Over the past few decades, advances in electronic sensors, communications technology, and guided weapons may have fundamentally transformed the nature of air combat. One of critical technologies was superior situational awareness (SA) when a pilot has a better understanding of the position of all relevant aircraft and their activities in the combat area than an opponent. The ultimate expression of SA is to move into position to attack an opponent without being detected, launch an attack, and escape before other enemies can take counteroffensive action.
For about fifty years, pilots relied on the human eye as the primary air-to-air sensor and machine guns and automatic cannon as their primary weapons. The physical limitations of human vision give it a relatively short effective range as an air-to-air sensor of about 2 nautical miles (nm). Aircraft can be seen farther away if the highly sensitive central vision is focused on them, but with central vision limited to a cone roughly 2 degrees wide, pilots searching for opposing aircraft without some sort of cue to limit their search are unlikely to detect them
until the less acute peripheral vision is able to resolve them at about 2 nm.
By the mid-1960s, new aerial weapons and sensors appeared in conflicts in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. The new weapons included both infrared (IR) and radarguided missiles, while the new sensors were largely air-to-air radars. IR missiles allowed
attacks within a 30-degree cone behind the target at ranges approaching the 2 nm effective visual search radius. Radar-guided missiles, in theory, allowed attacks from any aspect (front, side, or rear) and beyond visual range (BVR). Air-to-air radars were capable of detecting and tracking targets at 15 nm or more. While the early missiles and radars had serious limitations and were unreliable, they offered substantial advantages over guns and the human eye. Guns were displaced by rear-aspect-only IR missiles, which were in turn replaced by
all-aspect missiles, and finally, BVR missiles have come to make up the majority of modern air-to-air engagements.
These trends suggest that over the past five decades, advances in radar and other sensor technologies, missile capabilities, and communication technologies allowed pilots to search effectively much larger volumes of sky and engage targets at ever-increasing range. Most modern air combat engagements were initiated before the aircraft were within visual range with a commensurate decrease in the frequency of maneuvering combat. This means that aircrew SA is no longer primarily linked to what they can physically see through the cockpit canopy, but to what they glean from cockpit displays of sensor output and information passed from offboard sources such as nearby friendly aircraft.
The advent of the air launched missiles greatly changed the dynamics of aerial combat. While Air-to-air missile (AAM) is fired from an aircraft against another aerial platform to destroy it, Air-to-surface missile (ASM) or air-to-ground missile (AGM or ATGM) attack surface targets on land or sea. 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 Air-to-Air Missile (AAM) is a potent guided missile that changed the shape of aerial combat forever. Capable of destroying fast and maneuverable jet fighters at ranges sometimes exceeding 100 kilometers, these high-tech weapons dominate the skies.
Air-to-air missiles are divided into three categories: short-, medium-, and long-range. The first consists of missiles designed to engage opposing aircraft at ranges of less than approximately 20 miles (32 km), these are known as short-range or ‘within visual range’ missiles (SRAAMs or WVRAAMs) and are sometimes called ‘dogfight’ missiles because they emphasise agility rather than range. Short-range AAMs have extreme maneuverability (60 G turns) and high speed (around Mach 3 or 3 703 km/h). They can be fired at both fairly distant targets and those within dogfighting range. These usually use infrared guidance, and hence, are also called heat-seeking missiles.
The first extensive use of IR missiles took place during the Vietnam War, where the results were dismal. The AIM-4 Falcon, the USAF’s primary missile, scored hits only 9% of the time it was fired, while the US Navy’s AIM-9 Sidewinder fared only slightly better, depending on the model. It became clear that there were two basic issues causing the problem. One was that the pilots were firing as soon as the missile saw the target in the seeker, any time it was in front of the launch aircraft. However, the seekers had a very limited field of view so if the target aircraft was flying at right angles to the launcher, it would fly out of the seeker’s view even as it left the launch rail. The other is that the rocket motor often burned out long before the missile reached its target (which is common with missiles, a typical motor burn time being around 4 seconds, the missile maneuvering on its velocity energy after motor burnout). This led to development of very short range but extremely maneuverable weapon that could turn rapidly enough to keep the target in view no matter the launch parameters.
