The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and its munitions directorate at Eglin AFB, Fla., are examining a dialable effects munition (DEM) for the 558-pound Boeing [BA] GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the laser-guided GBU-54 JDAM to reduce civilian casualties, as seen during Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) against the ISIS terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, according to the commander of AFRL.

“The dialable munitions is one that the folks at Eglin have been working hand in hand with the acquisition professionals,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle said last week during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation forum. “They’re working on the GBU-38, the 54, how that was supported in Inherent Resolve. They continue to look at how they can have it be more facilitated for the warfighters…Right now they have to preprogram those dialable effects, and it’s not as moderated on the fly. So making that more agile for the warfighters so that they can adapt while they’re in flight, I think that’s an important area that they are looking at, rather than just preprogramming. Even though they have the body out there, it has to be started before they load it up.”

Since 2018, AFRL has been conducting a Joint Concept Technology Demonstration (JCTD) on DEM to allow pilots to dial up or down a munition’s power before weapons release–for example “wide area effects” for a truck convoy in a rural area with no civilians present or a narrow effect in cities in which there is a significant risk of civilian casualties (Defense Daily, Jan. 29).

Through a series of ucpoming ground tests and flight tests, AFRL is focusing on the incorporation of DEM warhead and fusing technology into multiple warheads and weapons.

The DEM, if proven, could afford strike pilots more flexibility and reduce collateral damage during dynamic targeting situations.

Limited numbers of low-collateral (LOCO) damage munitions, such as variants of the GBU-38 and GBU-54, have led to unenviable choices for strike planners during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq–choices which have led to decisions that caused civilian casualties, particularly in dense urban terrain, such as in Mosul, Iraq (Defense Daily, Jan. 19).

One such incident occurred on March 17, 2017 when the U.S. conducted an airstrike using a GBU-38 against two snipers on the second floor of a building in the al-Jadidah neighborhood of West Mosul. The GBU-38, which had a delayed fuse, killed the snipers but also set off explosives planted by ISIS, thus causing the deaths of more than 100 civilians, DoD said in a 2017 after-action report. Inclement weather had prevented the use of full-motion video (FMV) monitoring of the building for two days before the strike, and information provided to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) before the strike conflicts on whether there was, or was not, a high-risk of civilian casualties. CENTCOM did no formal or informal collateral damage estimate (CDE) just before the strike.

“Because Mosul was a dense urban environment and ISIS was intentionally using civilians as human shields, the coalition demonstrated a preference for [the Boeing] GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb (a 250-pound precision glide bomb) and the employment of delayed fuses (i.e., letting the bomb bury below the ground before detonating to reduce the yield),” per a new RAND Project Air Force report, The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve.

“Weaponeering was supplemented by other process measures, such as requiring FMV to confirm no civilian presence at the target site and strict use of collateral damage estimates,” the report said. “As DoD investigations and independent reporting show, these approaches could not eliminate civilian casualties in the operation. However, these approaches—along with required collateral-damage estimates—did mitigate civilian casualties, a goal that was a point of emphasis in almost every interview conducted for this study.”

Overall, the joint force should improve its targeting, per the RAND Project Air Force report.

“The joint force should look to reinvigorate and reexamine the target-development process to identify bottlenecks and develop ways to make it more efficient and faster,” the study said. “As a part of this process, the joint force should consider whether recent practices, such as a certain number of uninterrupted hours of FMV, are a sensible requirement for target development and authorization. In OIR, the coalition benefited from time to refine its targeting processes, but it is likely to lack this luxury in future wars against more-capable adversaries.”

As for the Air Force, RAND advised the service to continue to supplement the ranks of targeting and intelligence officers and airmen.

The Air Force “will be expected to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage in future air campaigns, including those against near peers, that may occur in dense urban environments,” per the RAND report. “Therefore, it will need to buy sufficient quantities of different types of precision-guided munitions for different missions and allocate these efficiently across theaters, taking theater-wide responsibilities into account, in addition to current and potentially emerging conflicts. Additionally, the USAF should consider how it can effectively and safely use second- and third-choice munitions by using tactics, techniques, and procedures to produce desired effects and precision. In addition to augmenting its stockpiles of precision-guided munitions, the USAF may want to retain or purchase cheaper dumb bombs to use for missions that do not require precision, particularly those that take place in largely uninhabited areas.”