It is a truism that a combat aircraft, no matter how superlative its performance, is only as fearsome as its weapons. The type, numbers and capability of its armament indicates how effective it will be in overcoming aerial adversaries as well as in mounting lethal strikes against surface targets. And modern aerial weapons give aircraft a formidable punch. Advanced technology is now routinely incorporated in a variety of specialist munitions ranging from short to medium to long-range weapons of the air-to-air and air-to-surface variety and ultimately to Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM).
A century ago, aerial warfare meant firing a hand-held revolver at an airborne adversary or hurling a grenade at a ground target. For many decades, even though weapons became far more powerful, their accuracy was nothing to boast about, mainly because they lacked terminal guidance. The term Circular Error Probable (CEP) was used to measure a weapon’s precision in delivery. For instance, if a given bomb type had a CEP of 120 metres, it meant that when 100 bombs were aimed at the same point, only 50 would probably fall within a 120-metre circle around their average impact point. According to GlobalSecurity.org, “In 1944, it took 108 B-17s dropping 648 bombs to destroy a point target. In Vietnam, similar targets required 176 bombs. Now, a few Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) can do the job.”
Designers are constantly striving to reduce the size and weight of weapons and increase their effective range so as to make them more lethal. However, the keyword now is ‘smart’ – weapons must be smart enough to hit their intended target and nothing else and inflict the desired level of damage, not more, not less.
A smart weapon is a guided missile, bomb or other projectile intended to hit a specific target with precision. It has a guidance system that steers it accurately, especially during the terminal phase prior to impact. Accurate position, navigation and target location details – all help to obtain better results. Miniaturising various components reduces the size of the weapon and intensifies its lethal effect. While the risk to the launch aircraft from the adversary’s terminal defences needs to be minimised – which may mean releasing the munitions from scores or even hundreds of kilometres away – the weapon must be precise enough to avoid civilian casualties and minimise collateral damage.
All these characteristics can be discerned in the armament suite of the Dassault Rafale which is set to be the star of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) combat fleet.
The Remarkable Rafale
After an agonisingly long wait, the first Rafale jet was handed over to the IAF at Bordeaux, France, on October 08, 2019. It was a fitting way to celebrate the IAF’s anniversary. Although the first batch of seven or eight jets may not be flown to India till the middle of next year, preparations are on in full swing at the Ambala air base where 17 Squadron, earmarked to be the first Rafale squadron, will be located. All 36 contracted jets are due to be supplied by April 2022.
Dassault calls the Rafale an “omnirole” aircraft and it has the reputation of being the world’s best fourth plus generation fighter jet. It has an outstanding load-carrying capability, with 14 hard points, five of them capable of taking drop tanks and heavy ordnance. Its total external load capacity is more than nine tonnes, that is, it can lift the equivalent of its own empty weight in payload. Thanks to its advanced mission system, it can carry out air-to-air attacks and interceptions as well as air-to-ground strikes in the same sortie. Below are some of the specialist weapons that give the Rafale its enviable reputation.
- MICA Beyond Visual Range (BVR) interception, combat and self-defence Air-to-Air Missile (AAM). It has IR (heat-seeking) and EM (active radar homing) modes and can also be used Within Visual Range (WVR). A new generation of the weapon (MICA NG) is under development so as to keep the MICA family relevant throughout the projected operational life of the Rafale. With an improved seeker and a new double-pulse rocket motor, it will have the agility and performance to cope with modern threats and countermeasures even at extreme range.
- METEOR ramjet powered very long-range AAM. This is the Rafale’s key weapon, which neither the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) nor the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), currently have an answer to. It offers multi-shot capability against long-range manoeuvering targets such as jets, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and cruise missiles, even in a heavy Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) environment. With a range of well over 150km, its “no-escape” zone of over 60km is claimed to be the largest among current AAMs. For accuracy, it relies on inertial guidance, mid-course update via two-way data link and terminal Active Radar Homing (ARH). The data link permits the pilot to target and even re-target the missile after launch. A solid-fuelled ramjet motor allows the missile to cruise at a speed of over Mach 4 and provides it with thrust and mid-way acceleration till it intercepts the target. Of course, such capability does not come cheap and the estimated cost of a single Meteor is Rs 15.5 crore. The Rafale carries two of these missiles.
- HAMMER (Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range) is a new generation medium-range air-to-ground weapon. It comprises a frontal guidance kit and a rear-mounted range extension kit matched to a standard dumb bomb. It has fire-and-forget capability and an extended stand-off capacity with a range of over 60 km at high altitude and 15 km at low altitude. It can engage multiple targets simultaneously and can even strike moving targets with high precision.
