old article with interesting information...
Date Posted: 22-May-2003
JANE'S DEFENCE WEEKLY - MAY 28, 2003
AIR-TO-AIR MISSILES: Command of the air
Robert Hewson Editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons - London
Robert Hewson looks at the current status and future trends of air-to-air missile sales
Today air-to-air missile (AAM) technology is not only leaking into those places deemed 'undesirable', it is being actively bought and paid for at a time when most 'legitimate' budgets worldwide are shrinking. This is especially true around the margins, where some national industries have not recovered from the end of the Cold War and the redrawing of the world's political lines.
The international market for AAMs is largely platform-driven, with weapons sales going hand-in-hand with new aircraft deals. At the same time there is still a vital market for combat enhancements to legacy aircraft. This area is not only important to the major players in the missile business but also it is often where the niche manufacturers shine. International missiles sales are also driven not just by a manufacturer's familiarity with individual platforms, but also by its access to individual national markets. When these are 'sensitive' markets, technology-transfer concerns inevitably follow, because what is on offer is a key warfighting - even a key war-winning - capability.
Four key players account for the bulk of the world's AAM sales and technology base: MBDA Missile Systems in Europe (France, Germany, Italy and the UK); Raytheon Missile Systems in the US; Rafael in Israel; and Vympel in Russia.
China's missile industry is headed by the China National Aero Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC). Other important companies, all of which retain a smaller but significant design and production capability, include: South Africa's Kentron, a division of Denel; Germany's BGT; Sweden's Saab Bofors Dynamics; and Taiwan's Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST).
In the minds of many, the weapon of choice for beyond-visual-range (BVR) air combat remains Raytheon Missile Systems' AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). The AMRAAM is a capable and combat-proven weapon that, thanks to its sophisticated active-radar seeker, gives any user an impressive combined short- and medium-range capability.
The US Department of State has approved AMRAAM sales to more than 20 countries.
Such is the sensitivity that surrounds the AMRAAM and its inherent technology, exports are tightly controlled. This has given rise to 'AMRAAM politics' whereby some allies are judged to be more allied than others leading to a two-tier export system. First-tier customers, those judged to be the most 'reliable friends', are sold missiles that are then held under national control by their respective air forces. Second-tier customers acquire (US-built) combat aircraft that are equipped 'for, but not with' the AMRAAM.
Fluctuating political and strategic criteria has dictated AMRAAM exportability. For years the US would not introduce a weapon into any region where a rival capability did not yet exist. This explains why the South American and Pacific Rim markets, for example, were closed to US high-tech systems for many years - to the growing dismay of manufacturers. The relaxation of this policy that coincided with the arrival of the Bush administration in the White House, was driven largely by sheer commercial pressure.
The seeds of change were sown during the long-running saga of Chile's Caza 2000 fighter competition, which was eventually won by the F-16 Block 50+. The supply of an advanced weapons package, to specifically include the AMRAAM, was a key Chilean consideration. It was whispered to Chile that AMRAAM approval would be forthcoming if a US aircraft was selected instead of the rival Gripen and Mirage 2000 bids - but this turned out not to be the case. Chile was left to find an alternative solution to its air-defence needs and has turned to Israel to provide a complete next-generation missile package.
With a big fighter deal next pending in Brazil, one of the few sizeable requirements anywhere in the world for the next five years or so, the US made a dramatic reversal of policy and announced that AMRAAM capability would be released to Brazil. However, the question of whether the missiles themselves would be delivered remains opaque. While the US is trying to overcome its flawed policy in Chile, there has still been no concrete pronouncement on what Brazil, and other customers like it, can expect. This ambiguity remains a thorn in the side of US industry, facing a rising tide of competition.
The most important future programme, and the one which promises to have the greatest impact on warfighting capability, sales and the missile industry in general is the pan-European Meteor ramjet-powered BVR missile. Headed by MBDA Missile Systems in association with Saab Bofors Dynamics and with input from Boeing, the Meteor will be the future BVR armament for the Typhoon, Gripen and Rafale fighters. A debilitating two-year delay in the programme launch ended in December 2002 when Germany approved funding, leading to the signature of the production contract. Meteor production will begin around 2008 and the missile should enter service with the UK Royal Air Force by the end of the decade. The Meteor has no obvious rivals and, should its development prove a success, it will dominate the 'high' end of the air combat spectrum. However, for most customers the Meteor will not be a consideration for another 10 years and between now and then opportunities in the missile market will fall to others.
