Defence Industry

Future Aerial Weapons
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Issue Vol. 33.3 Jul-Sep 2018 | Date : 22 Aug , 2019

The inventory of aerial weapons such as missiles and Precision Guided Munitions is far from sufficient for even a 20-day war. The Indian Armed Forces had sought six months time from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to build up ammunition stocks before undertaking any operations against Pakistan in 1971. While nations give great importance to high visibility and high value contracts to acquire aircraft, ships and tanks, often weapons get a lower priority. Armaments have a finite shelf life and obsolescence also sets in quickly. Any weapons platform is no good without potent armaments. Acquisition and replacement need early planning. India faces high threat environment from its two nuclear neighbors, with both of which it has serious boundary disputes.

The stock of as many as 61 types of ammunition out of a total of 152, considered critical by the Indian Army to fight a war, is available for ten days only, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) had stated in the report placed before the Parliament in mid 2017. Similarly, the combat capability of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is at an all time low, down to just 30 fighter squadrons from the authorised figure of 42. The inventory of aerial weapons such as missiles and Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) is also far from sufficient for even a 20-day war. The Indian Armed Forces had sought six months time from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to build up ammunition stocks before undertaking any operations against Pakistan in 1971. While nations give great importance to high-visibility high-value contracts to acquire aircraft, ships and tanks, often weapons get a lower priority. Armaments have a finite shelf life and also obsolescence sets in quickly. Any weapons platform is no good without potent armaments. Acquisition and replacement need early planning. India faces high threat environment from its two nuclear neighbours as it has serious boundary disputes with both.

Ancient Indian manuscripts write about the Vimana, an aerospace craft and make references to gods who fought battles in the sky using air-vehicles equipped with deadly weapons. Indra’s dart used a circular reflector that produced a ‘shaft of light’ which, when focused on any target, immediately consumed it, somewhat akin to modern day laser weapons. The great Chinese thinker and Strategist General Sun Tzu stated in the military treatise ‘Art of War’, “The military values victories; it does not value prolonged warfare.” There is a full chapter devoted to weapons and attack. Quick and lethal weapons are germane to military victory. All modern militaries require state-of-the-art arms and ammunition to ensure decisive results in war.

Fifth-generation electro-optical missiles are ideal against low-heat targets such as UAVs and cruise missiles…

Unfolding Technologies

For centuries, warfare has been related to kinetic weapons which caused variety of effects. Networked electronically, today’s enhanced systems and technologies offer totally new dimensions in weapon systems. Lasers, rail-guns, and hypersonic missiles are not sci-fi weapons, but an evolving reality. Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider, already nicknamed the ‘21st century’s first bomber’, is expected to enter service by 2025 and replace the B-2. It will be optionally manned and will deliver the latest conventional long-range, thermonuclear weapons and also have laser and other weapons. Autonomous weapons on robotic vehicles that will search and destroy enemy troops and equipment on the ground or in the air, using combination of accurate sensors, lethal weapons and Artificial Intelligence (AI), are being developed. Concentrated high-energy lasers beams traveling at the speed of light can strike over distances of thousands of kilometres. Space is the ultimate high ground, so weapons in orbit would have the ability to see and zap anything on the surface, in the air or nearby in space. Hypersonic aircraft will act as weapons platforms to take on long range targets and those in space. Active denial systems such as millimeter-wave or microwave beams, may make people flee without injuring them. E-bombs in the form of high-power microwave pulses can knock out computers, electronics and electrical power, crippling military and civilian systems. With air power becoming the dominant means of prosecution of war in the 21st century, there is a need for a closer look at aerial weapons.

Air-to-Air Weapons

Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) with up to 30-km range, are often called ‘dog-fight’ or Close-Combat Missiles (CCM) or now Within Visual Range (WVR) missiles. WVR are mostly heat-seeking, while Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles are mostly radar controlled. Some long range missiles also use inertial guidance. Mid-1950s saw the development of American AIM series Sidewinder and the Soviet ‘K’ series missiles. BVRs were inducted in mid-1960s. Raytheon is one of the biggest missile producers and its AIM-9L (1977) was the first all-aspect WVR missile that could sense aircraft heat from front quarters. The missile seeker of the more modern MBDA AIM-120 ASRAAM can distinguish the target heat from the counter-measure flares. Israeli Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ Python-5 is an electro-optical missile which does not require a heat source and so is more effective against low heat source aircraft such as propeller-driven UAVs among others. BVR missiles today have ranges beyond 200 km.

