Air Weapons: Tantalizing Tiny Missiles

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October 1, 2019: One American company, Raytheon, produces most of the air-to-air missiles used by Western fighters and now plans to replace many of them with a new design, the smaller Peregrine that could replace both long and short-range missiles. This missile was not requested by anyone and developed with company funds. That has happened before. For example the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM long-range and AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range missiles have been around for a long time, with Sidewinder dating back to the 1950s, when it was developed informally (without a government contract) by Raytheon engineers because they believed it could be done and the Navy adopted it in 1956 with the Air Force following in 1964. At the time AIM-9 was being developed Raytheon had a contract to develop the predecessor of the AMRAAM, the AIM-7 Sparrow. In the 1950s air forces believed that longer range, radar-guided missiles like Sparrow (and AMRAAM) were the future. They were partly right, but the shorter range heat-seeking AIM-9 was cheaper and more effective.

Sensing that someone may soon develop another such breakthrough missile, Raytheon did what the AIM-9 inventors did and looked around at existing technologies and realized another such breakthrough moment might be there, waiting to be realized. Raytheon also knew that competitor Lockheed had, in 2011 quietly proposed a similar missile, Cuda, that would enable stealth aircraft to carry two or three times as many air-to-air missiles internally. Cuda was accidentally revealed in 2012 when photos of the F-35 internal weapons bay were released and one of those photos contained an unidentified air-to-air missile that was about half the length of Sidewinder or AMRAAM. Questions were asked and Lockheed admitted it was working on this Cuda missile. Alas, development on Cuda was quietly dropped a few years later. But not the tech behind it. In 2018 the U.S. Army gave Lockheed $2 million dollars for further development of Cuda tech in the form of the even smaller MHTK (Miniature Hit-to-Kill) interceptor missile for knocking down UAVs, artillery shells, rockets and low flying aircraft. MHTK is a little shorter than Cuda but thinner and much lighter (2.5 kg/five pounds) with a range of only a few kilometers but using tech that has proved reliable in hitting small targets.

Raytheon has done that successfully since 2014 with its RIM-161 Standard air defense missile. Other missile manufacturers had developed new solid-fuel rocket motor tech that has successfully doubled the range of small missiles. Cuda and MHTK made good use of this tech and Raytheon could sense that other air-to-air missile manufactures were probably on to this as well. Israel often quietly develops new tech like this and then presents it as tested and ready to ship. Israel already produces serious rivals for Sidewinder and has very competitive missiles similar to AMRAAM. An Israeli Cuda or Peregrine is a possibility and that prompted Raytheon to get with it. Unlike Cuda, Raytheon went public with Peregrine before it was available for testing. Raytheon appears to be confident it has solutions for whatever killed Cuda.

Peregrine is, first of all, smaller and lighter than both Sidewinder (85.3 kg/188 pounds) and AMRAAM (172 kg/335 pounds). Peregrine weighs 68 kg (150 pounds). Both Sidewinder and AMRAAM are about the same length (3.7 meters/12 feet) but the Sidewinder is thinner, thus the weight disparity. Peregrine is 1.8 meters (six feet) long, so you can see where this is going. On paper, it is possible for a missile like Peregrine to be useful (guided) for 50 kilometers or more. Max range for Sidewinder is 20 kilometers and AMRAAM can do about a hundred kilometers. The key problem Peregrine faces is its guidance system. Raytheon will only say it will have three guidance systems, with all of them combined being miniaturized to fit into the smaller amount of space Peregrine requires. Same with the warhead, and details of that have not been released. Given the current state of guidance tech, the three methods Peregrine could use would be heat-seeking, radar-guided and radar-homing. All three have long been in use and are mature technologies. But getting them effectively miniaturized is another matter. Miniaturization has been going on for a long time, just ask anyone who began using PCs in the 1970s and now carries a smartphone that is not only smaller but more than a thousand times faster and with greater storage to match. Raytheon has incentive as Sidewinder is the first and most widely used heat-seeking missile to date. AMRAAM is nearly as dominant when it comes to long-range radar-guided missiles. Getting Peregrine to work, even with fewer features initially, would be a great achievement and would keep Raytheon dominant in the air-to-air missile market. If someone else gets a missile like Peregrine to market first Raytheon will take a big hit, both in terms of sales and market share but also to its reputation as an innovator. There are a growing number of customers for something like Peregrine. A weapon like this is essential for stealth aircraft, which are their most stealthy when all weapons are carried in the cramped bomb bay. These aircraft can carry even more weapons, and weight, underneath the wings. But this “beast mode” is much more likely to show up on enemy radar.

 


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