Proliferation fears spark interest in sea-skimming weapon

The US Navy is considering acquiring Russian NPO Mashinostroyenhe P-900 "Alfa" supersonic sea-skimming missiles for conversion into targets amid fears the weapon will soon begin to proliferate on the world market.

If a commercial purchase is not possible, the USN is studying potential development of a hybrid surrogate target that would combine the airframe and power plant of the Raytheon BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile with a supersonic final stage derived from either the Raytheon SM-2 Medium Range 2+ or MIM-23B Hawk missiles.

USN officials say the P-900, also known by the Russian industry designation 3M51, is not capable of being effectively modelled by any existing supersonic targets in the US inventory. Capt Richard Walter, programme manager US Navy aerial targets and decoys, says the Russian weapon is a "threat totally in its own category".

The USN operates a small number of modified Russian Zvezda-Strela missile design bureau KH-31 supersonic sea-skimming missiles as targets. Boeing is the prime contractor for that programme, with the target version designated MA-31. The USN has given the P-900 the unclassified designation of Threat D in statements on options to counter the perceived threat.

Speaking last week at the US National Defence Industrial Association's annual targets and ranges conference in Charleston, South Carolina, Walter said: "Just like with MA31 [where] we went out and bought the real item, we are considering that on Threat D. We are working through all the different groups you have to do that.

"We are working through those issues and getting ready to contact the embassy. If the country is interested in doing this we will probably try to set up a foreign comparative test type activity, the same as we did with MA-31."

Walter told the conference that the USN has been actively studying development of a P-900 equivalent for at least four years with the Office of the Undersecretary for Defense initiating preliminary studies in 2000. That resulted in recommendations to explore evolving a surrogate target from the Tomahawk airframe to replicate the cruise phase flight profile of the Russian missile, and integration of a high-speed final stage to replicate its terminal phase behaviour.

A follow on risk reduction study was carried out by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory during 2003-4.


Source: Flight International