F-35 preps for weapons upgrade by dropping new bombs

The F-35 will again fire its 25mm gun and air-drop several new laser-guided bombs to prepare stealth 5th-Gen fighter for future high tech warfare by improving precision-strike air attack, targeting and close-air-support.

The GAU-22 Gun System, Small Diameter Bomb II and GBU-38/54 are all scheduled for additional ground and flight tests later this year, Brandi Schiff, an official with the F-35 II Joint Program Office, told Warrior in a written statement.

The weapons, now in development for several years, will build upon the existing arsenal of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons now operating on the F-35. Current production F-35s are certified to carry Paveway IV, GBU-12 and GBU-49 laser-guided bombs, Schiff said.

The Navy's now-operational F-35C is preparing for its first deployment. Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147), also known as the “Argonauts” based at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California, is scheduled to be the first USN F-35C squadron to make an operational deployment, Schiff said.

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The Air Force’s F-35 testing, software development and integration for these new weapons are a key part of an upcoming Block 4 variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an emerging software upgrade intended to give the multi-role fighter a new dimension of attack mission possibilities, service leaders said. The Block 4 program brings additional weapons to the F-35, including GBU-53 Small Diameter Bomb and GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munition.

The four-barrel 25mm gun is designed for rapid-fire in order to quickly blanket an enemy with gunfire and destroy targets quickly. The weapon is able to fire 3,300 rounds per minute, according to a statement from General Dynamics.

The Block 4 initiative is part of a long-range trajectory planned for the F-35 described by Pentagon developers as C2D2 - Continuous Capability Development and Delivery. The idea, officials say, is to position the multi-role fighter such that it can consistently accommodate new weapons, stealth materials, sensors and guidance technology as they become available.

The weapons integration is consistent with a current Air Force strategy to expedite software upgrades to the aircraft by keeping pace with current technological change. Instead of relying upon pre-determined increments to be added at fixed points in time often several years apart, F-35 developers see the need for consistent short term integration of software improvements as they emerge.

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Small Diameter Bomb II

The SDB II, described as a key element of Block 4, is a new air-dropped weapon able to destroy moving targets in all kinds of weather conditions at ranges greater than 40-miles, Air Force and Raytheon officials said.

The weapon, formally called StormBreaker, has completed its operational drop testing and is now moving toward integration, a Raytheon statement said.

GPS and laser-guided weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions have been around for decades, however, they have primarily been designed for use against fixed or stationary targets.

While the Air Force currently uses a laser-guided bomb called the GBU-54 able to destroy moving targets, the new SDB II will be able to do this at longer ranges and in all kinds of weather conditions. In addition, the SDB II is built with a two-way, dual-band data link which enables it to change targets or adjust to different target locations while in flight, Raytheon developers told Warrior Maven.

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The Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB II), which has already completed a series of wind tunnel tests, can destroy moving targets in all weather conditions at ranges greater than 40 miles -- a Raytheon statement said.

A key part of the SDB II is a technology called a “tri-mode” seeker — a guidance system which can direct the weapon using millimeter-wave radar, uncooled imaging infrared guidance and semi-active laser technology.

Raytheon weapons developers say the tri-mode seeker provides a range of guidance and targeting options typically not used together in one system. Millimeter-wave radar gives the weapon an ability to navigate through adverse weather, conditions in which other guidance systems might encounter problems reaching or pinpointing targets.

​Imagining infrared guidance allows the weapon to track and hone in on heat signatures such as the temperature of an enemy vehicle. With semi-active laser technology, the weapon can be guided to an exact point using a laser designator or laser illuminator coming from the air or the ground, Raytheon officials told Warrior.

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Also, the SBD II brings a new ability to track targets in flight through the use of a two-way Link 16 and UHF data link, Raytheon officials said.

One Raytheon SDB II developer told Warrior in a previous interview that “the millimeter-wave radar turns on first. Then the data link gives it a cue and tells the seeker where to open up and look. Then, the weapon can turn on its IR (infrared) which uses heat-seeking technology.”

The SBD II is engineered to weigh only 208 pounds, a lighter weight than most other air-dropped bombs so that eight of them can fit on the inside of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Raytheon officials explained.

If weapons are kept in an internal weapons bay and not rested on an external weapons pod, then an aircraft can succeed in retaining its stealth properties because the shapes or contours of the weapons will not be visible to enemy radar.

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About 105 pound of the SDB II is an explosive warhead which encompasses a “blast-frag” capability and a “plasma-jet” technology designed to pierce enemy armor, Raytheon officials explained.

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The SDB II also has the ability to classify targets, meaning it could, for example, be programmed to hit only tanks in a convoy as opposed to other moving vehicles. The weapon can classify tanks, boats or wheeled targets, Raytheon officials added.