Air Weapons: Ukraine Uses American Airborne Decoys


June 29, 2023: Ukrainian warplanes have been using 1.3-ton Storm Shadow cruise missiles for the last few months and they have been quite successful. Max range is 550 kilometers and top speed is 1,100 kilometers an hour. There is a 450 kg high explosive warhead and multiple guidance systems, including GPS, INS (Inertial Navigation System) and terrain recognition. GPS can be jammed but the other two systems cannot. The missile has stealth features but is not invisible to radars. Storm Shadow is vulnerable to air defense systems. The Russians are familiar with Storm Shadow because it has been in service since 2003 and used since 2011 in Libya, Iraq, Syria Yemen and now Ukraine.

Russia has developed effective air defense systems to intercept cruise missiles and the U.S. sent a number of its MALD (Miniature Air-Launched Decoy) powered decoys to Ukraine. These proved effective against Russian air defenses and enabled Storm Shadow to hit well-defended targets. The Americans did not send the latest version of MALD to Ukraine because it contained some technology the Russians had no knowledge of yet.

MALD has been in service since 2009 and has been upgraded several times since then. The latest version is MALD-N, which is equipped with the ability to 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 finally passed acceptance tests in 2009. This is the version sent to Ukraine. 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 almost ready for mass production. MALD-J 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. 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 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 transport aircraft and quickly launched. This would certainly catch the enemy's attention.

MALD soon replaced the similar U.S. Navy jet-powered 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. 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 is the next version and contains more interchangeable modules, each performing a different EW (Electronic Warfare) task. With this the air force has pulled ahead in aerial decoy technology, although only the navy TALD/ITALD series has the distinction of having been tested, and successful, in combat.




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