Matra's Mica firing tops a change in philosophy from the missile manufacturer.

Douglas Barrie/LONDON

THE SUCCESSFUL TEST in mid-July of Matra's imaging infra-red (IIR) variant of its Mica medium-range air-to-air missile (AAM) was more than just the advent of a next-generation weapon. It also capped a shift in philosophy from one of Europe's main missile manufacturers.

In the West, infra-red (IR), or now IIR, seekers have been associated exclusively with short-range, or within-visual-range (WVR) AAMs -that is, for engagements out to around 10km (5.5nm).

Beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles relied initially on semi-active-radar guidance before the advent of fully active radar seekers on missiles such as the Hughes AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, and the active-radar Mica variant.

Matra had previously adhered to this approach - its R530 family of BVR missiles (the R530F and R530D) had semi-active guidance, while its R550 Magic short-range missile was equipped with an IR front end.

The only proponent of putting radar and IR guidance on the same missile chassis for BVR engagements had been the former Soviet Union. The R-40 (AA-6 Acrid) marked the first weapon with a BVR envelope to have both seeker types when it entered service in the early 1970s. The R-23 (AA-7 Apex) and the Vympel R-27 (Alamo) also had IR and semi-active-radar seekers. So far, however, the R-77( AA-12 Adder) has only been seen with an active-radar seeker, although an IIR-variant could be in development.

The Russian approach was to fire a radar- and an IR-guided variant at the same BVR target almost simultaneously to complicate the adversary's countermeasures task. It continues to develop, separately, agile close-in dogfight missiles.

From the outset of development in 1985, Matra's Mica was earmarked as a "multi-mission" missile - both a BVR and dogfight weapon to replace the R530 and the Magic - a marked departure in comparison with other parallel Western WVR/BVR missile programmes.

Maj Gen J-G Brevot, Assistant Chief of the French air force staff, argued in a recent paper that the design offers: "A great operational flexibility in all potential situations." Certainly, it will simplify the logistics-support train for the Dassault Rafale and Mirage 2000-5, where the Mica radar-frequency/IR variant will eventually be the only AAM fielded on the aircraft as the Magic 2 is phased out.

It may also provide an attractive option on the export market, with a potential customer able to consider replacing its present inventory of short- and medium-range AAMs with a single weapon.

While Matra's approach might find vocal support within the likes of Russia's Vympel missile-design bureau, other Western missile manufacturers remain unconvinced.

The USA's premier BVR-missile design house, Hughes, remains wedded to the concept of a "high/low mix" of discrete short-range and BVR missiles rather than the Mica, which it describes as a "swing" weapon. It also believes that the "bottom-line price tag" for the former approach is cheaper than for the Matra scheme.

Matra, predictably, argues that Mica "...offers a cost/efficiency ratio far greater than that of a dedicated missile".

Hughes also points out that by opting for two missiles to fulfil the short- and medium-range roles, the designs remain optimised and do not risk being compromised by conflicting design requirements.

Matra's Mica weighs 110kg, whereas the AIM-120 weighs 150kg, and the British Aerospace advanced short-range air-to air missile weighs 85kg. Matra, in approaching the manoeuvrability required of a dogfight missile, had to keep the weight of the missile down, while providing it with thrust-vectoring paddles. This resulted in the Mica's warhead being almost half the size of that of the AIM-120.

Since the inception of the Mica design, and particularly in the last few years, there has also been a growing emphasis on extended-range BVR engagements. Emerging requirements are looking for ranges well over the current generation of missiles, along with greater remaining kinetic energy in the "end-game" engagement to defeat even a manoeuvring target.

The Mica's unclassified range is given by Matra as "more than 60km", although pushing the present design much beyond this would present the company with the need for a considerable redesign, not least in repackaging the missile's subsystems.

The increased range requirement is in part being driven by the emergence of extended-range Russian BVR missiles, and also by the need for non-stealthy aircraft able to remain outside the kill-zone of the opponent during a BVR engagement.

The design requirements of such a weapon (the Royal Air Force's Staff Requirement (Air) 1239 for a British Aerospace Sky Flash replacement, for example) will be required to be rocket/ramjet powered. The size limitations of the Mica will make it more difficult to meet this kind of requirement

Source: Flight International