September 17, 2012
Credit: Credit: Lockheed Martin
Amy Butler Washington and Farnborough
Despite a grim fiscal environment, the U.S. Air Force still has ambitions to acquire a new generation of air-launched weapons that will take advantage of the stealthy F-22s in its fleet and the F-35s that will be introduced late this decade. But the service is being forced to prioritize its needs, putting a near-term emphasis on attacking hard and deeply buried targets such as nuclear weapons or command-and-control facilities in North Korea or Iran.
The Air Force is also exploring concepts for a Long-Range Standoff Weapon that would eventually replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs) in the fleet today. An analysis of alternatives should be completed by year-end to prepare for a fiscal 2014 program start.
However, a longtime goal of combining the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (Amraam) mission with that of an air-defense killer—once called the Joint Dual-Role Air Dominance Missile, or the Next-Generation Missile—has been put on hold in the near term.
One factor driving requirements for improved weapons stems from the limitations of the service's decision decades ago to shift to an all-stealthy fighter force. The Lockheed Martin F-22 and eventually the F-35 will provide the operational flexibility of stealthy missions in enemy airspace, but this attribute comes at a price. The internal weapons bay, used for stealthy operations, has only two positions. So the service is pushing weapon manufacturers to mature technologies to make future munitions smaller and more flexible. This, in turn, is reinforcing a need for more sophisticated explosive fills—perhaps halving the size of a warhead without compromising its explosive effects. Additionally, a decades-old hope remains for fuzes that facilitate variable explosive effects or shaped blast-fragmentation effects.
Air Combat Command (ACC) is conducting an analysis of alternatives to explore options for a future Hard Target Munition (HTM) that could be employed by legacy fighters as well as the F-22 and F-35. “Next-gen weapons need to be more flexible in terms of the types of targets they can address and, in some cases, may need to be smaller without sacrificing intended weapons' effects,” says Col. Sam Hinote, director of requirements at ACC. “This will allow our fifth-gen fighters to have a deeper magazine [increased load-out] and more flexible targeting options.”
The Air Force hopes to field a 1,000-lb. penetrator suitable for use in stealthy weapons bays in the next decade, with a program starting potentially as early as 2014, says Maj. Gen. Kenneth Merchant, Air Force program executive officer for weapons. Though the service has not yet refined requirements, options include a boosted 1,000-lb. version that would make use of a rocket motor for speed and momentum and, possibly, a 5,000-lb. follow-on without the motor. The goal with the 1,000-lb. version is to maintain the effects of a 2,000-lb. BLU-109 with a smaller weapon.