With the recent report of the US Air Force is upgrading its weapons for its fifth and sixth-generation aircraft, the Pentagon appears to be on track to ensure its air lethality is at the maximum.
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The Air Force modernization program has made significant improvements in the weapon upgrade for the next-generation aircraft using cyber testings and software.
The recent success of the new Raytheon AIM-120D version of the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and the AIM-9X Sidewinder was due to the software enhancements efforts under the weapons modernization.
A crucial duty that lies with the Air Force right now is not just to develop and advance its fighter jets from one generation to another but simultaneously improve its munitions.
In July, Lt. General David Nahom, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, had emphasized this responsibility of the USAF saying, “You’ve got to be careful, as we purchase and run around with fifth-generation aircraft that we’re not putting third-generation munitions on them. So there’s a balance.”
Recent Weapon Upgrades
The software enhancements of this modernization plan will entail the expansion of the aircraft’s weapons envelope by adding interfaces, fire-control adjustments, and the required levels of targeting and computing technologies.
The newly developed AIM-120D is said to have brought “game-changing” capabilities to the fleet due to its newer software upgrade that enables frequency hopping and switching frequencies to stay on course to its target.
The AIM-120 is an advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM). It is a new generation all-weather, weapon manufactured by Raytheon.
The current adaptions of the AIM-9X break the usual requirement of fighter jets to be in a strictly linear firing trajectory and capable of firing off-boresight. Technically, it can now attack at all angles by changing course in flight and redirecting attack on an enemy aircraft flying on the side or even behind.
The introduction of the GBU-35/B StormBreaker on the F-35 is an upcoming significant advancement. Set to installation by 2023, the StormBreaker works in three modes to provide maximum operational flexibility using millimeter-wave radar, imaging infrared, semi-active laser enabling it to engage fixed or moving targets at any time of day and in all weather conditions.
Earlier in the year, F-15C Eagle destroyed a drone in what the US Air Force called “the longest known air-to-air missile shot to date.” The exact details were not revealed, however, the test is a clear indication that the USAF is making long-range engagements a top priority.
US portal – National Interest (NI) reported that USAF needs a new air-to-air missile to take full advantage of the new AESA radar. The radars can track targets much before they are in missile range—and moreover—American missiles are grossly outranged by new Chinese weapons like the PL-15.
Even some of the latest US developments don’t match the estimated range of the Chinese missiles. However, the source told NI that US estimations of the last Chinese ‘super missile’ – the PL-12, were grossly exaggerated.
Laser Weapons – The Newest Addition
Recently, Lockheed Martin delivered the new Airborne High Energy Laser to the USAF for flight testing on an AC-130J and is now just a step away from ground testing and demonstration on the aircraft.
Titled as “hell in the sky,” this AC-130J Ghostrider Gunship now equipped with Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) will become one of the most lethal and futuristic additions on the battleground.
The laser weapons on USAF’s already stealthy fleet will do the incomprehensible – strike so stealthily with an invisible beam and silent laser without the explosion of a kinetic attack that the effects at the target may not be initially noticed.
From melting vehicles tires, or disabling a radar or communications antenna, the ability to produce such explosions from several miles away without leaving traces makes these laser weapons the most prominent development on weapons for the Air Force.
Sixth-Gen Aircraft Projects
The mega milestones achieved by the fifth and sixth-generation aircraft of the US Air Force had set the grounds for the need for improvement in munitions as well as research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E).
While the fifth-generation fighter jets have had significant developments and upgrades, the sixth-generation combat fighters mandate the weapons keep pace with their technology.
Three prominent sixth-generation aircraft plans including those of US near-peer are – the American Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, the UK-led Tempest, and Europe’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS).
The US’ Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is a sixth-generation fighter program with a goal of fielding a “family of systems” and enhancements in survivability, lethality, and persistence that would eventually succeed the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
Although the details of the aircraft are classified, it is known that Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have all announced sixth-generation aircraft development projects. The USAF secretly flew a prototype of NGAD in September 2020.
The UK Tempest project is in partnership with Sweden and Italy who are to sign a contract by the end of this year. Japan is currently in talks about joining this project.
With a collaborative venture of BAE, Rolls-Royce, European missile maker MBDA and Leonardo UK, the aim is for the main development program to begin in 2025, with the jet operational by 2035. This project aims to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon jets from 2040.
A rival sixth-generation project of France, Germany, and Spain is underway to replace Dassault’s Rafale, Panavia Tornado, and Spanish Eurofighters.
The Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is to be accompanied by a smattering of drones for reconnaissance and strike missions. Combat cloud – a sophisticated network of data links — is meant to provide the glue between the flying program elements during operations.
Currently, the NGAD leads the race among the other competitors in the sixth-gen aircraft projects. But according to various DoD officials and experts, what the Air Force needs to work on is its munitions capabilities and up their air combat game.