Air Force Wants Flexible Munitions It Can Easily Upgrade

The Air Force is in the early stages of engineering a new class of tailorable, flexible weapons designed to embrace new technologies as they emerge and switch seekers or sensors as needed, service officials said.

Managed in part by the Air Force Research Lab Munitions Directorate, the flexible weapons program aims to build small, medium and large-sized bombs able to accommodate the latest in emerging technologies and exchange capabilities, Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley told in an interview.

“This is a great example of how we are looking at open architecture. As you develop new capabilities, it is easy to swap those onto the aircraft system without having to go through huge changes and costs,” said Endsley.

By open architecture, Endsley was referring to an effort to build weapons able to switch parts as needed, integrate new software and other technologies as they emerge.

The ability to build upon and not limit capability is a major thrust of the flexible weapons program. For instance, the weapons program will be configured to bring the capabilities of GBU-28 bunker busters, precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions and the Small Diameter Bomb II, which is in development.  The guided, air-dropped Small Diameter Bomb II can track targets using an RF seeker, millimeter wave technology and semi-active laser guidance.

These modular weapons are slated for development in what’s called a “proof of concept” from 2014 to 2017, said Leo Rose, Air Force Research Laboratory flexible weapon research program manager.

“We want to use inexpensive weapons for inexpensive targets and use more capable weapons for higher-value targets,” he said.

“If I want to do a modular weapon, then one day I put on an EO/IR (electro-optical/infrared) seeker and the weapon works. Then the next day I put an RF seeker on. There are things I have to do from a technology perspective that enable me to do that,” Rose told

The effort involves configuring weapons and the systems they include such as sensors, seekers, control modules, ordnance packages, propulsion system and control actuation systems, Rose explained.

“We want a backbone that connects major components together. We’re looking at changing our acquisition philosophy so that we can take advantage of the technologies in the platform and make it easier to do technology refresh,” he added.

For example if a new processor, software or seeker becomes available, the flexible weapons program is being designed to integrate that seamlessly by creating common interfaces at the beginning of the developmental process, Rose said.

“If we’re going to introduce a new approach to the design of a weapon, we certainly are not going to go backwards in capability,” he explained.

The Air Force Research Lab is working to conduct the research needed to reduce the technological risk involved in the flexible weapons acquisition plan. The idea is to streamline technological development, lower risk and significantly reduce costs, Rose explained.

“This is a paradigm shift regarding how we approach the business of developing and procuring weapons. Weapons systems are becoming more expensive and the cost of integrating new technologies on weapons platforms is cost prohibitive.”

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Bernard

    The open software architecture part would be the most valuable in ensuring that you only have upgrade existing planes once to ensure they can always use the latest weapons.

    I’d love to be the guy building that system.

  • platypusfriend

    Repositories contributed to: usgovernment/SidewinderMissile

    …ok, I can dream, can’t I?..

  • Big-Dean

    does that mean they are bringing the g.y bomb back-opps it apparently has already “hit” the entire air farce ;-P

  • Dfens

    I have met Mica Endsley and have read several papers she has published. She is amazing and has had huge positive impact on the Air Force. She is a real pioneer in the field of pilot workload evaluation. It is too bad the Air Force does not rely more on people like Mica who work directly for the government instead of always outsourcing work to defense contractors. Many of the defense contractors have equally capable people, but the inherit conflict of interest that exists when the military outsources basic research always factors into the results of outsourced research. We used to understand that, but now the defense contractors have such an iron grip of control over the Department of Defense that they steer almost all available funds to themselves and leave far too little for their own research labs.

    • Steve

      “Many of the defense contractors have equally capable people, but the inherit conflict of interest that exists when the military outsources basic research…”

      That’s why Federally Funded Research and Development Centers exist.

  • Col. Norman

    I’am tired of “modular” being the word If yo need a precision bomb use a JDAM or if you need to bomb a area a Mk-84 is the way to go every bomb doesn’t need to be precision for every target.

    • FormerDirtDart

      A JDAM is a “modular” weapon, it is a 2000 lbs Mk-84 or BLU-109, and a 1000 lbs Mk-83 or BLU-110, and a 500 lbs Mk-82 or BLU-111 matched with guidance kits.
      Just like how the “Paveway” series are just plain old dumb bombs with laser guidance kits strapped on.

  • larry

    What I want to know if when are we going to get phasers and photon torpedos?

  • oli
  • oblatt1

    Upgradable is really just short for inadequate. This all part of the industries mantra of delivering less for more. In a time of shrinking budgets the weapons need to be a lot less capable to deliver the same contractor margins. Delivering junk that :can be upgraded one day with some sort of magic” is one way of doing that.

    F22, JSF, LCS, Striker the list goes on and on, less capable vehicles costing the same. Makes sense to apply the same downgrading logic to the weapons themselves.

    • Dfens

      No, what Endsley is recommending is something like the kind of standardization IBM pioneered with its first PC’s. Does every fuse hole need a custom size and thread? No, probably not. By standardizing that hole, you end up being able to put parts from many vendors in that place, as well as guidance heads and that sort of thing.

      • burkefett
      • burkefett
      • burkefett
      • oblatt1

        Ironic that the IBM example is a classic example of a monopolist trying to dominate a market - except it failed and the Taiwanese out maneuvered them. The same will happen to the USAF and China.

  • tiger

    Just how heavy is a AIM-9 missile? That crew look ready to drop the damn thing……

    • Big-Dean

      they are holding it all wrong, here the right Navy way of doing it ;-P…

    • Rest Pal

      It’s not the missile; it’s the double cheeseburgers, French fries and coke or beer in their stomach.

      of course, their body fat was pulling its weight in the wrong direction.


    How about missiles based on Nano technology? Yes? No?

    • Riceball

      What, like a missile that builds itself?