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Laser-guided bomb

From Academic Kids

A laser-guided bomb (LGB) is a precision-guided munition (PGM) that uses semi-active laser homing to strike a designated target with greater accuracy than a free-fall bomb. LGBs are one of the most common and widespread PGMs, used by a large number of the world's air forces.

Contents

Overview

Laser-guided munitions use a laser designator to mark (illuminate) a target. The reflected laser light ("sparkle") from the target is then detected by the seeker head of the weapon, which sends signals to the weapon's control surfaces to guide it toward the designated point. Laser-guided bombs are generally unpowered, using small wings to glide towards their targets. Powered laser-guided missiles, such as some variants of the US AGM-65 Maverick and the French AS.30L, use the same guidance system, but have greater range and maneuverability because they are not limited to unpowered flight. Some LGBs have been fitted with strap-on rocket motors to increase their range; one such weapon is the USAF AGM-123 Skipper.

The earliest laser guidance seekers measured the intensity of the reflected laser light at four corners of the seeker window. The seeker then actuated the control fins to steer the weapon in the direction of the strongest signal return, thereby keeping the weapon centered on the laser sparkle. Later weapons have more sensitive seekers and more sophisticated control systems that waste less energy with course corrections, improving accuracy and range, but the principle remains essentially the same.

Most laser-guided bombs are produced in the form of strap-on kits: seeker heads, steering fins, and wings that can be attached to a standard general-purpose bomb or penetration bomb. Such kits are modular, allowing relatively easy upgrades, and are considerably cheaper than purpose-built weapons.

Development

Laser-guided weapons were first developed in the United States in the early 1960s. The USAF issued the first development contracts in 1964, leading to the development of the Paveway series, which was used operationally in Vietnam starting in 1968. Although there were a variety of technical and operational problems, the results were generally positive. LGBs proved to offer a much higher degree of accuracy than unguided weapons, but without the expense, complexity, and limitations of guided air-to-ground missiles like the AGM-12 Bullpup. The LGB proved particularly effective against difficult fixed targets like bridges, which previously had required huge loads of "dumb" ordnance to sever.

In the wake of this success, other nations began development of similar weapons in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while US weapons were refined based on combat experience.

The USAF and other air forces are currently seeking to upgrade their LGBs with GPS guidance as a back-up. These weapons, such as the USAF Enhanced Paveway, use laser designation for precision attacks, but contain an inertial navigation system with GPS receiver for back-up, so that if the target illumination is lost or broken, the weapon will continue to home in on the GPS coordinates of the original target.

Problems and Limitations

While LGBs are highly accurate under ideal conditions, they present a number of challenges to be used successfully, making them somewhat less than the "silver bullet" sometimes suggested.

The first problem is designation. To insure accurate guidance, the target must be illuminated for several seconds before launch, allowing the weapon's seeker to obtain a positive lock, and the target must remain illuminated during much of the weapon's transit time. If the designator's "sparkle" is turned off, blocked, or moved, the weapon's accuracy will be greatly reduced.

For an accurate attack against a small target, uninterrupted designation is essential. On the other hand, the guidance controls of many LGBs (such as the American Paveway II) cause large deflections (visible as a noticeable wobble) that waste the bomb's energy, reducing its range. To compensate, crews will often release their weapons in an unguided, ballistic arc, activating the designator only to refine the bomb's final impact point. This is more demanding of crew and aircraft, requiring a high standard of basic, unguided bombing accuracy and more attention to the bomb's flight.

Laser designation is very vulnerable to weather conditions. Cloud cover, rain, and smoke frequently make reliable designation impossible. In war conditions, many sorties have been aborted as a result of poor visibility.

In the 1970s and 1980s it was common for aircraft to depend on a separate designator, either carried by ground forces, operated by the forward air controller, or carried by another aircraft in the strike group. It was often deemed more practical for one aircraft to provide lasing for its comrades. Modern conflicts and a growing emphasis on precision-guided weapons have pointed to the need for autonomous designation, and many fighter-bomber aircraft are now being fitted with designator pods to self-designate for laser-guided munitions.

Even if the launch aircraft is capable of autonomous designation, problems remain. Laser illumination can be interrupted by smoke, fog, or clouds, limiting the usefulness of LGBs in poor weather or very dusty conditions. In desert warfare, such as the 1991 Gulf War, laser designation sometimes reflected off the sand, causing weapons to home on false targets. Furthermore, the need to provide designation may leave the aircraft dangerously exposed to ground fire or enemy air support.

An additional concern is the limited "launch envelope" of an unguided weapon. The reflected laser "sparkle" can be described as a basket into which the weapon must be steered to hit the target. If the weapon is released too low or to far from the target, or in a trajectory that puts the weapon outside the seeker's field of view, it is likely to miss. Optimum altitude for an effective LGB attack is relatively high, increasing the aircraft's vulnerability to surface-to-air missile (SAM) attacks.

For these reasons, while all modern air forces have put an increasing emphasis on LGBs and other precision-guided munitions, some tacticians still see an important role for the accurate delivery of unguided bombs. During their 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, the Israeli Air Force chose to use unguided Mk 84 bombs rather than laser-guided weapons because they felt the need to designate the target would leave the attackers unacceptably vulnerable.

See also

External links

  • The FAS website has a good overview of [laser-guided bombs (http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/smart/lgb.htm)].
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