Tucson-based Raytheon Missiles & Defense is ramping up production of a precision-guided “smart” bomb that will become standard ammo on several front-line fighter jets within a few years.
In late March, Raytheon was awarded a $320 million Air Force contract to produce and deliver 1,500 copies of the GBU-53B StormBreaker glide bomb, a network-enabled weapon that can hit moving targets at up to 45 miles in all weather conditions.
StormBreaker, also known as the Small Diameter Bomb II, has been in development for more than a decade, since Raytheon won a development contract worth up to $450 million in 2010.
The bomb went into low-rate initial production in 2015 as part of an operational testing program launched in 2018 and reached initial operating capability, or combat-readiness, on the Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagle in September 2020, about a year later than planned.
As part of the Air Force-led joint program, StormBreaker is undergoing testing on the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet jets and the F-35B Lightning II, a carrier-based version of the Joint Strike Fighter flown by the Marine Corps.
However, the new bomb won’t be fully fitted on the F-35 until after a major software upgrade to the plane is completed in 2025 or later.
Raytheon has already delivered more than 2,500 StormBreakers under earlier Air Force low-rate production contracts to produce 5,000 of the bombs, said Steve Milano, director of requirements and capabilities for air-to-surface weapons at Raytheon.
The latest Air Force order for 1,500 StormBreakers — which cost an average of about $232,000 last fiscal year, not including development costs — is the latest step toward full-rate production, he said.
“It’s good for the community, a lot gets done here,” Milano said. “We have suppliers all over the country, but all of the work gets done here, from the seeker head to final assembly, testing and delivery happens right here in Tucson. I see this being a program for Raytheon and the U.S. Air Force for a long time.”
The Air Force and Navy initially planned to buy a combined 17,000 StormBreakers but that number was upped to more than 26,000 last year.
The glide bomb also has been initially tested on the F-16 Fighting Falcon and could be fitted in the future on warplanes including the F-22 Raptor.
There is also substantial international interest among allied nations that are buying the F-35, Milano said.
Australia, Germany, Norway and Finland already are working with Raytheon on plans to use StormBreakers for their F-35s, he said.
“It’s a fifth-generation weapon for a fifth-generation platform, and so as more international partners come up to speed you’ll see more come into the fold,” Milano said.
Like many new weapon development programs, the StormBreaker had its share of delays and problems, including cost overruns in 2019 that triggered a notification to Congress.
Milano said the cost breach was caused by an error in calculations used in an incremental contract, which was updated to correct the issue.
In 2019, production was halted after Raytheon found a problem with clips that hold the bomb’s folding fins in place before they are deployed after launch.
The company developed a fix and was able to retrofit finished StormBreakers before they were delivered to the fleet, Milano said.
Other delays were caused by added program requirements for hardware and software, delays in F-35 development that affected the pace of bomb production orders, and the increase in projected orders, according to a May 2022 Pentagon acquisition report.
Milano said he’s confident StormBreaker is now ready for action.
“As you develop different weapons, you’re going to run into these issues. The real question is how you respond to them, and we’ve got a great partnership with the Air Force and a great community of engineers here in Tucson that really take ownership of the quality of the products they deliver,” Milano said.
The StormBreaker may prove well worth the wait, with its advanced capabilities.
Milano said the key to StormBreaker’s ability to hit moving and stationary targets in any weather is its “tri-mode” target seeker, which combines millimeter-wave radar, imaging infrared and semi-active laser sensors, in coordination with jam-resistant GPS and inertial navigation.
The bomb can also classify targets, and send and receive updated targeting information via a two-way, dual-band data link. The bomb can identify targets and present them as potential targets to pilots or ground controllers.
“All those things come together to give the weapon a really great picture of the environment and give a lot of data back to the pilot or the user on the ground that’s controlling it,” Milano said.
The skinny bomb — roughly six feet long and about 7 inches in diameter — packs a punch with a 105-pound “multi-effects” warhead that includes a so-called shaped charge to penetrate armor.
StormBreaker’s small size limits collateral damage, while also allowing warplanes to carry more bombs to hit multiple targets.
Each weapon mount on a fighter jet that would fit one air-to-ground missile or bomb can fit four StormBreakers; the F-15E can carry 20, Milano said.
The F-35 will be able to carry eight StormBreakers in its internal weapons bay, which maintains the fighter’s stealthy profile, he said.
Milano said he expects the Navy to declare initial operating capability for StormBreaker on the F/A-18 sometime this year, noting that the weapon can hit moving maritime targets.
Despite lingering supply-chain issues across the defense and other industries, Milano said the company uses sophisticated supply-chain management tools to meet its production goals.
“One of the ways we are using artificial intelligence and machine learning is actually in our supply-chain base models, to be able to predict where in the future we might have challenges based on material needs from multiple programs that are in production here in Tucson,” Milano said, adding that a handful of local suppliers support the StormBreaker program.
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