Electronic Weapons: America Hires The Decepticons

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August 29, 2012: The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy recently ordered several hundred more of the new jammer version (MALD-J) of the air force MALD (miniature air-launched decoy) disposable decoy. It was only last year that the air force agreed to buy MALD. It was only two years ago, after over a decade of development, that MALD was delivered in sufficient (although classified) quantities so that aircraft could actually carry out operations with the new device. These tests were a success.

MALD is a powered decoy that appears on enemy radar to be a warplane. This latest version of MALD works. Six years of wasted effort on earlier designs created several versions that did not. Work then began on MALD-J, a radar jamming version. This version was found to be even more effective.

Currently, only the B-52, F-18, and F-16 are equipped to carry MALD. The air force will begin receiving MALD-J (the jammer version) by the end of the year. The navy operates MALD-J from F-18Es, which will accompany EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft. 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.

Meanwhile, MALD replaces a 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, 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.

The new powered version of MALD is three meters (9.5 feet) long and its pop-out wings give it a 1.55 meter (five foot) wingspan. The 130 kg (285 pound) decoy is 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 has been so successful in tests that the air force is converting 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 apparently reliable enough to be used in combat. The radar jamming capability of MALD-J will be the first of many electronic warfare capabilities added to the higher (up to half a million dollars, or more, each) priced version of MALD planned for the future. This version is already in development. Thus the air force has pulled ahead in aerial decoy technology, although the TALD/ITALD series have the distinction of having been tested, and successful, in combat.

 


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