AIR-TO-AIR MISSILE PROGRAMS
By Andrew McLaughlin & Dougal Robertson
This article appeared in the Mar-Apr 2020 issue of ADBR
Since the entry to service of the AIM-4 Falcon guided air-to-air missile in 1956, the US has expected to hold an AAM range advantage over any adversary. This is now being challenged by the scope and scale of the PLA’s AAM programs.
The Chinese PL-15 and ‘PL-X’/PL-17 missiles both claim ranges in excess of the AIM-120D AMRAAM. The PLA is building missiles and launch platforms to target and negate US and Allied advantages in air power: AEW&C, tanker, surveillance and intelligence aircraft, all-aspect stealth, and information-sharing. If the Soviet Union was ‘pacing’ the West during the Cold War, the PLA and a resurgent Russian military are now outpacing the US and Allied nations in some areas.
In 2019, USAF Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper spoke about replacing the Pentagon major defence acquisition program with “something that looks more like the Century Series development of the early Air Force”. The so-called ‘Century Series’ were the six aircraft designated F-100 to F-106. These fighters all came into service in the 1950s and progressed from first flight to operational acceptance in under three years.
Some industry pundits took Roper’s comments as heralding a new golden age of fighter aircraft development. But Roper was talking about air combat systems sharing design principles and functioning on a common modular open architecture, like an air power ‘App Store’ with plug-and-play components.
The first step towards realising these fast-to-build, lower-cost programs might be in air-to-air missiles.
LONG-RANGE ENGAGEMENT WEAPON
The Long-Range Engagement Weapon (LREW) concept surfaced in 2017 when Deputy US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Chuck Perkins distributed a picture showing an F-22 launching an unusual missile from the internal weapons bay. It was clearly an artist’s impression of the LREW concept and looked like a two-stage (boost and sustain) rocket motor body.
The US Department of Defense’s 2019 budget proposal stated LREW had completed engineering and design work, and combined components from existing missile systems with new technologies to provide ‘a leap-ahead increase in overall performance’.
Based on the limited information available, it’s possible LREW is the first in a modular series of missiles, combining different seeker and guidance kits in dual-mode configuration or with swappable front-ends. Whether LREW uses a two-stage motor configuration to provide range advantage is unknown.
It is also unclear if LREW will branch into production, or if it was a testbed for advanced technology. What we do know is that LREW is meant to give the range advantage firmly back to the US military, and make it happen fast.
JOINT AIR TACTICAL MISSILE (JATM)
More is known about the Lockheed Martin Joint Air Tactical Missile (JATM), designated the AIM-260. Last year, USAF program executive officer for weapons Brig Gen Anthony Genatempo said AIM-260 would reach initial operational capacity (IOC) by 2022.
The JATM will be flown first on the F-22 and F/A-18E/F before integration onto F-35. It will replace the AMRAAM, and Genatempo stated that, as JATM production increases, AMRAAM production will “start tailing off”. The last AMRAAM buy is expected in 2026.
The AIM-260 could use some form of dual-pulse motor and have a combined or dual-mode seeker. Lockheed Martin claims the AIM-260 has ‘significantly more range” than the AIM-120D. How it achieves this range is unknown but could be from a more efficient high-impulse fuel motor, a smaller warhead, or a combination of both.
Either way, the AIM-260 is the same size as the AIM-120D and is clearly designed to beat the Chinese PL-15. The missile’s rapid development suggests it uses components from existing weapons rather than being a brand-new design, with this ‘spiral upgrade’ approach being in the spirit of Roper’s desire for modular plug-and-play weapon systems.
SMALL ADVANCED CAPABILITIES MISSILE (SACM)
The Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM) is another program that apparently started life as a concept demonstrator when, in 2013 Lockheed Martin displayed a small ‘hit to kill’ missile. The ‘Cuda’ was around half the length of the AIM-120 and could allow 5th generation aircraft to double or triple their internal AAM load-outs. At the time it might have been a pitch to address criticisms the F-35 could only carry a small number of AAMs internally.
In 2017 US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Science, Technology and Engineering Dr David Walker testified on the Air Force Science and Technology Program before the US House Armed Services Committee. One of the weapon programs he outlined was SACM, stating it “will be affordable and provide high loadouts compared to current air-to-air missiles.” The same year, the USAF Research Laboratory (AFRL) listed SACM as a technology demonstrator with advanced airframe design, an improved solid rocket motor, ‘synergistic control’ (combined aero, attitude control and thrust vectoring) and ‘hyper-agility’.
