Aircraft Missiles – Far-reaching Advances

anil chopra, air power asia, Air Missiles

The advent of the air launched missiles greatly changed the dynamics of aerial combat. Air-to-Air Missile (AAM) is fired from an aircraft against another aerial platform to destroy it. The shorter range ones are typically armed with rocket motors having mostly solid fuel, but sometimes liquid fuel too. Ramjet engines, as used on the Meteor missile are emerging as propulsion that will enable future medium-range missiles to maintain higher average speed across their engagement envelope. Air-to-surface missile (ASM) or air-to-ground missile (AGM or ATGM) attack surface targets on land or sea. A few air-to-surface missiles have a surface-to-surface variants. A major advantage of air-to-surface missile is the stand-off range, well away from the target’s air defences. Most of these are fire-and-forget, thus allowing the attacking aircraft to turn away after launch. The weapon mix of the Lockheed F-22A Raptor the world’s most expensive and advanced tactical fighter and Lockheed F-35, Joint strike fighter, the only fifth Generation aircraft currently operationally deployed, have the latest inventory of aircraft missiles. 

Acute shortage of basic ammunition and weapons of the Indian Armed Forces have been routinely highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) in its reports to the Indian Parliament. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is at an all time low, down to just 30 from the authorized 42 fighter squadrons. The inventory of aerial weapons like missiles and Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) is also far from sufficient for even a 20 day war. While nations give great importance to high-visibility high-value contracts to acquire aircraft, ships and tanks, often weapons get a lower priority. Armaments have a finite shelf life and also obsolescence sets in quickly. Any weapon platform is no good without potent armaments. Acquisition and replacement need early planning. Quick and lethal weapons are germane to military victory. Aerial missiles are the most potent and expensive arsenal.

Air-to-Air Missiles

          Air-to-Air Missiles with up to 30 km range, are often called ‘Dog-fight’ or close-combat missiles (CCM), or also ‘Within Visual Range’ (WVR) missiles. WVR are mostly heat-seeking, while BVR are mostly radar controlled. Some long range missiles also use inertial guidance. Mid 1950s, saw development of American AIM series Sidewinder missiles and the Soviet ‘K’ series. BVRs were inducted in mid 1960s. Raytheon is one of the biggest missile producers and its AIM-9L (1977) was the first all aspect WVR missile whose IR head could sense aircraft heat even from front quarters. The missile seeker of the more modern MBDA AIM-120 ASRAAM can distinguish the target heat from the counter measure flares. Israeli Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ Python-5 missile has a dual-band IIR seeker and is more effective against low heat source aircraft like propeller driven UAVs among others. Some missiles use thrust-vectoring, which allow the missile to start turning “off the rail”, before its motor has accelerated it up to high enough speeds for its small aerodynamic surfaces to be useful. Ramjet propelled AAMs will enable future medium-range missiles to maintain higher average speed across their engagement envelope. Fifth generation electro-optical missiles are ideal against low-heat targets such as UAVs and cruise missiles. BVR missiles today have ranges beyond 200 km. American AIM-9X Sidewinder, Israeli Python 5, Chinese PL-12, India’s Astra (110 km), and American AIM-120 AMRAAM (180 km) are the state of art new missiles. China is developing PL-15 Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) with a reported 250 km plus range.

Chinese PL 15 missile Picture Credit: Nestia

Indian Air Force AAMs

          India got the first generation K-13 along with the MiG-21and was later replaced by Molniya R-60. Initially IAF inducted the Matra Magic 1 R 550 and later variant Magic 2 Super and R 530D came with Mirage 2000. IAF got the fourth generation Russian Vympel R-73, R-27 and fifth generation R-77 RVVAE missiles along with MiG-21 Upgrade ‘Bison’ and SU-30 MKI. The French MBDA MICA, dual head (IR & EM), is part of the Mirage-2000 upgrade project and of the Rafale weapon package. 400 are being bought. Rafale can carry up to six MICA missiles. Mirage 2000 upgrade has inbuilt 384 British MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAM dogfight missiles which have also been selected for Jaguar over wing station. The MiG-29 upgrade allows carriage of R-77 missile. DRDO’s Astra  is the first air-to-air missile developed in India. It is an all weather BVRAAM that features mid-course inertial guidance with terminal active radar homing. It can take on targets up to a distance of 80 km. Astra has been integrated with IAF’s SU-30 MKI, and will come on board Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 in the future. Limited series production of Astra missiles began in 2017. The next generation active radar guided BVR air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), Meteor (100 km range) developed by MBDA is being acquired with Rafale. Rafael Advanced Systems Python-5 of Israel has been selected as the secondary close combat heat seeking missile for the LCA Tejas after R-73. Derby AAM has been test-fired on the LCA as part of FOC clearance.

