Published March 30, 2018
The roots of the Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate can be traced to the establishment of the Armament Subdivision, US Army Signal Corps Aircraft Engineering Department, McCook Field, Dayton OH in Nov 1917. In 1939, the Armament Branch was redesignated as the Armament Laboratory, Materiel Division Experimental Engineering Section at Wright Field. Apart from the Armament Laboratory’s work, air armament efforts were initiated at Eglin Field during the early stages of World War II. Since this early start, the development of high-speed jet aircraft has outpaced the development of conventional air armament and created a dilemma of using modern fighter bombers to deliver World War II vintage munitions. Sparked by the heightening Vietnam conflict, research and development activities for non-nuclear armament were accelerated. On March 1, 1966, the predecessor to the Munitions Directorate, the Air Force Armament Laboratory, was created to provide a community of scientists, engineers, and infrastructure to advance conventional weapons technology.
From the unit's inception, the research and development efforts have focused on user needs. The significance of applying leading edge technology to provide the user with the state-of-the-art weaponry makes a dramatic impact on the outcome of any given strike mission. Technology endeavors over recent years have manifested themselves in a variety of non-nuclear air armament, some of which were employed in effective "surgical" strike operations in Libya and Desert Storm.
Today, the Munitions Directorate is a part of the Air Force Research Laboratory and continues to make technological breakthroughs for future air armament. The Directorate's emphasis is on the weapon's capability to operate with complete autonomy and with high accuracy when delivered against ground targets in all weather conditions, day or night, using long- or short-range delivery tactics. Air-to-air missiles benefit from this technology with increased single shot kills and larger "no-escape" zones. Additionally, advances in hard target penetrating warheads are supplying mission flexibility by providing a conventional armament capability to defeat hardened targets traditionally reserved for nuclear weapons. In summary, paramount to every AFRL/RW technology decision is the answer to the question, "What does it do for the user?"
Thanh Hoa Bridge
During the Vietnam conflict, the infamous Thanh Hoa bridge near Hanoi was a sterling example of the Munitions Directorate's leading edge technology being applied with state-of-the-art weaponry to provide a quality armament that worked significantly better than anyone had ever seen.
The Thanh Hoa bridge remained intact after 800 sorties were flown against it. Ten aircraft were lost trying to destroy the bridge. Thanks to armament technology, what 800 sorties couldn't do was accomplished with only four sorties with aircraft carrying laser guided bombs.
Desert Storm and the GBU-28
The Munitions Directorate's technology endeavors over the more recent years have manifested themselves in a variety of nonnuclear air armament. Examples of these technologies were employed in the effective surgical strike operation in Libya and in Desert Storm. Shown above is the GBU-28 "Bunker Buster" which contributed to bringing Iraq to its knees when deployed early in 1991. This weapon was developed and deployed in a record setting 28 days. Adversaries could no longer hide in hardened buried bunkers as illustrated below.