Navy Orders Development Of New Air Defense Blasting Missile That Will Fit Inside F-35

Since 2015, the US Navy has been finalizing requirements for a weapon to make sure its jets can break into increasingly heavily defended areas.

ATK

The U.S. Navy has hired Orbital ATK, now part of Northrop Grumman, to begin formal development of a new missile that can suppress and destroy enemy air defense emitters, known as the the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile-Extended Range, or AARGM-ER. The new weapon will give the service’s carrier air wings more freedom to operate in areas full of integrated defense networks and will be an essential capability for its future F-35C Joint Strike Fighters, as well as one that will almost certainly find its way onto the USAF's F-35A fleet, and even on other platforms.

OrbitalATK announced it had secured the deal, without disclosing the value of the contract, in a press release on Jan. 24, 2018. The Navy describes the weapon as an update of the existing AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM) and asked for more than $180 million for the “modification” program in its budget request for the 2018 fiscal year. The service has been actively working on developing requirements for the follow-on AARGM-ER since at least 2015.

Orbital ATK

“This contract is a major step in Orbital ATK’s ongoing commitment to advancing AARGM’s counter-air defense capability for the U.S. Navy,” Cary Ralston, Vice President and General Manager of the Defense Electronic Systems division of Orbital ATK’s Defense Systems Group said in the press release. “We are committed to increasing the effectiveness of the warfighter to suppress and destroy enemy air defense threats while remaining safe.”

As such, the Virginia-headquartered defense contractor has actually crafted a new weapon that, while leveraging a significant amount of the internal components from the existing AGM-88E, and packages them in an all-new shell. The Navy’s requirements for more range, increased resistance to enemy countermeasures, and the ability to fit inside the limited space in the F-35C’s weapons bay, necessitated an almost entirely revised external configuration.

Orbital ATK

A breakdown of the basic components of Orbital ATK's AARGM-ER design.

The Navy's exact range and speed requirements are understandably classified. According to publicly available information, the existing AGM-88E can hit targets more than 80 miles away and reach speeds of more than twice the speed of sound in a final sprint.

The new missile will need to have ability to hit targets further away in order to keep a non-stealthy launching aircraft safe from enemy defenses. Though the Navy’s goal is to combine the weapon with its Joint Strike Fighters, it immediate plan is to reach initial operational capability with the weapon sometime between 2022 and 2023 using its existing carrier-based F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter bombers and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. These two aircraft are the service’s primary launch platforms for the AGM-88E and the Navy only plans to reach initial operational capability with the F-35C in 2019. 

Orbital ATK

The basic configuration of the AGM-88E AARGM.

At the same time, though, America’s fourth generation aircraft, especially those tasked with suppression of enemy air defenses mission, or SEAD, have become increasingly vulnerable as potential opponents, especially near-peer powers such as Russia and China, have worked to develop improved radars and other sensors linked to long-range surface-to-air missiles. Less capable hostile states, such as Iran and North Korea, are also steadily improving their defensive networks.

Orbital ATK says the AARGM-ER will have an all new propulsion system in order to meet the Navy’s range requirement, but it’s not clear what type of powerplant it might use. In 2015, the Navy had reportedly decided to focus on a dual-pulse rocket engine over a ramjet to provide additional range,, which will give the missile between 20-50 percent greater range than its AGM-88E predecessor. A longer sustained thrust capability would also make this new anti-radiation missile more survivable and would substantially increase its probability of a kill.

These new features will have to fit within a shape that is defined by the F-35’s internal weapons bays. This existing AGM-88E is too long and its fins make it too wide for the Joint Strike Fighter to carry while in its most stealthy configuration.

Dispensing with the existing control surfaces and mid-body wings, the AARGM-ER will feature a new tail for flight control and strakes along the side for stability and enhanced range. The streamlined design gives the missile a more aerodynamic profile, hopefully further improving its speed and range.

Orbital ATK

A mockup of the AARGM-ER in one of the weapons bays on an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Orbital ATK says the arrangement will make the weapon more maneuverable and therefore less likely to be susceptible to anti-missile interceptors and other short-range air defenses. Moving the control section to the rear of a missile is an established way to enhance its maneuverability. In addition, it will have a thermal sleeve to further limit the enemy’s ability to detect and target the missile, but there is no word yet about improved resistance to electronic warfare systems.

Otherwise, as it stands now, the AARGM-ER will have the same guidance section and warhead as the AGM-88E. As such, the new missile will have the same capability to home in on enemy radars and other emitters, key components of integrated air defense networks. The guidance system also has other targeting modes using either a combination of inertial navigation and GPS or millimeter wave radar.

This multi-mode guidance makes the missile more precise and means it has the ability to find and hit its target even if the crew tries to hide by shutting off their equipment or, if the system is mobile, makes a dash for cover. According to Orbital ATK, this gives the existing AARGMs and future AARGM-ERs a secondary time-sensitive strike capability against fleeting targets even if they’re not emitting a signal of some sort.

The present AGM-88E’s guidance suite is networked, too. This allows the launching aircraft to fire the weapon without having to acquire the target’s emissions first, or potentially at all. The missile can detect and categorize targets autonomously or it could get that information from another source as it speeds toward the general area. The system is supposed to be able to send data back to the launching aircraft confirming its final attack status, too.

With so much proven, in-production technology at its core, the new missiles are likely to be a much more cost effective option over an entirely clean sheet design, no matter how different the weapon’s body is from existing AGM-88s. It could also simplify logistics and training requirements, since some portion of the maintenance and operational procedures will likely remain the same. 

