NCADE: An ABM AMRAAM – Or Something More?
A lot has been written in recent years about the improvements in air-air missiles. Short-range air-air missiles (SRAAMs) have received particular attention due to their vastly improved wide-angle seekers, computer processor improvements driven by Moore’s Law, and the ability to pull several times more ‘gs’ than manned fighter aircraft when maneuvering. Some analysts now believe that close-in aerial combat may at last be threatening to fulfill missile engineers’ old claims of “see, fire, and kill” – a development that would make cheap aircraft with new missiles a very significant threat, if true. Medium range AAM (MRAAM) designs have also made significant strides in performance.
How big are these strides? Normally, hitting a missile in the atmosphere or in the lower echelons of space requires large mid-course interceptor rockets, or theater defense missiles like IAI/Boeing’s Arrow 2 or the USA’s THAAD, or the naval SM-3. But what if all the energy required to get off the ground and up to speed was already taken care of, line of sight was expanded considerably by being at altitude, and the defensive missile could be moved very close to the enemy launcher? If that was true, could you take an in-service medium range air-air missile (MRAAM), turn it into a 2-stage rocket with a complementary infrared seeker from an in-service SRAAM, and use it as a first line of defense to counter, say, a ballistic missile during its early launch phase?
Raytheon, and the US Missile Defense Agency, think the answer may be “yes.” Allied pilots in Desert Storm could sometimes see Iraqi SCUD missile launches – but in 1991, they were powerless to do anything about them. By 2006, technology had advanced enough that Raytheon and the US MDA introduced NCADE, the “Network Centric Airborne Defense Element.” Its potential may be even greater than its sponsors have considered…
- The NCADE Proto-Program, and How It Works [updated]
- NCADE: Implications and Scenarios [updated]
- NCADE: Contracts & Key Events
- Additional Readings
The NCADE Proto-Program, and How It Works
The goal is to fire NCADE from aerial platforms like fighters, UAVs, or even high altitude airships or aerostats, in order to hit ballistic missiles during their ascent while they are still boosting or immediately thereafter. In an April 2006 briefing, Raytheon vice president of Advanced Missile Defense and Directed Energy Weapons Michael Booen said that:
“What you do is you fly the AMRAAM essentially straight up and you drop the spent first-stage rocket motor… You acquire the boosting target or the ascent-stage target, either one of which has got a big-enough infrared signature in order to be able to see, and then you attack the target… before it separates and deploys countermeasures.”
To reach that goal, NCADE begins with Raytheon’s AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). Boost-phase missiles make bright infrared targets, so Raytheon uses a modified version of the infrared seeker from Raytheon’s AIM-9X air-to-air missile. The missile can still be cued by radar as well as infrared seekers, however, flying out to a designated intercept zone under inertial navigation and then scanning with its wide-angle infrared sensor. Third-party cueing capability will be built in, however, including the ability to cue intercept zone targeting via standard “shared battlespace” electronics like the ubiquitous Link 16. For the final approach, the AMRAAM fragmentation warhead has been removed; instead, a hit-to-kill vehicle based on Raytheon’s SM-3 maneuvering kill vehicle is paired with a second-stage rocket motor from Aerojet [GY].
NCADE’s rocket motor will use an advanced hydroxylammonium nitrate monopropellant thruster; its improved performance and high-density packaging should allow lighter, higher-velocity missiles. Hydroxylammonium nitrate is also less toxic and easier to handle than other propellants, and could eventually enable safe shipboard operation.
The end result is a missile that’s the exact same size as the AIM-120, with the same integration interface and balance point. This means that no specialized airborne platform is required. Any plane or land platform capable of firing AMRAAM is automatically capable of carrying and firing NCADE.
DID asked Raytheon about their decision to remove the proximity warhead. That would normally be an appealing choice for boost-phase targeting, where even a small, glancing blow can be enough to ensure the boosting missile’s catastrophic destruction. The team needed the second stage motor’s extra range in order to boost NCADE into the low exo-atmosphere, however, and the importance of creating an option that was 100% compatible with AMRAAM meant that something had to be traded away. Raytheon uses hit-to-kill technology in a number of products, including its successful SM-3 naval ABM missile, so they were comfortable with that warhead-for-HTKV trade.
Their cost goal for NCADE is “under $1 million”. That’s more expensive than a regular AIM-120C AMRAAM, whose purchase price appears to fall in the $550,000 – $650,000 range based on issued contracts. On the other hand, it’s extremely cheap compared to other boost-phase missile defense options – or even compared to mid-course defense options like Raytheon’s own SM-3 and the land-based THAAD.
Naturally, this is not an either/or proposition. Each weapon has a different role to play in a layered defense, and each has weaknesses as well as strengths. What Raytheon is betting on is that NCADE’s low risk, low development cost, cheap price, and deployment flexibility will result in approval of the plan they’ve submitted to the US Missile Defense Agency. That plan would ramp-up testing and development from 2010 through 2013, leaving the US military with 20 low-rate initial production missiles on the ramp and ready to go.
