The recent air operations in a potentially dangerous environment with more advanced aircraft and ground air defence systems, together with the number of air forces which want to enhance their air superiority capabilities with the acquisition of modern platforms or retrofitting of in-service combat aircraft, is revitalizing the interest towards air-to-air missiles as future threats emerge. However data sensor fusing, including the helmet mounted display systems, and the capability of these weapon systems to be part of the network is essential to the success of air superiority and defence operations.
At Le Bourget 2013 air show, defence representatives from Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, signed a contract between NETMA (NATO Eurofighter and Tornado Management Agency) and the Eurofighter team company, for the integration of MBDA’s ramjet-powered Meteor BVRAAM Typhoon combat aircraft. The new step toward the leading beyond visual range weapon system in terms of demonstrated advanced technology, should allow for a full aircraft/missile integration process to go forward and meet the latest in-service target, set for 2017 with Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft. The Meteor airborne developmental test programme accomplished 20 live firings between 2006 and 2012, when in July MBDA delivered the final performance statement for the Meteor weapon system for the assessment of the Meteor International Joint Programme Office (MIJPO), which is responsible for the programme management on behalf of six partner nations including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and UK. Although initially planned to be delivered to customers from the last quarter 2012, Sweden is today to receive the first series-production missiles, having conducted two further Meteor firings identified as “full production-standard” rounds as part of its Gripen entry-into-service programme. Sweden plans to have the Meteor ready for its fleet of Gripen C/D fighters by 2015 integrated with next mission software standard, known as MS20. Due to the reprioritisation of work within the Eurofighter Typhoon capability expansion programme, the first Typhoon customer represented by UK is no longer pushing for the delivery of the new missile. In early this year, UK’s National Audit Office Major Project Report 2012 pushed back the British in-service date (ISD) from June 2015 to June 2017. However according to August edition of UK Ministry of Defence magazine Defence Focus, initial testing of the new missile is 2017 while entering into service is planned for 2018. The Meteor BVRAAM enhancement to Typhoon capabilities is part of the software package increment known as P2E, which will be followed by the planned integration on the Dassault Aviation Rafale and then Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth aircraft from the Block 4 software update. Moreover, other potential customers of Meteor BVRAAM are the Middle East countries which are already, or are willing to become, Typhoon or Rafale operators, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE. The third, or second, platform to integrate the missile, depending on contract postponements caused by AESA radar adoption on board Eurofighter, will be the Rafale combat aircraft, which in addition to the French air force and navy, could see more customer export deals such as in India. The latest round of talks about the planned integration of European weapon systems, including the Meteor and short-range AAM ASRAAM, into the F-35 mission system, have been conducted recently by Italian and UK customers in occasion of DSEI, and will continue in the future. Characterized by a solid fuel variable flow-ducted rocket (ramjet) and a navigation and guidance system, including an inertial mid-course with a two-way data link, active RF seeker derived from Aster and MICA models providing all together, according to MBDA, the largest No-Escape Zone and all-weather capabilities compared to other BVRAAMs. Meteor is to revolutionize the concept of operations of air combat missions.
MBDA maintains a strong hold in the medium-long range AAMs sector, and is expected to continue with the Common Anti-Air Module Missile (CAMM) programme, which has so far evolved in firm-order from UK and selected by New Zealand MoD for naval applications, as well as the latest development according to France’s 2013 defence White Paper, which has set a surprise requirement for a successor to the Missile d’Interception de Combat et d’Autodéfense or MICA. In January 2012, the Indian Ministry of Defence signed a contract for the procurement of 493 MICA AAM for Indian air force’s 51 Mirage 2000H, which are to be upgraded under a deal signed in 2011 with French companies Thales and Dassault Aviation. The latter will modernise the in-service aircraft to a Mirage 2000-9 standards according to a programme, which is expected to be completed within 2021. With more than 3000 rounds sold to seven countries, MICA is unique among Western AAMs as it is built in two versions: the dual waveband imaging infrared (IR)-guided MICA IR and the active-guided MICA EM. Being operable with or without data link target designation updating, according to MBDA, MICA family mix offers BVR multi-target/multi-shoot; enhance short range and maximum flexibility for multi-role/swing-role aircraft. With a 3.1 m length, 112 kg weight, the thrust-vectoring control (VTC) provides an unusual combination of BVR and close combat capability in the same missile. In a surprise move last April, the French’s 2013 Defence White Paper unveiled the requirement for a successor to the MICA, signalling an intention to develop a new missile to satisfy short-to-medium range air combat roles, a request which hasn’t been seen as a pressing requirement.