For a long time there were few options for nations to acquire an effective BVR missile capability independent of the US. Today the list of alternatives is steadily increasing. From the Mirage III era onwards, France was the only Western supplier of 'non-aligned' BVR weapons through the Matra-developed R530 missile family (the UK exported the Sky Flash, but only to Sweden).
The arrival of the advanced MICA missiles in the 1990s - available in both active radar-guided (MICA EM) and passive IR-homing (MICA IR) - gave customers a truly modern weapon. The disadvantage of the MICA, produced by MBDA Missile Systems, is that it is wedded to Dassault platforms - namely the Mirage 2000-5/9 and the Rafale. MICA missiles are currently in service in France, Taiwan and Qatar and are on order for Greece and the United Arab Emirates. India could soon be a new customer if, as is widely expected, a deal is sealed with France for the acquisition and licence-production of 126 Mirage 2000-5s for the Indian Air Force. The MICA is also at the centre of the Mirage 2000-5BR bid by Dassault and Embraer to meet Brazil's FX-BR requirement. Interestingly, senior Pakistan Air Force (PAF) officials have speculated about integrating the MICA on PAF combat aircraft; such an unlikely move would be rendered impossible by any order from India.
The new players
More recently an entirely new missile option has emerged from a combined Israeli-South African programme, undertaken in secret by Rafael and Kentron. Throughout the 1990s rumours abounded of an Israeli active-radar missile most frequently identified by the codename 'Alto'. The fruits of this labour were revealed late in 2000 when Kentron unveiled the R-Darter missile. This announcement was followed in May 2001 by Rafael's declassification of the Derby. What had long been suspected became immediately apparent - the Derby and R-Darter were a common design.
An important factor in the declassification of the R-Darter (and by extension the Derby) was the decision by Gripen International to offer the missile as an export option on the Gripen. The Gripen has been dogged by the perception that the US content in the aircraft, not least its weapons package, would subject it to US export restrictions. To counter this, the Gripen team has built a weapons portfolio for Gripen customers that is free of any 'strategic interference'. The first evidence of this came in Chile where the Derby (and Python 4) was part of the Gripen bid and is again part of the Gripen bid in Brazil - and elsewhere. In South Africa the R-Darter has already been earmarked to equip the South African Air Force's Gripen force when it enters service in 2008.
Kentron and Rafael are reluctant to discuss the close working relationship that clearly existed between them: the Derby and R-Darter missiles are treated as two separate products. Both are marketed independently, although it is clear that the two companies have divided the world into different regions of responsibility. For example, Kentron is leading the current sales push in Brazil. Rafael, on the other hand, has sold the Derby to Chile where it is being integrated on the air force's upgraded F-5Es. India is reported to be very interested in the newly revealed ground-launched version of the Derby. The great advantage of the Derby and R-Darter is that they are not platform- specific and can be integrated on any combat aircraft with a suitable databus infrastructure.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc came the disappearance of traditional Russian markets and the missile industry is now sustained, barely, by a few key contracts. AAM design, development and production is led almost exclusively by Vympel. It was the emergence of Vympel's R-73 (AA-11) agile dogfight missile that so alarmed NATO planners in the late 1980s and 1990s. The R-73 outclassed every single equivalent Western short-range AAM at the time and the appearance of the RVV-AE/R-77 (AA-12) active-radar missile in the 1990s underlined just how accomplished the Russian designers were. The only brake on their work has been the desperate absence of funding, which is why export contracts have become so vital.
India and China are the two most important customers in this respect. Both nations have acquired R-73s and R-77s to arm their late-model Sukhoi Su-27s and Su-30s, while India has also fielded the R-77 on its upgraded MiG-21-UPG- Bisons (MiG-21-93). The acquisition of R-77 missiles by Peru, along with the MiG-29s that it obtained from Belarus, caused a storm and led directly to Chile and Brazil seeking a similar capability. However, Peru's missiles were never really operational as the air force there lacked the means to support them in service. Other potential users of the R-77 include Malaysia and now Indonesia, the latter of which has signed a new deal with Sukhoi for Su-27s and Su-30MKIs. Work on Vympel's next-generation BVR missile, the ramjet-powered R-77M, is progressing slowly but has so far resulted in little real hardware.
