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When the Air Force wants to drop a bomb on someone but not blow up his neighbor, the options are pretty limited. They want to change that by developing smaller, more targeted bombs, including one that is housed in a carbon fiber case, decreasing shrapnel, and intensifying the explosion at the target -- not around it. Metallic powder might also take the place of metal shrapnel: The powder flies at a deadly velocity close to the target, but its energy quickly dissipates as it fans out, allowing the military to tightly control the danger radius of an explosion. The 250-lb. Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) will soon become a staple of the Air Force, replacing the nearly ubiquitous 500-lb bomb. Its small size means planes can carry more of them, while keeping collateral damage to a minimum.
The Air Force has even experimented with dropping satellite-guided inert bombs, filled with cement instead of traditional explosives.
The smaller bombs -- especially the 250-pound bombs -- are more useful in cities because they don't cause the same destruction that the larger bombs do. But they still can cause considerable unintended casualties by spraying deadly shrapnel for hundreds of yards.
[The focused-lethality munition, which has the potential to produce even less collateral damage, is different from typical bombs in two big ways: the makeup of the casing and what's inside it.
A traditional bomb's casing is made of metal, which shatters when the bomb explodes and provides most of the blast's killing power. The new Air Force munition is encased in a carbon-fiber composite. When the bomb goes off, the special case breaks into thousands of harmless fibers -- limiting the bomb's killing range. On the other hand, the new case fractures more easily than a metal one -- meaning the explosion is stronger close to the target. "More of the blast energy is available as blast as opposed to being absorbed in the steel case," says Dennis Baum, a special technical adviser on munitions in the Pentagon.
The inside of the bomb, which will weigh 250 pounds, is also different. Along with the traditional explosive found in most bombs, the new bomb mixes in a special dense metal powder. The initial blast propels the powder out at such speed that it is highly deadly. Then after traveling a short distance, drag and gravity cause the heavy powder to fall quickly to the ground.
The result is an explosion that is powerful and lethal, but relatively well-contained.
In tests using dummies made out of a special gel that replicates human flesh the blast obliterated everything in the bomb's immediate area, including the gauges the Air Force uses to measure the power of the blast. Scientists at Eglin Air Force base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where the tests were conducted, eventually had to design new, hardier pressure gauges.