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Special Report: Precision Strike

Jan. 21, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JULIAN HALE   |   Comments
Joint Munition Arsenal: A Taurus cruise missile is launched from a German Typhoon fighter jet. A NATO effort would allow fighters from various countries to quickly employ numerous precision-guided munitions.
Joint Munition Arsenal: A Taurus cruise missile is launched from a German Typhoon fighter jet. A NATO effort would allow fighters from various countries to quickly employ numerous precision-guided munitions. (MBDA)
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BRUSSELS — Development of a NATO standard allowing aircraft from different nations to use precision-guided munitions (PGMs) from various sources and countries could reach a draft memorandum of understanding this year.

A multinational NATO Universal Armaments Interface (NUAI) group is scheduled to meet in the UK in mid-February to look at progress on the Canadian-led NUAI work, and officials say the aim is for a draft memorandum on an agreement to be released early this year and for approval in 2015.

The weapons standardization effort is part of a two-prong NATO initiative to avoid the problems highlighted in the 2011 mission against the Gadhafi regime in Libya, where some coalition air forces ran low on precision weapon stocks during the seven-month campaign.

The second study, led by Denmark, is looking at establishing a framework to strengthen international cooperation in procuring, storing and maintaining weapons.

“The concept work is the theoretical superstructure under which now specific individual projects can be realized,” said a spokesman for the German Defense Ministry, one of the participants in the project.

The German spokesman said a project bringing together two national armored vehicle ammunition procurement programs is already underway between the Netherlands and Denmark, involving 35mm ammunition for CV90 infantry fighting vehicles.

With a draft memorandum possibly just weeks away from release to NATO nations, it’s the NUAI work rather than the munitions cooperation scheme that is likely to attract immediate attention.

The NUAI is based on US-developed UAI software that has been tested on a Turkish F-16 fighter, but is not yet operational.

The project has attracted the attention of many of NATO’s key air forces. Aside from Canada, which is leading the effort, NATO nations Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Turkey and the US are involved, plus nonmember Sweden.

The door also is open to other countries to join the project, NATO officials said.

But Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, warned that while the standardization effort makes sense, moving from ambition to implementation can be tough.

“This idea has been around for awhile,” he said. “The NATO Industrial Advisory Group looked at aircraft launcher weapon interopera­bility and common interface in 2007. There are a lot of advantages, but these things never turn out to be particularly easy to do.”

A former Italian Air Force chief warned that any NATO plan to share munitions and convert aircraft to carry them would run up against a tough opponent.

“Bureaucracy will be the main hurdle here, a much tougher problem than any technical issues,” said retired Gen. Vincenzo Camporini, who became Italy’s chief of staff after running the Air Force, and is now a vice president at Italian think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali.

The PGM framework is expected to be useful for all nations involved, but particularly for countries that fly a single fighter type that use precision-guided munitions because it will give them the flexibility to use weapons from other nations.

A NATO official stressed that a lot of technical work was involved to ensure the software enabled different PGMs to be strapped to different aircraft.

“We need to be certain the software won’t malfunction; otherwise, it could lead to an unguided or faulty weapon,” he said.

“The idea behind the project is also to cut the time needed to fit a PGM to an aircraft, down from months as things stand to a matter of weeks,” he added.

In essence, the UAI will ensure that software in the aircraft’s targeting systems and weapons can talk to each other.

“NUAI is essentially ‘plug and play’ from a software perspective. This saves time and cost, since no [or minimal] change to aircraft and weapons operational flight programs [i.e. aircraft and weapon software] would be needed,” the NATO official said.

“It does not reduce requirements for hardware integration, such as safe separation, form, fit and function, etc.,” he said.

“NUAI weapons could be integrated quickly [probably in a matter of weeks] on an NUAI platform, where most of the work would be on minimal hardware integration,” he said.

For the moment, the NUAI covers only air-to-ground weapons, but future capabilities, such as air-to-air weapons and those carried by UAVs could be added if desired.

Some countries think the standardization work is a step forward but worry about the cost, particularly on existing aircraft.

The conversion of existing aircraft and their weapons will be cost-intensive, but new developments should take into account NUAI, if it can be established as a project, a German Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Barrie said the benefits could outweigh the costs if countries are confident they can reduce their weapon stocks in the knowledge that allies could top up their requirements in an emergency.

“If you can quickly get your hands on another country’s stock knowing you can wheel a plug-and-play weapon on the aircraft, and with the umbilical cord attached, everything works in the same way, that may be something worth paying an overhead for,” he said.

European and US companies are following developments closely, and most of the leading suppliers, such as MBDA, Lockheed Martin, Diehl and Boeing, sit in on the NUAI work, an industry executive said.

“MBDA is following the two NATO projects closely,” a spokesman for the missile maker said in Paris.

The project for interface standardization is of interest to MBDA, as Europe’s dominant missile maker supplies the Brimstone air-to-ground missile for British Tornado fighters; Storm Shadow and Scalp cruise missiles for Britain, France and Italy and the German equivalent, Taurus; and several helicopter-launched weapons.

Following the alliance’s thinking on standardization allows MBDA and other contractors, such as Raytheon, to develop future concepts for smart weapons and to take part in shaping the market.

French precision-guided bomb maker Sagem is another participant in the NATO project, as the Safran group company builds the armement air-sol modulaire, an industry executive said.

Industry will focus on a smart bomb’s interface to fit it on a variety of aircraft, not just fighters, and at low cost, a second executive said.

For example, a French Navy crew flying a Dassault Atlantique 2 aircraft launched a Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway bomb against a target in Mali, defense blog Mamouth and the weekly Air & Cosmos reported in January 2013.

The Atlantique, flying in the early days of the campaign against jihadist rebels, was guided by a laser on a Harfang drone, as the maritime surveillance plane lacks an onboard targeting system.

One aim is to simplify the link between the weapon and the user by plugging the crew more directly to the weapon, rather than going through the aircraft.

That allows data to go straight to the cockpit, laptop or tablet computer without having to change the aircraft’s cabling and electronic system.

Such a direct interface through a wireless system allowed a French Navy Rafale fighter to test-launch a GBU-49 enhanced Paveway bomb on the Biscarosse range in France, Raytheon reported in a statement at the 2012 Farnborough International Airshow.

Andrew Chuter in London, Albrecht Müller in Bonn and Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.

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