A derivative of the Aim-120 AMRAAM missile, the Pentagon’s established long-range air-to-air missile, is once again being tailored for a new mission – this time the interception of Scud-type short and medium-range ballistic missiles.
But a senior U.S. Air Force official confides that the capability is inherently that of a cheap, rapidly-deployed, air-launched weapon for shooting down satellites in low-Earth orbit if the service or Missile Defense Agency were to order its further refinement and development.
Raytheon officials say they haven’t researched the ASAT mission and have no opinion about its feasibility. They do note that the AMRAAM derivative isn’t as large or near as energetic as the Raytheon SM3 that shot down an errant NRO satellite earlier this year. However, they note that if launched at Mach 0.85 at 30,000-40,000, the new, 358-lb. missile becomes much more capable against objects at altitudes of 30 kms. or more.
The Air Force general was much more blunt.
“If you put the missile in an F-22 and launch it at Mach 2 and 60,000 ft. while in a zoom and at a 45-degree angle, you’ve got an ASAT capability against spacecraft in low-earth orbit,” he says.
Raytheon officials gave Aviation Week a look at the latest test video of the sensor capability of this new, air-launched, missile-defense weapon they’re developing. The AMRAAM-derivative is called the NCADE for network-centric airborne defense element. For this test, smaller Aim-9 air-to-air missiles were used.
Two F-16s, each carrying an Aim-9 equipped with the NCADE’s highly specialized infrared seeker, attacked 14-in. diameter target missiles over the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The first missile grazed the missiles body and took off two fins. The second came within about a yard of the target missile, good enough to validate the system, says, Mike Booen, Raytheon’s vice president of advanced missile defense. Future testing will involve the missile’s divert and attitude control system.
Click here to watch the video.
For the present, NCADE is being developed as a boost-phase interceptor with seekers that can distinguish between the rocket plume and hard body from launch. That avoids inaccuracies or last minute course changes caused by seekers having to shift from the plume’s heat as an aiming point to the much cooler target missile’s body.
Raytheon planners originally looked at unmanned platforms to carry the NCADE for long-endurance missions. Candidates include the Predator B and perhaps an even higher-performance UAV that could offer added speed and altitude. It might even bring the long-envisioned Predator C back to life, a program that was put on the back burner as Predator A production and development of the Predator B accelerated. Another option could be the 2018 future bomber.
However, Booen says that Air Force planners are adamant that the missile be on forward deployed, manned fighters like the F-22. They bring up the frustration in the 1991 Gulf War when pilots could see Scuds ascending, but had no way to attack them.
“NCADE could make almost any platform multi-mission,” Booen says. He also contends that 20 missiles could be on the ramp, ready for operations at a cost of well less than $1 million each in four years from a given start date. More demonstrations are proposed for 2009 that could lead to a program start in 2010.