Air Weapons: Fast, Cheap And Versatile

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January 16, 2019: In late 2018 Russia announced that it had flight tested a new Kh-47M2 (Kinzhal) hypersonic air-launched missile from a 42 ton MiG-31BM fighter. There are apparently only about six MiG-31BMs modified to carry this missile and only one can be carried at a time. The Tu-22 bomber was tested with the Kinzhal in 2017, apparently successfully. The Tu-22M3M can carry up to four Kinzhals, which have a range of 3,000 kilometers when launched from high altitude (12,500 meters/40,000 feet).

Kh-47M2 is apparently an air-launched version of the Iskander SRBM (Short Range Ballistic Missile). The guidance system is modified for air launch along with some physical modification to mount the missile on an aircraft. This approach is nothing new and the Israelis have recently done it, successfully, with one of their short-range ballistic missiles. Kinzhal, however, makes accuracy claims (against ships at sea) that have not been seen tested successfully. Until that happens potential export customers will be unwilling to consider making a purchase.

The Iskander has a long history but proved difficult to find export customers for and, until the last decade, too expensive for the Russian military. Iskander began development near the end of the Cold War. The first successful launch took place in 1996. The 3.8 ton Iskander has a solid fuel rocket motor and a range of 280-400 kilometers, with a 400 kg (880 pound) warhead. The missile can be stored for up to ten years. Russia sells several different types of warheads, including cluster munitions, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) and electromagnetic pulse (anti-radar, and destructive to electronics in general.) There is also a nuclear warhead, which is not exported. Guidance is very accurate, using GPS, plus infrared homing for terminal guidance. The warhead will land within 10 meters (31 feet) of the aim point. Iskanders are carried in a 20 ton 8x8 truck, which also provides a launch platform. There is also a reload truck that carries two missiles.

About the same time Kh-47M2 was announced (early 2018) Israel was preparing to reveal a similar weapon; Rampage. Unlike Kh-47M2, Rampage may have already been tested by hitting targets in Syria. To hit those targets Israel sought to rely more on guided missiles and less on aircraft getting close to targets. One obvious source of new aircraft weapons is ground-launched guided missiles.

Since most ground-launched guided missiles use GPS adapting them for air-to-surface use is not a problem. It is also easier if you select a missile that will easily fit bomb racks (attachment devices under the wings) and Israel had a new artillery rocket that was about the same size and weight as half ton (1,100 pound) guided and unguided bombs already used on fighter-bombers. This was the locally developed EXTRA (EXTended Range Artillery) GPS guided rocket. This was actually a ballistic missile because it was launched at a high angle and came at the target at supersonic speed because was coming from a high altitude. Thus Rampage was based on a 570 kg (1,254 pounds) 306mm EXTRA ballistic missile that has a max range of 150 kilometers and entered service in 2016. An additional bonus is that when launched from the air a ground-based rocket has a much longer range, especially when launched at a high (over 3,000 meters) altitude. In addition, an air-launched artillery rocket comes at the target at very high speed compared to smart bombs and cruise missiles. Israel decided to call the airborne version of EXTRA Rampage. The only modifications needed to turn EXTRA into Rampage was a reinforced midsection and the addition of attachment hardware so it could be carried by a fighter-bomber just like the bombs of the same weight and shape long used. In the future aircraft could have their fire control systems modified so the pilot could change the target coordinates for Rampage. A lighter warhead (100 kg) is used for Rampage to achieve the same weight as half-ton bombs. The air-launched Rampage and its range has not been revealed yet but it is probably over 400 kilometers. Israel has successfully tested Rampage but did not reveal the ranges at which Rampage worked. It is quite possible that Rampage is effective at more than 500 kilometers but keeping potential enemies guessing for as long as possible is a military advantage. Rampage could add a laser homing system that would enable it to hit moving or very small targets. The designating laser could be provided by a UAV or someone on the ground. Rampage goes into production this year although some prototypes were already used in realistic situations to test the final design.

Meanwhile, there is also a naval version of EXTRA called Trigon. Using a ship-mounted launcher and terminal guidance (in addition to GPS) Trigon can hit moving targets. The current Trigon just has GPS and is intended for hitting land targets with a supersonic ballistic missile that is difficult to defend against.

 


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