Skip to main content

photo - Raytheon Stormbreaker

Video Above: How Will Navy Carriers Defend "Carrier-Killer" Missiles?

by Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Navigating through rigorous terrain and taking enemy fire, an armed drone combat vehicle “closing with an enemy” uses high-fidelity, long-range sensors to find hidden or otherwise obscured enemy force concentrations protected by advanced air defenses not easily-detectable by overhead air sensors.

Then, in a matter of seconds or near “real-time,” commanders on Navy destroyers off the coast and Air Force F-22 and B-21 pilots flying miles away receive images, video and intelligence data directly from the ground drone. As a result, the armed, unmanned combat vehicle moves forward to attack while, at the very same time, Navy ships launch Tomahawks to destroy the enemy troop fortifications, B-21s change course to go attack the enemy air defenses and F-22’s fly within range to drop an all-weather, precision-guided “Stormbreaker” bomb on enemy forces from nearly 40-miles away.

As this unfolds, perhaps long-range B-21 sensors locate approaching enemy aircraft moving into position to counter a U.S. advance .. and instantly pass target information to the arriving F-22 which then uses upgraded AIM-9X air-to-air missiles to attack the enemy fighter jets, clearing the way for more coordinated air-ground-sea strikes.

Taken yet a step further, perhaps an Air Force drone, operating under the control of a nearby F-35 crew, sees additional, previously undetected enemy ground targets from the air, instantly cueing ground commanders 30-km away to fire course-correcting, precision-guided “shaped trajectory” Excalibur 155mm artillery rounds at enemy forces.

This kind of coordinated “joint-attack” then opens up an air and ground corridor for mechanized ground convoys, infantry and less-stealthy planes to quickly advance the attack.

“When you consider some of the combined effects on the battlefield, we are trying to take a networked view,” Maj. Gen. Christopher Azzano, Commander of the Air Force Test Center, told Warrior in an interview.

While a combat scenario with this level of multi-domain “meshed” information sharing, massively decreasing sensor-to-shooter time, might not yet be fully possible, it precisely represents the Pentagon’s emerging Multi-Domain Operations warfare strategy as well as, more specifically, the Air Force’s fast-evolving modern Air Dominance strategy.

The Air Force concept, recently emphasized in a new “Change or Lose” strategy document published by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, is shifting to further incorporate key elements of the need to establish “information dominance” and broadly network “sensors and shooters.”

Making the point that Airmen are often the “first to respond to emerging crises,” Brown’s strategic document states that weapons networking and cyber-hardened information-sharing are needed to achieve “greater integration across the services.”

Finding difficult or otherwise unreachable targets through integration, as pointed to by Brown’s document, is a mission current Air Force commanders are moving quickly to execute.

“We are trying to find and destroy mobile, agile, intelligent hard to find targets such as mobile anti satellite systems, mobile directed energy systems, mobile long range fires and mobile integrated air defenses [that] in many cases they are shooting at ports and airfields which are easy to find,” Air Force Gen. James Holmes, Commander, Air Combat Command told the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies earlier this year in a special interview series.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Brown’s strategic document advances and further refines the Air Force components to emerging “Joint All Domain Command and Control” effort intended to link sensors, shooters and information systems across the services.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Steven Wilson says his service is now deeply immersed in coordinated technical work with Army and Navy weapons developers for the purpose of advancing multi-domain attack networking.

“JADC2 is not just for the Air Force but the entire Department. We need to get the right software to the cloud to network and connect the force. How do I connect the force and build this internet of things to allow every platform to connect with every other platform?” Wilson asked, during a video interview with The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Bringing some of the technical elements of this strategy to fruition continues to involve specific Air Force and industry efforts to stay in front of great power competitors with upgraded weapons and advanced technologies intended to “counter” enemy “countermeasures.”

