Russia and China are known to have studied U.S. weapons systems for years with the specific purpose of finding ways to destroy, disable and counter them in war. This is a well-known cycle of great power military competition, wherein each power works vigorously to stay in front of potential rivals through various innovations, upgrades and new technical applications.
Air Force and industry efforts to stay in front of great power competitors with upgraded weapons and advanced technologies intended to “counter” enemy “countermeasures.”
Raytheon weapons developers, who engineer AEAS radar systems, sensors and weapons such as the AIM-9X, Stormbreaker and AIM-120D, explain that major rival adversaries have now spent years studying U.S. weapons with the aim of building technologies to outmatch them.
This scenario therefore requires a calculated and highly advanced response, often resulting in weapons upgrades. Raytheon technical adjustments and modernization initiatives with the Stormbreaker air-dropped weapon, for instance, incorporate a few upgrades and “countermeasure” improvements designed to outmatch enemy attacks. The Stormbreaker, slated to arm Air Force F-35s by 2023, relies upon all-weather stand-off precision-strike capability and a “tri-mode” seeker to track and destroy moving targets at ranges up to forty-miles.
A data link built into the Stormbreaker, Raytheon developers say, enables the weapon to receive “in-flight” target updates, change course in response to new intelligence and exchange data both to and from the host aircraft. The Stormbreaker can also rely upon all-weather millimeter wave sensing, imaging infrared guidance or semi-active laser targeting, depending upon the requirements of a given attack mission.
Raytheon and the Air Force recently completed a successful “captive carry” test of the seeker on an F-35 designed to integrate the new weapon onto the fifth-generation fighter. Not only will Stormbreaker allow for greater stand-off ranges and attacks in adverse weather conditions which might otherwise obscure or complicate targeting, but it is engineered with the data-exchanges as part of the Air Force’s Air Dominance concept.
Raytheon’s effort to engineer a new sensor able to exchange in flight information through a data link introduces new multi-mode detection possibilities built into a single weapon. For example, a data link used with Stormbreaker could bring great tactical relevance when it comes to weapons needing course-correcting targeting guidance.
In these scenarios, millimeter wave radar would bring an expanded targeting envelope to air-attack possibilities. Millimeter wave could enable the delivery of precision effects in the kinds of adverse weather conditions known to complicate other sensors such as laser-guidance, infrared detection or electro-optical cameras. Laser signals, while extremely precise and used regularly to great effect to designate enemy targets, can at times suffer what’s called “beam attenuation” due to smoke, fog or other weather impediments.
An interesting essay on this topic from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign states that “cameras or LiDARs suffier in low visibility conditions and bad weather. Cameras also suffer at night in low light conditions… Millimeter wave radars offer more favorable characteristics due to their ability to work at night and penetrate through fog, snow and dust.” (Through Fog High Resolution Imaging Using Millimeter Wave Radar” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Thermal imaging can also decrease in effectiveness due to dense fog, the essay adds.
As part of yet another effort to prevent enemy countermeasures, Raytheon’s upgraded AIM-9X uses advanced “IR spectrum seekers” to counter enemy efforts to block, confuse or thwart IR targeting. In effect, weapons upgrades are designed to “counter” an enemies “counter,” thereby increasing the prospect of a successful strike. The AIM-9X is also engineered to align with the Air Force strategy with its “off-boresight” targeting technology, an integrated sensor and thrust-vector system which enables the pilot to destroy otherwise “out-of-view” enemy targets behind or beside the aircraft. By drawing upon an advanced sensing network which includes 360-degree cameras and a helmet-mounted cueing system, pilots can find and attack enemy fighters approaching from behind, without having to reposition into a more linear, or straight-on line-of-sight attack posture.
Given these developments, it is not at all surprising that the Air Force Test Center is heavily involved in developing such weapons.
For example, Major General Christopher Azzano, Commander, Air Force Test Center, told The National Interest in an interview. that he and his team are preparing testers for the first B-21 flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California, with a specific mind to networking the aircraft to other weapons systems. Accordingly, technical elements of the aircraft are also intended to support and further key Air Force strategic and tactical aims, such as the current move to improve “networking” and information sharing across the force. Azzano emphasized this, explaining that major platforms like the B-21 will no longer merely function as attack-combat platforms, but also operate as essential “nodes” throughout a meshed, interwoven cross-domain warfare data-sharing network.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.