In the short-range air-to-air missile arena, European industry maintains an important production represented by IRIS-T (Infra-Red Imaging System Tail/Thrust Vector-Controlled) and Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) system. Developed by a six-nation consortium with Germany as lead nation and Diehl BGT Defence as prime contractor, together with companies from Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden, the IRIS-T has obtained export success, being not only adopted by three of the Eurofighter consortium countries, including Germany, Italy and Spain for the Typhoon, Sweden for the Saab Gripen and Norway and Greece for their Lockheed Martin F-16 platforms, but also by Austria and Saudi Arabia for the European consortium aircraft, and South Africa and Thailand for their Gripens. Entered into series production in 2005, according to German-lead consortium, IRIS-T is a totally new short range air-to-air missile which capabilities are fully exploited with a helmet mounted cueing system (HMCS) thanks to an imaging IR seeker, dogfight optimised rocket motor, wings, and a combined aerodynamic and thrust vector control. The seeker assisted radar proximity fuse and the large warhead give the missile a remarkable anti-missile capability while predictive flight path tracking and lock on- after-launch (LOAL) features enable the missile to engage targets in the rear hemisphere as well. ASRAAM, by contrast, has been acquired by the UK (Typhoon) and Australia (upgraded F/A-18A/B), while selection by Indian air force for the upgrading package of the Jaguar fighter-bomber has been reported by industry in 2012, but a formal contract has yet to be signed. The missile system performance is attributed to a revolutionary design concept, according to MBDA, where high speed is achieved by means of a combination of low drag and rocket motor size. By using a 166mm diameter motor, compared with other missiles, which use a 127mm motor, ASRAAM has more propellant and can maintain a high speed throughout its flight time. Designed to out manoeuvre target aircraft in within visual range engagements and to allow launch at high off-bore sight angles during such engagements, its manoeuvrability is provided by a control system using innovative body lift technology coupled with tail control. ASRAAM provides the pilot with the ability to effectively engage targets from gun range to near Beyond Visual Range, reports MBDA. The pilot can identify the threat passively and cue the missile using a Helmet Mounted Display, Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) or radar, or it can be cured using third party targeting. MBDA and UK MoD are looking to further enhance the capabilities of SRAAM through the insertion of technologies and technical solutions being develop for Common Anti-Air Missile (CAMM) programme.
The US solution
The most recent US initiative to develop next-generation BVR missile technology, the joint Dual-Role Air Dominance Missile (JDRAM) or Next Generation Missile (NGM) has been terminated with Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 due to “higher air force priorities”. The later programme was aimed to replace weapons like the AIM-120 and the AGM-88 HARM with a single weapon system. An ambitious development programme, which together with priorities dictated by funding reductions, left the US Armed Forces to maintain an air superiority with the latest version of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), until a new or black technological programme will be funded or unveiled. The AIM-120D is described by the US Department of Defence (DoD) as an improved weapon with “a two way data link, GPS-enhanced inertial measurement unit, an expanded ‘no-escape’ envelope, improved high-angle off-bore sight capability and a 50 per cent increase in range’. Most AIM-120D details are classified, such as its increased range with the same solid-rocket motor as the AIM-120C-7, but official documentation refers to the latest AMRAAM version also for improved network compatibility and guidance software, which improves kinematic performance and weapon effectiveness capabilities. Missile production began in 2006 but operational testing, due to start in 2008, is still to continue until Fiscal Year 2014 (FY14), when initial operational capability (IOC) is expected to be reached in the year’s first quarter. However due to software/hardware improvements, the missile will be ready with initial SIP (System Improvement Program) 1-increment capabilities only in the same year’s third quarter. No details have been provided for SIP 1 enhancements, while follow-on SIP 2 including electronic protection improvements (EPI) against advanced threats, and are projected to be fielded in FY2016. In the meantime US DoD is working on improvements to the earlier AIM-120C3-C7 versions through software as well as EPI implementations, to counter existing and emerging air vehicle threats operating at high or low altitude, and having advanced Electronic Attack (EA) capabilities. The latest iteration AIM-120C7 incorporates an upgraded antenna, receiver, signal processor and new software algorithms to counter new threats. Planned to equip initially Boeing F/A-18C/D,E/F Hornet and Super Hornets, F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagle/Strike Eagles and from FY17 the 11-Raytheon AIM-120D during trails with LM F-22 Raptor
Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the AIM-120D is however not intended for export market. In addition to the latter specific variant-related problems, AMRAAM production and deliveries have been halted and more recently restarted due to unexpected reliability issue with the solid rocket motor. Due to these problems, Raytheon has qualified a second source supplier initially for the propellant and soon-to-be for the complete rocket motor module, represented by Norwegian company Nammo Raufoss, thanks to which deliveries were restarted and continue ahead of the re-base lined schedule.
