Strapped into the back seat of an F-16 fighter jet as it tore through the sky at more than 700 miles an hour, I listened intently to Col. Bill "Thunder" Thornton, who sat up front, his hands on the controls.
"We are three miles from release," his voice crackled in my helmet. Then he asked me how I was holding up.
"Doing good here," I told him, speaking into the microphone in my oxygen mask as my hands reached for something stable to hold on to.
"You should be watching the bottom of his aircraft, and the weapon should be coming off shortly," the colonel advised.
Despite a murmur of nausea, my eyes focused intently on the belly of the F-15E Strike Eagle that was flying just a few feet from our wing tip. A single bomb hung from the jet's belly.
"Thunder One, clear to release," I heard in my headset, recognizing the voice of Maj. Verun "Stinger" Puri, the commander of this mission and the pilot of the F-15E.
"Pickle," he said, using the familiar code word for release, "weapon away." As he said it, the 4-foot-long bomb fell free from the fighter jet, and for a moment it seemed to float in the air. I strained to follow its path as it flipped itself over and released a set of wings before plunging out of sight.
"Weapon is initiating glide," said Puri in that calm pilot drone immortalized in the movie "The Right Stuff."
"It's started to nose over now," added Thornton from the front seat.
Fifteen thousand feet below, in the Command Control Center of Eglin Air Force Base, the eyes of the Bomb Development Team were glued to a series of tracking screens. They were watching a solitary truck sitting somewhere on the base's 900-square-mile firing range. On the roof of the truck sat an orange highway cone: the target.
From my front-row seat in the sky I am witnessing the test of the latest weapon in the arsenal of the U.S. Air Force. They call it the Small Diameter Bomb, or SDB. As its name suggests, it is a very small bomb, carrying less than 40 pounds of explosives. By comparison, the JDAM (short for Joint Direct Attack Munition), the workhorse of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, comes in a variety of sizes, the smallest of which carries 200 pounds of explosives.
Preparation for today's mission began long before sunrise when a single SDB was rolled out and mounted on the F-15. A few early versions of these new small bombs have been in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan since last November, although only about 14 have been dropped. This test flight is to check out a new guidance system for this very new weapon, one that is cheaper and — they hope — better.
As the Air Force now sees it, in today's warfare smaller is better. With these new Small Diameter Bombs, it hopes to accomplish three things at once: get more weapons on each aircraft; fire those weapons from much further away than JDAMs allow; and, critically, with much less explosive inside, aim to strike with surgical precision.
What that last point means is that when the new SDB strikes a target, its blast range is about 50 feet. Compare that to the impact radius of the smallest JDAM: 100 feet … and the 2,000-pound JDAM: 175 feet.