corps.
While there is no indication that from the Air Force that their anti-ship capability is fully “built out”, it appears that this new role has a future.
When speaking about the challenges associated with attacking ships with a JDAM, Swanson said that both survivability and accuracy were an issue with previous iterations. However, the GBU-31 shows promise in increasing both.
“This munition can change all of that,” Swanson said.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.