India got the first generation K-13 along with the MiG-21 and was later replaced by Molniya R-60. Initially, the IAF inducted the Matra Magic 1 R 550 and later variant Magic 2 Super and R 530D came with Mirage 2000. The IAF got the fourth-generation Russian Vympel R-73, R-27 and fifth generation R-77 RVVAE missiles along with MiG-21 Upgrade ‘Bison’ and SU-30 MKI. The French MBDA MICA, dual head (IR & EM), is part of the Mirage-2000 upgrade project and of the Rafale weapon package. 400 are being bought. The Rafale can carry up to six MICA missiles. Mirage 2000 upgrade has inbuilt 384 British MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAM dogfight missiles which have also been selected for Jaguar over-wing station. The MiG-29 upgrade allows carriage of R-77 missile. The next generation active radar guided BVR Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM), Meteor (100km range) developed by MBDA is being acquired with Rafale. Rafael Advanced Systems Python-5 of Israel has been selected as the secondary close combat heat seeking missile for the LCA Tejas after R-73. The American AIM-9X Sidewinder, Israeli Python 5, Chinese PL-12, India’s Astra (110km) and American AIM-120 AMRAAM (180km) are the state-of-the-art new missiles. India has already cleared indigenous Astra long range BVRAAM on SU-30 MKI. Ramjet propelled AAMs will enable future medium-range missiles to maintain higher average speed across their engagement envelope. Fifth-generation electro-optical missiles are ideal against low-heat targets such as UAVs and cruise missiles.

Precision of delivery can be considered the single-most important development for surface attack…

Air-to-Surface Weapons

Precision of delivery can be considered the single-most important development for surface attack. It is not only more economical to destroy the target but also reduces unwanted collateral damage. A SU-30 MKI with Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) can have more effect on a target than a squadron of old MiG-21s with free-fall ‘Dumb’ bombs. PGM or the ‘Smart’ bombs or missiles are directed to the target through wire, radio, radar, optical or laser control. Electro-optical systems have a TV/IR camera for guidance. Laser guided bombs or missiles home on to the target that has been illuminated by a laser beam from the air or ground. Runway denial serial bombs such as the BAP-100 for linear targets, runway piercing bombs such as Durandal, cluster bombs for area targets, rocket propelled bunker buster with heavy warhead, bombs with Laser/TV/GPS precision kits, standoff bombs, Fuel Air Explosive (FAE) or Napalm class of bombs and massive ordnance air-blast bombs are all in use. The IAF’s Mirage-2000 laser-bomb attacks over 15,000 feet high Tiger hill during Kargil war of 1999, was a game-changer for the war.

The IAF’s Mirage 2000, MiG-27 and Jaguar carry the Israeli RAFAEL ‘LITENING’ targeting Pod that combines multiple sensors at low cost. It has FLIR, a TV camera and laser designator. The American Paveway series are the most famous laser bombs and Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are the main laser bomb manufacturers. Infra-Red (IR) guidance weapons work well where the target stands out due heat contrast. Raytheon Maverick and Israeli Elbit Opher are IR Drop-and-forget bombs. Lockheed Martin Hellfire II anti-tank missile is guided by the millimeter-wave radar aboard Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter. India’s acquisition of 22 Apache AH-64Ds would include over 1,350 Hellfire missiles and 245 Raytheon Stinger missiles, 12 Lockheed/Northrop Grumman APG-78 fire control radars and 23 Lockheed modernised target acquisition designation sight/pilot night vision sensors. LCH is planned to be fitted with indigenous anti-tank missile Helina. Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8I Neptune carries the AGM-84L Harpoon Block II missiles and Mk 54 lightweight Torpedoes. The MiG 29 K can carry Kh-31 A and Kh-35 anti-shipping missiles and a host of air-to-air missiles including Astra, Rafael Python 5 and may be one day the futuristic Novator K-100. This gives more options for acquisition.