- Storm Shadow/SCALP is a long-range, air-launched, stand-off Air-to-Ground Missile (AGM). It is equipped with fire-and-forget technology and fully autonomous guidance and is designed to penetrate deep into hard rock with a range of more than 250 km. Its navigation systems include Inertial Navigation System (INS), Global Positioning System (GPS) and terrain reference. It is programmed with every detail of the target and the path to reach it, together with continuous updates from the onboard navigation system. Its Imaging Infra-Red (IIR) seeker compares the actual target area with stored imagery repeatedly until it strikes the target.
Some IAF Smart Weaponry
The IAF already has several accurate missiles as well as Laser-Guided Bombs (LGB) that use semi-active laser guidance to strike designated targets with greater accuracy than unguided bombs.
For instance, take the Rafael SPICE that became well known following the IAF’s bombing of a terror camp in Balakot in Pakistan on February 26, 2019. SPICE, which is short for ‘Smart, Precise-Impact, Cost-Effective’, is not a weapon in itself, but simply a guidance kit attached to a standard bomb. It is combat-proven and is in service with the Israeli Air Force and others. While the SPICE-1000 kit for 453-kg bombs has a glide range of nearly 100 km, SPICE-2000 for 907-kg bombs has a glide range of about 60 km. Before a mission, the kit is fed with complete data including GPS coordinates of the target, satellite imagery and the desired angle at which the bomb must strike the target. After release, it uses an Electro-Optical (EO) seeker with unique scene-matching algorithms, navigation guidance and homing techniques to achieve a claimed CEP of just three metres even in adverse weather and without GPS.
Then there is the Indo-Russian BrahMos 2 – the world’s fastest cruise missile that can strike distant targets at a speed of Mach 2.8. The 2.5-tonne missile has an operational range restricted to 290km under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), but this could conceivably be extended to 400 km since India is now a full member of the MTCR. An air-launched version for release from the IAF’s Su-30MKI jets is currently under testing with a deadline of December 2020. A fleet of 40 Sukhoi jets will be structurally modified by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) for integration of the missile.
On the indigenous weapons front, the Su-30MKI has already completed aerial trials of the Astra BVR AAM, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the missile is now ready for induction. The IAF may initially order at least 200 Astra missiles because the sleek Mach 4.5 weapon is a much cheaper alternative to some of the expensive AAMs currently being imported. Next to be armed with Astra will be the HAL Tejas light combat aircraft. With a current range of 90 – 110 km (which may be extended later) and active radar terminal guidance, the Astra could increase the lethality of even older aircraft and eventually arm practically every fighter jet in the IAF’s inventory.
For many years, Raytheon’s AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) was the last word in AAMs, accounting for ten victories in live air-to-air engagements, according to the manufacturer. The latest AIM-120D variant’s range is probably over 160km. And Raytheon is also developing its new Peregrine medium-range AAM to complement the AIM-120 and AIM-9X. Peregrine would be half the size and weight of the other missiles, but with greater speed and range, thus increasing the number of missiles each fighter can carry.
However, a new Chinese weapon is causing concern to US military planners. The Chinese PL-15 is an extended-range radar-guided missile and the most capable AAM in the PLAAF’s inventory. It will be carried by a number of jets, including the new J-20 stealth fighter. It is one of very few AAMs to use an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), rather than a traditional mechanically scanned planar array. This makes evasion difficult even for the most agile of fighter jets, leave alone the ponderous tankers and Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft Systems (AWACS) that operate in support of fighters and bombers and enable them to extend their range. Shooting down these large aircraft or even forcing them to fly at a further distance, would prove a big drawback to the attacking force. After launch, the six-metre long missile reaches a speed of Mach 5 and is capable of engaging targets at a distance of over 200 km. It will possibly be dual-mode, with both radar and IR terminal guidance. The Chinese military is also believed to be pursuing another weapon known as the PL-21, which may have a range in excess of 300 km.
Russia has developed the Vympel R-37M, a hypersonic AAM, for the Russian Air Force (RAF). With a range of more than 300km and a top speed of Mach 6, the missile is designed to shoot down tankers, AWACS and other large combat support aircraft. A substantial upgrade of the basic R-77 active radar-guided medium-range AAM is also in progress with the designation R-77 (Izd. 180) or K-77M. It will probably have an improved seeker, an extended range of almost 200 km, better kinematics and a high degree of manoeuverability and accuracy to engage even small and agile targets at extreme ranges.
Consequently, the US is now working on the AIM-260 AAM, also known as the Joint Air Tactical Missile (JATM). Although the precise parameters are not yet clear, this new longer-range AAM is meant to be the next air dominance weapon for the United States Air Force (USAF). It will probably have advanced two-way data links to enable more precise targeting and even complete re-aiming of the missile in flight. Initial flight tests are planned for 2021, with operational testing in 2022.