Vympel's existing R-27 (AA-10) should not be forgotten. Already available in long-range passive infra-red- and semi-active radar homing variants, Vympel (working with seeker manufacturer AGAT) has developed an active radar variant, the R-27, that some programme insiders believe is superior to the R-77 in some respects.
At the fringes of the market, work on active-radar missile development continues in China India and Taiwan. Of the three, China is perhaps the most significant. Already well-established in the short-range missile field the highest-priority programme for the Chinese industry is the SD-10 (sometimes referred to as PL-12). The SD-10 is an active-radar medium-range missile that, if successful, would provide a huge step forward in both manufacturing and combat capability for China. It is widely believed that the active-radar seeker technology at the heart of the SD-10 programme has been obtained from Russia, but Chinese specialists have also been striving to master the micro-engineering needed to build these systems and have displayed prototype hardware that gives some indication of the state-of-the-art there.
Previous Chinese attempts to develop the PL-10/PL-11 missile, based first on pirated AIM-7 technology and then with the direct involvement of Italy's Alenia, all failed. The SD-10 programme is in a much more advanced stage of development and has reached the point of airborne firing trials. The SD-10 is likely to equip China's next-generation Chengdu J-10 multirole combat aircraft and also the modified/upgraded variants of the J-11 - Su-27SK built by Shenyang. The SD-10 is most closely associated with the FC-1/Super Seven lightweight fighter, being jointly developed by China and Pakistan. The first prototype of this new aircraft is due to fly later this year and the SD-10 is likely to be part of the baseline weapons fit for Pakistan, and any other export customer - such as Iran.
India has started the first trials of its active-radar missile programme, the Astra. Headed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Astra has been in staged development for about 20 years. The first ground-launched aerodynamic trials of the Astra began on 9 May. After three or four ballistic firings the next phase of controlled inflight test launches will begin. The Vympel R-77 is operational on India's Su-30MKIs and upgraded MiG-21-UPG Bisons. The possibility of an MBDA MICA acquisition by India has been discussed. Nevertheless, the Indian Air Force has always maintained a policy of multinational supply and indigenous development, so work on the Astra programme seems sure to continue.
In Taiwan the CSIST has produced the Tien Chien II (Sky Sword II) active-radar BVR missile, operational on the Republic of China Air Force's (ROCAF's) ****-1 Ching Kuo fighters since the mid-1990s. The Tien Chien II programme was motivated by US reluctance to release AMRAAM capability to Taiwan in the face of opposition from mainland China. The Tien Chien II missile has benefited from US design input, but that assistance gives the US a virtual embargo on any potential export sales.
The Tien Chien II has a full active-radar capability that many outside observers were unable to accept until recently. Despite, or perhaps because of this, it will remain a weapon exclusive to the ROCAF. Taiwan has now secured AMRAAM export approval (though this does not include missile stocks) and so, as this is likely to be a more affordable option that the Tien Chien II, the indigenous programme does not have a secure future.
Japan has also developed its own AMRAAM-analogue under the highly classified AAM-4 programme, led by Mitsubishi. Very few facts are known about this project which began in the mid-1980s and has now progressed to advanced firing trials and perhaps a limited service capability. The AAM-4 has been seen on JASDF F-15Js and is probably also intended for the F-2 fighter. The approval of AMRAAM exports to Japan makes the future of the programme unclear, but the AAM-4 will only ever be a national asset with exports barred under Japanese law.
The short-range dogfight AAMs market is larger and more open than that for the heavier, more complex and more expensive BVR missiles. That said, advances in missile and seeker technology mean that there is considerable crossover between the two classes of weapon. For example, the AMRAAM has an effective close-in capability through its active-radar seeker that allows the missile to be launched 'live off the rail' at targets within visual range. Equally, some nominally short-range missiles - like the UK-developed ASRAAM in particular - have a significant fly-out capability that can engage targets at true BVR distances.
The technology base for short-range AAMs is distributed between China, Europe (chiefly France, Germany, Sweden and the UK), Israel, South Africa, Russia and the US. Outside these nations there are varying research and development and production capabilities in Brazil, India, Japan and Taiwan.