Sidewinder was introduced (the AIM-9L) which added all-aspect capabilities and wider seeker angles. A variety of changes gave the L slightly better manoeuvrability, speed and range, but the main change was that the seeker had much higher tracking angles and allowed head-on engagements. Although not nearly as great a step forward as the other designs, the “Lima” offered a significant improvement in capability over the older models with very little additional cost. British pilots achieved an 80% kill ratio with the L model during the Falklands War, a number matched by the Israeli Air Force a few months later over the Bekaa Valley.
The probability of Aerial dogfights are becoming less in modern times, as US pilots have used AIM-120 missiles only dozens of times, in contrast, the US Air Force used more than 3,500 weapons against ground targets in Afghanistan during the opening nine months of 2011 alone. However the threat of it has not entirely disappeared, therefore the air-to-air missiles (AAMs) remain an essential combat element for fifth-generation jet fighters.
US Air to Air Missiles
The AIM-9X is an infrared-guided heat-seeking missile that equips most jet fighters, fighter-bombers, and other offensive combat aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, and is for shooting down enemy aircraft close-by. The AIM-9X works by homing in on an enemy aircraft’s hot engine exhaust. Variants of the AIM-9 Sidewinder have been deployed since the 1950s. The AIM-9X is among the latest versions of the AIM-9 missile family. It entered service in 2003 on the Navy F/A-18C Hornet fighter-bomber and on the U.S. Air Force F-15C jet fighter. It has an imaging infrared focal plane array seeker with 90-degree off-boresight capability for accuracy.
Arguably the biggest upgrade the Sidewinder had ever seen came in the form of the AIM-9X, which entered service in 2003 and brought with it major and long in the works changes in capabilities, including high-off boresight targeting, thrust vectoring, and an advanced imaging infrared (IIR) seeker. Today’s AIM-9X Block II, also known as the AIM-9X-2, which just entered service in 2015, offers another big leap in capability with its data-link and lock-on-after-launch capabilities, among other improvements. These advances are in addition to the missile’s constantly improving software that makes the most out of its latest physical additions and enhancements.
But the AIM-9X may change again and more dramatically in the not so distant future. Even though the AIM-9X Block III was officially canceled in the 2016 Fiscal Year budget, which came out in 2015, each subsequent budget request has asked for money to continue to develop similar features. Most notably, this includes an entirely new motor that would make use of decades in rocket technology advances. The so-called “highly-loaded-grain, high-performance motor, and radiofrequency cook-off sensor” would give the AIM-9X significantly enhanced range. The planned Block III configuration had also included a new, safer insensitive munitions warhead design.
ASRAAM is a high speed, extremely manoeuvrable, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile. Built by MBDA UK, it is designed as a “fire-and-forget” missile. ASRAAM is intended to detect and launch against targets at much longer ranges, as far as early versions of the AMRAAM, in order to shoot down the enemy long before it closes enough to be able to fire its own weapons. In this respect the ASRAAM shares more in common with the AMRAAM than other IR missiles, although it retains high manoeuvrability.
ASRAAM is designed to outrange and outrun any other IR missile in service, allowing the pilot to fire and then turn away long before the opposing aircraft can close for a shot. It flies at well over Mach 3 to ranges as great as 50 kilometres (31 mi), considerably over double the range of earlier designs. It retains a 50 g manoeuvrability provided by body lift technology coupled with tail control. To provide the needed power, the ASRAAM is built on a 16.51 cm (6½ inch) diameter rocket motor compared with Sidewinder’s (AIM-9M and X) and IRIS-T’s 12.7 cm (5-inch) motors . This gives the ASRAAM significantly more thrust and therefore increased speed and range up to 50 km.
The main improvement is a new 128×128 resolution imaging infrared focal plane array (FPA) seeker manufactured by Hughes before they were acquired by Raytheon. This seeker has a long acquisition range, high countermeasures resistance, approximately 90-degree off-boresight lock-on capability, and the possibility to designate specific parts of the targeted aircraft (like cockpit, engines, etc.).