MBDA Meteor. Picture Credit: MBDA

Air-to-Surface Missiles

          Precision of delivery can be considered the single most important development for surface attack. It is not only more economical to destroy the target, but also reduces unwanted collateral damage. A SU-30 MKI with Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) can have more effect on a target than a squadron of old MiG-21s with free-fall ‘Dumb’ bombs. Of course the PGMs work out more expensive and therefore mostly the combination of the two are used. PGM or the ‘Smart’ bombs or missiles are directed to the target through wire, radio, radar, optical or laser control. Electro optical systems have a TV/IR camera for guidance. Laser guided bombs or missiles home on to the target that has been illuminated by a laser beam from the air or ground. Infra-Red (IR) guidance weapons work well where the target stands out due heat contrast. Lockheed Martin Hellfire II anti-tank missile is guided by the millimeter-wave radar aboard Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow. India’s acquisition of 22 Apache AH-64 s would include over 1,350 Hellfire missiles and 245 Raytheon Stinger missiles. Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is planned to be fitted with indigenous anti-tank missile Helina. Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8I Neptune carries the AGM-84L Harpoon Block II missiles and Mk 54 lightweight Torpedoes.  MiG 29 K can carry Kh-31 A and Kh-35 anti-shipping missiles and a host of air-to-air missiles including Astra, Rafael Python 5 and may one day have the futuristic Novator K-100.

          Air-to-surface missiles have propulsion and score over bombs in longer stand-off ranges and speed of impact, but often have lighter warhead. Air launched Tomahawk cruise missile, the anti-ship or land-attack Harpoon missiles are good examples. India had earlier operated MBDA’s AS-30 missiles and BAe Systems Sea Eagle anti-shipping missiles. IAF acquired 24 harpoon Block II missiles for its maritime strike Jaguars in December 2010. Rafale has options of the modular Hammer air-to-surface PGM system and AM-39 Exocet sea-skimming missile. Russian air-to-surface missiles carried on SU-30 MKI include Kh-59 ME TV guided standoff missile with 115 km ranges, Kh-59MK active radar homing anti-ship missile (285 km), Kh-31 anti-radar missile (30 km) and Kh-29 laser guided missile (30 km). India’s DRDO is developing ‘Nag’ anti-tank missile. Its air-launched Indo-Russian cruise missile BrahMos has already been tested from a SU-30 MKI. Once the AESA Radar comes with Su-30 MKI upgrade, it will be a potent combination. BrahMos II would be a Mach 7 Hypersonic Cruise Missile being developed in collaboration with Russia. China has many, mostly reverse engineered Russian missiles and supports Pakistan’s Babur missile program.

The Unfolding Aerial Missiles

          MBDA Meteor the BVR AAM with active radar (Over 100 km) has already been integrated on French Rafale, including for IAF.  Meteor offers a multi-shot capability against long range maneuvering targets in a heavy ECM environment. It is also intended to equip Eurofighter, Saab JAS 39 Gripen, and British and Italian F-35s. US Navy may require a Meteor-class missile to replace the retired AIM-54 Phoenix. India has made a request for information about integrating Meteor on their Su-30 MKI. India is looking at possibly integrating the MBDA Brimstone ground attack missile. Novator K-100 is a Russian air-to-air missile designed as an AWACS killer with a range of up to 200 km. Since 2004 India and Russia has evolved a deal to produce it for IAF’s SU-30 MKI fighters. Another version with range up to 400 km is being mentioned. DRDO is also developing the nuclear capable Nirbhay cruise missile. Helicopter launched Nag (HeliNa), DRDO’s anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) is under testing. The new Chinese BVRAAMs PL-12D, PL-21 and a PL-15 variant with successfully tested ramjet technology, and coupled with AESA radar seekers and ranges up to 200 km plus could be a long-range threat even to stealth fighters and bombers. Advanced versions of AIM-9X and Vympel R-73, called Quick Manoeuvre Air-to-Air Missile with much higher agility are under development. The Hyper-Velocity Air-to-Air missile will be multi-stage kinetic energy weapon with speeds in excess of Mach 5. DARPA is developing a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) to improve the survivability. High-power thermo-baric missiles are basically FAE that create intense high temperatures.