The latest Block III iteration of the AIM-9X model short-range AAM is going to revolutionize the air combat arena as it has been conceived for the unique requirements established by the new generation stealth F-35 Lightning II, with an increased range which the US Navy, the leading programme customer, wants to be extended up to 60% compared to the Block I model. Developed to reuse several components from the older AIM-9M variant, the new X-model was to evolve towards a long-range weapon system capable to overlap the range of the AMRAAM missile. Such a capability which is requested to overcome the adversary advanced digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) jammers being used against AMRAAM BVRAAM active RF seeker guidance, including the latest AIM-120D model, is already provided by AIM-9X Block II, which has recently concluded it operational testing phase, performing better than expected according to first results analysis half-through the testing. The Block II’s improved LOAL capability, which allows a fighter to launch the weapon without the missile’s IR seeker head locked-on to the target, will help US pilots to engage the enemy from increased ranges compared to older Block I AIM-9X. The new Block II incorporates a single-way data link that allows target updates from the launching aircraft. Entered into low-rate initial production in 2011, this version is planned to achieve IOC in 2014. The Block III is to further expand such capabilities thanks to a new more energetic rocket motor and missile power management, in addition to a new insensitive munitions warhead while maintaining the electronics of the previous variants. In this way, the AIM-9X Block III will add BVR weapon systems to already carried AMRAAM missiles. According to the latest program schedule, the IOC date for new Block III model is expected for 2022.
Israeli works on advanced solutions
Israeli industry’s long tradition and expertise in AAMs, which is currently represented in production by Python 4/5 agile dogfight missile family and the Derby active radar-guided BVRAAM, is facing difficulties in accessing major new customers for them. However, it maintains a strong hold in the platform upgrading business, especially in Latin America and Asia, while maintaining production opportunities with sales of ad-hoc versions of both Python and Derby. With a 3.62m length and 118kg weight, Derby’s air-to-air or surface-to-air missile enables operational flexibility and multi-shot capability, incorporating look-down/shoot-down, fire-and-forget modes and advanced ECCM tailored to the customer’s operational requirements, according to manufacture
Rafael company. Reported to have a plus 50km range, Derby’s lightweight allow it to be adapted to various light modern fighters such as F-5, Mirage and F-16, with a guidance system based on active RF seeker provides lock-on before launch (LOBL) and Lock-on after-launch (LOAL), in addition to short and medium-range operational design. In service with different Latin America countries, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, more recently it has been sold to India with applications represented by Sea Harrier and HAL Tejas indigenous light combat aircraft. However Israeli’s company Rafael is working on a next-generation air-to-air weapon, as more recently acknowledge the same company representatives. Among the different concepts, a derivative of the Stunner ground-launched interceptor, developed with Raytheon is the likely candidate. A key element of this weapon system is its triple-pulse rocket motor, which is the result of Israeli Ministry of Defence study and which forms the basis for cooperation between the two companies for the propulsion system indicated for the AIM-9X Block II. The first Stunner interceptor for the David’s Sling anti-missile system will be delivered in 2014, but there aren’t indications an official requirement has been issued by Israeli Defence Forces. Rafael continues to promote the Python 5 as a fifth generation AAM, which according to the manufacture provides the pilot the capability to engage an enemy aircraft with a full sphere launch capability. Sold to a number of Latin America and Asian countries, the missile can be launched from very short to beyond-visual ranges with greater kill probability, irrespective of evasive target manoeuvres or deployment of countermeasures. Capable of LOBL and LOAL launches, it features a dual waveband focal plane array (FPA) seeker with extremely high off-bore sight capabilities and look-down engaging performances also in adverse and cloudy environments. The later has to face a range of air-to-air threats both in defence and offensive operations. Last September, during the annual military parade in Teheran, Iranian forces displayed Fakour-90 missile, which is claimed an indigenous copy of AIM-54 Phoenix long-range although passive BVRAAM for in-service F-14 fighter jets. In 2008, Iran reported test launches of a new IR-guided missile identified as fatter (Worshipper), which according to some sources, it appears to be a little more than an AIM-9P. However it’s the first indigenous project for Iran, with a claimed range of 40km.
