April 03, 2019

Climbing Out of the Munitions Hole

The Air Force is making progress filling a four-year-long shortage of precision guided munitions—but will keep struggling with shortages as long as it keeps using them at a furious pace. Prime contractors, meanwhile, are “maxed out” in munitions production, and the Pentagon is working to ensure that the makers of key weapon components don’t disappear from the industrial landscape. 

“We’re very focused on munitions capacity, because we’ve been dropping a lot of weapons,” Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said in February. The Air Force has dropped “over 70,000 weapons on ISIS, … and we need to be able to buy back many of our weapons at scale.”  

The limiting factor, he said, is “the capacity to make them.” 

The key weapons in the fight are the satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, which comes in variants ranging from 500 pounds up to 2,000 pounds; the AGM-114 Hellfire laser guided missile, which equips Army helicopters as well as Air Force MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft; the Small Diameter Bomb, which is a 250-pound satellite-guided munition; and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or APKWS, a seeker head for Hydra rockets carried by helicopters and F-16 fighters. These weapons have been used the most in the war against ISIS since the rules of engagement demand extreme precision: ISIS targets are usually mixed in among civilians, and the coalition has made minimizing civilian deaths a top priority.  

Commanders have been loathe to use nonprecision weapons against ISIS because an errant bomb that kills civilians can have instant, strategic implications for international support of the anti-ISIS effort.