F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightening II Air Missiles

          It is interesting to see the missile mix on the top fighters of the world. F-22 Raptor has four hard-points on the wings, each rated to carry 2,270kg, which can carry AIM-120A AMRAAM or external fuel tanks. The Raptor has three internal weapon bays. The main weapons bay can carry six AMRAAM AIM-120C missiles or two AMRAAM and two 1,000lb GBU-32 joint direct attack munition (JDAM). Raytheon AMRAAM air-to-air missile is an all-weather short-to-medium-range radar-guided fire-and-forget missile, with a range of 90 km. The side bays can each be loaded with one Lockheed Martin / Raytheon AIM-9M or AIM-9X Sidewinder all-aspect short-range air-to-air missile. The GPS-guided, Boeing small diameter bomb (SDB) is integrated on the F/A-22. Eight SDBs can be carried with two AMRAAM missiles. Lightning II stealth multirole fighter has two internal weapons bays and external hard-points for mounting up to four under-wing pylons and two near wingtip pylons. The two outer hard-points can carry pylons for AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-132 ASRAAM  short-range  AAMs only. The other pylons can carry the AIM-120 AMRAAM BVR  AAM, AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile. There are a total of four weapons stations between the two internal bays. Two of these can carry air-to-surface missiles and the other two stations are for smaller weapons such as air-to-air missiles. The weapon bays can carry AIM-120 AMRAAM, AIM-132 ASRAAM, Brimstone anti-tank missiles. An air-to-air missile load of eight AIM-120s and two AIM-9s is possible using internal and external weapons stations. The Meteor air-to-air missile may be adapted for the F-35. Lockheed is studying integrating a fiber laser onto the aircraft that uses spectral beam combining to channel energy from a stack of individual laser modules into a single, high-power beam, which can be scaled up or down for various levels of effects. Adding a laser would give the F-35 the ability to essentially burn missiles and other aircraft out of the sky. The F-35 is also one of the target platforms for the High Speed Strike Weapon if hypersonic missile development is successful.

Hypersonic Missiles

          The withdrawal of USA and Russia from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in February 2019, spurred fresh arms development. Meanwhile, in December 2019, Russia announced that it had deployed its first hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles. President Putin described the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which can fly at 27 times the speed of sound. He said that the new generation weapon could hit almost any point on earth and could evade the U.S. missile shield. It has already been tested till 6,000 km range. It can make sharp manoeuvres enroute to its target, making it harder to intercept. China has tested its own hypersonic glide vehicle. It displayed Dong Feng 17 (DF-17), at the 70th anniversary military parade. U.S. officials have talked about putting a layer of sensors in satellites to detect the hypersonic weapons earlier. Russia and China lead in hypersonic weapon development, trailed by the United States, France, India, and Australia who are known also to be pursuing the technology.

Russian Avangard Hypersonic Missile. Picture Credit: Veterans Today

Air Missiles of the Future

New aerial weapons could change the face of modern warfare, rely on the most advanced technology in the world; these hyper-advanced projectiles may out-maneuver, out-run, and out-match foes around the globe. The ‘Mach-5 Cruise Missile’ X-51 moves so fast that it doesn’t even need an explosive warhead and its kinetic energy will shred through targets. Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) is a distracting weapons-jamming dynamo. ‘Hyper Speed Bunker Buster’ is a rocket-fuelled bunker buster that punches through the earth to obliterate anything underneath it. It trades off size for speed. The hyper speed bunker busters use kinetic velocity. ‘Triple-Target Terminator Missile’ in development by DARPA and missile-maker Raytheon is meant as a high-speed, long-range missile that can engage cruise-missiles and air-defence targets. Hypersonic weapons using  artificial intelligence, could forever change the ability to deter and respond to conflict, allowing war-fighters to quickly address threats before an adversary may have time to react.

