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USAF Autonomous Swarms of Cruise Missiles (Gray Wolf) to defeat Air Defence system of Russia or China

On Dec. 18, 2017, the Pentagon announced the Air Force had awarded Lockheed Martin a $110 million contract for the Gray Wolf science and technology effort in its daily contract announcements. On Dec. 20, 2017, the notice said the service had made an identical deal with Northrop Grumman. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Munitions Directorate at Eglin Air Force base is in charge of the project.


The aim of Gray Wolf project is to develop swarm of low-cost cruise missiles that could execute networked collaborative operations technologies for defeat of enemy integrated air defense systems.


US military is facing increasingly Anti-access /Area denial environment,  a set of overlapping military capabilities and operations designed to slow the deployment of U.S. forces to a region, reduce the tempo of those forces once there, and deny the freedom of action necessary to achieve military objectives . “A2/AD capabilities enabled by integrated air defense systems that include advanced fighters, advanced surface-to-air missiles, active and passive cuing systems, and directed energy weapons” make many U.S. fixed facilities vulnerable to attack in ways hard to imagine a decade ago, according to Harry Foster from National Defense University.


Current missile defence systems focus on ballistic missiles that thrust high into the earth’s atmosphere and then come down following a predictable parabolic path. However, cruise missiles are propelled by rockets through the duration of the flight enabling it to fly an essentially horizontal flight profile for most of the duration of its flight between launch and its terminal trajectory to impact. This enables the missile to hug the ground, wind through mountains, and even accelerate in the last phase of an attack.


The cruise missiles pose large challenge for missile defense as they are far more difficult to detect and intercept than are ballistic missiles. The biggest problem with detecting cruise missiles remains the need for an elevated platform to observe them. If detecting a single cruise missile is difficult to detect and intercept then a swarms of cruise missiles can definitely defeat even most sophisticated Air Defence system and A2/AD strategies of near-peer adversaries such as Russia or China.


However, there is challenge of cost effectiveness. Cruise missile like Tomahawk that  can fly about 1,000 miles at subsonic speeds (around 550 miles an hour), and its latest version, the Tomahawk Block IV, that can be pre-programmed as well as redirected to a new target in real time and during its flight costs $1.4 million. The Air Force is interested in a weapon system that is low-cost and has a relatively short manufacturing time, even in small quantities.


USAF wants the cruise missiles should have multi mode seekers that should be able to target the enemy in multiple modes, which would make the weapons more flexible and able to hit their mark, even in the face of layered enemy defenses or just bad weather. Again for cost effective solution USAF desires cheaper guidance and sensor systems and “affordable and efficient” engines as specific areas of interest. A low-cost system with a sensor package could turn the cruise missiles into disposable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets or loitering munitions that could wait for the best possible moment to attack.


In addition, the missiles have to be capable of semi-autonomous, networked operation in order to defeat integrated air defense networks. Launching swarms of the weapons together and developing a system that allows them to act in cooperation with each other, potentially exchanging information among themselves on potential threats and other hazards, would make the missiles themselves more survivable, too.


Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM is itself demonstrated highly autonomous capability. “Once the missile flies that far, it has a requirement to be able to independently detect and validate the target that it was shot at. Finding that target, the missile will have to be able to penetrate the air defenses and finally, once it gets to that target, it has to have a lethal capability to make a difference once it gets there.”


USAF now wants to develop highly autonomous Swarms. Swarms of such semi autonomous cruise missiles would be able to find, fix, and communicate precise target location of ground, sea, and air targets; they can serve as weapons platforms to attack air defense systems from multiple axes; or they can pass missile targeting data to any platform carrying a counter air missile.


In addition to the low-cost objective, an efficient engine could translate into more overall range for the weapon without increasing fuel load. Blackhurst stressed that this improved stand-off capability would be important to keep the launch platform safe from defense networks. Non-stealthy aircraft in particular are only becoming increasingly vulnerable to longer-range surface-to-air missiles with cuing from various radars and other sensors.


Advanced threat environments are expected to include enemy forces armed with long-range sensors, electronic warfare, tactics for compromising or jamming GPS signals and a host of additional countermeasures designed to thwart incoming surface and air weapons.


USAF also wants a modular weapon that can readily accept updates and upgrades, as well as different payloads, ranging from conventional explosive warheads to electronic warfare packages. With a modular system, the Air Force could quickly add or reconfigure the missiles with electronic and cyber warfare capabilities or decoys mimicking the signatures of larger aircraft all designed to degrade the air defence system or lure to expend its high cost missile resporces. The electronic attack payload could degrade or damage adversary electronic systems including radars, communications and electronic warfare systems.


USA demonstrated combined application of explosive and electronic warfare capabilities during the opening minutes of Operation Desert Storm (1991) when a joint US Army-Air Force helicopter team penetrated Iraqi IADS. After US Air Force (USAF) helicopters delivered Electronic Attack (EA), blinding Iraqi early warning radars, US Army helicopters (APACHE) subsequently destroyed the radars with kinetic strikes. Resulting gaps in the Iraqi IADS permitted USAF follow-on air strikes on high-value targets deep inside the country.



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