Israeli missile developer Rafael has confirmed that the ground-based Stunner interceptor is the focus of internal deliberations to possibly become the firm's next-generation air-to-air missile.
Rafael and Raytheon are developing the hit-to-kill Stunner as part of the David's Sling air and missile defence system for the Israeli defence forces.
The Stunner's rise has coincided with Rafael's internal deliberations on what should become the successor to its Python 5 short- and Derby medium-range air-to-air missiles. Although the Stunner is planned as a ground-based system, the interceptor is adaptable as an air-launched weapon.
"We are thinking about this," says Ehud "Udi" Cohen, Rafael's business development and marketing manager, who also serves as a reservist colonel in the Israeli defence forces.
Lova Drori, Rafael's executive vice-president of marketing, notes that the aerodynamic differences between a ground-based interceptor such as Stunner and an air-launched missile are trivial - the Stunner is designed to destroy both missiles and aircraft.
"In the air the missile is the same," Drori says, adding: "The Stunner missile for David's Sling can be adapted in the future as the next air-to-air missile."
Rafael executives acknowledge that converting a ground-based system into an air-launched weapon goes against convention. The conversion process usually works in the opposite direction, as with the air-launched Pythons and Derbys adapted for ground-based missions, such as with Rafael's Spyder mobile air defence system.
Raytheon has also followed the same path, with the "Slamraam" variant of its AIM-120 Amraam weapon.
But market forces may be turning against the concept of developing a new missile primarily as an air-to-air weapon. Drori, for example, notes that few dogfights requiring missiles have occurred within the last two decades. Rafael also encounters political resistance in export markets for air-to-air missiles, while ground-based interceptors typically face little public resistance.
"In the future, air-to-air missiles will come from air defence systems," Drori believes.
The only global military customer that might continue supporting the development of an all-new air-to-air missile is the US Air Force, which is pursuing an AMRAAM replacement called the joint dual-role air dominance missile.
The Stunner is designed with a signature, dolphin-shaped nose to accommodate a dual-mode seeker, which has an electro-optical sensor and a radar. The interceptor is also believed to be the first in its class to function as a hit-to-kill weapon.