The ASRAAM also has a LOAL (Lock-On After Launch) ability which is a distinct advantage when the missile is carried in an internal bay such as in the F-35 Lightning II. The ASRAAM warhead is triggered either by laser proximity fuse or impact. A laser proximity fuse was selected because RF fuses are vulnerable to EW intervention from enemy jammers. The increased diameter of ASRAAM also provides space for increased computing power, and so improved counter counter-measure capabilities compared with other dogfighting missiles such as AIM-9X.
The Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile, also known by its United States identifier AIM-132, is an imaging infrared homing (“heat seeking”) air-to-air missile, produced by MBDA UK, that is designed to fill the within visual range combat mission. It is currently in service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), replacing the AIM-9 Sidewinder.
MICA NG air-to-air missiles for French Rafale aircraft
French defence procurement agency Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) awarded a contract to MBDA to support its Missile d’Interception et de Combat Aérien Nouvelle Génération (MICA NG) programme. Designed to equip the current and future variants of the Rafale combat aircraft, the weapon system will replace the MICA missiles that have been in operational service with the French Armed Forces since the early 2000s. Under its MICA NG programme, the DGA will carry out an extensive redesign of the current MICA missile family while maintaining the same aerodynamics, mass, and centre of gravity.
The MICA NG, a new infrared seeker based on a matrix sensor will provide increased sensitivity, a new radio frequency seeker with an active electronically scanned antenna (AESA) will allow for smart detection strategies. The VL MICA NG system is based on the integration into the existing VL MICA system of the MICA NG (New Generation) anti-air missile, which began development in 2018 primarily to equip France’s Rafale combat aircraft.
The air-to-air missile system features infrared and radio frequency seekers in a single missile casing, in addition to rail and ejection launch modes. The system will be capable of addressing future threats, which include targets with reduced infrared and electromagnetic signatures, atypical targets such as unmanned aerial vehicles and small aircraft, as well as threats normally countered by air-to-air missiles. Deliveries of the new missiles are slated to commence in 2026, and the pyrotechnic modernisation of the existing MICA fleet will allow the weapons to be used by all French aircraft until 2030
The lower volume of electronic components will enable the MICA NG to carry a larger load of propellant, significantly extending its range, and the new dual-pulse rocket motor will provide additional energy to the missile at the end of its flight, improving its manoeuvrability and its ability to intercept targets at long range. In surface-to-air mode, the MICA NG will be able to intercept targets over 40 km away. The MICA NG missile will be available in series production from 2026.
MBDA CEO Eric Béranger said: “After two years of development on the New Generation MICA missile, we have acquired a deep understanding of the performance of this brand new air-to-air missile which allows us to integrate into VL MICA ground-to-air or surface-to-air defence systems.” The dimensions of the MICA NG munition remain unchanged, allowing it to be integrated into existing VL MICA launchers. The existing missile data link mechanisms are compatible with the increased kinematic performance of the missiles, enabling current VL MICA systems to be upgraded to VL MICA NG standard by simple software updates.
Russia Developing Brand-New Short-Range Air-To-Air Missile
A Russian defense firm claims it is developing a new short-range air-to-air missile called Izdeliye 300M. The weapon, being manufactured by Vympel NPO, is said to be as lethal as the US-made AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. The Moscow-headquartered Vympel NPO is a research and production company that is known for developing air-to-air missiles, both short-range and long-range designs. Started in the Soviet era as an OKB (experimental design bureau), the defense firm is a part of the parent company JSC Tactical Missiles Corporation (KTRV) and produces anti-ballistic missiles and anti-aircraft missile systems.
According to a defense writer, Thomas Newdick, the Izdeliye 300M designation may be new, but it clearly suggests a continuation of an earlier advanced short-range air-to-air missile program known by the name of ‘Izdeliye 300’. The older missile, which was alternatively known as the Vympel K-30, was developed in the 1990s and was intended to succeed the Vympel R-73 missiles. No further details regarding the performance of the new Izdeliye 300M have been released yet by Vympel. However, according to Newdick, the original Izdeliye 300 was expected to have a new imaging infrared seeker.
