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 second group consists of medium- or long-range missiles (MRAAMs or LRAAMs), which both fall under the category of ‘beyond visual range’ missiles (BVRAAMs).
Meteor offers a multi-shot capability against long range maneuvering targets in a heavy ECM environment. It is also intended to equip Eurofighter. The Meteor is currently operated by Czech Air Force, Royal Air Force, French Air Force, French Navy. Medium-range AAMs are similar to their short-range cousins, but tend to have larger warheads, and have a range of around 50 km or more. This means that they can be fired at targets beyond visual range.
Long-range AAMs are, by necessity, the most advanced in the whole class of air-to-air missiles. Even though both types of missiles are being developed by the leading nations/consortiums in the world, the advent of fifth-generation aircraft with inbuilt design features such as stealth, capability to super-cruise and long-range, highly capable active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, it is the BVR designs which are being pursued more vigorously. The aim is to achieve ‘first-look’, ‘first-shoot’ and ‘firstkill’ capability i.e. to engage and destroy enemy aerial targets even before they sense the presence of own predator aircraft.
With astonishing speed, massive warheads, and tremendous range, they can blow large aircraft out of the sky from over 100 kilometers away. They also use different guidance systems—instead of instantly homing in on targets with infrared, they generally go without guidance to a certain pre-determined point, after which they activate radar homing and chase the target. BVR missiles tend to rely upon some sort of radar guidance, of which there are many forms, modern ones also using inertial guidance and/or ‘mid-course updates’. However, these missiles are difficult to develop and very few have entered operational service.
Since their first deployment in the late 1950s, air to air missile technologies have advanced considerably allowing them to reach targets at longer ranges, with heavier payloads and with greater precision. The speed of air to air missiles has also increased considerably, meaning that while combat jets such as the MiG-25 and SR-71 were all but immune from most air attacks during the Cold War due to their ability to exceed speeds of Mach 3, faster missiles have since been developed which are capable of downing such aircraft with relative ease. While speeds of Mach 4 have today become the norm for high end long range air to air munitions, including the Russian R-77, American AIM-120, Chinese PL-12 and European Meteor, munitions exceeding such speeds are a rarity – much less those capable of attaining hypersonic speeds over Mach 5.
Countries are now developing long range BVR or AAMs missiles today having ranges beyond 200 km. The new fifth generation AAMs are being fielded have many advancements they will significantly expand the ‘no-escape zone’ and increase the range over which air-to-air engagements in future can be fought, enabling pilots to exploit the capabilities of their new aircraft to the full. (The conditions under which a missile cannot be evaded through any combination of maneuvers or acceleration is termed a missile’s no escape zone.)
But China’s latest offering, the PL-15, has a largest range than either. One or two of these air-to-air missiles, can destroy a $150 million aircraft for one or two million dollars. That’s a cost efficient way of trying to level the playing field with the US. Another Chinese air-to-air weapon in development, provisionally known as PL-XX, would strike slow-moving airborne warning and control systems, the flying neural centers of US air warfare, from as far away as 300 miles.
The missile PL-XX, is a very-long-range missile designed to strike enemy aircraft loitering just beyond the edge of an air battle. The point is to shoot down the tankers, airborne early warning planes, and other support aircraft that U.S. combat jets rely upon during wartime. In air-to-air combat, AWACS systems can communicate with friendly aircraft, extend their sensor range and give them added stealth, since they no longer need their own active radar to detect threats.The US E3 AWACS has proved to be a key to victory for the United States in the 1991, 2001, and 2003 campaigns. However long range of PL-XX makes these AWACS vulnerable which may necessitate their operation far away from its range degrading their effectiveness, shifting the air battle in China’s favor.
Without these planes, Stealthy fighter jets would have to fly with their radars constantly on to search for enemies,making them detectable, coordination of the air battle would become more difficult and less efficient, controlled by individual pilots already flying their own combat missions. Deprived of the ability to refuel in midair, targets deep behind enemy lines would become off-limits and fighters would patrol at shorter ranges.
MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile
Meteor is a next generation, active radar-guided, beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) system developed by MBDA Systems for six European nations. The Meteor BVRAAM can be integrated on Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab Gripen and Dassault Rafale aircraft. The Meteor missile can also be installed on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Meteor is 3.65m long, diameter of 0.178m and weighs 185kg, maximum speed is reportedly Mach 4 and operational range is over 100 km. Meteor is a fast and agile missile, with what is claimed to be the largest ‘no-escape zone’ of any air-to-air weapon. Meteor’s stunning performance is achieved through its unique ramjet propulsion system – solid fuel, variable flow, ducted rocket.