Counters to Aerial Missiles

Lockheed Martin is helping the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Research Laboratory develop and mature high-energy laser weapon  pod, including the high-energy laser that will be demonstrated on a fighter jet by 2021. The fibre laser is called Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD. If successful, the technology could be a game-changer that could take out surface-to-air and air-to-air missile threats more cheaply than current intercept methods. Lockheed has experience developing high-powered tactical lasers for the U.S. Army. Lasers are invisible to the naked eye and can destroy targets at the speed of light with unmatched precision. What’s more, these directed-energy platforms can strike repeatedly giving them a near-endless supply of ammunition. Northrop Grumman is working with the USAF to develop radical new laser weapons for supersonic fighter jets and hopes to test them in 2019. Northrop Grumman will help the USAF mature its plans to use directed energy systems for self-protection on current and future aircraft. Rail-guns use electromagnetic fields and powerful magnets to launch projectiles at hypersonic speeds (4,800 mph, 100-mile range). Unlike ballistic missiles, these projectiles are hard to follow and destroy because of their low altitudes and blistering speeds that leave little time to react. 

Missiles with MMRCA-2 aircraft

The seven MMRCA 2 contenders will offer new aerial missiles. Aerial missiles with Rafale have already been contracted. The Mig-35 will bring similar missiles as are in use on SU-30 MKI and upgraded MiG-29 such as R-73E, R-27, R-77, Kh-29L/TE, Kh-38ME, Kh-31PD. The SU 35 can bring in addition, the RVV-MD (Export model of R-74), 3M-14AE cruise missile, Kh-58UShE anti radiation missile, among others. Eurofighter Typhoon can carry AIM-120 AMRAAM, AIM-132 ASRAAM, MBDA Meteor, AGM-88 HARM among others. Saab Gripen can carry AIM-9 or IRIS-T or A-Darter, AIM-120 AMRAAM or MICA, Meteor, and AGM-65 Maverick. F-18 Super Hornet can carry the standard American air-to-air missiles and also carry AGM-88 HARM, AGM-158 JASSM among others. Lockheed Martin has certified more than 3,300 carriage and release configurations for greater that 180 weapon and store types on F-16. Block 70 (F-21) will bring in addition to the standard American aerial missiles, Python-5, AGM-158 JAASM, AGM-84 Harpoon.  

DRDO Astra Missile. Picture Credit: New Indian Express

Evolving Indian Aerial Missiles

          India’s Ministry of Defence’s 15-year “Technology Perspective and Roadmap” 2010, includes development of Anti-satellite weapons for electronic or physical destruction of satellites in both LEO (2,000-km altitude above earth’s surface) and the higher geosynchronous orbit. The Astra Mk-2 is an advanced version of the Astra Mk-1 missile with an Active Radar Homing BVRAAM and estimated range in excess of 100 kilometers. It will be the Indian equivalent to Meteor BVRAAM, with ‘Dual-pulse rocket Motor’. DRDO’s Prospina Anti-Tank Guided Missile earlier called Nag Missile will be a third-generation, fire-and-forget, anti-tank guided missile. The air-launched variant is called the helicopter-launched NAG (HELINA) can be fired from Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH) and HAL Rudra (ALH WSI) attack helicopter. Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) is a missile propulsion system currently being developed by the DRDO. The project aims to develop critical technologies required in the propulsion systems of future Indian lon range air-to-air missiles. The second test of the missile occurred on 8 February 2019, where its ramjet engine was successfully tested. DRDO is working on increasing the speed of BrahMos missile in a phased manner. In the next few years it will go hypersonic.  DRDO is working on a slew of Directed Energy Weapons, and hypersonic vehicles/missiles as focus areas in the next 15 years.

This Article was earlier published in South Asia Defence & Strategic Review and since then updated 

Astra Missile Firing Picture Credit:  New Indian Express

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

10 thoughts on “Aircraft Missiles – Far-reaching Advances

  1. Good morning Air Mshl Chopra I read your article on Aircraft missile with great interest. The well written article brings out the latest developments very comprehensively. Thank you for such exhaustive research. Sir, I want to bring out two issues. Firstly, the seeker of Python V missile. The article mentions the seeker of Python V as Electro-optical. The brochure mentions the seeker as IR. In fact, it has a dual-band IIR seeker. Secondly, the Derby AAM has been test-fired on the LCA as part of FOC clearance. The relevant article is as per the URL below.

    I am enclosing the brochure of Python Mk V fyi.

    Please keep up the good work. Best Regards * delta*


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