This New Air Defense System Can Intercept Aircraft-Dropped Bombs

The German-built Cheetah is essentially an aerial shield for ground forces.

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Rheinmetall

A new air defense system designed to shoot down incoming rockets, artillery, and mortar shells is also being designed to intercept aircraft-dropped bombs. The system, known as Cheetah, could revolutionize air to ground warfare as we know it, allowing ground forces to shoot down air-to-ground weapons after they are deployed.

Traditionally, ground forces had just a few ways to avoid being the target of aircraft bombs. The first and most obvious way is to avoid being seen and targeted, either by hiding in forests, among rough terrain, or under camouflage netting. The second way is to shoot the aircraft down before it can release its munitions. Once the bombs are released, however, there’s nothing to do but take cover.

Development of Cheetah C-RAM missile progressing -

— defenceWeb (@defenceWeb_Afr)

Cheetah, developed by German defense contractor Rheinmetall, is a counter-rocket artillery and mortar system (C-RAM). The system uses radar and short-range interceptor missiles to detect, track, and shoot down artillery rounds in mid-flight. According to the contractor, the objective is the ability to shoot down a U.S. BLU-109 bunker buster bomb at 6 kilometers (3.72 miles).

(It’s not clear why Rheinmetall picked the American BLU-109; it’s probably just a stand-in for a typical free-fall bomb. Probably best not to read too much into it.)

Ground forces have wanted a capability like this since the first aircraft dropped bombs in World War I. Aircraft bombs, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, are much more destructive on an individual basis than artillery shells. The age of precision-guided air-to-ground weapons, which use lasers, radar, and GPS satellites to achieve pinpoint accuracy, has resulted in a world where a single B-2 bomber could strike more targets in a single sortie than hundreds of World War II-era bombers, destroying a dozen targets on the ground with a dozen bombs.

FILE PHOTO B-1 Bomber
Currently, air planners can assume that every bomb dropped has a very good chance of hitting its target. That’s about to change.
Getty ImagesGetty Images

Now, just a few decades later, ground forces are on the cusp of being able to shoot down all twelve of the B-2’s bombs. C-RAM systems could guard important tactical targets, such as ammunition depots, fuel dumps, bridges, headquarters, and even strategic targets such as oil refineries, electrical plants, and factories. Cheetah C-RAM will pack up to 60 missiles in a mobile platform such as a truck or armored vehicle, enabling it to make dozens of intercepts and protect its targets against sustained air and ground attack.

So are aircraft bombs now a battlefield relic? Well, not quite. You can always destroy the defending C-RAM system with a high-speed air-to-ground missile that moves too fast for the system to intercept, then strike the targets it protects. Another is to add a rocket motor to bombs or switch your arsenal over to missiles—though both methods would probably take up more room in an aircraft, forcing it to carry fewer weapons.

The third way to deal with C-RAM systems is simply overwhelming targets with more bombers and more bombs.

Of course, Cheetah isn’t the first C-RAM system as Israel’s lays claim to that distinction, but the Cheetah is just the first C-RAM system designed to intercept aerial bombs. It’s a sure bet within two decades all of the major powers will have a similar capability.

Here's Iron Dome intercepting rockets over a ski resort in Israel:

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