Monday, December 22, 2014

U.S. Air Force has approved mass production of the stealthy JASSM air-launched cruise missiles

F-15E-JASSM large

According to Lockheed Martin the U.S. Air Force granted a consent to start mass production of the extended range variant of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, also known as AGM-158B.

The JASSM-ER has successfully completed the USAF program of Initial Operational Test and Evaluation. Out of 21 launches, 20 were successful. USAF plans to acquire 100 ER variant missiles within Lot 11 and 12, specified by the contract signed in Dec. 2013.

According to Lockheed Martin, more than 1500 examples have been produced so far. Target quantity to be delivered to the USAF is 4,900 missiles.

Lockheed Martin stated that the decision undertaken by the U.S. Air Force means that the flying branch is confident the new missiles can provide an effective first-strike capability in dense air defense environments.

AGM-158B JASSM-ER missile is capable of striking targets at ranges of at least 925 kilometers (ca. 500 miles), and it is armed with a dual-mode penetrator equipped with a blast-fragmentation warhead.

The missile itself has been designed, similarly as the A variant, with stealth features. Missile uses two-mode GPS/Infra-Red guidance system, which contributes to its precision strike capabilities.

So far, solely the B-1B bombers possess a capability of using the ER variant of the missile. The basic version, the AGM-158A, can be dropped by B-2s, B-52s, F-16s and F-15Es. However, back in April this year press releases by USAF suggested that JASSM-ER is to be also integrated with F-15E, F-16 and B-52H fleets.

Whilst Australia and Finland use the A-variant of the missile with their F/A-18 Hornets, the baseline JASSM is also to be procured soon by the Polish Air Force for the F-16 Block 52+ planes.

As explained earlier this year, the Polish deal, a bit expensive at the first sight (with 40 missiles worth about $250 million), should also include a modernization bundle for the Polish Air Force F-16 fighters.

The Polish Vipers are to be upgraded up to the M6.5 standard, in order to facilitate use of the new weapons system. The upgrade includes modification in the avionics to improve Link-16 data exchange system and IFF capabilities, the update of the AIDEWS defensive suite, as well as modernization of the Sniper targeting pods. Nevertheless, a larger Mid-Life Update program should be undertaken by the fleet in the next few years, according to the Polish media outlet Dziennik Zbrojny.

According to the official information released by the Polish Ministry of Defense, Minister Tomasz Siemoniak expressed the Poland’s will to procure the ER variant as well even though it is yet unclear whether the M6.5 upgrade would provide the Polish Vipers with the -ER capability in advance.

Poland has signed Letter of Acceptance, regarding procurement of the first 40 missiles on Dec. 11. 2014 at Krzesiny AB, near Poznan.

The agreement falls within the US Foreign Military Sales program and the first deliveries are to take place in the second half of 2016. One additional missile is to be delivered for test firing purposes. Initial Operational Capability is planned to be achieved by 2017, as the F-16 modernization program is to be started in the 2nd half of 2016, at a pace of 2 fighters per month.

The JASSM-ER can be considered to be a strategic weapon, so it will most probably boost Poland and NATO’s deterrence capabilities in eastern Europe: will it be an effective deterrent? Hard to say. For sure, the air-launched cruise missiles are not the only measure the Polish Armed Forces are acquiring at the moment to face the Russian threat. There are additional programs, including the procurement of NSM (Naval Strike Missile) systems.

Secondly, as one of The Aviationist readers pointed out, the M6.5 upgrade for the F-16 fighters may mean that they would be capable of using the AIM-120D air-to-air missiles that have been reserved exclusively for the USAF so far.

These missiles may provide a significant boost of the Polish Viper’s air-to-air capabilities, which would be implemented in the shadow of JASSM deal, but this claim has not been officially confirmed. The Air Force has already stated that it analyses potential implementation of new armament that may be used by the Viper thanks to the envisaged upgrades.

Lastly, as Polish MoD Secretary of State said the use of the JASSM missiles will not be externally limited by the US Authorities. This means that Poland will be free to use the missiles at its own will, if needed.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

 

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