Smart Weaponry for Ground Strikes
Besides the most modern aircraft and plentiful weapons, three main factors are essential for a long-range strike deep into enemy territory to be accurate and effective. First, high quality intelligence, especially accurate GPS coordinates. Second, a low CEP of the weapon employed for the strike. Third, real-time intelligence updates.
The Raytheon StormBreaker smart glide bomb is an air-launched, precision-strike weapon that will be fitted on all current USAF fighter and bomber aircraft and even on the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). This 250-lbs high explosive bomb fitted with wings and a guidance system can engage individual ground targets at ranges up to 65 km. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation fighter will carry up to eight StormBreaker weapons internally and eight externally on the wings.
The Taurus KEPD 350 is a German ALCM. It incorporates stealth technology and has an official range in excess of 500 km. Its tu rbofan engine gives it a speed of Mach 1. The double 500-kg warhead features a pre-charge and an initial penetrating charge to clear soil or enter a hardened underground bunker and a variable delay fuse to control detonation of the main warhead. It is pre-programmed with target, Air Defence (AD) locations and planned ground path and follows a terrain-hugging profile guided by INS and GPS to the proximity of the target. It can also navigate over very long distances without GPS. Once there, the missile commences a bunt (climb) manoeuvre to an altitude intended to achieve the best probability of target acquisition and penetration. If there is a high risk of collateral damage, it will steer to a pre-designated crash point instead of risking an inaccurate attack with embarrassing repercussions.
European developer and manufacturer MBDA has started work on a family of concept weapons that could arm future fighters such as the European Future Air Combat System (FCAS) and the UK-led Tempest. According to MBDA, to overcome the defences of the future, increased performance, reduced signature, improved sensors and greater networking will be required to be integrated with weapon systems. Of the two deep-strike weapons it plans, one is a low-flying stealthy subsonic standoff weapon in the StormShadow mould, but with a range of more than 1,000 km and penetrating capability against deeply buried targets. The other is a high-supersonic long-range weapon to be used against high-value targets.
For tactical strike missions, the MBDA SPEAR family is intended to fill the gap between the large and very-long range StormShadow missile and the highly accurate Brimstone Close Air Support (CAS) missile. The compact size of the SPEAR allows four weapons to be carried in each of the two internal weapon bays of the F-35 or three per external station on the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Next in line is the MBDA SmartGlider – a compact glide weapon that will provide a high combat mass by being carried six at a time on one smart launcher, permitting up to 18 to be launched by a Rafale jet. Using automatic target recognition, networking and Artificial Intelligence (AI), the SmartGlider could undertake swarm attacks to saturate and destroy enemy defences. The MBDA SmartCruiser is similar, but has a motor to extend its range.
Hypersonic Weapons on the Horizon
Advanced military technology is highly expensive. Hence, due to budgetary constraints, the IAF’s stock of smart weapons is not large and these may well run out within the first few days of a major conflict. However, post-Balakot, the IAF is gradually increasing its inventory. It has ordered both SPICE-1000 and SPICE-2000 PGM kits and started receiving them at its Mirage 2000 base of Gwalior. It has also contracted for about 300 Vympel R-73 short-range AAMs and 400 R-77 radar-guided medium-range AAMs. It may also consider inducting the K-77M AAM.
Although, smart weapons are costly, upgrading these or expanding their effective envelope, can be simply a matter of writing extra lines of code or fixing bugs in the control system and offering this to existing customers for a price. Smart weapons can also prove economical because each target can be neutralised by a single appropriate weapon instead of releasing several in the hope that at least one might hit the target. Similarly, older aircraft that are vulnerable to the enemy’s AD systems, can get a fresh lease of life by equipping them with munitions capable of release outside the enemy’s lethal zone. For instance, the US Rockwell B-1 Lancer was seemingly ready for retirement after constant operational deployments overseas, but its ability to carry large hypersonic missiles in its internal weapons bay might render the heavy bomber indispensable for years to come.
In fact, with a number of countries including China, Russia and the US striving to develop missiles capable of flight at speeds of Mach 5 and above, hypersonic missiles seem set to proliferate. Such weapons could change the face of aerial warfare because they would drastically compress the time between weapon launch and impact making the defender’s task to identify, assess, track and engage the incoming weapon well-nigh impossible with current technology.
Advanced technology has clearly accelerated the pace of battle and is driving the demand for yet more lethal munitions with higher speed, greater range and improved accuracy. However, the days when fire and brimstone could be indiscriminately rained down on the adversary are over. Smart aerial weapons are now the norm and their numbers are limited only by a country’s ability to pay for them.