Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)
Saturday, September 7, 2013
Visiting the B-2 Bomber Wing: A look at weapons loading
For those curious about the nuts and bolts of weapons that might be employed over Syria if the US intervenes, following is information I gleaned during a recent visit to Whiteman AFB at Knob Noster, MO, for Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine.
The article as printed in August, "Stealth Bomber Elite," is here; this is bonus material.
Having heard of the sophisticated rotary launcher available to B-2 mission planners, I had the mistaken idea that such a high-tech bomber must take on its cargo automatically: perhaps a launcher preloaded with munitions elsewhere in the base, then hustled to the aircraft on a trailer and plugged into a B-2 bomb bay a half-dozen bombs at a time … fast and easy, like ramming a clip into the 9mm pistol issued to pilots before each combat mission.
Time with a bomb-loading crew in Whiteman AFB's Weapons Load Trainer straightened me out: While machines substitute for some of the muscle-power, it's very much a hands-on task, from bomb assembly in the weapons depot to loading the plane behind the closed doors of a dock. That goes for the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator to the smallest, a 500-pounder: all are individually loaded.
Conventional bombs can go on board with no more than tail fins and fuses, or they can be enlightened with JDAM guidance packages. The JDAM unit (short for Joint Direct Attack Munition) relies on satellite signals and inertial navigation to steer the bomb with swiveling tail fins and strakes. Because each JDAM-guided bomb is individually cabled to the plane's targeting computer, the crew can reassign targets over enemy territory. Boeing recently announced manufacture of the 250,000th JDAM kit.
On display when I visited the training facility, which is about the size of a high-school gymnasium, were a full range of conventional bombs. That included green-painted free-fallers, and gray glide bombs with wings that swung out, along with a powered version like a small cruise missile. All were practice models, for loaders to use during initial training and recertification.
The demonstration that morning featured a 5,000-pound bunker buster called the EGBU-28: taking it from its perch on a trailer and loading it into a practice version of the B-2, which featured a rotary launcher in the right bay and Smart Bomb Racks in the left.
According to the pair of sergeants giving me the tour, the combination of GPS and inertial guidance on this bomb's JDAM kit would be accurate enough to put the first bomb in the top of a steel drum, then a second bomb in the hole made by the first.
The loaders had a diesel-powered truck with a hydraulic arm designed for bomb loading, a rugged and bulky remote control, hand tools, and a checklist with grease pencil. And a good deal of elbow grease, as shown by the first job: moving the bomb-bay door from a vertical position and pinning it back so that it's out of the way, against the wing.
The green bomb was long and slim, with a rod-like nose.
The driver edged the loading arm under the bomb's midpoint, then raised and rotate it to line up with the truck's direction of travel. A few turns of the steering wheel and it was lined up under the left-hand bomb bay. Each step was called out and repeated. Watched carefully by an airman on an orange ladder wearing a headlamp, the lift arm edged around obstructions to snug the bomb against an open slot on the rotary launcher, called a station.
For a brief moment, as the loading crew released temporary fastenings in preparation for shifting the deadweight to the aircraft, the 2 ½ ton bomb lay neatly balanced on the tip of the loading arm. Now it was time to make all connections and verify that nothing would come loose: a sway brace to hold it in place, a data cable to provide updates from the aircraft, and an explosive cartridge to separate the mechanical fastenings during the run. Loading the bomb took about five minutes. After each bomb goes aboard, a control panel at the stairway to the cockpit activates hydraulic power that swivels the launcher to take on the next weapon.
While the noncoms had good words for the efficacy of this particular bunker-buster, what I didn't expect was their enthusiasm for a lowly 500-pound non-bunker GBU-38 bomb with a MK-82 warhead ... if JDAM-equipped. The B-2 can haul 80 of these in the Smart Bomb Rack, totaling 20 tons, compared to a maximum of 16 one-ton bombs using both rotary launchers.
“With these you can destroy all the facilities on an airfield and leave the daycare center standing,” said one of the non-coms. Because a 500-pound bomb can demolish most targets as well as a one-ton bomb can, having such a big swarm of bombs in the belly might allow a single B-2 trip to take the place of three, or even four, B-2 sorties carrying one-ton bombs. Hard or buried targets could be left for a separate mission carrying bunker-busters.
That's if people and computers can rise to the opportunity without errors along the way. The 80-bomb load hasn't yet been tried in wartime, even in the most recent engagement, the 2011 attack on Libyan airfields. There's a risk that, along with the more sophisticated situational-awareness tools now available to the pilots, the extra capability could over-tax pilots and mission planners back at Whiteman.