Raytheon weapons developers, who engineer AEAS radar systems, sensors and weapons such as the AIM-9X, Stormbreaker and AIM-120D, explain that major rival adversaries have now spent years studying U.S. weapons with the aim of building technologies to outmatch them.

This scenario therefore requires a calculated and highly advanced response, often resulting in weapons upgrades. Raytheon technical adjustments and modernization initiatives with the Stormbreaker air-dropped weapon, for instance, incorporate a few upgrades and “countermeasure” improvements designed to outmatch enemy attacks. The Stormbreaker, slated to arm Air Force F-35s by 2023, relies upon all-weather stand-off precision-strike capability and a “tri-mode” seeker to track and destroy moving targets at ranges up to 40-miles.

A data link built into the Stormbreakers, Raytheon developers say, enables the weapon to receive “in-flight” target updates, change course in response to new intelligence and exchange data both to and from the host aircraft. The Stormbreaker can rely upon all-weather millimeter wave sensing, imaging infrared guidance or semi-active laser targeting, depending upon the requirements of a given attack mission.

Raytheon and the Air Force recently completed a successful “captive carry” test of the seeker on an F-35 designed to integrate the new weapon onto the 5th-Gen fighter. Not only will Stormbreaker allow for greater stand-off ranges and attacks in adverse weather conditions which might otherwise obscure or complicate targeting, but it is engineered with the data-exchanges necessary to support the Air Force’s Air Dominance concept.

Raytheon’s effort to engineer a new sensor able to exchange in flight information through a data link introduces new multi-mode detection possibilities built into a single weapon. For example, a data link used with Stormbreaker could bring great tactical relevance when it comes to weapons needing course-correcting targeting guidance enabled by all-weather millimeter wave radar. In these scenarios, millimeter wave radar would bring an expanded targeting envelope to air-attack possibilities. Millimeter wave could enable the delivery of precision effects in the kinds of adverse weather conditions known to complicate other sensors such as often used laser-guidance, infrared detection or electro-optical cameras. Laser signals, while extremely precise and used regularly to great effect to designate enemy targets, can at times suffer what’s called “beam attenuation” due to smoke, fog or other weather impediments.

An interesting essay on this topic from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign states that “cameras or LiDARs suffier in low visibility conditions and bad weather. Cameras also suffer at night in low light conditions… Millimeter wave radars offer more favorable characteristics due to their ability to work at night and penetrate through fog, snow and dust.” (Through Fog High Resolution Imaging Using Millimeter Wave Radar” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Thermal imaging can also decrease in effectiveness due to dense fog, the essay adds.

As part of yet another effort to prevent enemy countermeasures, Raytheon’s upgraded AIM-9X uses advanced “IR spectrum seekers” to counter enemy efforts to block, confuse or thwart IR targeting. In effect, weapons upgrades are designed to “counter” an enemies “counter,” thereby increasing the prospect of a successful strike. The AIM-9X is also engineered to align with the Air Force strategy with its “off-boresight” targeting technology, an integrated sensor and thrust-vector system which enables the pilot to destroy otherwise “out-of-view” enemy targets behind or beside the aircraft. By drawing upon an advanced sensing network which includes 360-degree cameras and a helmet-mounted cueing system, pilots can find and attack enemy fighters approaching from behind, without having to reposition into a more linear, or straight-on line-of-sight attack posture.

Given these developments, it is not at all surprising that the Air Force Test Center preparing new weapons and technologies for war is heavily involved in developing

For example, Azzano told Warrior that he and his team are preparing testers for the highly-anticipated first B-21 flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., with a specific mind to networking the aircraft to other weapons systems. Accordingly, technical elements of the aircraft are also intended to support and further key Air Force strategic and tactical aims, such as the current move to improve “networking” and information sharing across the force. Azzano emphasized this, explaining that major platforms like the B-21 will no longer merely function as attack-combat platforms, but also operate as essential “nodes” throughout a meshed, interwoven cross-domain warfare data-sharing network.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.