The world’s air forces deploy a variety of Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM). This article profiles some of the leading European, Israeli and North American efforts in this regard both for prosecuting within visual range and beyond visual range engagements.
European nations have been keen to achieve strategic independence in defence technology from the United States since the advent of the Cold War in the late 1940s. Hence, several nations in Western Europe have been developing indigenous platforms such as the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighter families; all notable examples of this European struggle for independence. True strategic independence in this subsector makes sense only if these fighters can employ European-produced AAMs. Diehl BGT Defence’s IRIS-T Infrared (IR) and MBDA’s Meteor Active Radar Homing (ARH) guided AAMs represent the first two examples of broad European defence cooperation in the air-to-air missile domain. Both weapons were developed within European consortia involving several states and companies, for example, over 200 companies have been involved in the Meteor programme.
The IRIS-T was developed as a response to a common operational requirement to replace the Raytheon AIM-9L Sidewinder IR-guided short-range AAM. Development of the IRIS-T started in 1996 under German leadership, with that nation covering 45 percent of the costs, and Diehl was chosen as the prime contractor. According to Diehl documents the IRIS-T development phase, which lasted until 2002, included several weeks of trials. Deliveries started in December 2005 and were supposed to end in 2012, although it is likely they are still ongoing. The IRIS-T has been developed as a cutting edge technology. Its main strengths lies in the missile’s combination of manoeuvrability and agility and digital integration with a fighter’s helmet mounted display system. The IRIS-T’s technical features, including the optimised rocket motor, provide it with remarkable dogfight capabilities, and it can engage flying targets within a 13.5 nautical mile/nm (25 kilometre/km) range, at speeds in excess of Mach three. It was reported in May that the missile’s manufacturer was developing a fire on-the-move capability for the IRIS-T SLS (Surface Launched Short Range) surface-to-air missile system. The IRIS-T SLS employs the same IRIS-T AAM, and the company has revealed that it has finalised the fire on-the-move concept for the weapon which would include a four-missile launcher mounted on a mobile launcher designed in such a fashion as to fire the missiles while the platform is in motion. However, the firm gave no indication as to when this capability could be ready for procurement or possible, or existing, customers for such a platform. Furthermore, towards the end of 2016, the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNAF) commenced flight tests of a new air-to-surface capability for the IRIS-T. During flight tests in September 2016, a RNAF General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16AM fighter launched a missile to ascertain the weapon’s capability to acquire, track and hit a fast patrol boat target. Diehl stated in reports that the incorporation of this surface attack capability could be made available via a software insertion.
Joining the IRIS-T is the Meteor beyond visual range AAM. In April 2016, the Svenska Flygvapnet (Royal Swedish Air Force) became the first operator of the weapon onboard the service’s JAS-39C/D Gripen fighters: “In 2016, Saab introduced an operational upgrade and combat enhancement for the Gripen fighter that is known as the MS20 capability. That (capability) included full integration of the Meteor missile for the Royal Swedish Air Force’s JAS-39C/D fighters. They are the world’s first and only fighters to be operational with this revolutionary European weapon system,” a Saab spokesperson told Armada. According to the French ministry of defence and the Direction Générale de l’Armement defence procurement agency, the 200 Meteor AAMs ordered by the French government in 2010 (instead of the 300 estimated at the beginning of the programme) should be delivered between 2018 and 2020. Like France, Spain has decided to acquire a smaller numbers of missiles than expected, expecting around 100 instead of 400.
The missile could be carried by the Lockheed Martin F-35A/B/C Lightning-II fighter family: “Prior to the initial operational capability of the Meteor on F-35 family, the weapon will have already been fully integrated onto the JAS-39, Rafale and Typhoon families and so this previous work will provide a very good basis for integration onto further platforms in the future. It is no surprise then that Meteor has been assessed as compatible with all F-35 variants and is seen as a low risk for integration. The Meteor is planned for integration as part of the (F-35) Block-IV Follow on Modernization Plan,” the MBDA spokesperson continued.
But to date the Meteor’s integration on the F-35 family is far from taken for granted because of a number of concerns. Firstly technology gaps and differences, namely a fully European product designed for a fourth generation fighters will be mounted on a fully American fifth generation fighter. Software compatibility between the missile and the aircraft are a primary issue, and the US maybe wary of disclosing source codes and features that would help addressing integration feasibility for the weapon.
Besides, although the JAS-39, Rafale and Typhoon families have some network centric capabilities, thanks to their use of NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) Link-16 tactical data link protocol, their levels of integration vis-à-vis other platforms, and Command and Control (C2) networks, are arguably not as developed as they are on the F-35 family, which was designed from the outset as a highly network centric asset to be integrated into wider US C2 networks.
