Recent MALD-X Advanced Air Launched Decoy Test Is A Much Bigger Deal Than It Sounds Like

It's not the most glamorous weapons program in the Pentagon's portfolio, but it is absolutely essential to the future of American air dominance.

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The Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) program has matured fairly quietly over the last two decades. At first glance, the mini-cruise missiles, which are used to distract and deceive an enemy air defense system so that a real strike package can succeed and survive, seem fairly unglamorous. But the growing MALD family is among the most exciting and important programs in the Pentagon's air warfare portfolio. 

Now it has been announced that that the latest iteration of the system, the MALD-X, has successfully flown twice, on August 20th and 22nd, over the test ranges off NAWS Point Mugu. This demonstration kicks open the door for a whole new set of MALD capabilities, and tactics to go along with them, that will be essential to America's air dominance in the decades to come. 

The ADM-160 MALD program dates back to the 1990s, but at its heart, MALD is based around a tactic as old as warfare itself—the feint. 

The original idea was to use the missile to mimic an attack into enemy airspace by spoofing the radar signatures and flight profiles of American combat aircraft. Rudimentary drones have done similar jobs in decades past, from Vietnam to the Golan Heights to Baghdad. B-52s even had an air-launched decoy system during the Cold War. But MALD differs in that it is a modern, purpose-built, and expendable weapon that can be lugged into combat by an aircraft as small as an F-16 or as large as a ramp-equipped transport plane. It also has a Signature Augmentation System (SAS) that can make it look to radar like a big transport or a stealthy F-117, and everything in between. You can read all about MALD and how it would be used in combat in this past feature of mine.

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A test flight of the first, smaller iteration of MALD in 1999. 

The concept has grown in size and capability over the years. Today MALD has a range of roughly 500 miles and a flight time of about an hour. The MALD-J version includes a jammer that brings forward deployable, close proximity to threat, airborne electronic warfare to the table. It can be incredibly effective as it zips near known anti-aircraft and radar-surveillance sites as well as communications nodes. It can be programmed to loiter over a particular area, jamming a certain target for an extended period of time.

So basically, when you talk about 'day one' air combat operations against a peer-state adversary, MALD will likely go into enemy airspace before anything else does.

Now MALD-X has been successfully tested. This work is also notably under the management of the secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, which has been overseeing a number of other advanced and novel missile and drone programs, including the shadowy Sea Dragon submarine-launched supersonic missile and the Perdix air-launched drone swarm project.

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MALDs loaded up on a B-52H. 

This new iteration of the MALD is an interim bridge of sorts that will allow the Navy to develop a high-end and smarter MALD-N, as well, which will work in conjunction with its electronic warfare community that is dominated by the EA-18G Growler. It will also provide a conduit to evaluate enhanced capabilities for the USAF's MALD-Js, hundreds of which are in the inventory today.

MALD-X enhances the modular nature of the mini cruise missile with the ability to accommodate different electronic warfare payloads that are more advanced than those found on MALD-J. What is planned to come out of MALD-X is a networked decoy that can use its adaptive electronic warfare payload to deliver electronic attacks on air defense nodes autonomously or at the direction of operators from a afar in a semi-autonomous fashion. These operators will likely end up being EA-18G Growler crews.  

This advanced MALD derivative will also be able to be re-tasked in real time via an onboard data-link and will capable of low altitude penetration through enemy territory, this could help them get into a target area successfully before they begin employing their electronic warfare magic.

The data-link is really key here. It totally changes the nature of the MALD mission from a pre-planned route flying decoy to a dynamic player that can be ordered to adapt to a changing electronic order of battle on the fly. This will help with keeping 4th generation fighters alive in medium and elevated risk combat environments and to help Wild Weasels and destruction of enemy air defenses tasked aircraft to dismantle an enemy's air defense network—or at least tear open avenues through it. But above all else, it will give stealth aircraft a critical layer of protection as they strike forward into enemy territory with minimal support. 

