RAAF Stand-off Missiles – Fire and Forget?

Warfare in or from the air has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. The images of World War One devil-may-care pilots in helmet and goggles, scarves waving in the slipstream,

28th Feb 2013


RAAF Stand-off Missiles – Fire and Forget?

Warfare in or from the air has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. The images of World War One devil-may-care pilots in helmet and goggles, scarves waving in the slipstream, taking pot shots at one another from open biplane cockpits or optimistically dropping small bombs on targets below, rapidly evolved into bitter machine gun dogfights of World War Two and dropping massive tonnages of bombs in saturation raids. The two atomic bombs detonated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the ultimate climax in killing innocent civilians.

Korea and Vietnam were not greatly different in that bombing continued on hoped for legitimate targets, without much regard for the civilian population. Iraq and Afghanistan have brought a change in that the Coalition have enjoyed complete air superiority and been able to conduct intelligence-led raids on targets with great concern to avoid killing or seriously injuring civilians. New generations of missiles have created the opportunity to deliver guided munitions much more precisely. The advent of drones, able to take out pin-point targets accurately with minimal collateral (= civilian) damage, has also changed the equation by creating deniable attacks.

Now, the challenge for air superiority among nations and the ability to deliver munitions in the face of markedly improved anti-air defences, has meant that air forces are increasingly relying on stand-off missiles which can be fired from an aircraft below the target’s defensive radar horizon, then head flat out from harm’s way before counter-fire reaches them.

The RAAF has introduced force multipliers with their E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and KC-30A tankers which greatly increase the operational range of F/A-18A/B Hornet and F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter bombers. When the F-35A Joint Strike Fighters come into service the E-7A and KC-30A will give the same multiplier effect.

What progress have the RAAF made in introducing stand-off missiles into service with their classic Hornets and Super Hornets?

CLASSIC HORNET AND SUPER HORNET WEAPON LOADS

Both types of aircraft have an M61 20mm nose-mounted cannon for strafing surface targets.

Each can carry AIM-9 Sidewinder infra-red homing short range missiles for air-to-air combat. Boeing won a contract in 2010 to support Sidewinder operations until at least 2055, by which time it will have been in service for over 100 years! AIM-132 ASRAAM missiles released for RAAF service in 2004 do have advantages over the AIM-9.

AIM-7 Sparrow radar guided missiles have been the principal beyond-visual-range missile for the RAAF Hornets, but they are being supplemented by the more advanced AIM-120 AMRAAM.

Harpoon precision-guided missiles have been the primary anti-shipping weapon for the classic Hornet, Super Hornet and AP-3C. Sea-skimming and with radar guided homing, they remain very potent ordnance.

Will they be replaced by more recent stand-off missiles like the JASSM, JDAM-ER and JSOW which can be launched from the Hornets? The RAAF now has all these types introduced into service, although there has been controversy and ministerial concern in getting to this stage.

The Hornets also have conventional bombs which can be tossed and laser guided onto targets.

Will these missiles still be useful when the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter comes into the RAAF fleet later this decade?

The F-35A is seen as a fifth generation fighter bomber which will be used as a ground attack platform, required to despatch bombs and stand-off missiles. The aircraft has two centre bays and six external pylons, three under each wing. Each centre bay can hold three AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, while the external pylons can take JASSM, JDAM, AIM-120 and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, as well as conventional bombs.

AIM-9 SIDEWINDER / AIM-132 ASRAAM

With a short range of up to 35 km, the Sidewinder infra-red homing missile travels at Mach 2.5 and is deadly in aerial combat. Relatively old and inexpensive, it is claimed to have an estimated 270 aircraft kills which would make it the most successful air-to-air missile ever.

Sidewinder is the most widely used missile in Western air forces and is likely to remain in RAAF service in the future.

However, Project AIR 5400 acquired AIM-132 Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air (ASRAAM) missiles for within visual range (WVR) combat. This missile achieved service release in 2004 and is considered superior is some respects to the AIM-9 Sidewinder.

AIM-7 SPARROW

The Sparrow has a range of up to 35 km and uses semi-active radar homing for air-to-air combat. It has been accused of lower accuracy and effectiveness in combat compared with more modern designs like the AIR-120. It will remain in service with the RAAF for some years yet, despite the AIM-120 AMRRAM being favoured for most planned missions.

AIM-120 AMRAAM

The Australian Government purchased from Rockwell Missile Systems AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) including AMRAAM air vehicles and AMRAAM air vehicles-instrumented, AMRAAM captive air training missiles, related spare and repair parts, support and test equipment, maintenance and pilot training, logistics program and software support, documentation, technical assistance and other related elements of support.

These missiles, introduced into service in 2002, enhance the air-to-air self-defence capability of the F/A-18 aircraft and increase interoperability with U.S. forces.

They have been successfully fired by the Super Hornets.

AGM-84 HARPOON

The RAAF can fire Harpoon missiles in an anti-shipping role from their F/A-18A/B Hornets, F/A-18F Super Hornets, and AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft.