The Chinese and Russian production
In parallel with new advanced combat platforms, such as the stealthy J-20 and J-31, China developed several new AAMs, but it is however difficult to discern the development status of these weapon systems. Officially acknowledge by Chinese officials in 2002, the PL-12 also designated SD-10 was developed by Luoyang Electro-Optical Technology Development Centre and marketed by CATIC (China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation) under the ‘Thunder 2-CAC-PAC JF-17 model with Chinese SD-10A BVRAAM
Lighting’ family of AAMs, which also include the PL-5E, PL-9 and Ty-90 models, all developed by the same bureau. With an aerodynamic configuration similar to US AMRAAM, a 3.9m length and 199kg weight, the PL-12 is claimed as an ‘all-weather, all aspects BVRAAM with multi-target capabilities under complicated ECM environment, capable also to attack a target from within visual range’. With a claimed range of over 70 km, fire-and-forget, and ‘home-on-jam’ capabilities, the PL-12 features electronics including active radar seeker, inertial navigation system and data link provided by Russian industries while the variable-thrust motor providing an over Mach 5 speed. Shown on Chengdu J-10, Shenyang J-8F, J-11 and JF-11 combat aircraft, and exported to Pakistan air force with SD-10A designation, the PL-12 is reported to be under development in new variants and versions including an improved guidance system, foldable tailfins for internal carriage on fifth-generation fighters, and a belly inlet and ramjet for extended range operations. The later features can be recognized on the artwork shown of the more capable PL-21 BVRAAM system, which resembles MBDA Meteor external general configurations but no development or existence details have been provided by Chinese sources. Compared to the BVRAAM inventory, the Chinese family of short-range AAMs is still mainly composed of older PL-5 and PL-8, and later version of both, together with Russian older and newer missiles but no indication, until recently, of new developments. In the meantime the Luoyang Electro-Optical Technology Development Centre has been shown new applied technologies such as seeker arrays and thrust vectored controls, and some drawing of a tailless design, similar to South African Denel A-Darter, discussed later. However first images of a new short-range AAM which has been identified as PL-10 began to emerge in connection with the flight trails of Chengdu J-20 stealth combat aircraft. The later showed the new missile out of the two lateral weapon bays, but its aerodynamic and general details indicate a weapon system completely different from initial drawings. With a four mid-body strakes and a set of four large tail planes, the weapon is thought be have been developed specifically for the stealth platform instead of general applications. No further indications have been given regarding such a weapon, but the development of new platforms is set to change such an attitude.
Russian industries exhibit an extensive pedigree in missile technology, but funding for new developments have resurfaced only recently, allowing Tactical Missiles Corporation (KTRV) to make incremental improvements to existing weapons but work on new design have not been discussed until very recently. Activities on the future combat aircraft, in particular the Sukhoi T-50 (PAK-FA) programme, brought to the surface development of new air-launched weapons. AAM specialist Vympel continues to improve existing families of medium and short range missiles, respectively the R-77/RVV-AE (AA-12 Adder) and the R-73 (AA-11 Archer). The BVRAAM family enhanced version, indicated as RVV-SD, is characterized by improvements in the airframe, aerodynamics and flight control system, which allow for an increased range beyond 110 km, while new electronics offer expanded capabilities in navigation and guided systems. A longer range weapon system, Novator KS-172 (K-100) has been proposed as a long arm in export version of Su-35 for a long time, but more recently Tactical Missiles Corporation representative has unveiled activities on a new missile that is claimed as more capable than the MBDA Meteor BVRAAM, but no details have been provided. The new shorter range air-to-air missile enhanced version of R-73 missile called RVV-MD, is not intended to include all the several performance improvements anticipated in the earlier design iteration of the weapon system, but are centred mainly on extending the missile endurance up to six hours, introducing a new two-colour IR seeker, and expanded seeker field-of-view of plus/less 60 degrees.
Asia and Pacific region
Indian’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are developing an active-radar BVR missile called the Astra. This is the latest iteration of the programme for a new generation BVRAAM project, which was established as part of India’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMP) in the early ’80s. However since that period, this project office has not been able to put to fruition an operational AAM despite more than 20 years of developments and more recently a long series of trails of Astra solution. The latter was first redesigned in 2008, and received the designation Astra II (Astra 2) which was introduced on the base of trails conducted to improve the missile performance, but when the first images of the weapon system were disclosed for airborne carriage testing, the missile appeared in the Astra 1 configuration. At the Aero India 2013 air show, Indian newspapers reported the programme is finally backed on track after a long delay due to technical problems. According to DRDO, the Mark-I version with a 44km-range, will be followed by the over 100km Mark-II model. To equip both Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the missile saw a complete aerodynamic redesign which has already conducted ground trails, while captive flight testing is planned before year-end on board a Su-30MKI. After the successful completion of these trails, more are to come with an aimed in-service date by mid-2015, if there are no further problems.
