Last week’s successful proof of concept testing of the ‘Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range’ (CLEAVER) bomb could be the first step in changing the US Air Force’s vision of bombing operations, freelance technology journalist David Hambling believes.
In an article in Forbes, the observer compared the weapon to the BLU-82, a devastating cargo transport-dropped 6,800 kg bomb nicknamed the ‘Daisy Cutter’ which the US successfully used in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Afghanistan to kill enemy combatants (and sometimes, hopefully accidentally, civilians) or flatten landscapes and fortifications. Hambling recalled that the weapon featured “a high-energy gelled slurry explosive of ammonium nitrate and powered aluminum,” and was dropped by C-130 and MC-130 transports, as well as specially modified CH-54 SkyCrane helicopters.
“The BLU-82 was so successful, and the blast so awe-inspiring,” that “their use was extended to psychological warfare – it created a mushroom cloud visible for miles – and combat. One bomb dropped near Xuan Loc reportedly killed more than 250 enemy troops,” Hambling wrote.
The CLEAVER is a bit more complex, the observer notes. “The test of the new CLEAVER munition is not just about dropping heavy ordnance on lightly-defended targets…While the launch technique is similar, down to the same wooden pallets sliding down ramps, as the name indicates this is a different sort of beast.”
In essence, the new vehicle is more like a cruise missile than a traditional air-dropped bomb, featuring gliding wings, and jet powered propulsion, with the idea being that a transport plane carrying the bomb can drop it “well outside the range” of enemy air defences, with the munition then independently making its way to find its targets.
In fact, Hambling suggests, given the Air Force press release description of the weapon as a “multi-engine platform carrying large quantities of network-enabled, semi-autonomous weapons,” the CLEAVER may in fact be a complex computerized armament designed to work in coordination with other weapons.
“Rather than flying a pre-destined mission, they are able to react in real time, sharing information and changing plans. The group, ‘sometimes called a swarm,’ will help each other locate targets, assigned weapons to specific targets and possibly assess and evade or destroy defences. These are not just smart bombs, but bombs which work together to be smarter,” the observer notes, adding that all of this will require “minimal involvement by humans.”
Ultimately, Hambling believes that to be used as a massed weapon, the CLEAVER would need to be fitted aboard larger planes with a big payload, such as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster, with its 77,500 kg cargo capacity, rather than the smaller strategic bomber aircraft used by the US Air Force today.
“Cleaver represents a step-change in air weapons...Shiny new bombers like the B-21 may prove much less important than those ‘large numbers’ of cheap CLEAVERs stacked on their wooden pallets, pushed out of the back of anonymous transports,” Hambling concludes.