According to the Washington Post, the United States is planning to supply the Ukrainian military with Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kits. According to them:
“Those familiar with matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, did not say whether Ukrainian forces would employ the kits on aircraft or ground-based weapons, or what specific systems in Ukraine’s arsenal would be candidates for such augmentation.”
Of all the systems available for the United States to transfer to Ukraine, JDAM kits would be among the most quizzical considering the lack of Tactical Aircraft (TACAIR) and Long Range Aviation (LRA) strikes made by Ukrainian assets since the Russian invasion on February 24th, 2022. Before we get too much into the utility of the JDAM for Ukraine, let’s first explain what it is.
Developed in 1997 by the United States Navy and Air Force, hence the “Joint” in JDAM, the kit is simply a “bolt on” guidance system that was meant to be attached to the vast array of gravity bombs (BLUs or Bomb, Live unit) which then alters the flight path and fusing to strike a target designated by its GPS coordinates. When a JDAM kit is attached, the munition is designated a Guided Bomb Unit (GBU).
After the limited success of the 1991 Gulf War bombing campaign, the United States Air Force admitted that laser-guided bombs performed much better against Iraqi tanks than unguided bombings. However, those laser-guided bombs were limited by several factors, including weather, the accuracy of the designator (ground-based and aerial), and the pilot’s ability to see the designated target. So, in 1992, the branches set out to create a GPS-guided munition that could hit a target in any weather or visibility conditions.
The system consists of the warhead, which is the unguided bomb body, the body strakes, which improve maneuverability and lift; the fuze, and the guidance kit, which includes the GPS receiver and Intertial Guidance System (INS). The reason for the redundancy is that a wide array of electronic warfare systems can easily jam GPS receivers. If a GBU in freefall is jammed at any point in flight, the accuracy of the munition degrades significantly as it falls to the Earth. However, the INS allows the bomb to “remember” its own position relative to the target and provides secondary but less accurate guidance. With GPS connectivity, a JDAM-equipped munition has a circular error probable (CEP) of 16ft, meaning that the bomb will not fall beyond 16ft of the target. However, if the GPS signal is lost, the CEP expands to about 98ft. When being employed against infantry in the open, even the degraded CEP is still effective because the lethal radius of the widely used Mk82 bomb is still 262ft. However, if a JDAM-equipped munition is employed against hardened targets such as bunkers or tanks, the CEP begins to matter much more.
Aside from its accuracy over unguided bombs, the JDAM is far cheaper than other precision-guided munitions in the U.S. arsenal, such as the Tomahawk. In 2022, the average price for a single JDAM attached to an Mk80 series bomb was 27,000 USD as opposed to the Tomahawk which is around 730,000 USD. However, the JDAM-equipped munition does have one considerable disadvantage to its family of precision-guided missiles, range.
The JDAM was built to make unguided bombs carried by TACAIR and LRA assets more accurate, and the U.S. made tremendous use of the munition during its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. However, except for the first few days of the 2003 Iraq War, those engagements saw U.S. air superiority, allowing U.S. aircraft to close with ground targets to employ the JDAM at the published 15NM range. The air-to-ground war in Ukraine is much different.
In Ukraine, the much smaller fleet of Su-24s, Su-25s, Su-27s and MiG-29s does not have air superiority. In fact, the Russian Federation has the favorable air situation defined as: “an air situation in which the extent of air effort applied by the enemy air forces is insufficient to prejudice the success of friendly land, sea or air operations.” Meaning that in both an air-to-air and air-to-ground fight, the Russian Aerospace Forces can influence along the forward line of troops (FLOT) much more effectively than the Ukrainian Air Force. This is due to the immense size of the Russian Aerospace Forces as well as the ground-based air defense infrastructure that prevents Ukrainian fighters from effectively supporting their ground forces and penetrating the FLOT to engage Russian ground forces. Although the Russian fighters face a similar problem due to the potency and survival of Ukrainian ground-based air defense batteries such as their SA-10s, the sortie rate is clearly lopsided on the Russian side.
However, it is worth noting the Russian Federation has resorted to using Iranian one-way attacks (OWA) drones that can penetrate the Ukrainian integrated air defense system (IADS) due to their much smaller radar cross-section. This is also why the Russian Federation uses stand-off precision weapons such as air-launched cruise missiles from their LRA aircraft and cruise missiles from their naval vessels. These methods are much less risky to manned TACAIR sorties, which would not be able to strike deep battle area targets without being targeted by ground-based batteries.
Hence why the utility of providing Ukraine with JDAM kits is in question: the size and capability of their air forces in the face of a potent air threat by the Russian Federation may not allow the system to be employed effectively. However, it is also worth noting that this may exactly be why the U.S. is reportedly considering supplying them because it does not offer Ukraine an overwhelming advantage, which would be an escalatory action in the eyes of President Putin.
It is also worth noting that according to published data, the JDAM kits have not been made operationally ready for any of the type, model, series (TMS) airframes that the Ukrainian Air Force flies. While U.S. engineers could surely make that modification, that is just another hurdle in integrating these systems into the Ukrainian military. It reportedly took months to modify Ukrainian MiGs so AGM-88 HARM missiles could be used effectively. Currently, the JDAM kits have been made operational on most U.S. TACAIR assets, several U.S. LRA assets as well as TACAIR assets for the following nations:
- United Kingdom
- South Korea
With more than 32 nations using their kits on domestically produced or U.S.-manufactured airframes.