To circumvent poor visibility, satellite-guided weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) were developed by Boeing along with the US Air Force (USAF). The newer variants are hybrid laser-GPS combination. Raytheon has developed the enhanced Paveway family which can be deployed both against moving and stationary targets. The Russian KAB series already flying on Bison, MiG-27 and SU-30 are TV/laser guided bombs of up to 1500kg. The French Sagem AASM is a European version of JDAM with 50-km stand-off firing range and is used on the Rafale. Raytheon’s AGM-154, Rafael’s SPICE, Lockheed’s AGM-158, Boeing’s SLAM-ER, MBDA’s Storm Shadow and Taurus, are the other latest weapons. The market for PGMs is close to $3 billion a year. LT-2 is a Chinese laser guidance kit for a 500-kg bomb also supplied to Pakistan and LT-3 is a JDAM like GPS-cum-Laser guidance kit. China is also working on Glide bombs. India’s DRDO lab ADE is developing the 1000lb ‘Sudarshan’ glide LGB currently with 9-km range, planned to be extended to 50km. The IAF currently holds Rafael Advanced Defence Systems ‘Spice’ and Israel aerospace Industries (IAI) Griffen LGBs.

International space treaties limit or regulate positioning of weapons or conflicts in space…

Air-to-surface missiles have propulsion and score over bombs with longer stand-off ranges and speed of impact, but often have lighter warhead. Air-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, the anti-ship or land-attack Harpoon missiles are good examples. India had earlier operated MBDA’s AS-30 missiles and BAe Sea Eagle anti-shipping missiles. The IAF acquired 24 harpoon Block II missiles for its maritime strike Jaguars in December 2010. Rafale has options of the modular Hammer air-to-surface PGM system and AM-39 Exocet sea-skimming missile. Russian air-to-surface missiles carried on SU-30 MKI include Kh-59 ME TV guided standoff missile with 115 km ranges, Kh-59MK active radar homing anti-ship missile (285km), Kh-31 anti-radar missile (30km) and Kh-29 laser guided missile (30km). India’s DRDO is developing ‘Nag’ anti-tank missile. Its air-launched Indo-Russian cruise missile BrahMos has already been tested from a SU-30 MKI. Once the AESA Radar comes with Su-30 MKI upgrade, it will be a potent combination. BrahMos II would be a Mach 7 Hypersonic Cruise Missile being developed in collaboration with Russia. China has many, mostly reverse engineered Russian missiles and supports Pakistan’s Babur missile programme.

Space Weapons

Space weapons can be categorised as those that attack targets in space (anti-satellite); attack targets on ground from space or attack targets transiting through space (anti-ballistic missile). The Russian space station Salyut-3 was fitted with 23mm cannon, which was successfully test-fired at target satellites. In the 1960s, the US had envisaged a possible airbase with 21 airmen on the Moon as part of Project Lunex that was never executed. It is technically possible to position conventional or nuclear missiles in space which could reach targets on the ground, but the same could be expensive and difficult to maintain and service. Also, carrying heavy missiles would be a logistic nightmare and will offer only small advantage of saving time vis-a-vis aircraft and submarine-launched weapons. Even for the advantage of guaranteed second nuclear strike capability, it would not be worth the complications. The initial US plan was for a space-based constellation of about 40 platforms deploying up to 1,500 kinetic interceptors. The plan was later called off. The Russian ASAT Research has been resumed under President Putin to counter the renewed US strategic defence efforts post-ABM Treaty. The US also continues working on a number of programmes which could be the basis for a space-based ASAT. International space treaties limit or regulate positioning of weapons or conflicts in space. To date, there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space, nor has any ground target been successfully neutralised from space.

