New AIM-260 Missiles Are So Secretive They Will Require A Custom Storage Bunker At Hill AFB

Budget docs dated March of 2019 give the first official explanation of the program and why it needs a $6.5M high-security storage vault at Hill AFB.

18th Wing conducts aircraft generation exercise
18th Wing Public Affairs—Public Domain

Big news hit in late June that the USAF and the Navy have been well on their way to secretly developing an all-new beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile intended to replace the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The missile is officially called the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, or JATM. The effort has been fast-tracked in order to counter rapid developments in long-range air-to-air missile capabilities among America's peer state competitors and especially China. You can read all about this new missile in our recent article on it linked here, but Air Force budget documents dating back to March of 2019 appear to have been the first source to detail the program and underline just how important the Pentagon thinks the secrecy surrounding it is to national security. 

The USAF's Fiscal Year 2020 military construction budget plan, dated March of 2019, details the need for $6.5M to build a "Joint Advanced Tactical Missile Storage Facility" at Hill AFB's sprawling Site A weapons storage area. The document goes into detail about the facility and its justification, mentioning the AIM-260 by name. It states:

This project is required to support the handling, inspection, and storing of the Airborne Intercept Missile (AIM)-260A Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM) assets. The AIM-260A JATM program is rapidly expanding, highly sensitive missile program developed jointly by the Air Force and Navy to countercurrent and projected potential adversary aircraft, and to maintain air superiority under any wartime scenario. Potential adversaries are modernizing and innovating, putting at risk America’s technological advantages in air and space. 

The AIM-260A JATM program is the number one air-delivered weapon priority for both the Air Force and the Navy; and out prioritizes other weapon system improvements and modernization efforts on any fielded aircraft. Because of the classified nature of this program, AIM 260A JATM assets cannot be housed in shared facilities with legacy munitions; and must be supported by a facility designed to meet specific operational requirements, and the stricter Special Access Program Facility security requirements.

CURRENT SITUATION: There are currently insufficient numbers of suitable storage facilities on Air Force controlled land in Utah to support the obligated storage mission of this rapidly expanding program that is vital to the national security of the United States. The majority of existing facilities currently used to store legacy missile assets are WWII era Munitions Storage Magazines (MSM) or "Igloos" located in the munitions storage area of Hill AFB. These facilities were originally designed and constructed to store surplus artillery rounds and were slated for demolition due to their decrepit condition and due to the high cost to operate and maintain them. However, because of START treaty obligations, these facilities were refurbished, such that, they are now able to minimally provide a suitable environments to store a single ICBM booster each. None are available to be adapted to support the AIM-260A JATM storage mission.

IMPACT IF NOT PROVIDED: Without this projects [sic], the required rapid fielding of the AIM-260A JATM could be delayed and could put at risk our nation's efforts to maintain air superiority advantages in highly contested environments. 

ADDITIONAL: This project meets the criteria/scope specified in Air Force Manual 32-1084 "Facility Requirements." This project does not fall within or partly within the 100-year flood plain. A preliminary analysis of reasonable options for satisfying the requirement was done. Those options included renovation of existing facilities, use of DoD facilities at other bases, and new construction. The analysis indicated that new construction is the only options that will fully meet operational requirements. A formal economic analysis has been requested and will be approved prior to the president's budget submission. Project Supporting Facilities exceed 25% of total project cost due to the extensive support work for earth covered facility. This design shall conform to criteria established in the Air Force Corporate Facilities Standards (AFCFS), the Installation Facilities Standards (IFS) [ifavailable], but will not employ a standard facility design because there is no AF standard facility design for this project and there is no applicable standard design from Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC).

The description of the facility itself reads as such:

Description of Proposed Construction: A 12,000 SF (1,115 SM) earth covered reinforced concrete tactical missile storage facility to have reinforced concrete footings, foundation, floor slap, and roof. Provide lightning protection, fire detection/suppression, intrusion detection, all required supporting facilities to fulfill mission requirements including: utilities, pavements, site improvements, and communication support. Facilities will be designed as permanent construction in accordance with the Department of Defense (DoD) Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC)1-200-01. Sustainable principles, to include Life Cycle cost-effective practices, will be integrated into the design, development and construction of the project in accordance with UFC 1-200-02. This project will comply with DoD Antiterrorism/force protection requirements per UFC 4-010-01.Air Conditioning: 30 Tons

Google Earth

Hill AFB has a sprawling munitions storage area in its northwest corner.

The document is important for a number of reasons. First off, it is the first public description of the AIM-260 JATM program and its justification for existing that we know of and notes that it is a highly sensitive Special Access Program (SAP). It also points to the possibility of Hill AFB being among the first bases to field the AIM-260 and that the installation could also conduct testing related to its development. 

