Is America being left behind in the race to field the next generation of air-to-air missiles?
After years of US supremacy in the dogfight and medium range weapons business, there is evidence this indeed may be the case. Two requirements -- one American, one British -- currently at the simmering stage are likely to prove decisive.
The first is the US AIM-9X -- a program to replace the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder with what is effectively a new missile of the same name. The second is wrapped around Staff Requirement (Air) 1239, covering a medium range, fire-and-forget weapon for the Royal Air Force's Eurofighter 2000s. Both are being competed by US and European companies, over similar time scales and in a manner which should ultimately prove as fair as you can get in the defense business -- a "home" match and an away game.
A draft request for proposals for the AIM-9X was issued at the end of 1995, but until the RFP is posted (perhaps in the next few weeks), nobody really knows what form the missile will take.
Since its inception in the early 1950s, the AIM-9 family has dominated the short range air-to-air missile arena. Had the Soviet Union demised a little sooner it might have continued as the state-of-the-art dogfight missile for many years to come. The Vympel R-73 (NATO codename AA-11 Archer), however, changed all that. The AA-11 entered service at the end of the 1980s and immediately provided its host fighters -- typically, the Su-27 Flanker and the MiG-29 Fulcrum -- with a quantum advantage over Western equivalents in short range combat scenarios.
What makes Archer particularly worrisome is its agility -- achieved
via a paddle-based thrust-vectoring system -- coupled with a considerable
off-boresight capability. It works in conjunction with a fielded helmet
pointing system. While the Israeli-Syrian air battles of 1982 and the
Coalition lessons of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 appeared to reinforce a NATO view that 21st Century air-to-air conflict would be won and lost at medium or beyond visual range (BVR) -- in 1982, the Israelis fired 75 AIM-9s and Pythons against more than 200 AIM-7 Sparrows; in 1991, only
19 AIM-9s were expended against 71 Sparrows -- Archer has forced the West to re-evaluate the within visual range (WVR) battle.
Not only are the Russians fielding Archer, they are also researching thrust-vectoring maneuverability for their new fighters, starting with the Su-35, an enhanced variant of the Su-27, now being pushed in the export market. Many Western analysts scoff at the combat value of an opposing fighter that can snap-shoot over the shoulder while post-stall turning on a dime, noting that a NATO pilot with a missile worth its salt will simply fire across the turning circle -- a tactic made easy with an off-boresight weapons capability.
The problem is, with one exception, the Israeli Rafael Python 4, no such missile exists -- at least, in service -- outside of Russia. This means a well-trained, Archer-equipped pilot flying an agile combat aircraft has a potential advantage in two out of four classic engagement scenarios: "bugout" -- the moment when a friendly fighter, low on fuel, breaks out of the dogfight and turns for home -- and "rundown" -- the subsequent tail chase as red (enemy fighter) overhauls blue (friendly). As things stand, blue's only real moment of advantage is in the BVR regime. As blue moves past BVR and into WVR, this advantage rapidly gives way to equilibrium and eventually to red's advantage in the closing stages of the fight.
Python 4, according to Israeli officials, is operational. To date,
few details have been released, since the weapon is still emerging from
its classified past, but it is known to be linked to a helmet cuing system
and to rely on control surfaces as opposed to thrust-vectoring for its
Whether its off-boresight capability is better than the Russian missile's (Archer is currently able to engage targets 45 degrees off-center, though an evolved version with a gimballed rocket motor soon will increase this to 60 degrees) is open to conjecture.
That the Python family has grown out of a half century of Israeli
combat experience is a timely reminder to those who might still be considering
otherwise that the era of the dogfight missile is far from over. Rafael
is one of two non-US companies known to be watching the AIM-9X requirement
closely. The other is British Aerospace.
BAe Defense Dynamics is in a strong position over AIM-9X. With teammate Hughes Aircraft, its major electronics partner on the Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) currently in development for the RAF, BAe is ready to offer three missiles, all based to a greater or lesser extent on ASRAAM: a tailor-made AIM-9X with Hughes as prime contractor, the RAF model offered off-the-shelf and a pre-planned product improved (P3I) version in line with the "US-unique" specification.
The UK, meanwhile is committed to development and production of ASRAAM and testing of the missile is progressing well. Following several satisfactory safe separation firings in the United States since June, the first guided firing is due to take place at the end of this year. When ASRAAM enters service shortly before the turn of the century, BAe believes it will be the best short range missile in the world for the following reasons: its high speed and agility that increase the opposing fighter's "no escape zone", good seeker acquisition range, an off-boresight capability well beyond ninety degrees and an inertial guidance mode giving the pilot the option to lock-on after launch.
ASRAAM is not the only all-new short range AAM program earmarked
for Europe. In Germany, which pulled out of ASRAAM in the late 1980s, Bodenseewerk
Geratetechnik (BGT) is preparing to carry out
pre-feasibility studies into a dogfight missile called IRIS-T. Germany having analyzed the AA-11 in considerable depth (the Luftwaffe inherited a number of Archers along with MiG-29s operated by the former East German Air Force) it is scarcely surprising that the thrust-vectoring IRIS-T, in its initial form, resembles the Russian missile.