Five aerial weapons that could change the face of modern warfare rely on the most advanced technologies…

The Unfolding Aerial Weapons

MBDA Meteor, the BVR AAM with active radar (over 100km) has already been integrated on the Rafale including on those for the IAF. The Meteor offers a multi-shot capability against long range manoeuvering targets in a heavy ECM environment. It is also intended to equip the Eurofighter, Saab JAS 39 Gripen, British and Italian F-35s. The US Navy may require a Meteor-class missile to replace the retired AIM-54 Phoenix. India has made a Request For Information about integrating Meteor on their Su-30 MKI and is also looking at possibly integrating the MBDA Brimstone ground attack missile.

Novator K-100 is a Russian air-to-air missile designed as an AWACS killer with a range up to 200km. Since 2004, India and Russia have evolved a deal to produce it for IAF’s SU-30 MKI fighters. Another version with range of 400km is being mentioned. DRDO is also developing the nuclear capable Nirbhay cruise missile. The helicopter-launched Nag (HeliNa), DRDO’s Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) is under testing. The new Chinese BVRAAMs PL-12D, PL-21 and a PL-15 variant with successfully tested ramjet technology and coupled with AESA radar seekers and ranges up to 400km could be a long-range threat even to stealth fighters and bombers. Advanced versions of AIM-9X and Vympel R-73, called Quick Manoeuvre Air-to-Air Missiles with much higher agility, are under development. The Hyper-Velocity Air-to-Air missile will be a multi-stage kinetic energy weapon with speeds in excess of Mach 5. DARPA is developing a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) to improve the survivability. High-power thermos-baric missiles are basically FAE that create intense high temperatures. The KAB 500 OD bomb with the IAF is a FAE bomb. Russians have versions up to 1500kg with lethal zone of 500 metres.

Directed Energy Weapons

In the coming years, the development of Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) will have much greater precision and cross the realm of science fiction. Very narrow beams of lasers, microwave radiation and particle beams would destroy or damage guidance systems or trigger warheads. These could simultaneously attack many targets. The US and Russia are doing most of the research work and of late, China too has invested heavily in it. With most countries moving towards network centric operations, communication nodes could be targets by DEW. The Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) is a US military programme to mount a high energy laser weapon on an aircraft, initially the AC-130 gunship. This near 100-kilowatt system with 7,000-kg weight will have tactical range of 20 kilometres.

Weapons of the Future

Five aerial weapons that one day could change the face of modern warfare rely on the most advanced technology in the world. These hyper-advanced projectiles may out-manoeuvre, out-run and out-match foes around the globe. The ‘Mach-5 Cruise Missile’ X-51 moves so fast that it does not even need an explosive warhead and its kinetic energy will shred targets. Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) is a distracting weapons-jamming dynamo. MALD is 150kg jet-powered pack that cruises for up to 800km, inviting enemy defenders to unload their guns and missiles at it. Meanwhile, anti-radiation missiles sneak around to destroy the enemy air defences as they are busy tackling the MALDs.

The ‘Hyper Speed Bunker Buster’ is a rocket-fuelled bunker buster that punches through the Earth to obliterate anything underneath it. It trades off size for speed. The hyper speed bunker busters use kinetic velocity. The ‘Triple-Target Terminator Missile’ in development by DARPA and missile-maker Raytheon is meant as a high-speed, long-range missile that can engage cruise-missiles and air-defence targets. ‘Pocket-Sized’ Precision Nukes will essentially be tactical nuclear bombs with JDAM accuracy. America’s main nuclear gravity bomb B 61 will get a GPS upgrade. Higher accuracy means explosive power can be scaled down for the same effect. Lockheed Martin has taken a leadership role in these four technology areas, Hypersonic, laser weapons, electronic warfare and artificial intelligence. This could forever change our ability to deter and respond to conflict, allowing war-fighters to quickly address threats before an adversary may have time to react.

Northrop Grumman will help the USAF mature its plans to use directed energy systems for self-protection on current and future aircraft…

Lockheed Martin is helping the USAF Research Laboratory develop and mature high-energy laser weapon pod, including the high-energy laser that will be demonstrated on a fighter jet by 2021. The fibre laser is called Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator or SHiELD. If successful, the technology could be a game-changer that could take out surface-to-air and air-to-air missile threats more cheaply than current intercept methods. Lockheed has experience developing high-powered tactical lasers for the US Army.