The UK has already decided to integrate the Meteor on its forthcoming F-35B aircraft due to equip the Royal Air Force (RAF) from circa 2024. It was reported this April that the UK Ministry of Defence had awarded a contract worth $52.7 million to MBDA to explore the integration of the missile onboard this aircraft. The missile is already expected to enter service with the Typhoon-FGR4 fighters of the RAF from 2018, media reports continue. It is expected that each of the RAF’s F-35B aircraft will accommodate a pair of Meteor missiles on two of the four underwing hardpoints with which the RAF’s jets will be equipped. This will be necessary as the Meteor missile will be too small to fit inside the F-35B’s internal weapons bay. That said, reports have stressed that MBDA has examined reducing the size of the missile’s tail fins to enable it to fit inside the aircraft. This will be achieved by developing fins which although shorter in height will be longer, so as not to degrade the weapon’s performance. Away from the F-35 family, work continues on integrating the Meteor missile onboard other platforms. Although the Royal Swedish Air Force has become the first air force to introduce the Meteor into service, with the weapon equipping its JAS-39C/D jets, it was reported in April 2017 that the UK MOD had completed development testing of the Meteor onboard a Typhoon fighter owned by Airbus’ defence and space division, which included a simultaneous firing of two Meteor missiles during test flights in Scotland. The conclusion of this testing regime now allows the RAF to commence its operational evaluation of the weapon, which is expected to occur later this year. Similarly, the DGA announced during April that it had completed its final guided firing of a Meteor missile from a Rafale family combat aircraft, which involved firing the missile against an air target during tests performed from the Armée de l’Air (ADLA/French Air Force) Cazaux airbase in western France. The conclusion of the test firings marked the completion of the full integration flight test campaign of the weapon onboard the Aeronavale (French Naval Aviation) and ADLA Rafale-F3B/C/M fighters. The weapon is expected to enter operational service with the ADLA from early 2018.
The April contract represents a second success for MBDA as regards the F-35 family so far this year. In mid-March MBDA announced that it had performed several test firings of the firm’s AIM-132 ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile) IR-guided weapon using an RAF F-35B at Edwards airbase in California and Patuxent River airbase in Maryland. Meanwhile, in August 2016, the UK MOD awarded a contract worth $238 million to purchase AIM-132 rounds for deployment onboard the RAF’s forthcoming F-35B aircraft. This contract followed an earlier contract in September 2015 which covered the development of a new variant of the AIM-132 missile for use onboard the Typhoon-FGR4. This new weapon is expected to enter service with this aircraft in 2018, according to media reports. Reports continued that the F-35B will use the legacy variant of the AIM-132 weapon until circa 2022, and will then presumably switch over to the new AIM-132 variant under development for the Typhoon-FGR4.
While MBDA is Europe’s leading missile design, research, development and production company for air-to-air missiles, its US counterpart Raytheon is similarly heavily involved in the air-to-air missile efforts. During the first six months of this year, the firm has been awarded contracts to produce AIM-9X Block-II Sidewinder IR-guided family AAMs under a contract worth $78 million awarded in April. Although these weapons are destined to furnish USAF and US Navy stocks, the contact also covers production for foreign AIM-9 family customers. Moreover, the contract includes enhancements to the weapon’s guidance and propulsion systems. Importantly, unlike legacy AIM-9 models, the AIM-9X has an ‘all aspect’ seeker meaning that it can engage a hostile aircraft from off boresight angles. Similarly, on 11th May, the US Department of Defence awarded the company a contract worth $7 million to extend the operational life of its AIM-120D Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) ARH guided weapons, used by Australia, Japan, Norway, Romania and Turkey. This contract award followed an earlier US DOD contract option worth $64.6 million covering the upgrade of the weapons’ guidance system. A number of enhancements are being rolled out across the AIM-120D fleet in the US and across the weapon’s export customers. In January, it was reported that Raytheon and the USAF were working on the development of a new signal processor to equip the weapon with the intention of helping the missile to remain in service until the 2020s and beyond. This year also saw the production of the 20000th AIM-120D weapon.
While this article has, so far, focused on North American and European AAM efforts, Israel remains an important player in the air-to-air missile domain, alongside Russia and, to a lesser extent, the People’s Republic of China. However, space is alas insufficient here to discuss the recent efforts of these last two nations in detail. Rafael Advanced Defence System’s Python IR-guided AAM family is the country’s flagship product in this regard and is used by at least 17 countries around the world. In March 2016, it was revealed that Israel and India had agreed to establish a joint venture involving Rafael and Reliance Defence for the production of, among other products, air-to-air missiles. While the news did not explicitly state which AAMs could be produced as a result of this effort, it would be of little surprise if Python family weapons were to be included. India is already known to be a user of the Python-4 and Python-5 variants of the missile. The former can perform all-aspect engagement, according to open sources, and entered service in the 1990s, while the Python-5 distinguished itself during Israel’s intervention in Lebanon in 2006 to stop the Hezbollah militia from firing rockets against Israeli territory, when the weapon was successful in destroying two Ghods Aviation Industries Abadil unmanned aerial vehicles being flown by Hezbollah. This February it was announced that Vietnam will be joining the Python club, procuring the Python-5 missile which could potentially be used to equip its Sukhoi Su-27/30 and Su-22 family fighters.
Although air-to-air combat is rare in the current security environment, it would be premature to announced its disappearance. The ongoing efforts of Russia to develop the Sukhoi T-50 fighter and the People’s Republic of China to realise the Chengdu J-20 fighter, show that US and Western rivals will continue to invest in efforts to overturn the air superiority and air supremacy generally enjoyed by the US and its Allies since the Balkans and Iraq conflicts of the 1990s. Yet such an operational advantage cannot be taken for granted, and the investment being poured into AAM research, development and production indicates that the West is not about to cede this position through neglect.