Can U.S. air-to-air missiles hit their targets through today's enemy electronic warfare (EW)?
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY, 12 April 2016. A new order for advanced radar-spoofing electronic warfare (EW) equipment got me thinking: how well do U.S. air-to-air missiles fare against the world's most advanced EW countermeasures? 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.
The 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, the Russian K-37M, and the Chinese PL-15 considered the leading candidates. the U.S. AMRAAM rarely is mentioned in the company of 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 use at relatively short ranges.
Where the long-range radar-guided missiles are concerned, the Meteor, K-37M, and PL-15 reportedly beat the AMRAAM in effective range, and in their ability to defeat the world's most advanced EW technologies, like the Mercury Digital Radio Frequency Memories (DRFM) radar-spoofing jammer.
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It wasn't always so for U.S. military combat pilots. One of the most capable air-to-air missiles of its day, the 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 retirement of the Phoenix missile, and with the ageing of the AMRAAM, the Air Force and Navy reportedly consider developing a next-generation long-range air-to-air missile to be a top priority, but such a new capability likely is years away.
Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, chief of the Air Combat Command, has called 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, however, 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.
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. The big question is, with tight Pentagon budgets long into the foreseeable future, will efforts be enough, or is it already too late?