Monday, May 21, 2012

Replacing ALARM; fighting in hostile skies

The ALARM missile, national solution to the RAF requirement for the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD), is arguably by far the most advanced Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM) on the market, able as it is to loiter over an area to strike at enemy radars as soon as they turn on, and has the especially good feature of being relatively small and light, allowing carriage of numerous missiles on a single plane. On a Tornado GR4, ALARM missiles can be carried as self defence weapons, along with other weapon payloads, to help the jet make its way through the enemy defences to its target.

The Tornado can carry a huge amount of ALARM rounds, making for a very capable SEAD asset

With the ALARM missiles under the wings and 12 Brimstones under the fuselage, this Tornado is ready to self-escort itself against enemy air defence networks while it goes tank-hunting. A Meteor-based solution would enable this useful capability to stay with the Typhoon and F35.

Even the Tornado F3, in its last years of service, could employ the ALARM. The Sea Harrier also was capable to employ the missile, which was never cleared, curiously, on the RAF Harriers instead. Once, Typhoon was expected to carry at least 6 ALARMs, from 2013. The plan has been abandoned. 

The ALARM's best feature is that it does not require a dedicate SEAD airplane to be employed, differently from the US HARM, which requires a variety of specialized radar-locating ESM to be fitted to the launching platforms: so, while the RAF can notionally put ALARM missiles on any Tornado GR4 (and, from 2003 to their retirement in 2011, on Tornado F3 as well), air forces using the HARM have to use specialized, purpose-built/kitted airplanes for the SEAD role. This is true for Germany and Italy (Tornado ECR variant) and for the US as well.

The old generation HARM is also quite easily countered by turning down the targeted radar, leaving the missile without guidance. With the ALARM, this is not possible, as the missile can still navigate its way to the target, or anyway go into loitering mode, climbing at high altitude and dangling from a parachute, forcing the enemy to either keep the radar turned off, letting the strike jets pass, or turn on the radar and be destroyed.

The ALARM, however, is approaching the end of its service life. Although unconfirmed, a 2013 out of service date has appeared on some documents, and the requirement for integration of the missile on Typhoon has been dropped.
The HARM is even more out of date, and less and less effective, but the USAF's attempts of producing a replacement in the form of a multi-role missile capable to replace at once the AMRAAM and HARM have so far been unsuccessful, with the latest in a series of development effort being killed off by the 2012 budget cuts at the DoD.

The HARM uses speed as its main instrument for success, being meant to hit the radar quickly after it is located, rushing against it at high supersonic speed, but its inability to pursue radars that are shut down after its launch have limited its combat effectiveness already in the 90s, making it less and less convincing and reliable a solution to the SEAD problem.
Differently from the USAF, which is willing to wait on an HARM replacement in order to develop a super multi-role future missile, the US Navy and USMC have chosen a quicker, simpler path to walk. Since 2003, the US Navy is funding the development and acquisition of an improved HARM, the AGM88E AARGM (Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile) which is meant to counter radar-shutdown techniques and introduce other improvements. The missile is fitted with a passive radar seeker, which locks onto the enemy radar emissions; a GPS navigation system capable to keep in memory the position of the enemy radiation source, and an active, millimeter-wave radar seeker (similar to that used by the Longbow Hellfire and Brimstone missiles) to detect, identify and track the radar and SAM launchers for striking them with accuracy even if the emissions are terminated.

In 2005 the AARGM also gained the funding and participation of the Italian armed forces, which use HARM missiles on the Tornado ECR SEAD airplanes of the 155° Squadron, 50° Wing, based in San Damiano, near Piacenza. The AARGM is thus going to be employed on airplanes such as the Growler, the Prowler and, by Italy, on the Tornado ECR and, possibly in the future, on Typhoon. Germany is a possible future user of the AARGM as well, depending on what they decide to do with their own SEAD squadron on Tornado ECR, or with their Typhoons. Use on the F35B (external carriage) is also a distinct possibility, since the US Marines will not have a replacement for their Prowlers, and won't field any Growler. The F35B is all they are going to have.
The missile could also go on the USAF F16 Wild Weasels (the SEAD specialists) and on F/A-18s and other platforms.
The american AGM-88 HARM (A, B, C) and AGM-88E AARGM family is the current american SEAD kinetic effector

Italy's participation in the AARGM followed the failure of an european, German-led initiative for the development of a new generation ARG missile. The program died for lack of funding, unfortunately, but between the late 90s and early 00s, the initiative generated the ARMIGER (Anti-Radiation Missile with Intelligent Guidance and Extended Range). The AARGM was seen as a low cost, low risk alternative, as most of the missile (propulsion, warhead) is just carried through from existing HARM of the AGM88B and C variants already in use.
The ARMIGER was a new missile, faster and with longer range thanks to the adoption of RamJet propulsion (as on the Meteor, to which the ARMIGER bores some resemblance). It was to use a double seeker with a passive radar sensor and an Infrared Imaging one for terminal guidance. It gained the interest of the RAF, of Italy and even of France, but ultimately went nowhere. 

