WASHINGTON, Nov 28 (Reuters) – The Pentagon is considering a Boeing proposal to supply Ukraine with small, inexpensive precision bombs mounted on abundantly available rockets, allowing Kyiv to strike far behind Russian lines as the West is struggling to meet the demand for additional armaments.
US and allied military stocks are dwindling and Ukraine faces a growing need for more sophisticated weaponry as the war drags on. The system proposed by Boeing, dubbed the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), is one of half a dozen projects to produce new munitions for Ukraine and Eastern European allies of the United States. United, industry sources said.
Although the United States has rejected requests for an ATACMS missile with a range of 185 miles (297 km), the 94-mile (150 km) range of the GLSDB would allow Ukraine to hit valuable military targets that were out of reach and would help him continue his counterattacks by disrupting the Russian rear areas.
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 engine, both of which are common in US inventories.
Doug Bush, the US military’s top arms buyer, told Pentagon reporters last week that the military was also considering acceleration of production 155 millimeter artillery shells – currently only manufactured at government facilities – by allowing defense contractors to build them.
The invasion of Ukraine has boosted demand for US-made arms and ammunition, while US allies in Eastern Europe are “placing a lot of orders” for a range of weapons as they supply Ukraine, Bush added.
“It’s about getting quantity at a lower cost,” said Tom Karako, a weapons and security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said falling US stockpiles help explain the rush for more weapons now, saying stocks “are getting low from the levels we like to keep on hand and certainly to the levels we’ll need to deter a conflict in China”.
Karako also noted that the US exit from Afghanistan left many dropped bombs available. They cannot be easily used with Ukrainian aircraft, but “in the current context, we should look for innovative ways to convert them into a security capability”.
Although a handful of GLSDB units have already been manufactured, there are many logistical hurdles to formal procurement. Boeing’s plan requires a price discovery waiver, exempting the contractor from a thorough review that ensures the Pentagon gets the best deal possible. Any arrangement would also require at least six suppliers to expedite shipments of their parts and services to produce the weapon quickly.
A Boeing spokesperson declined to comment. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman declined to comment on providing “specific capability” to Ukraine, but said the United States and its allies were “identifying and reviewing the most appropriate systems” that would help Kyiv.
GLSDB is jointly manufactured by SAAB AB (SAABb.ST) and Boeing Co. (TO FORBID) and has been in development since 2019, long before the invasion, which Russia calls a “special operation”. In October, SAAB Managing Director Micael Johansson said of the GLSDB: “We are expecting contracts on this shortly.”
According to the document – a proposal from Boeing to the United States European Command (EUCOM), which oversees weapons destined for Ukraine – the main components of the GLSDB would come from current American stores.
The M26 rocket engine is relatively abundant, and the GBU-39 costs around $40,000 each, making the complete GLSDB inexpensive and its major components readily available. Although arms manufacturers are grappling with demand, these factors allow weapons to be produced in early 2023, albeit at a low production rate.
GLSDB is GPS-guided, can defeat some electronic jamming, is usable in all weather conditions and can be used against armored vehicles, according to SAAB’s website. The GBU-39 – which would function as the warhead of the GLSDB – has small folding wings that allow it to hover over 100 km if dropped from an aircraft and targets as small as 3 feet in diameter.
At a production facility in rural Arkansas, Lockheed Martin is stepping up efforts to meet growing demand for mobile rocket launchers known as HIMARS, which have successfully hit Russian supply lines, outposts command and even individual tanks. America’s No. 1 defense contractor is working through supply chain issues and labor shortages to double production to 96 launchers a year.
Lockheed Martin has posted more than 15 production-related jobs for HIMARS, including supply chain quality engineers, purchasing analysts and test engineers, according to its website.
“We have made infrastructure investments in the plant where we build HIMARS,” said Becky Withrow, Lockheed Martin’s missile unit sales manager.
Despite the increase in demand, the chief financial officer of Lockheed Martin told Reuters in July that he did not expect significant Ukraine-induced revenue until 2024 or beyond. Raytheon Corp’s CFO (RTX.N)another major US defense contractor, echoed that timeline in an interview with Reuters this summer.
HIMARS fires GMLRS (Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System) missiles, which are GPS-guided shells with 200-pound (90 kg) warheads. Lockheed Martin manufactures about 4,600 missiles a year; more than 5,000 have been sent to Ukraine so far, according to a Reuters analysis. The United States did not disclose how many GMLRS cartridges were supplied to Ukraine.
Repurposing 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 from combat aircraft at other aircraft. Another weapon, the Joint-Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), ubiquitous in US inventories, is a standard unguided bomb that has been fitted with fins and a GPS guidance system.
Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; edited by Chris Sanders
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