Interestingly, in the 1990s, China’s AAM inventory consisted of weapons purchased from Russia or direct copies of them and western AAMs like the AIM-9 Sidewinder and Matra Magic. The Leihua Electronic Research Institute (LETRI) and the No. 607 institute’s PiLi 12/PL-12 BVR active homing AAM was the first potential success story for the Chinese home industry, development for which was started in the 1990s. Based on the Russian R-77, the PL-12 was developed specifically to counter the US AIM-120 AMRAAM. The miniaturised AMR-1 active seeker, a copy of the Russian 9B-1348 seeker on the R-77, was developed with help from AGAT Research Institute in Moscow.
In comparison to the AMRAAM, the PL-12 is longer, wider and heavier, with tail mounted control fins having distinctive notch cuttings at their base. The PL-12 has two datalink antennas for mid-course guidance and houses a radio proximity command fuse for the warhead. A variable thrust solid fuel motor offers two levels of power for use during boost phase trajectory, providing a decent no escape zone (NEZ). With development of follow-up versions, improved ECCM is now available. The overall performance of the PL-12 possibly rivals the R-77 (RVV-AE) and AIM-120 C-4.
Ramjet propulsion has been believed to be tested on the PL-12D variant. The PL-12 AAM has been exported under the designation SD-10A with the JF-17 platform. The SD-10B promises a far greater NEZ, better anti-jam capability and possible passive homing ability against Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft. The maximum range of the PL-12 varies between 60 and 90 km.
China’s roadmap of development expanded beyond the PL-12 with the Luoyang PiLi-10/ PL-10, an advanced dogfight weapon developed to counter western missiles like the AIM-132 ASRAAM, IRIS-T, A-Darter and the AIM-9X. Development began at the Luoyang Electro-Optical Centre around 2004-05. The PL-10 features a multi-element imaging infrared (IIR) seeker, laser proximity fuse, a thrust vectoring motor, with an off bore-sight capability of 90 degrees. It has a lock on after launch (LOAL) capability, which gives it beyond the within visual range engagement capability, much like the MBDA ASRAAM and the South African A-Darter.
It is believed to have entered initial production in 2013 equipping all fighter types in the PLAAF, as well as export JF-17 sales. This missile will be effective out to 30-40 km and in terms of performance, may rival similar within visual range (WVR) designs across the world. The LETRI PiLi-15/PL-15 is the most advanced AAM deployed by the PLAAF in recent years. An evolution of the PL-12, the PL-15 has been redesigned with a cropped main and tail control fins with a smaller wingspan to fit into the internal weapon bay of the next generation J-20 and the J-31 fighters.
IAF plans to get the edge on air-to-air strike
India is working on an extended range of the indigenous beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile ‘Astra’ (Sanskrit/Hindi for a launched weapon), which will enable it to strike enemy targets 160 km away, without getting out of its own airspace. The development comes even as work is on to integrate the current 110 km version of the Astra Mk 1 on board the Indian Air Force’s MiG-29 and Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ Mk 1, and the Indian Navy’s MiG-29K aircraft. The Astra Mark 1 is already integrated with the IAF’s Su-30 MKI fighters, and the production process — by state-owned Bharat Dynamics Limited — has begun. In July 2020, the defence ministry formally sanctioned the purchase of 248 Astra missiles, including 48 for the Navy, after a successful September 2019 trial in which it hit a target 90 km away.
To add to its options, the IAF is also in the process of integrating the Israeli I-Derby Extended Range missile on its frontline fighter aircraft, the Su 30 MKI. These missiles along with the already inducted MICA medium range BVR, and the long-range Meteor missiles will form the backbone of India’s air-to-air strike capability. “We have initiated the process to acquire the first batch of the Astra missiles. Since it is indigenous, we will be procuring them in batches,” an IAF officer told ThePrint. During the aerial duel between India and Pakistan on 27 February 2019 last year, the IAF had felt the chinks in its air-to-air armour with the Pakistanis having had the edge in this sphere.
Pakistan’s F16s were armed with the AIM-120 C-5 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile), which has a higher capability than that of the medium range R-77 used by the Su 30 MKI and the MICA used by the Mirages.
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