Can U.S. air-to-air missiles stand up to modern enemy electronic warfare?

A recent order for advanced radar- spoofing electronic warfare (EW) equipment got me thinking: How effective are the U.S. military's most advanced radar-guided, air-to-air missiles at defeating enemy efforts to confuse them with electronic jamming? The answer appears to be not so well.

May 18th, 2016
John Keller

A recent order for advanced radar- spoofing electronic warfare (EW) equipment got me thinking: How effective are the U.S. military's most advanced radar-guided, air-to-air missiles at defeating enemy efforts to confuse them with electronic jamming? The answer appears to be not so well.

For years, if not decades, U.S. military forces largely have neglected developing not only advanced EW technologies, but also air-to-air missile technologies designed to operate through and defeat the most proficient enemy EW equipment. Today's most advanced U.S. long-range radar-guided, air-to-air missile, the AIM-120 AMRAAM, for example, has been in the inventory for a quarter century, and no longer is considered the world's leading long-range airborne anti-aircraft missile.

The best and most advanced air-to-air missile is a matter of conjecture, with the European Meteor missile, Russian K-37M, and Chinese PL-15 considered the top candidates. The U.S. AMRAAM rarely is mentioned in company with these missiles. U.S. combat aircraft do have a world-leading air-to-air missile, the AIM-9X, but it's an infrared-guided missile intended for dogfighting at relatively short ranges.

Where long-range, radar-guided missiles are concerned, the Meteor, K-37M, and PL-15 beat the AMRAAM in effective range and their ability to defeat the world's best EW technologies, such as the Mercury Systems digital radio frequency memories (DRFM) radar-spoofing jammer.

This dismal picture wasn't always so for U.S. military combat pilots. One of the most capable air-to-air missiles of its day, the vintage Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix, had a range of 100 nautical miles and a speed of Mach 5 - longer range and faster speed than the AMRAAM. Unfortunately the Navy's Grumman F-14 Tomcat carrier-based jet fighter was the only aircraft capable of launching Phoenix; the plane was designed primarily as a Phoenix launcher, although the plane also could launch AMRAAM and the AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-guided missile.

The F-14 and its Phoenix missiles were operational with the Navy from 1974 to 2006. The last Tomcat was retired from active service on 22 Sept. 2006, and with it went the Phoenix. Nothing else since has had similar air-to-air capability. With the Phoenix missile's retirement and the aging AMRAAM, the Air Force and Navy reportedly put a top priority on developing a next-generation, long-range, air-to-air missile. Even with backing in the Pentagon, however, such a new capability likely would be years away.

Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, chief of the Air Combat Command, calls developing a next-generation air-to-air missile "an exceptionally high priority" for the service. Where the money will come from for such a project remains unclear.

There is a pervasive sense of urgency in the Air Force and Navy to develop a next-generation, long-range, air-to-air missile because the AMRAAM reportedly is no longer a guaranteed first-shot kill when confronting enemy aircraft with advanced EW systems. Instead, some experts say fighter pilots must use as many as three AMRAAMs to bring down an enemy aircraft - even when fired from new military planes like the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter and the F-22 Raptor advanced tactical fighter.

It's ironic that the U.S. military plans to spend literally trillions of dollars developing the F-35, and then send this new combat aircraft into battle with the decades-old AMRAAM that can't stand up to its international competition. These developments underscore the dire need for the U.S. military to get itself back up to speed in air-to-air missile and electronic warfare capabilities.

With tight Pentagon budgets into the foreseeable future, will efforts be enough, or is it already too late?

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