Short range air-to-air missiles are the most lethal weapon to intercept air-vehicles in current air-warfare, and they represent pinnacle of missile technology for guidance and radical maneuverability. This article tries to review the most advanced SRAAMs to obtain insights of air-warfare, and predict future trend, competing with other advanced weapons such as DEW, MDSM, or SACM.
Below Table 1 summarizes specification of few missiles developed by France, UK, German, Russia, Israel, and US. Other countries like China, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, and South Korea developed or will develop their own SRAAM however, concept of their country are still not as matured as conventional super powers.
Table 1 Summary of specification of SRAAM of major countries
1) Development Background
French previously operated heavy Super 530D targeted MiG-25 which demand Mirage 2000 series to give up usage of external fuel tank. Indeed, as a successor of 530D, French tried to integrate radar and IR homing missiles in one small package to increase magazine of the missiles in their small fighters, Mirages and Rafale; it resulted mid-sized MICA-EM and IR series. Also, French smartly thought their possibility of export for foreign countries which demands multi-seeker missiles in similar size. Development direction of MICA made itself as a one of the lethal missiles in the world in mid-short range however it resulted reduction of efficiency in longer range for radar homing missile. Because of the size of MICA, French should finally develop Meteor missiles to deal with future threat in longer range. So, now, it is hard to judge whether size decision on MICA series is good or bad; anyway, aerial combat inventory of French is proliferated by MICA and Meteor un-intentionally.
Reason of Anglo’s ASRAAM was very obvious because UK always focused their eye on northern threat of long range fighter-bombers. As ASRAAM obtain relatively longer range than other SRAAMs, it is the only non-TVC missile even with smaller control surfaces. It is the radical contrast of Python series. It gave another aspect of difference when ASRAAM is modified for naval purpose, sea-ceptor. While MICA-VL or ground-based IRIS-T uses its own motor for launch via TVC, sea-ceptor added cold launch method with side array nozzle to control initial direction. Un-intended advantage of the ASRAAM is relatively compact configuration of the missile which takes smaller volume in the internal weapon bays.
Compared to UK or France, purpose of Israel, German, US, and Russia is simple, maximization of lethality in standard range of SRAAMs. Actually, development direction of the IRIS-T and AIM-9X was triggered by advent of R-73 series, and it is natural that those three missiles become similar. Difference of them could be configured when we watched aspect of cost. Although AIM-9X has advanced performance with TVC and sensor technologies, part of the missile still depends on AIM-9L/M technology to reduce the cost. Because of this limitation, AIM-9X takes position of lightest, smallest, lowest, most-short-ranged of the all candidates. IRIS-T, developed by German, seems to follow mid-position of all missiles, modest range, maneuverability, sensors, range, speed, and warheads; this leads IRIS-T to most exported SRAAMs in the argued competitors.
Russian’s R-73 is replacement of R-60; R-60 was light-weight air-to-air missile for multiple load and versatile usage of fighter and helicopters. R-73 turn design concept from small-versatility to maximized lethality at that time; R-73 firstly introduced TVC, and HMS with IRST combination in 80’s. In order to integrate these, R-73 could not avoid heavy weight body than competitors. Now R-73 will be replaced by R-74 because some part of R-73 is outdated and western counterpart finished development of new missiles against advent of R-73.
As described in ASRAAM paragraph, IAF also fully focused on lethality in close combat; short ranged circumstance of the Israel naturally leads that kind of directions. Because of the combat range of IAF, they required fully out-performing missile than R-73. In their scenario, fully air-to-ground armed F-15 or F-16 should do self-defense against R-73, and their Python 5 should be better for maneuverability with reasonable range. Because this higher goal, they could achieve longer range with the best maneuverability via sacrifice of heavy weight, drag, and large sized fin.
2) Reach of Arm
As a function of propulsion (speed, kinetic energy), weight, and aerodynamic layout (lift and drag), range of the missile could be determined. Heavier weight with lower drag missiles could maintain its kinetic energy in longer range while heavier weight act as burden for maneuverability and acceleration. From this point of view, MICA-IR take top position among these missiles because MICA was designed as semi-mid-range missile rather than pure SRAAM. MICA-IR could achieve fastest speed (~M4) with its heaviest weight and reasonable drag level. UK’s ASRAAM secure similar range with limited weight via sacrifice of TVC, and control surfaces. Although ASRAAM’s weight is limited in the level of IRIS-T or AIM-9X, bigger diameter of rocket motor is used.
Python 5 could reach similar top speed of MICA with similar weight however, a lot of number of control surfaces providing more lethality make drag limiting the range of the Python. Russian’s R-73 or 74 series also adopted big rocket motor and heavy weight to achieve 40km+ level of maximum range; it is interestingly noted that top speed of Russian is still in M2.5 level. Probably, we could expect that motor of Vympel’s has longer burn time via sacrifice of peak thrust. As a summary, MICA-IR and R-74 enjoys top level of kinetic energy via decision of missile sizing while ASRAAM and Python optimize their performance for range and maneuverability respectively. IRIS-T, AIM-9X series limited its physical size and only concentrated short-range performance which originally SRAAMs intended for.