5-According to industrial sources, MBDA ASRAAM short-range missile has been recently selected by Indian Ministry of Defence to equip Jaguar under-modernization complement.
In the same Pacific region, Japan is working to further develop its Type 99 (AAM-4) active radar-guided BVRAAM. Although Japanese MoD weapon programmes planned to develop, with no or very little information, in 2005 an updated version, the Type 99 Modified which is also being identified as AAM-4B, was delivered to Japanese MoD from Mitsubishi. The enhanced version is reported to be equipped with an active phase-array seeker, capable of improved fire-and-forget and extended range performances, in addition to high-off bore sight and enhanced ECCM capabilities. While the new version would have been planned to become operational in 2009-2011 period, no official achievement has been announced. In parallel, Japanese MoD launched a modernisation programme for the air force’s Mitsubishi F-2 fighter, with enhancements to include the integration of the new Type 99 BVRAAM version missile. More recently a similar programme was launched in 2012 to upgrade the F-15J with the same capability within a larger modernisation programme.
Latin America and South Africa
The future of air-to-air missile development in Latin America should come from the close relationship between Brazilian and South African Ministries of Defence and industries, which has already provided the joint programme for the development, production and entry into service of the Denel A-Darter short-range AAM. According to Brazilian air force officials, the new generation missile is in its prototype performance verification phase, with qualification scheduled to begin in the second quarter of 2014, production and manufacturing baselines by mid-2015 and production to commerce in third quarter 2015, and an in-service date planned for 2015-2016 period. The A-Darter will initially equip the upgraded Northrop Grumman F-5EM/FM, which will continue in service until 2025, and later on the service’s future F-X2 combat aircraft. The South African Air Force will add the A-Darter missile inventory to Gripen combat aircraft and the Hawk Mk120 advance trainer fleet, while maintaining the IRIS-T on the first platform. Developed under a joint South African/Brazilian agreement signed formally in 2007, South African Denel Dynamics will lead the industrial effort while Brazilian air force’s Aerospace Technical Centre (CAT) is in charge of coordinating the national industries lead by Mectron, which has become part of Brazilian industrial group Odebrecht. With a 2.98m length and 90kg weight, A-Darter is being indicated as a fifth-generation weapon system, characterized by the latest aerodynamic configuration with tail fin controls and a guidance system including a modern thermal imaging technology seeker, all together offering a wide bore sight angle for targeting and reportedly a 90-degrees look angle with cockpit-selectable seeker scan patterns. The weapon also offers lock-on before launch and lock-on after launch thanks also a data link. In the meantime, the Brazilian industrial group Odebrecht, through its Mectron indigenous missile manufacturer, is continuing the development of the latest version of the locally designed Piranha short-range AAM. Designated MAA-1B Piranha 2, it is aimed to improve range and engagement capabilities of the older MAA-1A version through a new dual-pulse rocket motor and a new two-colour seeker and a missile aerodynamic enhanced configuration. Although initially planned to enter into service in 2012/2013 period, due to technical development programme, the Piranha 2 is not expected to be added to the inventory of Brazilian armed forces before the end of 2014. During LAAD 2013 Defence and Security International Exhibition, the Denel group unveiled its Marlin ‘all-weather air defence missile technology development programme’. The success of the A-Darter joint development air-to-air project with Brazil has laid the foundation for further defence collaboration programmes, according to the Denel group. ‘Currently South Africa is investing in risk reduction technology activities, potentially leading to a missile demonstrator’, recently reported Denel Insight publication, while funding from a second party is to elevate it to a full-scale joint development programme. The outcome of collaboration on Marlin will be a BVRAAM for the two air forces and an all-weather surface-to-air missile for the two navies and armies said Denel. This type of initiative is supported by IBSA and other bi-lateral initiatives between South Africa and Brazil, Denel added. The Marlin is to have a range of more than 100km and there is also a plan to develop a naval surface-to-air missile version, according to Denel. The active RF seeker has been developed by Denel while the dual-pulse solid rocket motor has been developed by Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) in South Africa, but further development could involve the Brazilian industries.
By Luca Peruzzi