Then late last year Raytheon Advanced Missile Systems released details of its Peregrine missile. Raytheon said the Peregrine had “advanced sensor, guidance and propulsion systems packed into a much smaller airframe” and was faster and more manoeuvrable than AMRAAM.
Peregrine combines the manoeuvrability of the AIM-9X Sidewinder with the range of the AIM-120. While there were no details on the seeker, Raytheon described it as a ‘tri-mode’ design. Raytheon already builds the AIM-9X and AIM-120 so it is likely that technology from both missiles is used in the Peregrine.
Raytheon says the Peregrine was developed in-house and isn’t a response to any program request. The SACM and Peregrine are both touted as ‘complements’ to the AMRAAM, not as replacements, and it’s possible some of the concepts from SACM have made their way into the Peregrine.
Again, if Peregrine goes into flight test soon it’s another example of rapid development and testing of an air-to-air missile using existing technology to fill an operational requirement – in this case cramming more missiles into fifth-generation fighters to win the numbers game.
The traditional approach to protecting aircraft is ‘layered defence’, using stealth, electronic attack, and countermeasure dispensing systems (CMDS) to defeat the individual sensors on a threat aircraft or missile. This approach worked when there were two or three ‘factor’ missiles to defeat, like the Russian R-27 and R-77 (AA-10 and AA-12) missiles and the Chinese PL-12.
But defeating missiles requires good intelligence on how they work and their vulnerabilities. When there are almost a dozen threat systems to defeat, the Allied intelligence collection network will probably never develop enough technical intelligence for effective countermeasures. Enter the concept of kinetic defeat, ie destroying the incoming missile, surface and air.
There are two known kinetic defeat programs – the Miniature Self-Defence Munition (MSDM), and the Small High-Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD).
The MSDM came up in the same testimony as SACM. At the time, Dr Walker said MSDM would “enhance future platforms’ self-defence capability without impacting the primary weapon payload”. AFRL says the MSDM is an all-aspect self-defence weapon designed to defeat surface-to-air missiles.
It is, apparently, a hit-to-kill interceptor with a passive seeker and a planned unit cost around US$40,000, a relative bargain when compared to the estimated sale price of an S-300PMU-1 (SA-20) missile of between US$800,000 and US$1m. The MSDM is reportedly in design review and the subject of competition between Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Flight test is expected next year.
While MSDM provides much better self-defence options for a range of penetrating capabilities like low-observable fighters, it could also allow high value airborne assets such as AEW&C, tankers, and intelligence aircraft to fly much closer to SAM engagement zones and potentially over contested areas where unlocated mobile SAM systems might be operating.
The idea behind SHiELD is to integrate a laser weapon system into a fighter fuel tank pod and provide self-protection against electro-optical and infrared air and surface missile threats. The US has been pursuing directed-energy weapons (DEW) for decades, but SHiELD is probably the first attempt to get an effective DEW onto a fighter aircraft. And while SHiELD will help fighters such as the F/A-18F and F-15E to survive over the battlefield, it is also a natural fit for the same high-value assets that might carry MSDM.
AUSTRALIAN COMBAT AIRCRAFT SYSTEM
There is no indication Australia is involved in any of these AAM projects. In a statement in response to questions from ADBR, an ADF spokesman told us, “Air Force will field a mix of AIM-120C-5 and -120D AMRAAM, and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles across F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
“The potential acquisition of additional air-to-air weapons is a matter for future consideration by the Government. Air Force is not currently participating in any air-to-air weapons cooperative programs. Current need is being met via the procurement of proven US-common weapons via foreign military sales arrangements.”
But with most RAAF combat aircraft less than a decade old and operating as a highly networked force, applying Roper’s air power ‘App Store’ concept might have advantages for the ADF. An Australian combat aircraft system of strike and electronic attack aircraft teamed with the E-7A Wedgetail command, control and battle management (C2BM) aircraft, sustained by networked KC-30 Multirole Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft and linked to a sensing grid built on persistent systems such as the Jindalee Over the horizon Radar Network (JORN) and dynamic sensors like Boeing’s ‘Loyal Wingman’, would be extremely effective.
Combining this 5th generation force with next-generation weapons would make it even more lethal and survivable.
Dougal Robertson is an Executive Analyst at Felix Defence.