With a range in excess of 124 km, the all weather radar guided turbojet powered sea-skimming Harpoon is a formidable weapon. It delivers over 500 kg of high explosives in a single strike.

Although other precision guided munitions are used against land-based targets, there will continue to be a role for the Harpoon.

AIR 5418 PHASE 1: FOLLOW-ON STAND OFF WEAPON

This phase acquired the stealthy AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) with the intention of integrating it with the F/A-18A/B Hornets to improve weapon terminal effectiveness against well defended targets.

The project has had a chequered history since the original order was placed in 2006, having been placed on the list of Projects of Concern in 2010 by the Defence ministers because of the perceived lack of progress in F/A-18A/B integration and subsequent Woomera test delays.

After the US Navy completed and certified the F/A-18 A/B operational flight program software to utilise JASSM, and F/A-18 test firings were conducted successfully in the US and Australia during 2011, the project was removed as a Project of Concern in late 2011.

A Defence spokesperson confirmed to APDR that the JASSM is for classic Hornets only and that there is no plan to arm the Super Hornets with them.

AGM-158A JASSM

This missile is designed to destroy high-value, well-defended, fixed and relocatable targets. Its infra-red seeker and anti-jam GPS enable it to reach its target with pinpoint precision.

The JASSM is capable of autonomous flight in all weathers and can operate day or night, delivering a 2,000 pound penetrator/blast fragmentation warhead.

With a range of 200 km, it keeps aircrews well out of range of hostile air defence systems.

A JASSM was successfully test-fired from an RAAF F/A-18 Hornet at the Woomera Test Range in July 2011, destroying a hardened concrete bunker. This was a major step forward towards the weapon’s addition to Australia’s defence capabilities.

Since its software has also been certified, the semi-stealth JASSM has now entered service with the RAAF’s F/A-18A/B Hornet squadrons. This gives the RAAF a currently unmatched weapons capability among the region’s air forces.

JDAM-ER

Australia’s enhanced Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) completed its first round of live testing in July 2012.

Flying at 20,000 feet over the Woomera Prohibited Area in South Australia, an RAAF F/A-18 Hornet released two 500-pound Mk-82 JDAM Extended Range (ER) weapons and each scored a direct hit on their respective targets. Each weapon demonstrated extended range flyout performance exceeding three times that of a baseline JDAM.

Australia’s JDAM-ER is enhanced through an Extended Range (ER) wing kit, a Low Collateral Damage warhead and a Laser Guidance System.

The laser guidance system improves the JDAM’s capacity to be guided to, and attack, moving targets whilst retaining the original JDAM GPS guidance modes. This converts an unguided or ‘dumb’ bomb into a guided weapon that can be launched from the classic F/A-18A/B Hornet, F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft and in the future by the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.

The extended range kit was jointly developed as part of a Capability and Technology Demonstrator (CTD) program by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and Boeing.

The JDAM-ER wing kit developed by Hawker de Havilland (a Boeing company), based on technology licensed by DSTO, allows the JDAM to glide towards its designated target, up to 65 km away, providing it with the capacity to engage targets at a substantially greater distance than the current JDAM. This enables RAAF aircrew to engage their targets from beyond the range of enemy air defences

Under an agreement with Boeing an Australian company will manufacture the JDAM Extended Range wing kit.

The wing kit has strong export potential to Boeing’s sixteen international JDAM customers and may become available for international sale through the newly established Australian Military Sales Office.

AGM-154C JSOW

The RAAF tested the ability of its F/A-18F Super Hornets to use its AGM-154C Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) in October 2010 by releasing two JSOWs at the Woomera Test Range in South Australia to successfully attack separate hardened concrete bunkers, destroying both. The test represented its first live firings performed outside of the United States by the Super Hornet.

Armed with a blast/fragmentation warhead, the AGM-154C has a maximum glide range of around 130km when released from a height of 12,000 metres.

The JSOW has an integrated GPS-inertial navigation system and terminal uncooled infrared seeker that guides the weapon to the target. The JSOW C carries a single BROACH warhead that has blast, fragmentation and penetration effects.

JSOW is integrated on all variants of the F/A-18 and will be integrated on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

RAAF WELL-POSITIONED FOR THE FUTURE

By acquiring and introducing into service a range of stand-off missiles for their classic F/A-18A/B Hornets and F/A-18F Super Hornets, the RAAF have assembled a formidable arsenal of weapons although it is to be hoped that they never have to be used in anger.

There is considerable future proofing in that these missiles will also be integrated into the weapons load of the RAAF’s F-35A JSFs when they come into service around 2020. Unfortunately the problem with carrying missiles on wing pylons, rather than in the body of the aircraft, is that a proportion of JSF stealth capability is lost.

Having missiles that can be released at considerable distances from their targets, yet strike those same targets with precision in all weather conditions, by day or night, the RAAF will continue to make good its mission to “provide air and space power for Australia’s security.”
 

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