France’s AASM Precision-Guided Bombs
France’s Armement Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM) is similar in concept to the American GPS-guided JDAM bomb, but its execution includes several key differences. The global trend toward GPS-guided weapons makes a French entry important for industrial as well as operational reasons, and the Sagem/MBDA team hope AASM will earn them a market niche.
In order to become a true market success, however, Sagem and MBDA know that their AASM will have to find export markets beyond France. Will that place them in conflict with Dassault?
The AASM Family
GPS-guided weapons have become de rigueur for advanced air forces, which means that French fighters need an integrated weapon in order to remain competitive. That’s why AASM’s execution delays were very inconvenient for France’s new Rafale fighters. They needed a GPS-guided weapon to conduct autonomous precision strikes, but haven’t integrated America’s JDAM. AASM’s lateness made American Paveway bombs a necessary stopgap buy in 2008.
France’s industrial policy never wavered from the AASM Hammer as its long-term option, and by 2012, all 3 versions were available for use. Each kit contains 2 components: a front assembly, and a rear assembly.
The rear-mounted range extension kit, containing a rocket booster and enlarged fins that increase lift, is what differentiates these AASMs from America’s standard JDAMs. Range with this kit is up to 60 km/ 37 miles at high altitude, or about 15 km/ 9 miles at low altitude.
The front-mounted kit is the guidance unit. It comes in 3 versions: Decametric GPS/INS, and “Metric” variants that add either IIR or laser guidance as a supplement.
SBU-38: GPS. The basic version uses GPS/INS guidance. Kalman filtering combines GPS receiver data and “inertial” data from a gyroscopic/accelerometric unit. While the AASM is carried by its plane, this system “aligns” with the high precision inertial navigation and GPS position of the plane, receiving data from the aircraft navigator, and adjusting its own data as it navigates independently. After release, it uses its GPS/INS navigation system to guide itself to the target point with 10 meter CEP accuracy. Hence its secondary ‘decametric’ appellation.
SBU-54: GPS/IIR. Also known as the ‘metric’ variant, the SBU-54 adds Imaging Infrared (IIR) guidance to the basic kit, analogous to RAFAEL of Israel’s Spice kit. Once it arrives in the area, the bomb glides to the target by matching the image viewed through the infrared sensor with a target model that the mission planning system had stored in its memory. This improves precision to 1m CEP (“metric”) accuracy, and in theory it can allow strikes against moving targets. It’s not as good as laser guidance, but it offers much better odds in conditions like sandstorms, fog, etc. Its 1st combat use was over Libya, in 2011.
SBU-64: GPS/Laser. In practice, when you need maximum precision, it’s better to use laser guidance against moving opponents. Hence the 3rd type, which adds laser guidance instead of IIR to the basic GPS/INS kit. This AASM variant completed testing at the end of 2012. Laser guided weapons can hit moving targets, and are extremely accurate if the victim remains “painted” with a targeting laser. Better yet, aircraft that can carry their own targeting pods can independently hunt for and hit targets of opportunity. On the flip side, lasers can be blocked by obscurants like bad fog, or sandstorms. Fortunately, GPS can handle those conditions easily, as long as 1m precision isn’t needed, and the target isn’t moving.
In terms of size, the bomb kits will be designed for 125, 250, and 1,000 kg weights, which roughly correspond to American 250/ 500/ 2,000 pound bombs. The GPS/INS guided, AASM-250 (500 pounds) is operational in all 3 variants, the smaller AASM-125 has been tested, and the heavy AASM-1000 is a work in progress.
The AASM kits are a Sagem product, but marketing rights owned by European missile giant MBDA add give the global sales effort broad reach. To date, AASM variants have been integrated and qualified on Dassault’s Super Etendard naval strike aircraft, Mirage F1M fighters, Mirage 2000D fighters, and Rafale fighters of F2 or better standard. Thales’ Damocles surveillance and laser targeting pod was another late arrival for the Rafale, but that problem had been solved by the time the Libyan conflict rolled around in 2011. Any integrated aircraft can now use any AASM variant independently.
Reports indicate that Sagem is also pushing to qualify the AASM family on F-16s, which would make a huge difference to their potential market.
Contracts & Key Events
Dec 12/12: Laser qualified. The SBU-64 laser/GPS variant has completed its testing, after hitting a target at the Bisacrosse range that was moving at an average of 50 km/h. The Rafale used its own Damocles targeting pod for laser illumination and geolocation, demonstrating its own fully integrated targeting in the process.