Go-ahead, which BGT hopes to receive in mid-1997, is, however, heavily dependent on other nations joining the program. Negotiations have been held with Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Greece and Canada and BGT has reported a favorable early response. But can Europe really afford two competing dogfight missiles and, more to the point, when the chips are down, will it commit another billion dollars to an ASRAAM alternative? It ought to, say BGT officials, since IRIS-T builds on almost ten years of Luftwaffe-funded research in the seeker field since Germany's departure from ASRAAM and will end up with more agility and greater off-boresight capability.
In 1987, when the French Ministry of Defense awarded Matra Defense a development contract for MICA (Missile d'Interception, de Combat et d'Autodefense), it broke with an old convention: instead of relying on two missile types for short and medium range engagements, as is currently the case with the Matra Magic 2 and Matra Super 530D, MICA, fitted with optional infrared or active radar seeker heads, would take care of both the BVR and WVR roles. Next year, it will deploy operationally on the Mirage 2000-5 and is earmarked for service with Rafale in 1999.
Though for some years the Russians have fielded AAMs in IR and radar-guided versions -- the AA-10 Alamo family is the latest example of this trend -- they have all fallen within one range class (usually medium). MICA is the first missile able to engage targets within an envelope spanning one to 60 km. Fully fire-and-forget, it can be ripple-fired like the Hughes/Raytheon Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM).
It is criticized by US and UK missile-makers as a "jack of all trades and master of none", but this is patently unfair. As well as being highly resistant to countermeasures, MICA's other great advantage is its early arrival on the market and wide releasability. With its innovative puff-jet and aerodynamic control system and availability in conjunction with the Sextant Avionique Top Flight helmet display and pointing system, it will certainly not be the slouch portrayed by its rivals.
In its present form, however, MICA will be unable to meet the RAF's SRA(A)1239 Future Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (FMRAAM) requirement -- but then, nor will any other off-the-shelf AAM. To those who have followed the EF 2000 story closely, the demanding 1239 spec came as a surprise. EF 2000's BVR capabilities were written around AMRAAM. Suddenly, the RAF maintains it needs a missile with considerably more range.
According to officials close to the program, two prime factors have
driven this radical change: the emergence of the "no-escape zone" -- hitting
an opponent who turns and runs and then maneuvers in the missile's
terminal phase -- as an important tactical consideration in the BVR battlespace,
EF 2000's lack of stealth in the face of Su-27s and Su-35s equipped with Russia's answer to AMRAAM, the Vympel RVV-AE (NATO codename AA-12 Adder).
At present, the immense power of the Flanker's radar, coupled with a likely impressive performance by the AA-12, now close to operational, threatens to outmatch EF 2000 at extreme distances. Hence the need for a missile with a range of well over 100 km and enough residual energy to outmaneuver Flanker in the end-game.
That the US Air Force has not professed a need for such a missile
has little to do with the severity of the threat, according to SR(A)1239
proponents. If the USAF pushes for something similar to the weapon
specified by the RAF, it diminishes its own case for the highly stealthy
F-22 fighter. Since AMRAAM's deployment at the turn of the decade, Hughes has implemented incremental upgrades to the missile, largely through software improvements.
"These are not to be scoffed at, since AMRAAM is a software-driven missile," says Ed Cobleigh, Director of International New Business for the Weapons Sector of Hughes Aircraft.
To meet the 1239 requirement -- an ITT is due this month (November 1996: ed) -- Hughes is pretty much resigned to bidding an air-breathing version of the missile -- AMRAAM with a ramjet. A showdown between Hughes and Raytheon for the 11th lot of AMRAAMs for the Pentagon in 1997 will determine which of the two rival US firms will inherit the program, according to Cobleigh.
The UK's indigenous response to 1239 is wrapped inside a European concept known as S225X. The result of several years' study by BAe Defense Dynamics, GEC-Marconi and Saab Missiles, S225X has already achieved a milestone result: forcing the UK MoD to put the RAF's FMRAAM program out to competition.
S225X embodies some prodigious talent in the European guided weapons
field. It also takes advantage of a number of diverse government-funded
technology acquisition programs that have been underway on the continent
over the past decade or so. In Italy, for example, Alenia claims to have
stolen a world lead with its Agile Solid State Seeker (AS3) Program, which
grew out of contracts, since canceled, to develop a home-grown fire-and-forget
BVR missile for the Italian Air Force. A successful series of acquisition
tests, recently completed at Pratica di Mare, will be followed
early next year with captive carry trials, according to Antonino Tripoli, assistant to Alenia's divisional director with special responsibility for AAM business development.
Under BAe leadership, S225X is likely to embrace other European companies.
Discussions have taken place with DASA and Matra, both of which have expressed
interest in bidding for 1239 independently.
Industrial activity such as this reflects an apparent desire by the French and UK governments to forge closer ties in the AAM research field. Both countries are expected to formalize an agreement to develop a multi-spectral seeker for a future generation of AAMs. With integrated IR and RF seeker technologies in a single head, future missiles will be highly jam-resistant and able to defeat the most agile of targets. In the United States, however, such moves are viewed with apparent disdain -- at least for the moment.
"The Hughes opinion," says Ed Cobleigh, "is that dual-mode seekers add so much to the complexity that you"re probably better off upgrading the single mode."
NICK COOK is an internationally prominent aerospace and defense journalist and the author of two published novels. A longtime contributor to Jane's Defence Weekly, International Defense Review and Interavia Business and Technology, he also has done broadcasting work for the BBC, CNN, ABC and CBC. In these roles, Cook has covered virtually every major military aerospace development of the past decade.
Copyright ©1996 by Nick Cook and cannot be reproduced without his express written consent.