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Video Above: Air Force, Raytheon Upgrade Weapons to Respond to New Threats

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) If an advancing group of enemy tanks, infantry carriers and artillery systems used a heavy desert sandstorm to attack, they might by design be nearly invisible to electro-optical surveillance cameras, certain satellite sensors and laser spotting. Perhaps the mechanized column of armored vehicles comes to a stop once in range of attack to turn off engines and reduce any heat signature in order to evade infrared targeting? Perhaps they are accompanied by long-range precision artillery or even close-air support, making any kind of close-in counterattack far too damaging or at least, less likely to result in successful destruction of the enemy force.

How could the enemy force be attacked? Without encountering huge amounts of casualties, risks and uncertain prospects for success? It is a scenario Pentagon weapons developers have been working on for years.

Now, the Air Force could attack with a new, long-range air dropped precision-guided weapon able to shift course toward moving targets at stand-off ranges up to 40miles. The Air Force multi-mode Stormbreaker is now operational on F-15E fighters as a first step toward arming F/A-18s and F-35.

The Air Force and Raytheon have announced that the Stormbreaker multi-mode weapon is ready for war on an F-15E.

Operational status for the Stormbreaker follows years of development, which have specifically included live-fire exercises with a range of platforms, to include F-15Es. Several years ago, an Air Force F-15 Eagle destroyed a moving surrogate-model T-72 tank during a live-fire test of the new Stormbreaker at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The surrogate T-72 tank was moving at tactically relevant battle speeds when it was destroyed by the Stormbreaker during the test.

The weapon is known to incorporate a handful of innovations expected to introduce new tactical dimensions to combat such as increased stand-off attack, multi-mode targeting and “network enabled” warfare. The most often cited innovation woven into the Stormbreaker, previously called the Stormbreaker, is its “tri-mode” seeker, a small form-factor integration of three different kinds of precision-guidance technology woven into a single weapon… millimeter wave guidance, infrared sensing and semi-active laser targeting.

Stormbreaker 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. StormBreaker’s small size lets fewer aircraft address the same number of targets compared to larger weapons that require multiple jets. It can also fly more than 40 miles to strike mobile targets, reducing the amount of time that aircrews spend operating in hostile, high-threat areas.

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About 105 pounds of the Stormbreaker is an explosive warhead which encompasses a “blast-frag” capability and a “shape-jet” technology designed to pierce enemy armor, Raytheon weapons developers explained.The Stormbreaker 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.

While the Air Force currently uses a laser-guided bomb called the GBU-54 able to destroy moving targets, the Stormbreaker can do this at longer ranges and in all kinds of weather conditions. In addition, the Stormbreaker is built with a two-way, dual-band, LINK 16 and UHF data link which enables it to adjust to different target locations while in flight.

“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,” a Raytheon weapons developer told Warrior in a previous interview about Stormbreaker.

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The advantages of laser and infrared-targeting for the Stormbreaker are explained in a June 2020 Congressional Research Service report called “Precision Guided Munitions.”“The added laser guidance enables the Stormbreaker to strike both fixed and moving targets. Stormbreaker uses Link 16 and ultra-high frequency datalinks, along with infrared guidance, to provide course corrections,” the report states.

The Stormbreaker’s two-way data link aligns with concepts expressed in an interesting essay called “Precision-Guided Munitions of the Future” by a NATO-aligned think tank called the Joint Air Power Competence Centre. A portion of the essay takes up the evolution of Network Enabled Warfare as a basis upon which to analyze the trajectory of precision weaponry development. As networks become increasingly hardened and expanded, weapons will increasingly operate with an ability to rapidly re-task as needed amid fast-changing war circumstances.

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“Weapons will have the capability to exchange information between themselves and the nodes linked to the network. The result will be a weapon that collaboratively interfaces with the network, adjusts its trajectory in-flight to enhance accuracy, and provides real-time impact assessment,” the essay states.

Raytheon weapons developers, one could observe, seem to have anticipated this technical trend years ago when first embarking upon Stormbreaker development.

Stormbreaker’s “tri-mode” seeker brings yet another, lesser recognized advantage, such as an ability to operate as a countermeasure of a certain kind. Given that commanders and pilots will have several different targeting modes to choose from depending upon mission variables, the range of options also enables alternative weapons guidance systems to be used in the event that one is “blocked” or “jammed.”

The various targeting modes built into the seeker create an important tactical “redundancy” which maximizes attack options in a wide range of warfare scenarios, therefore introducing added potential to thwart, overcome or counter various enemy countermeasures. This is a key part of the rationale upon which the Stormbreaker was engineered, as it has inertial measurement technology, GPS and radio data links such as LINK 16. The concept is to enable multiple modes of navigation and guidance technology so that the weapon can sustain functionality in a GPS-denied environment.

Perhaps a group of enemy armored vehicles on the move decide to intentionally maneuver under heavy cloud cover or during a sandstorm in the desert to make surveillance and laser targeting more complicated or even impossible? Weather obscurants can cause line-of-sight challenges and contribute to laser beam attenuation. In that scenario, a pilot attacking with Stormbreaker could choose an all-weather millimeter wave targeting mode mode or using millimeter wave radar and heat-seeking infrared mode to follow the heat signatures coming from the engines of enemy vehicles.

Millimeter wave technology, increasingly being woven into weapons guidance systems, is defined as small wavelengths with frequency ranges between 30 and 300 GHz where a total of around 250 GHz bandwidths are available, according to ScienceDirect. As with other kinds of radar, the higher the frequency, the more precisely configured the return signal, a technical phenomenon which can enable a munition to alter course upon detecting movement or position changes.

“The small wavelengths of mmWave frequencies enable large numbers of antenna elements to be deployed in the same form factor thereby providing high spatial processing gains,” as stated in a 2017 publication called “mmWave Massive MIMO, a Paradigm for 5G.” (Mumatz, Rodriguez, Dai)

Millimeter wave frequencies are often used to detect explosives on human beings because the small, ultra high frequency electromagnetic signals pass through human clothing, in a manner somewhat similar to how mmWave signals might pass through thick fog, sand or snow obscurants likely to obstruct detection. Engineering millimeter wave transmitting elements in a small enough form factor such that they can integrate into the Stormbreaker constitutes one of the innovations fundamental to the weapon.

In yet another scenario, perhaps enemy ground vehicles moving toward attack have been engineered with certain kinds of IR suppressors to lower heat emissions and therefore be less detectable to thermal infrared targeting? Similarly, perhaps an enemy vehicle has turned its engines off while remaining stationary in a forward attack position, for the purpose of lowering heat and noise signatures? In this kind of scenario, laser-guided targeting might be the preferred method of engagement. Should a ground or air generated laser designator “paint” or illuminate a target.

Arming the F-15 is a first step for the Air Force as it continues Stormbreaker development. The weapon will soon arm the F-35 and be able to operate from an internal weapons bay so that the aircraft can maintain its stealth properties.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.