The European missile has greater range, and more importantly, remains powered during the final stage of a medium- to long-range engagement. Comparing with the AIM-120, which is powered by a solid rocket, with the Meteor using a ramjet sustainer engine. While the former has a higher top speed — it can briefly surpass Mach 4 — its solid propellant burns out faster that a ramjet’s within about 10 secs, even with a boost-sustain motor configuration. The missile trades altitude for speed and range from that point on. At medium ranges, a traditional solid-propellant missile is already coasting, making it easier for its target to outmaneuver or outrun it.
This ‘ramjet’ motor provides the missile with thrust all the way to target intercept, this gives the ramjet sustainer missile a far greater “no-escape zone” than a traditional solid-propellant missile. (The no-escape zone is the space in front of a launch aircraft within which the target aircraft can be engaged no matter what evasive maneuver it tries.) The Meteor is thought to have fuel to operate for at least 60 seconds and a faster average speed. The Meteor is described as having an operational range greater than 100 kilometers, and a 60-km no-escape zone.
’ Tomaž Vargazon, an aviation expert, explains on Quora. ‘The AIM-120 is a conventional rocket, it contains a bloVargazon continues: ‘The difference is that AIM-120 accelerates very quickly for a very short time, then the acceleration stops and the missile soon trades altitude for range. Accuracy and chance to hit drop significantly beyond about 30–35 miles (~50 kilometers) away from the launcher. Meteor accelerates more slowly and to a lower maximum speed, but it accelerates for over 70 miles (120 kilometers), it’s only at that point when missile runs out of fuel that it begins to lose speed and functions as a guided altillery shell. This makes the Meteor very well suited for longer range attacks, over 40 miles (65 kilometers) or more.
Equipped with enhanced kinematics features, Meteor can be launched as a stealth missile. It is capable of striking different types of targets simultaneously in almost any weather. The Meteor missile is equipped with a blast-fragmentation warhead, supplied by TDW of Germany. The warhead is designed as a structural component of the missile. Equipped with both proximity and impact fuses, it can engage targets ranging from fast-jets to UAVs or cruise missiles, autonomously in all weathers, during day or night, in full electronic countermeasure environments.
It also highlights two other key developments in AAM design – improved kinematic performance and a high degree of network-centric readiness. The Meteor is equipped with a two way datalink, which allows the launch platform to provide updates on targets or re-targeting when the missile is in flight. The datalink is capable of transmitting information such as kinematic status. It also notifies target acquisition by the seeker. They can even be re-targeted by a remotely-located third party enhancing their effectiveness in increasingly networked warfare.
The Meteor is installed with an active radar target seeker, offering high reliability in detection, tracking and classification of targets. The missile also integrates inertial measurement system (IMS) supplied by Litef. The missile has a range in excess of 100km. It is designed for a speed greater than Mach 4. The missile has a large no escape zone.
Longer term, the seeker may benefit from Japanese technology they have incorporated on the AAM-4B, specifically, the active electronically scanned array (AESA) system. The UK and Japan announced in 2014 their intent to collaborate on the Joint New Air-to-Air Missile (JNAAM). An AESA seeker would allow the missile to go active sooner in its engagement allowing the launch aircraft to stop transmitting.
China’s military inducted very long range air-to-air missile (400 kms)
In November 2016, a Chinese J-16 strike fighter test-fired a gigantic hypersonic missile, successfully destroying the target drone at a very long range. Reports estimate the missile at about 19 feet, and roughly 13 inches in diameter. The missile appears to have four tailfins. Reports are that the size would put into the category of a very long range air to air missile (VLRAAM) with ranges exceeding 300 km (roughly 186 miles), likely max out between 250 and 310 miles. (As a point of comparison, the smaller 13.8-foot, 15-inch-diameter Russian R-37 missile has a 249-mile range). Chinese fighter jets currently use the PL-11 and PL-12 missiles to attack long-distance targets, but their maximum ranges are shorter than 100 kilometers.
This is a big deal: this missile would easily outrange any American (or other NATO) air-to-air missile. Additionally, the VLRAAM’s powerful rocket engine will push it to Mach 6 speeds, which will increase the no escape zone (NEZ) that is the area where a target cannot outrun the missile, against even supersonic targets like stealth fighters.
Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer estimate in Popular Science at about 19 feet, and roughly 13 inches in diameter. The missile appears to have four tailfins. Reports are that the size would put into the category of a very long range air to air missile (VLRAAM) with ranges exceeding 300 km (roughly 186 miles), likely max out between 250 and 310 miles.(As a point of comparison, the smaller 13.8-foot, 15-inch-diameter Russian R-37 missile has a 249-mile range).
“Additionally, the VLRAAM’s powerful rocket engine will push it to Mach 6 speeds, which will increase the no escape zone (NEZ), that is the area where a target cannot outrun the missile, against even supersonic targets like stealth fighters,” write Jeffrey and Singer.
Fu Qianshao, an equipment researcher with the PLA Air Force, said that he believes China has developed a new missile that can hit high-value targets such as early-warning planes and aerial refueling aircraft, which stay far from conflict zones. Most air-to-air missiles in service around the world have a maximum range of around 100 km, while a handful of new types propelled by ramjets can reach 200 km, he said. However, all of them are unsuitable for combating early-warning planes because of their short ranges.
Moreover, he added, long-range ground-to-air missiles are restricted by their fixed deployment when dealing with planes far away. “The best solution to this problem I can figure out is to send a super-maneuverable fighter jet with very-long-range missiles to destroy those high-value targets, which are ‘eyes’ of enemy jets,” Fu said.
“So the successful development of this potential new missile would be a major breakthrough in the Air Force’s weapons upgrade,” the paper quoted Fu as saying. He said the missile could have a maximum range of 400 km, farther than any air-to-air missiles used by Western air forces.
Another key feature: its large active electronically scanned (AESA) radar, which is used in the terminal phase of flight to lock onto the target. The AESA radar’s large size—about 300-400% larger than that of most long range air-to-air missiles—and digital adaptability makes it highly effective against distant and stealthy targets, and resilient against electronic countermeasures like jamming and spoofing.
The VLRAAM’s backup sensor is a infrared/electro-optical seeker that can identify and hone in on high-value targets like aerial tankers and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) radar aircraft. The VLRAAM also uses lateral thrusters built into the rear for improving its terminal phase maneuverability when engaging agile targets like fighters.
Another researched VLRAAM function is datalinking; the papers called for the VLRAAM to be embedded within a highly integrated combat networks. It is envisioned as just part of a larger wave of networked solutions aggregated through multiple Chinese systems.
For example, a J-20 stealth fighter wouldn’t mount the missile (the VLRAAM is too large to fit in the J-20’s weapons bay), but could use its low observable features to fly relatively close in order to detect enemy assets like AEW&C aircraft (which are vital to gather battlespace data for manned and unmanned assets, but subsonic in speed and less able to evade missiles). Then before breaking off contact, the J-20 would signal a J-16 400 km (249 miles) away (outside the range of most air to air missiles) providing it the data needed to launch the VLRAAM at the target. This would offer China a longer range version of present U.S. tactics that involve using the fifth generation F-22 as a sensor for 4th generation fighters as the “shooters.”
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.
In 2022, Air Force officials plan to introduce a replacement for Raytheon’s AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, which for nearly three decades represented the West’s benchmark for active-radar-guided missile performance. The replacement — Lockheed Martin’s AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile — has quietly been the service’s top development priority in the air-to-air sphere.
The AIM-260 is the USAF’s priority AAM development, prompted at least in part by China’s increasingly capable AAM inventory. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s latest AAM to enter service, the PL-15, joined the inventory in 2018 and has a greater range than the AIM-120 family. Potential threat missiles like the R-73m are part of why the AIM-260 is being developed in the first place. Compared to the latest/greatest AMRAAM’s range of 86 nautical miles, the AIM-260 is supposed to have a range of over 100 nmi. That’s basically the same range as the Russian R-37m missile. The comparable Chinese PL-15 missile is actually slightly longer legged than both, with published range of closer to 135 nautical miles.
Test flights of the new AIM-260 missile are scheduled to begin in 2021, with the missile achieving IOC (Initial Operational Capabilities) in 2022, and eventually completely replacing the AMRAAM by 2026. Initial launch platforms will the the F-22A Raptor, and the F/A-18E and F Super Hornet, with the F-35 following suit shortly thereafter. Eventually F-15 and F-16s would gain launch capabilities, depending on how fast the F-35A phases those older planes out in the coming years.
