Exclusive: 100-mile strike weapon weighed for Ukraine as arms makers wrestle with demand - sources
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By Mike Stone
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon is considering a proposal by Boeing to supply Ukraine with cheap, small, precision bombs mounted on plentiful missiles, allowing Kyiv to strike well behind Russian lines while the West struggles to meet demand for more guns to satisfy.
US and allied military inventories are shrinking, and Ukraine faces an increasing need for more sophisticated weapons as the war drags on. Boeing's proposed system, dubbed the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), is one of about half a dozen plans to put new munitions 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 engine, both of which are common in US inventories.
Doug Bush, the US Army's top arms buyer, told reporters at the Pentagon last week that the Army is also considering speeding up production of 155mm artillery shells -- which are currently only manufactured at government facilities -- by allowing defense contractors to manufacture them to build.
The invasion of Ukraine has spurred demand for American-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 cheap price," 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 to get more guns now, saying stockpiles are "getting low compared to the levels we like to have on hand and certainly to the levels that we will need to deter a China conflict".
Karako also noted that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has left many air-dropped bombs available. They cannot easily be used with Ukrainian aircraft, but "in today's context, we should look for innovative ways to convert them into standoff."
Although a handful of GLSDB units have already been manufactured, there are many logistical obstacles to formal procurement. The Boeing plan requires a pricing waiver that frees the contractor from an in-depth review that ensures the Pentagon gets the best possible offer. Each arrangement would also require at least six suppliers to expedite shipments of their parts and services to quickly manufacture the weapon.
A Boeing spokesman declined to comment. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman declined to comment on providing "specific capabilities" to Ukraine, but said the US and its allies are "identifying and reviewing the most appropriate systems" that would help Kyiv.
Although the United States has rejected requests for the ATACMS missile with a range of 297 km (185 miles), the GLSDB's 150 km (94 miles) range would allow Ukraine to hit valuable military targets that were out of range , and help her continue her counterattacks interfering with Russian rear areas.
Jointly manufactured by SAAB AB and Boeing Co, GLSDB has been in development since 2019, well before the invasion, which Russia calls “special operations.” In October, SAAB boss Micael Johansson said of the GLSDB: "We expect contracts on it shortly."
According to the document - a proposal from Boeing to the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), which monitors weapons for Ukraine - the main components of the GLSDB would come from current US stores.
The M26 rocket motor is relatively plentiful, and the GBU-39 costs about $40,000 each, making the finished GLSDB inexpensive and its major components readily available. Although gun manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand, these factors make it possible to produce guns by early 2023, albeit at a low production rate.
GLSDB is GPS guided, can overcome some electronic interference, is usable in all weather conditions, and can be used against armored vehicles, according to the SAAB website. The GBU-39 - which would act as the GLSDB's warhead - has small, foldable wings that allow it to glide for more than 100 km when dropped from an aircraft and targets as small as 3 feet in diameter.
At a manufacturing facility in rural Arkansas, Lockheed Martin is stepping up efforts to meet rising demand for mobile rocket launchers called HIMARS, which have successfully hit Russian supply lines, command posts and even individual tanks. The No. 1 US defense contractor is working through supply chain issues and labor shortages to double production to 96 launchers a year.
Lockheed Martin has more than 15 positions related to the production of HIMARS, including supply chain quality engineers, purchasing analysts and test engineers, according to its website.
"We have invested in infrastructure at the factory where we build HIMARS," said Becky Withrow, sales manager for Lockheed Martin's missile unit.
Despite the increased demand, Lockheed Martin's chief financial officer told Reuters in July that he doesn't expect any significant revenue from Ukraine before 2024 or beyond. The CFO of Raytheon Corp, another major US defense contractor, echoed that schedule in an interview with Reuters this summer.
HIMARS fires guided missiles with multiple rocket launch systems (GMLRS), which are GPS-guided missiles with 200-pound (90 kg) warheads. Lockheed Martin makes about 4,600 of the rockets a year; More than 5,000 have been sent to Ukraine so far, according to a Reuters analysis. The US did not disclose how many GMLRS cartridges were supplied to Ukraine.
Reusing weapons for regular military use is not a new tactic. Developed by Kongsberg Defense and Aerospace and Raytheon, the NASAMS air defense system uses AIM-120 missiles, originally intended to be fired from fighter jets 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; Editing by Chris Sanders)
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