The standard AASM-125/250 variants, and the GPS/IIR guided SBU-54, are in service with France’s Armee de l’Air, whose Rafales launched 225 SBU-38s and SBU-54s during Operation Harmattan in Libya. French DGA | Safran Group.
SBU-64 GPS/Laser variant ready
June 27/12: AASM for F-16? Les Echoes reports that the French DGA may approve Safran Group’s request to integrate its AASM with the F-16, and sell it to F-16 operators around the world.
Dassault is reportedly opposed, fearing that it would hurt Rafale sales. On the other hand, Safran can do the math, and understands how much bigger its market would be if global F-16 fleets become potential customers. Les Echoes cites interest from Denmark and Jordan, but the obvious launch customer is Morocco, who is the AASM’s only current buyer besides France. Morocco bought AASMs for their upgraded Mirage F1s, but that country is in the process of receiving new F-16C/Ds from the USA, and a common smart bomb would make a lot of sense for them. Les Echoes [subscription-only, French] | Usine Nouvelle [in French].
May 31/12: Laser test. The SBU-64 laser/GPS variant passes its 1st qualification firing test at Cazaux. The bridge pier was 50 km/ 31 miles away, and the GPS was set to miss by 50 meters, but the laser corrected it to within 1 meter.
The French armed forces will start taking delivery of the AASM SBU-64 at the end of 2012, as part of a contract that calls for “several hundred.” Sagem-DS.
Oct 13/11: Deployment. Sagem-DS issues a release confirming that the SBU-54 Hammer AASM, with dual GPS/ Imaging Infrared guidance, has been deployed and used over Libya since July 2011. The GPS/laser AASM variant is still set for a 2012 introduction. Sagem-DS | Defense Update.
Oct 10/11: Industrial. Bomb-body maker Societe des Ateliers Mecaniques de Pont sur Sambre (SAMP), near Lille, France has shut down production because of dwindling domestic orders. That leaves France without a manufacturer of bomb bodies, and the American Mk.80 series bomb bodies, or possible foreign replacement equivalents, are AASM’s immediate retrofit option.
Israeli companies would be politically tricky to buy from, and the idea of ordering bombs from countries like India as an industrial offset during export orders is too new. With SAMP’s exit, therefore, France’s bomb body market is all-American. France has ordered American bombs before, most notably after the Yugoslavia campaign depleted its stock in the mid-1990s.
SAMP itself built Mk.81-83 bombs to the NATO standard, using Eurenco ERDX 109 explosive, but never diversified or sold itself to a larger defense group, even after France’s 3,000 bomb order from the USA. In 2006, SAMP started work on the 500 pound Mk.82 P250 penetrator version, which reportedly had the same effect as the USA’s 2,000 pound Mk.84 with the BLU 109 penetrator. Despite reports of promises to buy the weapon, a contract never materialized, and without French orders, foreign customers didn’t want to buy it. Instead, France placed a EUR 9 million order with SAMP in 2009, for 1,200 Mk-82 bomb bodies. Defense News | Defense Update.
SAMP shuts down, bomb bodies will be imports
Oct 11/11: Deployment. Defense Update:
“According to the French Ministry of defense, from 19 March to 30 September 2011, the Air Force and Navy (the Charles de Gaulle carrier air group and maritime patrols) spent 20,000 operational flight hours on roughly 4,500 missions. These missions represent 25% of the total operational missions carried out by the coalition forces and 35% of the offensive missions over Libya, hitting 750 military targets. French combat helicopters performed the majority (90%) of coalition helicopter combat missions over Libya, claiming 550 targets destroyed. According to Mr. Gérard Longuet, Secretary of Defense and Veterans Affairs, 950 guided guided bomb were dropped by French Air Force and Navy Rafale and Mirage 2000s, these included an unspecified number of laser guided bombs and 240 air-launched missiles – including 15 SCALP cruise missiles and 225 GPS guided Hammers (AASM) [emphasis DID's]; in addition, French helicopters have launched 431 HOT [anti-tank] missiles. The French Navy vessels have also fired 3,000 rounds from 100mm and 76 mm guns. Other ordnance used included an unspecified number of rockets fired by helicopters and naval vessels.”