It is very likely that Orbital ATK will look to design the weapon with an eye toward easily adding upgraded capabilities, both in terms of hardware and software, in the future. The AGM-88E itself was just new guidance and control systems mated to the existing AGM-88B/C design, which emanates from the AGM-45 which was operational in the mid 1960s. 

With its known features, the AARGM-ER will give the Navy’s carrier air wings an important means of breaking into denied areas full of rapidly evolving enemy air defenses. Combined with the F-35C, it will be an even more effective combination and will open up the Joint Strike Fighter to a whole new level of suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), also known as "Wild Weasel," capabilities—a mission set that has always been among the stealth fighter's most exciting possibilities.  

USN

An EA-18G Growler carrying an AGM-88E.

Able to carry a pair of the new missiles while remaining in their most stealthy configuration, the Joint Strike Fighters could help rapidly clear a path for follow-on strikes by Super Hornets or other older fourth generation aircraft during a crisis. It could also enable other F-35Cs to potentially use their low observable features to get close enough to destroy air defense components via internally-carried precision guided bombs, such as the stand-off capable Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). 

In addition, with the added range of the AARGM-ER, F-35Cs tasked with suppressing hostile air defense networks would be able to suppress and destroy hostile emitters further into enemy territory, as well. This could be particularly important when taking on an opponent with multiple, overlapping layers of long-range defenses, and in increasing the speed at which allied forces can "knock down the enemy's door" and create a lane for other platforms to rush into.

Using their own data links and other intermediary communication nodes, the Joint Strike Fighters would also be able to feed information from their sensor suite to fourth generation aircraft carrying additional AARGM-ERs. All three variants of the F-35 are already setup to gather and fuse together an immense amount of information about electronic emitters and the enemy's electronic order of battle, which could become targeting information for anti-radiation missiles. Under such a scheme, fourth generation fighters or F-35's in non-stealthy configuration could act as "missile trucks" well behind a stealthy F-35 screen, remotely launching AARGM-ER's on demand. 

Lockheed Martin

An F-35C in a less stealthy configuration with a number of external stores pylons. 

The Navy is already heavily invested in the idea of networked sensors and weapons, with an overarching plan known as Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air, or NIFC-CA, which is focused on integrating the anti-air and anti-surface capabilities of its aircraft and ships. But there’s no indication that the AARGM-ER would stay limited to Navy aircraft, either.

The aforementioned operational concepts would translate to the Air Force’s F-35As and Marine Corps F-35Bs—although the B model's smaller bay couldn't accommodate the weapon internally—as well as those aircraft working in concert with other fourth generation aircraft and aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms across the services. It's long-range could open up more novel possibilities, as well, including using autonomous or semi-autonomous unmanned aircraft to either locate emitters or as the launch platform itself.

USN

Combining the missiles with the up-coming B-21 Raider stealth bomber could present a new and particularly impressive capability to challenge enemy anti-access and area denial developments. It would give the bombers an ability to defend themselves against "pop-up," or unforeseen threats along their mission route, thus further increasingly the type's survivability

It seems likely that a number of foreign countries, especially those who are part of the Joint Strike Fighter program, will be interested in acquiring the new missiles, as well. Many U.S. allies in Europe and the Pacific region are presented with many of the same anti-access and area denial challenges from Russia and China.

The AGM-88E was already a cooperative effort between Orbital ATK and the European missile consortium MBDA, with Italy being one of the weapon’s launch customers. Australia is now looking to purchase the E model, as well. Both the Royal Australian and Italian Air Forces also plan to adopt the F-35A.

This new anti-radiation missile will also act as "insurance" as to guarantee the Joint Strike Fighter's relevance against very high-end threats that will keep the jet from getting within Small Diameter Bomb attack range of the most threatening enemy emitters. Not all emitters are made equal. Pinpointing and suppressing or destroying particular sensors that threaten the F-35 and other stealthy aircraft most, like those that don't operate on or around the X-band for which stealth fighters were designed to evade, will become essential in future conflicts. In other words, blinding the emitters that can potentially track the F-35 and even the F-22 at a distance, and can cue other sensors to look in these aircraft's direction, after which that wide array of sensor data can be "fused" to create weapons engagement quality track, need to be destroyed more than the sensors that the stealth jets are largely invisible to. The AARGM-ER could help greatly with this problem. 

USAF

F-16CJ/CMs have been the backbone of the Wild Weasel fleet since the retirement of the F-4G in the early 1990s, but the F-35's SEAD/DEAD capabilities are undeniable.

The USAF's need for this missile in particular is abundantly clear. The existing Block 50 F-16CJ/CM fleet, which dedicates much of its training to the "Wild Weasel" mission-set, is increasingly challenged to remain relevant in a world where potential enemies  are rapidly building-up ever denser and more capable air defense networks. As a result, a longer-ranged and more survivable primary SEAD weapon would be very welcome. And as the SEAD/DEAD mission increasingly blurs between the dedicated "Wild Weasel" community and that of any F-35 squadron with their unique abilities to sneak up and neutralize enemy air defenses, fielding the AARGM-ER for the USAF's F-35A units will become overtly logical. 

With or without the USAF, foreign participation, or the potential of overseas sales, the US Navy is definitely committed to acquiring this important capability for its own aircraft as the threat of advanced, networked air defenses continue to grow. But really, the AARGM-ER and what it can do across the F-35 fleet is downright exciting.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com