Northrop Grumman's newly acquired Ryan Aeronautical Center in San Diego, California, is developing a prototype miniature air-launched cruise missile interceptor (MALI) under a $14.1 million contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The MALI is a derivative of the MALD - a miniature air-launched decoy under separate development for the US Air Force. "There are changes everywhere, though a high percentage of MALD will be common to MALI," says Doug Fronius, vice-president of advanced developments at the company that has been fully absorbed into Northrop Grumman after its purchase earlier this year from parent Allegheny Teledyne.

Unlike MALD, which is designed to fly autonomously to simulate the mission profile of a fighter aircraft, the weapon is being developed to intercept incoming cruise missiles. The system will be able to "dash" at supersonic speed, but will intercept subsonically. The MALI is one of three weapon derivatives of the decoy being studied by Ryan. The others are a low-cost autonomous attack system and a system developed for suppression of enemy air defences.

Other potential growth derivatives proposed for MALD include electronic warfare and communications jammers, low-cost targets, acoustic sensor delivery platforms and intelligence gathering.

The MALI programme with DARPA began on 18 March and "is expected to be completed by 31 January, 2002" says the agency, which has awarded an initial $3 million contract towards the development of the prototype as part of the overall $14.1 million deal. Some of the funding will be allocated towards the development of an uprated Sundstrand Aerospace Power Systems TJ50 turbojet. This is rated at 50lb thrust (0.22kN) in the MALD and gives a top speed in the "high subsonic" range, but will be boosted "somewhere between 50% and 100%" for the MALI says Fronius.

The MALD has an endurance of more than 20min and, operating at up to 35,000ft (10,600m), covers a range of more than 460km (250nm) on as little as 9kg (20lb) of JP10 fuel. "We hope to take advantage of that and intercept at much further ranges than current systems," says Fronius, who adds that no fuel capacity increases are planned. Aerodynamic changes will be made to the nose section and inlet, while the wings - which on the MALD extend to a 45í sweep angle after launch, will be folded for the supersonic phase and deployed only for the terminal phase.

The MALI, the first known air-launched anti-cruise missile will be fitted with a datalink to receive target position updates mid-flight. A low-cost seeker will be added for the intercept phase, although the final choice of devices will not be made until later in the programme. The mid-course correction feature will be tested on an off-the-shelf MALD fitted with a datalink.

All MALD navigation systems are based around a global positioning system receiver and inertial measurement unit. Target interceptions will then be tested with further MALDs, before a heavily modified version is used for the supersonic dash tests. All this is expected to be completed "within 30 months" says Fronius.

Development of a useable MALI for the US Air Force and US Navy depends on "the level of interest" he adds. An engineering, manufacturing and development phase would follow the initial DARPA-sponsored effort if tests are successful and the forces firm up a requirement, as expected, Fronius says.

Source: Flight International