Exclusive: 100-mile strike weapon considered for Ukraine as arms makers struggle with demand

US and allied military supplies are dwindling and Ukraine’s need for more advanced weapons is growing as the war continues. The system proposed by Boeing, called the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), is one of about six plans to put the new munition into production for Ukraine and America’s Eastern European allies, industry sources said.

GLSDB could be delivered as early as spring 2023, according to a document reviewed by Reuters and three people familiar with the plan. It combines the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) with the M26 rocket motor, both of which are common in US stockpiles.

Doug Bush, the US military’s chief arms buyer, told reporters at the Pentagon last week that the military also wants to speed up the production of 155mm artillery shells – currently produced only in government buildings – by allowing defense contractors to build them.

The invasion of Ukraine has increased demand for US-made weapons and ammunition, while US allies in Eastern Europe are placing “many orders” for a range of weapons to supply Ukraine, Bush added.

“It’s about getting quantity at a low cost,” said Tom Karako, an arms and security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said declining US stockpiles help explain the rush to get more weapons now, saying stockpiles are getting “low relative to the levels we like to maintain and certainly relative to the levels we need to deter a Chinese conflict.”

Karako also noted that due to the US exit from Afghanistan, many airborne bombs are available. They cannot be easily used with Ukrainian aircraft, but “in the current context we have to look for innovative ways to convert them into standoff capability”.

While a handful of GLSDB units have already been made, there are many logistical hurdles to a formal purchase. The Boeing plan calls for a price waiver, which exempts the contractor from an in-depth investigation to ensure the Pentagon gets the best possible deal. Each scheme also requires at least six suppliers to send their parts and services faster to produce the weapon quickly.

A Boeing spokesman declined to comment. Lt. Cmdr. Pentagon spokesman Tim Gorman declined to comment on providing “specific capabilities” to Ukraine, but said the US and its allies are identifying and considering “the most appropriate systems” to help Kiev.

Although the US has rejected requests for the 297 km ATACMS missile, the GLSDB’s 150 km range would allow Ukraine to hit high-value military targets out of range and help it continue its counterattacks by the Russian to disrupt the rear.

Jointly created by SAAB AB and Boeing Co, the GLSDB has been under development since 2019, long before the invasion, which Russia calls a “special operation”. In October, SAAB CEO Micael Johansson said of the GLSDB: “We expect contracts for it soon.”

According to the document – a proposal by Boeing to the US European Command (EUCOM), which oversees weapons destined for Ukraine – the main parts of the GLSDB would come from current US stockpiles.

The M26 rocket motor is relatively plentiful, and the GBU-39 costs about $40,000 each, making the finished GLSDB cheap and important parts readily available. As arms manufacturers struggle with demand, these factors make it possible to deliver weapons in early 2023, albeit at a slow production rate.

The GLSDB is GPS-guided, can overcome some electronic jamming, is usable in all weather conditions and can be used against armored vehicles, SAAB’s website states. The GBU-39 – which would serve as the GLSDB’s warhead – has small folding wings that allow it to hover over 60 miles when dropped from an aircraft and hit targets as small as 3 feet in diameter.

INDUSTRIAL MOTIVATION

At a factory in rural Arkansas, Lockheed Martin is redoubling its efforts to meet growing demand for mobile missile launchers called HIMARS, which have successfully hit Russian supply lines, command posts and even individual tanks. The No. 1 U.S. defense industry is working through supply problems and personnel shortages to double production to 96 launch vehicles a year.

Lockheed Martin has posted more than 15 positions related to HIMARS manufacturing, including supply chain quality engineers, procurement analysts and test engineers, the website said.

“We’ve made investments in terms of infrastructure at the factory where we build HIMARS,” said Becky Withrow, sales manager for Lockheed Martin’s missile division.

Despite increased demand, Lockheed Martin’s chief financial officer told Reuters in July that he does not expect significant revenue from Ukraine until 2024 or later. The CFO of Raytheon Corp, another major U.S. defense contractor, echoed that timeline in an interview with Reuters this summer.

HIMARS fires guided multiple rocket launchers (GMLRS), which are GPS-guided spheres with 90 kg warheads. Lockheed Martin makes about 4,600 of these missiles a year; more than 5,000 have been sent to Ukraine so far, according to a Reuters analysis. The US has not disclosed how many GMLRS bullets were delivered to Ukraine.

Recycling weapons for regular military use is not a new tactic. The NASAMS anti-aircraft system, developed by Kongsberg Defense and Aerospace and Raytheon, uses AIM-120 missiles – originally intended to be fired at other aircraft from fighter jets. Another weapon, the Joint-Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), ubiquitous in the United States, is a standard unguided bomb equipped with fins and a GPS guidance system.

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