Air Weapons: Expandable and Reusable Decoys


May 31, 2022: Since the late 1980s American combat aircraft have carried a series of powered decoys that were used successfully during the 1991 Iraq War. Now the air force has escalated this concept with the XQ-58, which is a larger (2.2-ton) UAV that can carry up to 528 kg of guided bombs, missiles or expendable decoys. XQ-58 is reusable, an essential feature because it is much more expensive, probably costing five to ten times as much as the veteran MALD (miniature air-launched decoy) expendable powered decoys. XQ-58 moves a little faster and flies higher than MALD but has an endurance of three hours. XQ-58 has more complex flight control software because it can land or takeoff like a manned aircraft or be launched from a storage/transport container and land via a parachute. It can also be used as a “loyal wingman” with manned aircraft as well as a key component of combat swarms in which the XQ-58 would spend much of their time operating autonomously and able to cooperate with nearby XQ-58s to carry out a specific mission and depend as little as possible for new orders from human controllers in order to preserve immunity to enemy electronic countermeasures. XQ-58 will remain in development for some time because of the wide assortment of flight control software required. In theory, XQ-58 capabilities make it suitable for larger operations like defending Taiwan against Chinese attack or similar operations in the South China Sea. China has also investigated using swarms of networked UAVs. This tech is already used commercially for entertainment (light shows) and resource management over large areas.

Meanwhile, the air force and navy still believe in and use MALD. This includes actively developing new capabilities. XQ-58 solves the problems endurance and payload MALD and similar expendable UAVS suffer from when called on to perform more complex tasks.

Meanwhile the U.S. Army has developed the ALE-L (Air-Launched Effects-Large) disposable powered UAVs that can move at high speed, up to 360 kilometers an hour, for about 40 minutes and transmit photos and electronic emissions found around the helicopter LZ (Landing Zone). In the transport helicopters troops see this real-time information on tablet computers equipped with mission planning software that is modified to accept the ALE-L updates so that during a 30-40-minute helicopter ride the troops can get updates on what is going on near their LZ. This can often be a matter of life or death because an LZ is selected beforehand as an area where the terrain and lack of armed opposition is favorable to the helicopters getting in and out after unloading their troops safely, but as close as possible to the ground objective the troops are after. ALE-L can also be carried by attack helicopters or C-130 gunships to perform reconnaissance or targets or threats to the aircraft carrying ALE-L

Expendable UAVs like ALE-L seek to emulate the success of MALD, which has been in use for decades and undergone numerous upgrades to maintain its usefulness. For example, in 2020 the U.S. Navy introduced MALD-N, a powered disposable decoy that can broadcast signals imitating various radars and do so while networked (thus the N) with other MALD-Ns as well as manned aircraft. This enables all the MALD-Ns in a swarm to automatically share information and quickly make changes to maintain the maximum confusion for enemy radars. There’s a pilot or system operator monitoring all this and able to intervene if needed. The MALD-N is a variant of the older (2012) MALD-J, the first jammer version of MALD.

The original ADM-160B MALD passed acceptance tests in 2009 and the air force agreed to buy it. MALD is a 115 kg (250 pound) powered decoy with a range of 900 kilometers and speed comparable with the cruise speed of several manned warplanes. MALD appears on the enemy radar as a warplane. MALD itself is a torpedo-shaped object that is about half the size of a Tomahawk cruise missile. MALD operates on the same principle as Tomahawk. When launched short wings pop out and a small jet engine starts. MALD deceives enemy radars with electronics that can generate signals that make MALD appear to be one of several actual warplanes. MALD is preprogrammed to fly a specific route with its electronic radar transmitter programmed to emit signals making the tiny MALD appear like a larger aircraft on the enemy radar.

It took fourteen years of sometimes wasted effort on earlier designs to finally get a MALD that worked effectively and reliably. All that extra work made it clear that MALD would be even more effective if it included active (broadcasting) jammers and work on that (MALD-J) began in 2008, just as MALD was ready in 2012. The jammer version was found to be even more effective. Since 2011 over 2,000 MALDs have been delivered or are on order. A thousand of these were in service by 2014.

Initially, only the B-52, F-18, and F-16 are equipped to carry MALD. Over the years large UAVs and maritime patrol aircraft have been equipped to carry MALD. The navy operates MALD-J from F-18Es, which accompany EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft and is now equipping the new F-35. The EA-18G could carry MALD-J but this would be at the expense of range. The EA-18G needs as much range as it can get in order to go deep into enemy air space and destroy air defenses. The MALD manufacturer has also developed the needed equipment (special racks) so that up to 192 MALDs can be loaded on military transports and quickly launched. This would certainly catch the enemy's attention.

MALD was developed to replace an early powered decoy, ADM-141C ITALD (Improved Tactical Air Launched Decoy), which entered service about the time MALD entered development. ITALD is 2.34 meters (7.7 feet) long with a 1.55-meter (five foot) wingspan. It weighs 180 kg (400 pounds), has a top speed of 460 kilometers an hour, and a range of about 300 kilometers. ITALD, as well as the earlier 59 kg (130 pound) unpowered TALD, contains passive and active devices to enhance the radar image the enemy will receive when they spot the decoy. The navy bought about 200 ITALDs. In the late 1980s, the navy bought over 2,000 ADM-141 TALDs, which proved successful during the 1991 Gulf War. Israel also had success in combat with their version of TALD, which was developed from similar decoys designed in the 1970s based on Israeli and U.S. Navy experience with Russian equipped Arab air defense systems. The U.S. Air Force didn't get interested until after the Cold War ended and that led to MALD. TALD was basically an updated version of the Israeli Samson, which the navy bought 500 in the late 1980s and early 1990s as TALD and these were the ones used successfully in 1991 against Iraq.

The MALD is three meters (9.5 feet) long and its pop-out wings give it a 1.55-meter (five foot) wingspan. The current versions weigh 130 kg (285 pound) and are powered by a small turbojet engine that gives it a speed of up to 1,000 kilometers an hour, for 45 minutes, at 11,000 meters (35,000 feet), or 20 minutes at 1,000 meters (3,100 feet). It can be programmed to fly a specific course to try and get enemy air defenses to open up so the enemy weapons can be spotted and destroyed. MALDs are also designed to be used in swarms to overwhelm enemy air defenses. The new MALDs cost nearly $300,000 each. The MALD-J is more expensive and about five percent heavier. The MALD-J was so successful in tests that the air force initially converted 200 of its MALDs to MALD-J.

Early on the MALD was supposed to be a smaller (by 15 percent), simpler, and cheaper ($30,000 each) design than the ITALD. But, as is common with these projects, both the air force and the manufacturer kept coming up with new things the MALD had to have. Some were necessary while others were just part of the usual procurement politics. The current MALD has a range of nearly 900 kilometers and is reliable enough to be used in combat. The radar jamming capability of MALD-J was the first of many electronic warfare capabilities added to the higher (up to half a million dollars, or more, each) priced version of MALD now entering use. MALD-X has the same weight, speed and range as MALD-J and can use a larger variety of interchangeable modules, each performing a different EW (Electronic Warfare) task. MALD-X was originally developed for U.S. Air Force fighters but its use of interchangeable modules allowed the U.S. Navy to develop modules suitable for naval aviation needs as well.




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