After shock of R-73, most SRAAMs secure TVC for few ten times of G maneuverability, so now, most experts argue that manned jet fighter could not evade advanced SRAAMs in lethal range. Most candidate in table 1 reach at least 50G in their peak turn. Only ASRAAM is lack of TVC which means peak maneuverability could be performed after few seconds of launch. Python 5 and IRIS-T performs little-bit better performance in maneuverability because they could fully focus in that area without limitation of cost (AIM-9X), or range (ASRAAM, MICA)
ASRAAM, IRIS-T, AIM-9X share almost same sensor, array of IR sensors for better image, because they are based on the ASRAAM project. MICA is also expected to have same class of IR image sensor; Rafale simultaneously linked sensor data as IRST. Python 5 are known for larger array of IR sensors and expected to give better angular resolution than the other candidates. R-73 is the oldest missile of them, and Russian will be expected to give better sensor for R-74. As a summary, Python 5 is known for largest IR array sensors than others while Russians are still in behind in the age of 80’s.
5) Size, Adaptability and Further Development
As we discussed in the development background, French MICA is largest one; Russian and Israel consist second group; US, UK, and German are in third group. However, the difference in weight do not significantly impact on the physical size of the missile, diameter and length. Except, ASRAAM, extremely minimized configuration as SRAAM, and Python 5, having largest sized fins, other candidates take similar internal space of planform. If proper size of booster is attached behind of the SRAAMs, they could become lethal mid-range SAM or new type of AAM. French, Israel, and German already presented ground or naval based version of their SRAAM without heavy modification.
Overall comparison between these advanced missiles is not easy because they developed in different time, purpose, cost, and concept. Technological level of the major powers is similar, and no one can judge easily which one is the best among them. If fight between the fight occurs in fair condition, MICA-IR, and ASRAAM provides trigger-initiative for their pilot. MICA is also top-speed runner among them which provides short shot-to-kill time for best convenience. When we consider MICA also contain TVC for close maneuverability, MICA could cover wider range of aerial combat from semi-mid to short range effectively. Indeed, I could set MICA-IR as top performance missile among candidates. In a close range, Python 5 has large sensor part and high maneuverability with high speed which could be at top position in lethality. Except those heavier ones, MICA and Python 5, IRIS-T and ASRAAM could compete for 2nd place of the missile. While ASRAAM has advantage in range and speed, IRIS-T attached TVC and fins to give better lethality than ASRAAM in close range. Russian and US seems to be little behind due to the age (R-73), and cost concept (AIM-9X).
7) Compatibility with Future Weapons like DEW, MDSM, or SACM – Conclusion
In the future aerial fights, these missiles still in place however, DEW, MDSM and SACM will push their own position. DEW obviously has advantage over missiles for its magazine, promising un-limited shot, and it could be used as CIWS of fighters in future. Laser generally requires massive power for fighters, and it is expected that large 6th generation fighter only enjoys that magazine advantage overcoming power usage. If current 4.5 or 5th generation fighter uses DEW, range or simultaneous usage of DEW could be not enough for engagement of multiple targets.
MDSM and SACM, half size of conventional SRAAM, could be another alternative for DEW and current SRAAMs. They appeal double magazine than the conventional one because internal weapon bays suffers limited load of the missiles. These choose hit-to-kill method, side nozzle, and optimum trajectory to reduce size and maximize range in their limited size. No one could expect that these could replace current SRAAM completely. Before SACM and MDSM are fully matured, SRAAM probably has advantage for range slightly and mix of SRAAM and SACM could be used for a while. In that reason, AIM-9X and IRIS-T, having little advantage in range, could be phased out easily via advent of SACM. Already US pilot preferred AIM-120 in close combat than AIM-9X having longer minimum range than mid-range missiles. This is the possible reason that US only slightly upgraded AIM-9X without heavy investment on advanced SRAAM.
French, UK, and Russia could discriminate their missiles over SACM class for its relatively longer range; also, French and UK will not hesitate to use MICA and ASRAAM as semi-mid-range missile, having radar-homing variant as MICA-EM and Sea-ceptor (although it is naval use) respectively. So, temporary, distinction between medium and short range missile become unclear as many classes of missiles are in inventory. It is no doubt that DEW expands their effective kill range as time goes on. Among the class of missiles, shortest ranged one will loses their role as DEW shows its full potential. Surprisingly, in that situation, effectiveness of SACM or MDSM is reduced rapidly; advantage of number of missile is easily neutralized by few shot of DEW. I expect that inventory of air-warfare could be shortlisted as DEW, MICA or ASRAAM class, and Medium range missiles.
Someone could argue that it is same as the gun-SRAAM-AMRAAM combination in the current age; only difference is each component, DEW, MICA and Med. Missiles, has longer range, more magazine, and better angular tracking capability. Development of SACM and MDSM class missile can be just contemporary weapon for F-35 and F-22 having small internal weapon bays. Their legacy, hit-to-kill technology and miniaturization of components, will be survived for new medium range missiles which will be consists of booster and SRAAM.