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Increased capability garners speed and agility for all services

  • Published
  • By Joshua Joslyn, NGAAW Program Manager

A team of Air Force weapons experts used innovation and digital tools to shave a year off a potential 15-month production delay in the service's Next Generation Area Attack Weapon.

The Munitions Sustainment Division, Hill Air Force Base, built a new plan to accelerate test results for aging platforms along with surveillance, performance and qualification for legacy and next generation weapon systems. 

The plan was put to the test in the BLU-134 Next Generation Area Attack Weapon (NGAAW) production effort. 

The BLU-134 NGAAW production is directly linked to the availability of Insensitive Munitions (IM) energetic material, which limited throughput of warhead production. These limitations threatened to delay the BLU-134 NGAAW deliveries until 2025 and beyond. 

The best available solution to deliver the Area Attack weapon sooner to the warfighter was to qualify the BLU-134 with Tritonal, a second type of energetic fill that is more abundant than IM energetics and uses a different production line. The team pursued dual energetic qualification of the BLU-134 NGAAW using the Arena test site at Eglin AFB. Unfortunately, the BLU-134 program was soon out-prioritized by other weapon systems at this facility, and consequently, delayed the NGAAW qualification test schedule by 15 months. 

“We found ourselves at crossroads when we were bumped from the test facility priority list, and now we’re looking to a 15 month schedule delay, and three to four years before we could deliver this next generation area attack weapon to the warfighter.  That was simply unacceptable, so I challenged the team to find new ways to qualify the BLU-134 sooner, or build a new test site…and build it they did” said Lt. Col. Jesse Moreno, Materiel Leader, Sensors, Bombs, and Countermeasures Branch.  

As a result, to accelerate fielding of the BLU-134 NGAAW the team researched different Arena test sites to qualify the weapon faster. The Hill team finally arrived at its own backyard, at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). The team proposed to build a new Arena test site at UTTR and equip the facility with new digital and optical capabilities to help expedite the qualification effort for BLU-134. They partnered with UTTR, Explosive Ordinance Test Lab (EOTL), Sandia National Labs, and other key stakeholders to execute this plan.   

The new Arena test site integrated optical capabilities with high-speed Camera Systems, Video, Pressure Blast Sensors, and Fragment Bundles to capture data far more efficiently than any other Arena test site. Fragments as small as .25 inches are accurately captured at time of detonation and throughout the flight path. This Arena test site enables capability for test set up, execution, and data capture to all occur within a single day, and as many as three different test events per week, whereas other test sites generally require  two-to-three months for test preparation, execution, and data collection.  

The Hill team successfully performed the first of a series of tests to compare the performance of the BLU-134 Area Attack bomb with 2 different explosive fills, the first being an Insensitive Munitions, RDX base fill and the second being Tritonal, an aluminum and TNT mix, on July 27, 2021.

“Everything worked as planned, and we were able to recover 12 months of the 15 months schedule delay.  Here is a perfect example of collective teamwork at its best across multiple organizations” said Joshua Joslyn, BLU-134 NGAAW Program Manager. 

The first test was of an IM filled BLU-134 NGAAW, followed by the test of a Tritonal filled warhead two days later on  July 29.  These two tests are critical to evaluating the effectiveness of Tritonal energetics fill in the BLU-134 as a means of helping resolve supply chain and manufacturing limitations in the production of BLU-134 bomb and other IM filled weapons.   Having a dual energetics qualified weapon with similar performance characteristics provides the option to produce the weapon with available energetics and put in the hands of the warfighter a new weapon two-to-three years sooner.  Without this trade space, the BLU-134 NGAAW production would have to wait for IM energetics to become available and the IM production line to have additional capacity in two to three years before delivering to the Air Force this new capability. 

 “This effort is breaking new ground when it comes to qualifying a new Next Generation bomb with dual energetics and accelerating weapons production. There is a belief that we are just a sustainment organization, that’s simply not true,” said Josh Keesler, Bombs Section Chief.   

The established relationship with UTTR, Sandia Laboratory and EOTL and the new capability improvements added to the Arena test site has fast-tracked dual energetics testing for the BLU-134 NGAAW by 12 months and helped expedite weapons test results from 30 days to one day.  

Being able use digital technology to speed up weapon test results not only helps the team advance weapons production, but also provides much needed data to weaponeering experts for faster weapon characterization and better understanding of weapons performance against different target sets. Having the ability to produce weapons faster, while providing weapons effects sooner to war planners allows for more effective mission planning, tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) development, war gaming, and training actions that ultimately improves weapons effectiveness in the battle field. 

“This effort is absolutely a game changer and a good news story for The Air Force. Having the ability to perform three arena tests per week rather than one test per month and being able to collect the data in one day versus 30 days translates directly into delivering capability to the warfighter that much faster.  This is a perfect example of leveraging digital engineering and optical capabilities to fill operational needs”, said Col. Guy Spencer, Senior Materiel Leader.  

On May 26, 2022, the Bombs team executed the next series of tests to qualify the BLU-134 Area Attack weapon. A total of six BLU-134 tests were performed: three weapons filled with Tritonal (TNT/Aluminum) and three filled with Insensitive Munitions (IM) PBXN-109. These tests are expected to provide the required data to perform a comparative analysis between a Tritonal and IM filled weapon with regards to performance, and it should provide the required information to qualify the BLU-134 with a second energetic.  The team is in post-test activities, which includes data gathering and analysis with a projected report in the next 30-45 days. 

“The Hill AFB team is doing exactly what I’ve asked. They have embraced my priorities of Focusing on the Warfighter and Increasing Acquisition Tempo, and not to mention, they have also incorporated my Key Strategic Lines of Effort, Digital Acquisition and Sustainment and Agile Weapons Enterprise,” said, Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, Program Executive Officer for Weapons.