The next-generation dogfight missile for the US, and approved export customers of US combat aircraft, is the Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder. The AIM-9X is the product of several studies undertaken in the US during the 1980s and 1990s. The result was a radical evolution of the basic Sidewinder, but not the revolution that some had called for. Instead the AIM-9X mates the existing basic structure (warhead and rocket motor section) of the late-model AIM-9M with an entirely new seeker, autopilot and flight-control system and a new aerodynamic layout.
The AIM-9X should be operationally available on US Navy F/A-18C Hornets by September 2003, with USAF F-15Cs to follow. To date, the AIM-9X has been ordered by South Korea (F-15K) and selected by Switzerland (replacing AIM-9Ps on upgraded Hornets) and Poland (F-16 Block 50+). Other potential customers include Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Turkey. Other future sales may come from the UAE, Pakistan and Oman - all now F-16 customers.
The European missile industry is in the rather uncomfortable position of having two competing advanced dogfight missile programmes: the Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM), produced by MBDA Missile Systems, and the IRIS-T, developed by a six-nation consortium led by Germany's BGT. There is still a clear intention to merge BGT with MBDA at some point in the near future, leaving the enlarged company with two rival products.
The ASRAAM is firmly established in RAF service and was first deployed for combat over Iraq during Operation 'Telic'. The ASRAAM has had a long and sometimes controversial history and its initial introduction into UK service in 2002 was plagued by reports of an under-performing IIR seeker. These problems are now acknowledged to have been solved and the combination of ASRAAM and AMRAAM on the RAF's upgraded Tornado F3 CSP aircraft gives them what, on paper, is arguably the most capable weapons set of any combat aircraft in service today. However, the RAF cannot take full advantage of its ASRAAMs. The service opted for an analogue ASRAAM interface instead of a fully digital integration. This means that the ASRAAM can only be used in an expanded Sidewinder acquisition mode that denies RAF crews the full range of missile functions.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is the first ASRAAM export customer. Australia is completing the (fully digital) integration of its missiles on an upgraded F/A-18A Hornet force and, as a result, will be the first user to have the full power of the ASRAAM. Australia already has the AIM-120 operational on its Hornets.
Europe's export hopes
The ASRAAM is very closely linked with continuing Eurofighter sales efforts in Singapore and the Middle East. Usefully, it is also integrated and qualified on the F-16 and F/A-18 (including the Super Hornet) and is ready for the F-15. The ASRAAM has the distinction of being the only current dogfight AAM that is fully compatible with the JSF's internal carriage requirements, thanks to the missile's unique lock-on-after-launch (LOAL) capability. Raytheon says that it is developing this capability for the AIM-9X and it will be available in about five years; but LOAL ASRAAM capability is already part of the December 2003 initial operating capability status of the Australian missiles.
Europe's second short-range missile, the IRIS-T, has had an even more difficult gestation than the ASRAAM. The programme has been plagued by funding shortfalls, primarily from its main partner Germany. The original six-nation team was reduced to five in October 2001 when Canada withdrew on grounds of cost. This move robbed the remaining nations, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway and Sweden, of the only Hornet operator in the group, and with it the smooth integration of the IRIS-T and F/A-18.
Since Canada's departure, Spain joined the team and the consortium has been lobbying hard for a commitment to order the IRIS-T for the Spanish Air Force. As a Eurofighter customer, Spain fits into the IRIS-T user set alongside Germany and Italy. If the Greek Eurofighter deal is finalised, an IRIS-T order can be expected and Austria may also opt for the IRIS-T now that its 18 Eurofighters seem to be back on track. In Sweden the missile is due to replace the Sidewinder on Flygvapnet Gripens, as the Rb 99. The IRIS-T programme is now on a much firmer footing after the German parliamentary decision in January to commit series-production funding to the missile, and the consortium is looking at a potential order book of many hundreds.