Two images of the abandoned ARMIGER: the resemblance with the Meteor is quite evident. The Meteor however only has two Ram Jet air ducts, on its underside, in order to fit into the Typhoon's under-fuselage recesses. Note the windows of the Imaging Infra Red seeker, coupled to a passive radar receiver. Speed was to be superior to Mach 3 over a range greater than 100 km. Both performances should be even bested by a Meteor-derived solution: the warhead might need changes, though, in order to engage radar antennas and vehicle-mounted SAM systems efficiently.

In 2001, however, the new idea was to take the ARMIGER double seeker, and fit it to the Meteor air to air missile body, creating an ARM with the same size factors of the new air to air missile. This would mean dramatic advantages, opening up many more options for carriage, including the under-fuselage recesses of the Typhoon and the weapon bays of the F35.
Targeting would require a couple of Typhoons flying together and sharing their sensor-generated picture to triangulate the source of enemy radiations. The missile would work like the AARGM, but be totally passive (undetectable to ESM) thanks to its terminal guidance being based on an Infrared seeker instead of a radar one.

The Meteor should finally enter service around 2015, after several delays. France has ordered 200, the UK an undisclosed amount, Sweden and Italy and Germany should also buy several hundred missiles. Export potential is very good and several potential customers are said to have asked MBDA about the missile already. Even the US Navy was, and potentially still is, interested.

Unfortunately, even this approach seems not to have proceeded much further, with no funding being provided in the latest years, even though the US themselves became interested in the effort, in particular the US Navy. Boeing was tasked with studying the feasibility of a ARM Meteor, and studies were completed, apparently with success. Back then, the Meteor was faced with a double, huge opportunity: being selected by the US Navy as a Phoenix long-range AAM replacement, and as new ARM.
However, no one in Europe committed funding for the ARM development, and the craving of the US Navy for a new Phoenix eventually went a bit cold as time moved on, even though it is not entirely vanished even now.

The lack of decision and courage on the multi-role Meteor is a really sad one. The US Navy eventually started the AARGM effort, while continuing to make tests for a new, much faster missile as a long-term replacement.
Then, in 2005, there was another twitch of life for the Meteor ARM, when Italy joined the AARGM effort but, looking at the future, required, as part of the negotiations over the program, to study the feasibility of putting the AARGM seeker onto the Meteor.
Despite the AARGM being 250 mm in diameter, against 180 for the Meteor, the seeker system was small enough to make the migration feasible. As of 2011, this development path was still talked of, and in theory it is an alive concept, but progress is unheard of, since no one is exactly committing to the system, and the only real hope at the moment is represented by the US Navy eventually deciding to aim strongly for the Meteor, perhaps with the ambition of bringing in service also the basic air-to-air variant, as Phoenix replacement and, long term, possibly as AMRAAM successor (NOTE: while the USAF is studying and testing options for long term AMRAAM replacement as seen earlier, the US Navy is not at the moment planning an AMRAAM replacement of its own, counting to use its AIM-120 stocks for many more years).

A game-changing development could be the commitment of the RAF to this relatively low-risk solution. It is possible (albeit of course far from certain) that the decision of the UK to develop the Meteor ARM would be the stimulus needed for partners such as Germany and Italy or even the US Navy to "get on with it", as the requirement definitely exists, but no one seems to want to go at it alone, fearing the costs of such an enterprise.
A Meteor-based ARM would be compatible with internal carriage in the F35's bays, and readily available for use from the 6 Typhoon stations cleared for Meteor. It could represent a huge export win, if the F35 sells a lot (as expected) in the next 30 years, just because it would be the only compatible ARM.
It would not have the loitering mode of the ALARM, but thanks to its radar or IIR terminal guidance it would not need it, as it would be able to see the radar, recognize it, and hit it even if it is turned off.
It would be possibly twice as fast as HARM (Meteor is a Mach 4 missile) and it could well offer a massively increased range (the Meteor is an unique AAM because its RamJet engine burns for the whole length of the attack sequence. AMRAAM's rocket, instead, burns very quickly, accelerating the missile to Mach 4 and then turning off, letting the missile fly forwards only on the accumulated kinetic energy. Having propulsion all the time, the Meteor offers a much greater range, and a much greater "no escape" zone as it can maneuver a lot more without losing speed and kinetic energy, differently from AMRAAM. Attacking a static or semi-static target such as a ground based radar, even truck or tank-mounted, does not require much in terms of maneuvers, and would allow the missile to glide at high speed for many more miles after the engine dies off for lack of fuel, extending the range probably by a huge margin).