Beyond being the USAF's premier operational F-35A base at this time, Hill AFB is home to live fire exercises such as the blandly named Weapon System Evaluation Program (WSEP), which sees a constant stream of USAF fighter units deploy to the base to experience firing-off live air-to-air missiles at target drones. 

Because of the highly sensitive nature of this new weapon, which will have far greater range than the latest AIM-120D variant of the AMRAAM and could feature advanced capabilities, like a dual-mode seeker, it may remain more heavily classified than its predecessor even after it enters operational service. With this in mind, storing full-up live rounds in highly secure and purpose-built vault-like facilities at a handful of key bases may make some sense as opposed to dispersing them to fighter wings all over the U.S., and the planet, for that matter. 

Also of importance is the timeline stated in this document. This large storage facility is slated to be under construction now and finished by March of 2022. This fits perfectly with the present official timeline for fielding the weapon. The Air Force has stated that it hopes the missile will reach initial operational capability that year after beginning flight testing no later than 2021. Air Force F-22 Raptors and Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets are set to be the first to carry the missiles, with all variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as well as potentially other platforms, following thereafter.

In addition to likely testing at Hill AFB, there are also reports that JATM flight and potentially live-fire testing will also occur at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. This is not surprising given that Eglin is home to Air Force's main Armament Directorate, the service's central manager for the development of new aerial weapons, as well as the Air Force Research Laboratory's Munitions Directorate. Details about the testing requirements also give a general sense about the AIM-260's capabilities over the AMRAAM.

"We've seen charts for the Air Force range requirements for Eglin Air Force Base showing circles for the test area for AMRAAM and the test area for the JATM," Steve Trimble, Aviation Week's Defense Editor and good friend of the War Zone, said on the Check 6 Podcast on June 27, 2019. "The AIM-260 missile has a range circle that's roughly double the size of the AMRAAM circle."

USAF

The construction plan, combined with the rest of this highly aggressive schedule for the AIM-260, also points to the development being quite far along already, despite having just begun in 2017. With this in mind, there is the distinct possibility that the JATM program is or has leveraged more than a decade of pre-existing development into potential AMRAAM replacements. 

Between 2005 and 2006, the Air Force and the Navy had started working on what was known as the Joint Dual-Role Air Dominance Missile (JDRADM), a single weapon to replace both the AIM-120 and the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM). That program eventually evolved into the Next Generation Missile (NGM).

In 2013, the Air Force that NGM was "removed from the budget” due to cost, but the curious framing suggested that the service might not have necessarily canceled it outright. A similar and equally secretive parallel effort known as Triple Target Terminator, or T-3, continued afterward, but there was little information on its progress. The advanced state of the JATM program and the AIM-260 suggests that the air-to-air components of NGM and T-3 at least informed the establishment of the JATM program, which has given rise to the new AIM-260. 

USAF

The dual-use AGM-88 replacement seems to have taken a backseat to the development of the vastly improved AGM-88G Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile-Extended Range, or AARGM-ER. This is set to be another impressive weapon, which The War Zone has covered in detail previously here and here. AARGM-ER is already evolving into a multi-purpose system, serving as the basis for the Air Force's Stand-in Attack Weapon (SiAW), as well.

The Air Force may still be eying the idea of a single weapon to replace its air-to-air and anti-radiation missiles. The service has made clear that the AIM-260 program is separate from the still-ongoing Long Range Engagement Weapon (LREW) project, another secretive long-range air-to-air missile development effort. The War Zone's initial analysis of the JATM program noted that giving the AIM-260 the ability to actively home in on a target's emissions, such as the radar on an enemy aircraft, as the Air Force had envisioned with the JDRADM and NGM programs, could only increase the missile's flexibility. 

It seems clear that the AIM-260 will have a similar form factor as the AIM-120 to directly take its place on the conformal stations, wingtip pylons, and in the tight confines of the internal weapons bays of the Pentagon's numerous fighter aircraft. LREW seems more focused on creating an outsized very long-range air-to-air weapon that can be launched from external stores stations of heavy fighters and from bomber aircraft.

USAF

An artist's conception of the Long Range Engagement Weapon (LREW).

 

It still is possible that the AIM-260 could be part of a family of new air-to-air missiles that leverages shared components that can be modularly configured to meet various requirements. This could include the addition of different motor and booster sections, such as a two-stage LREW configured variant.

Only time will answer these specific questions, but it seems glaringly clear that the Pentagon has finally come to terms with the fact that the AMRAAM is no longer the 'longest stick' in the air-to-air fight and that its next missile needs to be guarded against espionage attempts, regardless of the costs.

Author's note: A big thanks to our commenter @totallyaverage for giving us the heads up on this document.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com