Israel continues to be a centre of excellence in design, building what for many is still the yardstick for agile, high-off-boresight missiles - Rafael's Python 4. The next-generation Python 4 (referred to variously as the Python 4+ or 4M) is expected to be unveiled at the Paris air show in June. This missile may introduce a long-awaited imaging infra-red seeker to the baseline Python 4 airframe, though advance details are sparse. Sales of the Python 4 are shrouded in secrecy. To date, the only confirmed users are the Israel Defence Force/Air Force (F-15, F-16) and Chile's FACh (upgraded F-5E Tigre III). Chile plans to integrate the Python 4 with its new Block 50+ F-16C/Ds and several other South American air forces, such as Ecuador and Brazil, have been linked with the Python 4. Both countries are already Python 3 operators and both are fielding Israeli-sourced fighter upgrades compatible with the Python 4. The Python 4 may also have been evaluated, if not acquired, by Singapore and India.
India is integrating the DASH helmet-mounted sight on its Mirage 2000Hs and has said that the Indian Air Force will field an upgraded Magic III version of its French-supplied Magic II missiles. However, India also claims to be developing an advanced short-range AAM and, given the close links between the DASH system and the Python 4, the Rafael missile must be an option for the Indian Air Force. Similar speculation continues to surround the Python 4 in China. Israel has already supplied China with Python 3 missiles and technology under the PL-8 programme. There are repeated suggestions that a deal has also been done on the Python 4. Speaking to Jane's in 2002, a CATIC missile engineer confirmed China's work on a "new very agile dogfight missile with a highly complex aerodynamic configuration" - a description that certainly matches the Python 4.
China could become a more significant exporter of AAM technology as its aerospace industry is increasingly able to produce aircraft that can exploit modern weapons systems. To date, the bulk of Chinese AAM programmes have been based on outside technology.
With the latest PL-9 missile, China has demonstrated some meaningful indigenous technology, although this programme owes a debt to the PL-8. Chinese AAMs have only been exported with Chinese aircraft, although this has still been a welcome resource for customers such as Burma, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe.
In South Africa work on very advanced missile designs by Kentron has been slowed by a lack of R&D funding. Away from the R-Darter, Kentron's primary programme is the A-Darter (Agile Darter), an enhanced development of the SAAF's U-Darter missile. South Africa has had much insight into Israeli missile technology and the SAAF even fielded the Python 3 as an 'interim' missile (codenamed V3S) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The A-Darter was intended to be the primary short-range armament for the SAAF's Gripens, but now South African officials have called the future of this programme into doubt and it may be shelved.
Along with its AAM-4 BVR programme, Japan has also developed the short-range AAM-5 - a follow-on to its in-service AAM-3 missile. The AAM-5 is another of Japan's closely guarded projects. Like the AAM-4, the AAM-5 has completed ground and (probably) airborne firing trials, but its operational status is unclear. Outwardly, the AAM-5 resembles the IRIS-T and so follows the AAM-3 in adopting some novel aerodynamic design features. The AAM-5 programme is another example of how Japan supports its own high-tech defence industry, although this support comes with an enormous price tag and may prove unsustainable.
Russian missile designers are also struggling to fund future technology. Improvements to the Vympel R-73 (AA-11) series are still the best on offer. While the R-73 remains a highly effective weapon - especially when combined with a helmet-mounted sight - it is carried by very few platforms like the Su-27/30 family and the MiG-29. Studies for a next-generation Russian missile called 'K-30' have been under way for many years, but despite some recent reports to the contrary this missile remains firmly a paper project. Russia's difficulties are compounded by the fact that the premier Soviet-era optical seeker design and manufacturing house, Arsenal, builders of the R-73's Mk 80 seeker and the next-generation MM 2000, is now located in Ukraine.
Most of the major mergers and re-alignments within the international missile business have now been settled, with just a few notable exceptions. The stage is still set for EADS' subsidiary LFK to properly join the MBDA Missile Systems fold. The full integration of this German company has been predicted for several years now and, in the longer term, it is likely that Saab Bofors Dynamics will join up with the MBDA giant, too.
In the US, Raytheon is assured of market share wherever US combat aircraft are sold. It has also done an excellent job of supporting non-US platforms and, with the AMRAAM and Sidewinder, it owns the two AAM market leaders. Lockheed Martin forged links with Rafael, but progress in the air-to-air missile sector has been blocked by industrial difficulties and Israeli security concerns.
Israel's own industry continues to be sustained by strong national backing and a completely opaque international customer base. South Africa shares some common ground with Israel, but lacks a large national market and the R&D funding to really chase international sales. As in Russia and elsewhere, the question is not one of ability and know-how but in finding the funding to turn expertise into marketable systems.