Lasers are invisible to the naked eye and can destroy targets at the speed of light with unmatched precision. What’s more, these directed-energy platforms can strike repeatedly giving them a near-endless supply of ammunition. Lasers are the best match for high-volume, low-cost threats such as drones which are becoming increasingly prevalent on the battlefield. Northrop Grumman is working with the USAF to develop radical new laser weapons for supersonic fighter jets and hopes to test them in 2019. Northrop Grumman will help the USAF mature its plans to use directed energy systems for self-protection on current and future aircraft. Active Denial Systems such as the millimeter-wave or microwave beams supposedly make people flee without injuring them. The top 0.3 mm of skin absorbs millimeter waves, causing intense pain within five seconds, so people flee quickly. Stun guns (Tasers) disable people with bursts of high-voltage electricity, allowing to subdue them without lasting energy. E-bombs made of high-power microwave pulses can knock out computers, electronics and electrical power, crippling military and civilian systems. Rail-guns use electromagnetic fields and powerful magnets to launch projectiles at hypersonic speeds (4,800 mph, 100-mile range). Unlike ballistic missiles, these projectiles are hard to follow and destroy because of their low altitudes and blistering speeds that leave little time to react.

Get Act Right – India

The Indian Ministry of Defence’s 15-year ‘Technology Perspective and Roadmap 2010’, includes development of anti-satellite weapons for electronic or physical destruction of satellites in both Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and higher geosynchronous orbit. The Astra Mk-2 is an advanced version of the Astra Mk-1 missile with an Active Radar Homing and estimated range in excess of 100km. It will be the Indian equivalent to Meteor BVRAAM, with ‘Dual-pulse rocket Motor’. DRDO’s Agni missile will be modified to carry out first simulated electronic test, to showcase ASAT capability. Agni V provides boosting capability and the ‘kill vehicle’, with advanced seekers, will be able to home into the target satellite for electronic or physical destruction of satellites in both LEO and the higher geosynchronous orbit.

DRDO’s Prospina Anti-Tank Guided Missile earlier called Nag, will be a third-generation, fire-and-forget, anti-tank guided missile. The air-launched variant is called the Helicopter-launched NAG (HELINA) can be fired from Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and HAL Rudra (ALH WSI) attack helicopter. It has been in tests and development stages and will soon enter service with the Indian Armed Forces. India has been reportedly developing a new Long Range Surface to Air Missile. It will have a range of 250km and will be used to bridge the gap between MR-SAM (70km) and S-400 (400km) Air Defence System. XRSAM Air Defence Missile system might utilise the same network grid deployed for Anti-Ballistic Missile Defence system and might be working as part of the large umbrella air defence network grid consisting of ABM, S-400 and XRSAM surveillance, guidance, tracking network of radars.

The DRDO is working on increasing the speed of BrahMos missile in a phased manner. In the next few years it will go hypersonic. Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) interceptor is the most high-priority weapon projects of India. It has two phases – Endo-Atmospheric and Exo-Atmospheric. The Endo-Atmospheric phase has a twin-layered air defence – Prithvi Air Defence and Advanced Air Defence. PAD will be used for high altitude interception up to 80km while AAD will be used for mid-range interception altitude up to 30km. The DRDO is working on a slew of DEW along with space security, cyber-security and hypersonic vehicles/missiles as focus areas in the next 15 years.

India is part of the most threatened regions of the world and needs to watch weapon developments closely…

Intensive weapon research is going on. India is part of the most threatened regions of the world and needs to watch weapon developments closely. It has to catch up on backlog of weapon purchases and get stocking levels for a possible two-front war. With very few players in the market, technologies are closely guarded. No one parts with them. DRDO has to get its act right. Beg, borrow, steal or just convert the theoretical research into formidable deliverable end products if India is to achieve its aspirations of a global player. The government needs to hold the bull by the horns, allot adequate funds and position dynamic result-oriented professional mangers.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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