It could be possible to develop a multi-role Meteor, with appropriate funding [a missile meeting the USAF specifics of "Triple Target Terminator" by combining active and passive radar seeker allowing it to work as air-to-air missile, Anti-Radiation Missile and ground-attack missile for the destruction of time-sensitive targets] but this might be too ambitious and expensive, at least in the short term.
Developing an ARM variant of the Meteor, to add to the air-to-air one, on the other end, seems a relatively straightforward job, with at least two Seekers up to the job and pretty much ready for adoption.

If there's a weapon program i'd like to see added to the "Complex Weapons" initiative list of to-do, it is the Meteor ARM.

Electronic War: no need to Growl  

It has been noted, rightfully so, that in Europe there's no one at the moment with adequate strategic electronic war capabilities. In Libya last year the only way for NATO to have a wall of electronic disturbs to hide behind was to have US Navy Growlers or Prowlers leading the way to the targets.

Electronic War is important in today's technological battlefield, and it is likely to be even more relevant in tomorrow's one. Accordingly, the US Navy is acquiring a consistent number of Growler airplanes specialized in EW. They are acquiring over one hundred, to form 10 squadrons, each with 5 airplanes, to assign to each of the Aircraft Carrier Air Wings. 4 more "Expeditionary" squadrons add to the force for supporting enduring operations and land operations, helping the USAF fill the hole left by the termination of the B52 standoff jammer system. The 14 squadrons are supported by a 12-airplane Fleet Replacement Squadron training the personnel for service. 

The EA-18G Growler is the latest incarnation of the Hornet family. It is a world-beating Electronic Warfare platform, but it is currently limited by its ALQ-99 EW system, which is aging, eats a lot of power, and takes away a lot of space.

The Growler is a powerful war machine of the modern times. It combines EW and kinetic weaponry on a capable F/A-18 airframe. It goes into battle normally loaded with the pods of the EW system plus a couple of HARM/AARGM missiles for the physical destruction of radars, and a couple of AMRAAM missiles for self defence. It is the replacement for the old Prowlers.    

The USMC has its own 4 Electronic War squadrons, equipped with Prowler, but they have no plan of putting in service any Growler. Their program is to keep the Prowler going in the short term, sustaining their fleet with the airplanes that the US Navy replaces with Growlers, and then provide EW from the F35B and from a drone yet to be selected.
It is expected that the USMC Prowler squadrons will begin to disband, one per year, from 2016 to 2019/2020.
The replacement is intended to be in the form of F35Bs carrying Next Generation Jammer pods. The NGJ is a replacement program for the ALQ-99 EW system used on the Growler, and its integration on the F35 is especially relevant for the USMC.
For the UK, the Next Generation Jammer represents a big chance of expanding its capabilities at relatively low cost and complication. There's no need to have the EA-18 Growler to obtain world-class capacity to blind the enemy sensors and silence their communications, once the development of NGJ and its fielding on JSF are on the way. Unfortunately, there is no date at the moment for F35 integration, but the USMC's need for a Prowler replacement and the unwillingness to renounce to the advantages of a jet fleet on sole F35s should ensure that the program progresses at some point in the next few years.   


  1. Gabriele thats a very good article. Your right the US really dominates this field of Electronic warfare and like AWAC and ISTAR they use it to great effect and it massively multiplies the effectiveness of their forces. Though its nice to see that Europe may be offering a bit of competition.

    If Europe ever wish's to have the ability of power projection they do need to improve in these areas. Personally i prefer the idea of a specialised version of a plane for the role (such as the EA-18) and would love to see some typhoons or f-35s modified specifically for this role.

  2. I'm very glad you liked the article.

    There is some early speculation and concept works for an "EA-35" which could even be twin-seat.
    Israel is very interested in a two-seat F35 for the future, especially if it comes as a big electronic warfare platform.

    The US are also going to face questions for the future if, after spending so much on stealth, they send stealthy planes into mission escorted by legacy, not-at-all-stealth-and-not-supercruising EA-18Gs...

    We'll see how things develop.

  3. I would agree that the US navy would love to have an "EA-35" but they are already trying to get so much from one airframe it seems hard to see how they will achieve this, without extensive costs. As it is likely that further increases in cost of the f-35 project and a large budget deficit after the general election will make the armed forces one of the favourites for cuts and without any current-real life need for the "EA-35" and the huge amount already spent on the project i can see there being reluctance to create this capacity.

    I think they will hope the AESA radar will be able to cope and they can retire the EA-18's.

    "not-at-all-stealth-and-not-supercruising EA-18Gs... "

    The f-35s aren't completely stealthy themselves from what i have heard and with Russia and China trying to counter "stealth" i do at times wonder how invisible to radar they will be. As for super-cruise, there is no WAY the F-35's will have this ability.


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