May 31/11: Deployment. In the wake of a 2-day tour of the Rafale detachment at Solenzara, Corsica, Giovanni de Briganti of Defense Aerospace submits a report regarding their performance over Libya. Some of the tidbits that emerge concern the AASM:
“To illustrate the Rafale’s networking capabilities, one pilot described how the aircraft can receive target coordinates from an AWACS or another aircraft via Link 16. To accept the assignment, the pilot pushes a button, and the coordinates are automatically programmed into the AASM guided bombs, with no further action by the pilot who, once in range (up to 30 nautical miles), again pushes a single button to launch all three – or all six – AASMs to their individual targets. “We can fire the AASM against targets abeam or behind us, and can hit up to six in a single pass,” the pilot continues.
At Solenzara, reporters were shown video footage taken during a ground attack mission in Libya, in which three tanks said to be firing against civilian targets were destroyed by simultaneous direct hits by AASM.”
April 21/11: Testing. Another firing test of the AASM laser, fired from a Rafale at a 90 degree off-axis angle, against the equivalent of a target moving at over 80 km/h, and over 15 km away. Volume production of the laser AASM is expected to begin at the end of 2012. Sagem.
March 22-23/11: Aircraft kill. During operations over Libya’s no-fly zone on 23-24 March, a French E-3F AWACS aircraft identified an illegal Libyan aircraft movement near Misrata, reportedly a Soko Galeb jet trainer and light attack plane. A Rafale fighter destroyed it after it returned to base, using an AASM bomb. Flight International.
Dec 14/10: Testing. Sagem announces that a 250 kg AASM traveled 50 km and hit its target within 1 meter, after being dropped at night by a Rafale fighter within the DGA’s missile test center in Biscarosse. Sagem.
June 17/10: A 250 kg/ 550 pound AASM with laser guidance is launched at medium altitude by a Rafale multirole fighter, aimed at a fixed target 25 km away. The target was illuminated by a DHY-307 ground illuminator identical to those used by French army forward observers, and the laser was necessary because the GPS coordinates were deliberately wrong by about 100m. The bomb hit within 1m anyway, using its laser guidance. Sagem.
Feb 18/10: France’s DGA formally announces an order for 680 AASM kits: 380 with GPS/INS guidance, and 300 of a forthcoming kit that will include GPS/INS and laser guidance. The contract also funds development and integration of a latest-generation GPS module with more advanced jamming resistance, and qualification and production engineering for the GPS/INS + laser version.
This order could rise as high as 3,400 AASM kits in future, if all options are exercised. For now, the DGA says that this order brings the total number of ordered kits to 1,424. DGA [in French] | Sagem release.
Nov 19/09: Senat report. France’s Senate reports on a number of weapon programs, as part of its plans for 2010. The AASM is mentioned:
“A ce jour, 1424 AASM ont été commandés dont 680 AASM en 2009. Les livraisons ont été de 334 modules dont 198 en 2009. Les livraisons ont été inférieures aux cibles prévues l’an dernier. Le projet de loi de finances pour 2009 prévoit des autorisations d’engagement de 35,5 millions d’euros et des crédits de paiement à hauteur de 30,8 millions d’euros.”
Short version: AASM deliveries are behind schedule at just 198 in 2009, but more orders are planned, with provisions made for up to EUR 35.5 million.
Jan 27/09: Testing. SAFRAN Group subsidiary Sagem announces the first firing test of the 125 kg version of the AASM, at the DGA’s missile test range in Biscarosse. The AASM 125 comprises a Mk.81 type 125 kg bomb, with basic guidance and and range augmentation kits. The AASM 125 was fired from high altitude, and was guided toward the target solely by its own inertial navigation system. The flightpath and impact accuracy were “in line with expectations” – which are that it will be less accurate than full GPS guidance.
July 9/08: Testing. The AASM GPS/INS + IIR variant passes the 3rd and final level of qualification testing at the Biscarosse range, aboard a Mirage 2000. The bomb was released at very low altitude about 16 km away, but the coordinates were deliberately off by 80 meters. The IIR seeker had to adjust, in order to ensure accurate impact. DGA [in French] | Sagem release.
June 12/08: Testing. The AASM GPS/INS + IIR (Imaging InfraRed) completes Level 2 testing at the Biscarosse range, on board a Mirage 2000. For these tests, the GPS guidance was inhibited, forcing the AASM to navigate for 25 km using inertial navigation only. The IIR seeker then picked up the target, and guided the bomb in. DGA [in French] | Sagem release.
April 23/08: Testing. An AASM with dual GPS/INS and imaging infrared guidance successfully passes Level 1 trials, demonstrating a range of over 50 km/ 30 miles thanks to its range extension kit that adds an initial rocket boost and larger rear fins. DGA [in French].