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There is no such thing as an invisible aircraft, and this is particularly true to stealthy fighter aircraft that are optimized for decreased detectability specifically from higher frequency fire control radars. Low frequency radar systems are being produced that have the potential to detect these aircraft under certain circumstances at relevant ranges. But just because they can detect them fleetingly it doesn't mean they can produce target quality track so that air-defense systems can engage them successfully. You can read more about modern integrated air defense systems, including their weaknesses and strengths in this past article of mine on the S-400. 

Still, even though they can't produce high fidelity targeting information on stealthy aircraft, these systems could cue a wide variety of enemy air defense sensors nearer to the target to look in a certain portion of the sky. In the future, with the help of advanced computer processing and automation, this could result in the creation of engagement quality tracks of a stealth aircraft and especially those optimized to elude a narrow set of bandwidths. 

This is where MALD-X can come in, offering the ability to deceive, confuse, and even temporarily blind various radars and air defense nodes, including those that pop-up on the move, deep into enemy territory so that the actual strikers can get to their targets unmolested. The potential for them to also make pinpoint cyber attacks on communications nodes is also a possibility. 

Bombers like the stealthy B-2, and even wider-band stealth aircraft, will also increasingly rely on the help of MALD, and electronic warfare in general, to survive. In essence, as stealth's armor begins to degrade, electronic warfare and the creative use of decoys will become increasingly important. And short of an undisclosed penetrating electronic warfare platform that may or may not exist—and if it does it's only in small numbers—stealth fighters and bombers go where EA-18G Growlers simply cannot, and the Growler's jamming capabilities only have limited standoff capabilities. This is why enhanced electronic warfare variants of MALD will become increasingly critical components of America's air warfare master plan as the years go on.

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Considering this new MALD is networked, swarming and cooperative tactics among a group of MALD-Xs/MALD-Ns could work to achieve their full potential as a team. This includes classifying, prioritizing, and delegating jamming and decoy duties on the fly during their relatively short lifespan. By working together autonomously they can act at speeds that can break the enemy's decision cycle and cripple their ability to respond fast enough to impact what's going on in the battle-space. 

So even at hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop, these sacrificial craft will be absolutely essential when it comes to breaking down the enemy's door, or at least confusing its gatekeepers long enough so that a strike package can deal their damning blows.

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It will be interesting to see what the MALD concept morphs into in the coming years. Larger and longer-ranged optionally reusable cruise missile/drones may replicate some of MALD-X's capabilities in the future, namely the air-launched and recovered Gremlins program that DARPA is working on today along with concepts like Kratos XQ-222 and the Air Force Research Lab's Gray Wolf missile initiative.

Whereas MALD has been designed with the combat radius of a fighter and tactical strikes in mind, these weapons may provide a better option for projecting similar capabilities even deeper into enemy territory. This could assist in strikes aimed at the heart of an enemy's command and control, data-fusion, and war fighting machine that would be carried out by long-range bombers such as the upcoming B-21 Raider.

It's also quite logical to assume that MALD, now in a more modular and adaptable form than ever before, will also add a kinetic attack option in the future. One in which its jammer is replaced with a warhead. By mixing explosive MALDs with a higher-end electronic warfare MALDs, formations of these missiles could destroy enemy air defenses in their path as well as jam them. Ideally, since MALDs are on a one-way trip anyway, incorporating a small warhead into electronic warfare capable MALD-X/Ns would make even more sense. That way they can attack targets if need be or at the end of their flights, self destruct in flight. 

The bottom line is that MALD is one of the biggest little programs going on in the entire Pentagon's air warfare portfolio. It represents a critical capability that will become more important with each passing year. Stealth, networking, and standoff kinetic weapons aren't an antidote for what will be the increasingly complex problem of successfully piercing into anti-access combat environments. MALD-X, and what comes after it, is also a major part of this solution. 

With all this in mind, it is really exciting news that MALD-X is in flight testing. Its existence should lead to a more rapid evolutionary pace for the concept and quicker fielding of new capabilities in an operational form. And that is great news for America and really nasty news for its potential enemies.  

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com