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USAF developing next generation air dominance missile

The US Air Force is developing a new air-to-air missile, dubbed the Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM), to fly on its aircraft in the 2030s.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is looking to develop and demonstrate various system and sub-system critical technologies to support the next generation air dominance missile, according to slides released this April from AFRL. SACM would promise an improved solid rocket motor with a highly loaded grain and synergistic control enabled by combined aero, attitude control and thrust vectoring.

AFRL would design a small, low-weight ordnance with hyper-agility, increased range, high loadout and a compressed carriage capability. Slides describe a missile with “dramatically improved high off bore sight for rear hemisphere kills” and “lower cost per kill.” The missile would also incorporate energy optimizing guidance, navigation and control, according to AFRL.

The air force revealed the SACM concept earlier this year in a written presentation to the US House Armed Services Committee in February. The USAF described SACM as an affordable weapon with a higher loadout than current air-to-air missiles. The air force would complement the SACM with the Miniature Self-Defense Munition (MSDM), which would enhance future platforms self-defense capability, without impacting the primary weapon payload, the USAF states.

The air force has long mulled the concept of an AMRAAM replacement, with the service’s former head of Air Combat Command calling for a sixth-generation missile at last year’s Farnborough air show. In an interview with FlightGlobal this January, outgoing ACC chief Gen Herbert Carlisle called for a survivable, long-range missile with combined air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. Carlisle envision the missile fielded across the USAF’s fleets, from fourth-generation aircraft to a future penetrating counterair platform and Northrop’s B-21 bomber.

“Range is a big factor if you look at our potential adversaries with things like the [Chinese] PL-15,” Carlisle said. “I think it needs to be multiband, broad spectrum – which aids it in survivability and reaching the target.”

AFRL’s vision of a small missile with greater range and impact also tracks with Carlisle’s vision. The former chief believes technology will enable the USAF to achieve greater range within the current size and configuration for the F-35 and F-22.

“I can’t comment a lot on where we’re going to go with what we’re developing on technology, but I will tell you that we worked hard,” he says. “I think with the engine and motor technology for weapons we can get range, depending on what kind of profile and motor we use.”

Based on AFRL and Carlisle’s description, SACM could have shades of the USAF and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s defunct joint dual-role air dominance missile (JDRADM) programme, which sought a combined air-to-air and air-to-ground missile for the F-22A and F-35, and external carriage on selected legacy aircraft. The air force effort spun a DARPA programme, the triple target terminator (T3) programme, which pursued a missile that could combine the capabilities of Raytheon’s AIM-120 and AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM).

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