Air Weapons: September 19, 2004

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The Royal Air Force has begun to acquire AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM missiles for its force of Tornado F.3 aircraft. This is a controversial purchase, albeit one the RAF is eager to pursue since the Tornado F.3s current radar-guided missile is the Sky Flash, a semi-active radar homing missile derived from the Sparrow. 

Semi-active radar homing missiles are obsolete, since their use requires that the plane firing them fly in a straight path to paint the target with its radar. That approach is a good way to get a plane shot down, with the potential loss of aircrew. The smart approach is to get a fire-and-forget system like AMRAAM on planes as soon as possible.

The integration of AMRAAM on the Tornado F.3 is intended to be a stopgap until the Eurofighter Typhoon enters service with the RAF. That said, there have been recent compatibility issues reported with the Tornado F.3s radar (the Foxhunter) and the missile known as Slammer. The issues are not minor the British press reported in 2002 that one test-firing went really bad. According to the report, the AMRAAMs seeker went active and the missile reportedly tried to home in on the aircraft escorting the one that did the test-firing, and missed because the escorting aircraft was in a position that allowed it to escape the errant missile.

The Royal Navys decision to retire the Sea Harrier FA.2 left open the option of installing the Blue Vixen radar in the Tornado, but such a system would require even more testing. Adding a new radar is not a simple matter of plug-and-play as it would be on a desktop or laptop computer. The RAF would have to make sure that current weapons on the plane are compatible with the new radar.

The AMRAAM purchase was made despite the problems, which makes it likely that the Tornado F.3 will be retired early in favor of the Eurofighter. The Eurofighter is designed to use the AMRAAM, at least until the new Meteor anti-aircraft missile enters service. The Meteor is designed to have extended range (100+ kilometers compared to 90 kilometers for the AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM) and speed (in excess of Mach 4) compared to the AMRAAM, which it will replace in 2012.

The Royal Air Forces new missile buy not only demonstrates the advancements in air-to-air missiles, but it also shows the need for proper testing and evaluation of weapons systems. The testing needs to be done right, or else the near-accident reported by the British press could occur in a much less convenient place than on a fight test range. As the errant AMRAAM incident shows, even peacetime duties like flight-testing can have a high level of risk Top American aces like Richard Bong (40 confirmed kills in World War II) and Joseph McConnell (16 kills in the Korean War) survived combat only to die in accidents testing out new aircraft. But the rewards (having reliable combat aircraft) have outweighed the risks and costs. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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