U.S. Air Force Interested In Morphing Aircraft & Lifting Body Missile Airframe Designs For Its Future Long-range Air-to-air Missiles

U.S. Air Force Interested In Morphing Aircraft & Lifting Body Missile Airframe Designs For Its Future Long-range Air-to-air Missiles
Right: NASA X-24B Lifting Body on the Lakebed – Left: NASA Morphing Aircraft

The U.S. Air Force is looking for new experimental ideas for its future long-range air-to-air missiles.

On 4 May, Yvette S Weber, acting deputy assistant secretary of the USAF for science, technology and engineering, says the service is not set on any particular technology but released a request for information (RFI) as part of a broad search of new long-range air-to-air missile technologies.

The ideas would inform the service’s technology roadmap. Proposals from industry respondents are due by 18 June.

The USAF is interested in hearing about ideas for lifting body missile airframe designs. This is a radical departure from the tube-and-fins profile that have characterised air-to-air missiles for decades.

Lifting body vehicles are wingless aircraft that gain lift from the aerodynamic shape of their fuselage. Two well-known examples include the teardrop-shaped X-24A and the flatiron-shaped X-25B. Those rocket-powered gliders were jointly developed by NASA, the USAF, and Martin Marietta in the 1960s and 1970s to show the ability to maneuver and land a wingless spacecraft after re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere from outer space.

Some of the aerodynamic principles that were developed and tested with previous lifting body aircraft are transferable to various Mach regimes for air-to-air missiles, says the USAF.

The USAF is also interested in exploring morphing missiles. Morphing aircraft change shape in different phases of flight to optimise aerodynamic performance. NASA has built several morphing wings in recent years to demonstrate the concept.

Weber cautions that the USAF is not just interested in revolutionary concepts, but also wants to hear about ideas for evolutionary improvements to missile design. For example, the service is looking for new proposals around a fighter aircraft’s carriage and release system.

Fifth-generation fighters, such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 and F-22, have internal weapons bays to reduce their radar signatures. However, that also limits the number of missiles they can carry. The USAF is looking for novel ways to cram more missiles into weapons bays. The service wants missile lengths not to exceed 4m (13.1ft).

In 2019, Lockheed revealed that it had developed a new weapons rack, called Sidekick, that would allow the F-35 to carry six missiles instead of four.

In addition to increased storage capacity, the air force wants to hear about new ideas for holding missiles in the weapons bay.

The USAF also wants smarter missiles. It is looking for improvements to guidance, navigation and control systems, including optimised guidance algorithms, and compact M-Code GPS. To power those electronics, it is looking for advanced batteries and ultra-capacitors.

Ultimately, the service wants its next-generation missiles to be networked and is coordinating closely with its Advanced Battle Management System experiment so that the weapons are integrated into a future battlefield network.

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