Raytheon to begin production of upgraded AMRAAM missile
US Air Force has awarded a half-billion-dollar contract to Raytheon for long range air-to-air missile, capable of hitting enemy planes from 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. The new variant combines the standard AMRAAM missile – a fixture in the arsenal of 37 militaries – with a bigger rocket motor. The integration means that the AMRAAM-ER missile, when used in a surface-to-air configuration, has a dramatically longer reach.
Raytheon has completed wind tunnel testing on the new extended-range (ER) variant of the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM). Completion of the wind tunnel testing marks a huge step forward for the missile’s qualification for integration with the national advanced surface-to-air missile system (NASAMS) launcher.
The Air Force and Navy AMRAAM is one of the nation’s most sophisticated radar-guided, air-to-air missiles, and one of the world’s most advanced all-weather, all-environment, medium-range, air-to-air missiles for engaging enemy aircraft and missiles from beyond visual ranges.
AMRAAM is an active radar-guided intercept missile with inherent electronic protection capabilities for air-to-air applications against massed penetration aircraft. AMRAAM has been in service since 1991, and was designed to replace the AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missile. Raytheon won a $573 million order in March 2016 for AMRAAM lot 30 production. Each AMRAAM lot roughly consists of 400 to 500 missiles.
Featuring ‘bigger’ rocket motor and smarter flight control algorithms, the AMRAAM-ER missile is designed to intercept targets at longer distances and higher altitudes. The new weapon’s maximum range is 50 percent longer than the standard version, and its maximum altitude is 70 percent higher, thanks to enhancements including an enlarged rocket motor.
India’s Astra (110 km), and American AIM-120 AMRAAM (180 km) are the state of art new missiles.
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.
Hypersonic Air to Air missiles
Hypersonic air to air missiles are today widely deployed by only two operators, Russia and Taiwan. The Russian Air Force deploys these munitions for an ‘AWACS hunter’ role to engage heavy enemy support aircraft such as tankers, Airborne Warning and Control Systems and heavy bomber at extreme ranges.
While Russia previously fielded the K-100, with a 400km range capable of speeds of Mach 3.3, and the more precise but shorter ranged R-33 capable of striking targets 300km away at Mach 4, the newer R-37 combines an impressive 400km engagement range with speeds of Mach 6. The missile was initially deployed by Russian MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors, with the specialised R-37M variant later developed for the Su-35 and Su-57 next generation fighters. The R-37M replaced the original’s semi active seeker with a variant of the Agat 9B-1388 active seeker, to allow the missiles to operate against targets at extreme ranges without guidance from the Foxhound’s powerful Phazotron Zaslon passive electronically scanned array radar.
Russia is set to add a hypersonic missile to its arsenal which can hit targets almost 200 miles away, Moscow’s official media outlet has reported. The R-37M missile, which is designed to target enemy aircraft and can travel at Mach 6 – more than 4,500mph – is an upgrade on a Soviet-era weapon first launched in 1985. The latest missile, which will be fired from Russia’s planned SU-57 stealth jets, is said to be equipped with an active-seeker homing system to blast enemy planes out of the sky.The new air-to-air missile is intended to target enemy fighter jets as well as Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes such as those deployed by the U.S., according to the Kremlin’s propaganda channel Russia Today.
The second widely deployed hypersonic air to air missile, also capable of speeds of Mach 6, is the TC-2C variant of the Taiwanese Sky Sword II – approximately 50% faster than the AIM-120C missiles deployed by the country’s U.S. built F-16 fighters. Unlike the R-37, the missile is not primarily intended as an ‘AWACS hunter’ to engage enemy support aircraft at extreme ranges – but rather is intended to counter fighters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
A third missile which is scheduled to enter service in the near future is the Chinese PL-XX, also known as the PL-21, which retains a similar role to the Russian R-37 and is to be deployed by the country’s J-16 strike fighters. The platform’s similarity in both its role and its expected specifications to the R-37M, both of which appear to have been developed in parallel, has led to considerable speculation that Russia and China are cooperating on this weapons program – which would strengthen both states’ ability to threaten vital support aircraft deployed by their common adversaries. The missile retains an approximate range of 400km, and is expected to be able too strike targets at speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 6. Unlike the Sky Sword II, this missile is reportedly not intended for deployment against fighter sized targets but instead as another ‘AWACS hunter.’ The ability to engage aircraft at hypersonic speeds not only increases the range and fuel efficiency of a missile, but it also reduces the target’s warning time and increases the ‘no escape range’ which is valuable against both fighters and support aircraft.