Why U.S. Air Force Urgently Needs New Air to Air Missiles

Why U.S. Air Force Urgently Needs New Air to Air Missiles
U.S. Air Force weapons load crew members, transport an AIM-120 at Eglin Air Force Base (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cassidy Woody)

As we have reported earlier the U.S. starting developing a new AIM-260 future long-range air-to-air missile that will replace AIM-120.

The two services are worried that the Chinese, in particular, have begun to outrange American fighter jets with their own advanced air-to-air missiles.

The Air Force officer said that the appearance of the Chinese PL-15, which uses a dual pulse rocket motor, in 2016 was the key factor that drove the Air Force and the Navy to begin the JATM program. Last year, a pair of J-20s flew a particularly notable flight routine at the biennial Zhuhai air show with their ventral weapons bays open, showing a full load of four of these missiles.

The United States is set to receive at least two entirely new classes of long-range air to air missiles in the 2020s, which are intended to replace the AIM-120 AMRAAM currently in service.

U.S. defence manufacturer Raytheon, best known for its THAAD, RIM-161, and AIM-120 missiles, in September, announced the development of the ‘Peregrine’ – an entirely new family of air to air missiles intended to be deployed by next-generation American fighters.

The Peregrine’s capabilities are reportedly set to be similar to the AIM-120 currently in service but will be far more compact. The need for such a missile has arisen due to the very limited weapons payloads of fifth-generation American fighter jets, which due to their advanced radar-evading capabilities are required to store all missiles internally. The F-22 and F-35 fighters currently in service can deploy just eight and four missiles respectively as a result of this.

The Peregrine will allow these jets to double their internal weapons carriage – which for the F-35, in particular, will be a game-changer and provide a far more respectable eight missile payload.

While the Peregrine program is being privately funded, the U.S. Air Force has also requested the development of the AIM-260 which will emphasize advanced capabilities over compactness. The shortcomings of the AIM-120 against modern threats have made the development of this platform an imperative.

The AMRAAM first entered service in 1991 and replaced the AIM-7 Sparrow which had been the foremost long rang anti-aircraft missile for American aircraft since the mid-1960s. While the AIM-120 design has been progressively upgraded, improving its range, sensors, accuracy and electronic warfare countermeasures, the missile is considered increasingly outmatched by the latest armaments deployed by rival powers.

The Chinese PL-15, with an estimated range of up to 200km, and the Russian R-37M and K-77 with 400km and 200km ranges respectively, are the most prominent examples, with more capable systems currently under development such as the Chinese PL-21. With the AIM-120C restricted to a range of approximately 105km, and the more costly AIM-120D restricted to a 180km range and yet to be widely deployed, the need for new missiles is particularly urgent.

The U.S. Air Force’s need for more capable air to air missiles is compounded by additional factors, including the development of hypersonic air to air missiles such as the Russian R-37M which significantly shortens the response time of targeted aircraft, the development of APAA guidance systems on missiles such as the K-77 which make them nearly impossible to evade, and the fielding of more survivable combat aircraft by potential adversaries.

Survivability of new Chinese and Russian jets against beyond visual range missiles has been increased by a number of means, one of the most prominent being the new thrust-vectoring engines which have become a signature of modern Russian military aviation and allow jets such as the Su-35 and Su-57 to evade attacks using their significantly enhanced maneuverability.

Advanced stealth capabilities on aircraft such as the Chinese J-20 have made aircraft extremely difficult to lock onto at range, and these enhancements are complemented by increasingly sophisticated electronic warfare systems. The ability of the AIM-120 to engage enemy targets at range with a high probability of kill has thus increasingly been eroded.

The AIM-260 is likely to be considerably faster and benefit from a longer range, more powerful sensors and other attributes that will provide a much-needed improvement to its kill probability against higher-end enemy aircraft. APAA guidance systems similar to those on the K-77 are a significant possibility.

The Peregrine deployed in larger numbers will meanwhile be better suited to countering older aircraft fielded in large numbers by second rate adversaries such as Iran or Syria – which rely on jets such as the MiG-23 Flogger and F-4 Phantom to form the backbone of their fleets. Against such adversaries, greater quantities of firepower will likely be prized over sophistication – making the Peregrine ideal.

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