Raytheon and Aerojet are currently focused on maturing the second-stage propulsion rocketry, and optimizing the AIM-9X seeker for the new role.
NCADE: Implications and Scenarios
Some readers may remember a satellite killer missile concept from the 1980s that was designed to mount on an F-15; it used a very similar design approach to go after even higher-flying orbiting satellites with a larger missile, and succeeded in a 1985 test. NCADE uses a different, smaller missile, and its targets live at a lower level in the high endo-atmosphere and low exo-atmosphere. Where these concepts mesh in in their choice of a fighter as a platform, and the fact that boosting missiles and higher-orbit satellites share the twin challenges of extreme speeds and non-maneuvering trajectories. An F-15 would also be the designated initial test platform for NCADE, if the US Missile Defense Agency decides to continue to fund the concept program through to maturity.
True to its name, NCADE’s 3rd party cueing capabilities make it most valuable when the missile and/or its launching platform can receive targeting data from a wide variety of sources: Naval vessels with Cooperative Engagement Capability. Large X-band ABM radars. Land-based air & missile defense systems. Aerial platforms like E-8 JSTARs aircraft or NATO’s forthcoming AGS. JLENS aerostats, or powered HAA airships with ISIS radars. Etc.
If the missile concept works, an AMRRAM + NCADE equipped aircraft plugged into this network could be deployed in theater or within the United States, becoming a useful defensive player against either incoming cruise missiles or ballistic missiles.
Scenarios for which NCADE is being considered includes the threat of “missiles from a barge off the coast”, protecting an ally like Japan from North Korean attack via fighters deployed near or in North Korean airspace, helping to address the threat of short-range missile attacks like Desert Storm (1991), or even countering attacks by large rockets as featured in the recent war where Israel faced Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria.
Or, NCADE’s technologies could have far more prosaic uses on tomorrow’s battlefields. Uses which are not found within Raytheon’s current sales focus, but which exist nonetheless by virtue of NCADE’s capabilities. Uses that may, in the end, prove even more valuable that its missile defense role.
Russian (AA-10) and French (MBDA’s MICA) missile manufacturers are already giving customers the option of buying medium-range, datalinked missiles with conventional radar seekers or infrared seekers. This allows for passive infrared targeting using long-range IRST (InfraRed Search & Track) sensors that give off no tell-tale electro-magnetic emissions, and do not trigger their targets’ radar warning receivers as the launched missile homes in.
Even “stealth” aircraft can be tracked this way – the F-35 Lightning II, for instance, has limited infrared stealth owing to an 40,000 pound thrust, single-engine design that lacks the shielding/dispersal measures of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and other platforms. Speaking of which, see the graphic below of a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber at relatively close range, lifted from EADS Eurofighter’s presentation to the Norwegian government as they touted their own aircraft’s advanced IRST cueing sensor with 70 km range.
NCADE biggest disadvantage in these roles is a cost level that appears to range from 50% to 75% higher than conventional AIM-120C AMRAAMs. On the other hand, the missile would offer some potent advantages. An NCADE AMRAAM with highly advanced infrared tracking, exceptional speed, and longer range than existing AMRAAMs would have a number of potential roles.
The USA’s non-stealthy “teen series” fighters are aging rapidly, but many are still slated to remain in service for a decade or more. Even if NCADE is 75% more expensive than AMRAAM, a non-emitting weapon that can out-range competing missile fits might be seen as an option with positive Return on Investment for the US military, if it can keep more “teen series” fighters in useful roles for a longer period of time. The missile defense option it offers would certainly be a bonus feature, especially if it NCADE can also serve as a defensive option against large anti-aircraft missiles like the feared SA-20.
NCADE’s features are almost tailor-made for a role as an “AWACS killer” weapon. In that role, it would be used to reach out and destroy very high value but vulnerable targets like enemy AWACS and aerial tanker planes behind the front lines – expanding the threat zone, while reducing or even eliminating the enemy’s warning period.
On the flip side, NCADE could also serve those same valuable AWACS and other specialty aircraft in a defensive role, offering a longer range alternative to the Sidewinder self-defense missiles now fitted to aircraft like the P-3. RAND’s now-famous “Pacific Vision 2008” briefing outlined a scenario in which American F-22s from Guam suffered no losses, but ran out of missiles before the Chinese force ran out of planes. Whereupon the Chinese shot down the defenseless American aerial tankers supporting the F-22s, leaving the American fighters to crash into the ocean once they ran out of fuel. If the number of missiles lifted into a combat are indeed a key variable, the same debates that led to Sidewinder-armed P-3s could easily lead to other high-value aircraft receiving defensive missiles. NCADE, as a long-range missile that does not require expensive radar integration, and can be cued by friendly fighters in the battlespace, would be the logical choice.
NCADE could be employed from various platforms against stealthy cruise missiles, homing in on their jet engine exhaust with cueing from advanced infrared scanners and radars mounted on high-altitude aerostats or airships like JLENS or HAA/IRIS. At just 330 pounds, its low weight makes it liftable by long-endurance aerial platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper, among others, offering a persistent cruise missile defense option that cannot be matched by manned fighters alone.