Feb 13/08: Paveway stopgap. With the AASM program running late, France commits $22 million in urgent operational funding to add GPS guidance capability to American Paveway laser-guided bombs.
Oct 12/05: NA report. The French lower chamber (National Assembly) issues a report as part of deliberations of the 2006 finance law. It includes basic information concerning AASM expected program costs, and possible exports. The focus is mostly, but not entirely, on French aircraft customers. Likewise, integration with Spanish F/A-18s would open up potential markets in Kuwait, Finland, Malaysia, Switzerland, and other Hornet operators:
“Le potentiel à l’exportation de l’AASM n’est pas négligeable, les pays susceptibles de s’en porter acquéreurs sont les suivants : Emirats Arabes Unis (Rafale), Brésil (M2000), Chili (M5), Egypte, Pakistan, Espagne (F18), Maroc (F1). Le coût prévisionnel du programme est de 430 millions d’euros. Dans le cadre du projet de loi de finances pour 2006, la dotation en autorisation d’engagement est de 15,6 millions d’euros et la dotation en crédits de paiement de 21,5 millions d’euros.”
Short version: France’s entire AASM development program and purchases are expected to cost EUR 430 million, and the countries and fighter set above are considered likely export candidates. Note that the UAE flies eligible Mirage 2000v9s, but had not bought Rafales, and still hasn’t as of July 2010. Also, neither Egypt nor Pakistan fly F/A-18s. Both do fly Mirage aircraft, and Egypt’s are Mirage 2000s; Pakistan’s ancient Mirage 3/5s are probably too old to be worth the conversion expense.
Pakistan and Egypt both fly F-16s as their most advanced fighters, and successful integration could open a wide and interesting market for the AASM. At a lesser level, so could integration with Pakistan’s forthcoming JF-17 Thunder lightweight fighters, a joint venture with China. In a similar vein, integration with Spanish “EF-18s” would open up potential markets in Kuwait, Finland, Malaysia, Switzerland, and other Hornet operators.
Sept 27/05: Morocco. Morocco awards France a EUR 350 million (about $420 million) contract to overhaul the Moroccan Air Force’s mixed fleet of 27 Mirage F1CH/EH fighter aircraft. The contract involves renovating the airframes and avionic suite, and also includes about EUR 100 million to add MBDA’s MICA air-to-air missiles and AASM 250 rocket bombs.
Thales and Sagem had previously competed for the contract but were asked by the French government to combine their efforts in a joint venture, thus Astrac. The Royal Moroccan Air Force Mirage F1s will be designated Mirage F1M. Source.
Morocco buys in
Aug 21/05: India. A Sagem official tells Aviation Week that the firm is discussing AASM integration on India’s Russian SU-30MKI fighters. That isn’t completely crazy, as the aircraft already include electronic equipment from Thales, and India is already a customer for French weapons thanks to its Mirage 2000 fleet.
As of July 2010, however, it appears that nothing came of these discussions. Aviation Week.
June 28/05: Testing. France’s DGA carries out a propelled firing of the AASM at CELM, the DGA missile test centre in Biscarosse. The test was the last in a set of trials that began on Sept 6/04, testing the flight characteristics of the “decametric” AASM. The next campaign’s top priority is to validate its integration with France’s new Rafale fighters. ixarm.
September 2000: France. Sagem receives a EUR 425 million contract from the French Ministry of Defence for an initial lot of 750 AASM bomb kits, designed to confer a baseline 10-meter accuracy on the French Air Force 250 kg bombs. According to the schedule laid down at that time, deliveries of the first 500 weapon kits were set to take place in 2004, entering service in 2005 on Dassault Aviation’s Mirage 2000D strike aircraft, before a follow-on integration with the Rafale multi-role fighter. Source.
Initial order for 750
- Sagem – AASM: from precision guided munitions to smart weapons
- MBDA – AASM Modular Air to Ground Weapon
- Safran Magazine (July 2007) – AASM Missile Soon to Enter Service on Rafale [PDF]
- Defense.info (June 25/07) – Astrac modernises Morocco’s Mirages
- Interavia Business and Technology (April 2002) – Europe sees technology as key: requirements in Europe are currently centred on the RAF’s Precision Guided Bomb programme
- CASR (March 2007) – French Close Air Support Operations in Afghanistan: Deadly ‘Squalls’ and ‘Optical Illusions’ Deploy to South West Asia
- ixarm (Aug 1/05) – Missile launching tests: main stakes for DGA/SPNuM. Covers AASM very briefly; mostly focused on the SAMP/T Aster-30.