Finally, NCADE has a potential role to play in ground-based air defenses. “AGM-88E AARGM Missile: No Place To Hide Down There” described the shoot-down of an American F-117 stealth fighter over Kosovo in 1999. Keeping air defense radars off until the last minute has become a standard tactic, which trades offensive effectiveness for improved survival. But what if that trade became unnecessary, thanks to electro-optical scanning and infrared-capable missiles? MBDA’s MICA-VL offers that very option, as does the Israeli Spyder system which uses radar-guided Derby and IR-cued Python 5 missiles in any combination desired. With SLAMRAAM/NASAMS growing in popularity, the option of adding one or more SLAMRAAM-IR NCADE missiles to the launch mix would allow Raytheon to keep pace with its competitors.
NCADE: Contracts & Key Events
Sept 17/09: Flight International reports that a preliminary joint study with the US Missile Defense Agency delivered a positive assessment of air-launched interceptors for ballistic missiles. At present, 2 designs are considered to be contenders.
Raytheon reportedly gave figures for NCADE development of $450 million for development, followed by $1 million to purchase each missile. Lockheed Martin’s PAC-3 Patriot-based air-launched hit-to-kill (ALHTK) concept, meanwhile, was reportedly projected to cost a minimum of $130 million.
Sept 18/08: Raytheon announces a $10 million Missile Defense Agency contract to continue NCADE research and development.
Dec 3/07: During a test at White Sands Missile Range, an Air National Guard F-16 test aircraft from the ANG-Air Force Reserve Command Test Center in Tucson, AZ launches an AIM-9X airframe with the NCADE seeker at a boosting Orion sounding rocket. The official test objective was to demonstrate successful imaging at close range, but the missile went on to destroy the target. A second AIM-9X launched from White Sands Missile Range observed the intercept through its seeker; the US Missile Defense Agency says that it was also on a trajectory to intercept the Orion rocket.
Future testing will involve the missile’s divert and attitude control (DACS) system, intended to give it the maneuverability it requires against such fast-moving targets. MDA release [PDF] | Raytheon release.
Oct 12/07: Jane’s International Defence Review reports that a September test was supposed to mark the first carriage and launch trials of the new NCADE boost and ascent-phase missile-defence system. But Mike Booen, vice-president of Raytheon’s Directed Energy Weapons business, told Jane’s the trial window closed when the host aircraft’s radar lost lock on target at a critical stage.
May 14/07: Raytheon Company announces a successful demonstration of NCADE’s advanced hydroxylammonium nitrate thruster.
It also says that it has fabricated 2 prototype NCADE seekers that have undergone characterization testing in a high-fidelity simulator, in order to check their ability to track a booster in the presence of a bright rocket plume. Raytheon release.
April 28/06: Raytheon Company announces a $7 million contract from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for a risk reduction demonstration associated with the evolving Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) program. The 12-month Raytheon effort will focus on propulsion systems and seeker enhancements as part of the overall NCADE system capability.
Work on this contract will be performed at Raytheon’s Missile Systems business in Tucson, Ariz. Aerojet will perform propulsion work at its Redmond, WA location. Raytheon release.
fn1. Though cruise missiles may be a higher probability threat in that scenario, ballistic missiles cannot be discounted as a possibility. Iran, for example, has recently tested ballistic missile launches from ships.
- DID – Patriots for Eagles? No, not the Super Bowl; NCADE’s main competition.
- DID (Aug 10/11) – Ballistic Missile Tracking with UAVs: HALE, Well Met. The MQ-9 UAV used in testing could also carry NCADE, as could its successors.
- Raytheon (Aug 19/09) – Raytheon’s NCADE Meets Warfighter Needs, Counters Growing Ballistic Missile Threat
- USAF AIM Points (May 22/06) – Raytheon pursuing modified AMRAAM to shoot down ballistic missiles
- DID (May 31/06) – Israel and USA to Jointly Develop SRBM Missile Defense. The 2 countries seem to be pursuing different approaches to the problem at the moment; hopefully, at least one will work out.
- DID FOCUS Article – AMRAAM: Deploying & Developing America’s Medium-Range Air-Air Missile
- DID (Feb 2/07) – $8.9M to Help Develop AIM-9X Sidewinder Block II. Gives details re: the AIM-9X, and notes parallel development of an improved AAM version.
- DID (April 18/07) – Up to $14M to Improve IR Missile Dome Materials. The objective is to develop processing methods for the manufacture of IR transport domes capable of higher speed operation and greater particle impact resistance than sapphire, the current material choice. Very useful if you want to put them on, for instance, a missile that travels much faster than an AIM-9.
- Australian Aviation (April 1997) – Fourth Generation AAMs – The Rafael Python 4. Good introduction to modern SRAAM capabilities, which have continued to grow over the last decade.
- Federation of American Scientists – Antisatellite Systems
- Designation Systems – Vought ASM-135 ASAT
- DID thanks Raytheon’s staff in Tucon, AZ for their professional assistance with program background and key technical points.