South Africa, Brazil’s A-Darter SRAAM Hits Target
November 3/15: The South African Air Force will receive the first batch of A-Darter short-range air-to-air missiles in February 2016, following a six-month delay in development testing. The co-developed missile, a product of Brazil’s Mectron and South Africa’s Denel Dynamics, has reached a Production Baseline certification following the conclusion of a series of critical design reviews. The missile has been jointly funded by the Brazilian Air Force and the South African National Defense Force, with the project formally launched in April 2007 .
There’s a new advanced dogfighting missile coming to town, and it won’t be coming from any of the standard players. Denel Pty Ltd.’s missile/UAV subsidiary Denel Dynamics has entered into a joint development agreement with Brazil’s Ministry of Defence and Forca Aerea Brasileira for the A-Darter short range air-air missile (SRAAM), signed as a government to government agreement via South Africa’s Armscor. The original contract was apparently signed in July-August 2006, but the formal cooperation launch was announced at the April 2007 Latin American Aerospace and Defence exhibition in Brazil.
With the SRAAM export market already crowded by high-end products like the AA-11/ R73 Archer (Russia), AIM-9X Sidewinder (USA), AIM-132 ASRAAM (UK), IRIS-T (Germany & European), and Python 4/5 (Israel), one may legitimately wonder where the Agile-Darter’s capabilities, design philosophy, and market positioning fit within this array. This article addresses the A-Darter, and those market issues.
The A-Darter Program
The A-Darter missile uses common LAU-7 type launchers, and is designed to work with standard MIL-STD-1553 databus systems. At the same time, it’s expected to be a 5th generation weapon. Reports indicate modern thermal imaging technology with a wide “boresight angle” for targeting, reportedly a 90-degree look angle with cockpit-selectable seeker scan patterns. Track rate is reportedly about 120 degrees per second, and target acquisition is said to be quick. Denel also worked to avoid using aluminum in the rocket propellant, in order to minimize the smoke trails that both warn enemy aircraft, and point back to the launching fighter.
One important similarity with MBDA’s AIM-132 ASRAAM is a streamlined design with few control surfaces, in order to minimize drag and maximize range. To take maximum advantage of that design decision, lock-on after launch capability will allow A-Darter to fly to a specified area before acquiring the target with its seeker head, using an inertial navigation system from BAE Systems (now divested as Atlantic Inertial Systems) for pre-lock navigation. There is no word, however, on whether the missile’s datalink is intended to allow for updates in flight, in order to prevent accidental engagement with the wrong target.
Denel Dynamics leads the industrial effort. The FAB’s Aerospace Technical Centre (CTA) is in charge of the Brazilian industrial end of the deal, and missile manufacturer Mectron is the lead company on the Brazilian side. the missile is expected to enter service in 2016.
Denel has also planned a product roadmap. An A-Darter Mk.II would reportedly feature seeker acquisition, target tracking, and decoy countermeasures upgrades. A-Darter Mk.III would be full a mid-life update, and is likely to add extended range.
Platforms & Exports
In such a crowded SRAAM market, where integration of a non-standard weapon can be a difficult and expensive endeavor, a new missile is a difficult sell. A clue to its positioning may be provided by the 2007 statement of Denel’s spokesperson Joe Makhafola:
“The co-development of the missile… not only brings much-needed skills, training and technology transfer to the country, but reinforces the South-South co-operation initiated by President Thabo Mbeki and his counterpart.”
This industrial strategy seeks to boost the indigenous aerospace industries in both Brazil and South Africa, and fits into the IBSA cooperation framework. It may also be a lead-in to the missile’s market positioning in many 3rd world countries, as a weapon without political strings attached, due to its so-called non-aligned political positioning.
Whether this marketing approach will be successful remains to be seen. First, the missile’s development must itself succeed. After that, a new weapon’s market reach depends on the breadth of platforms that carry it.
In South Africa, the A-Darter will equip the SAAF’s Hawk Mk. 120 trainer/ light attack jets and JAS-39 C/D Gripen fighters. In Brazil, the A-Darter will begin serving on leased JAS-39C/D Gripens in time for the Rio 2016 Olympics, before transferring to the F-X2 program’s JAS-39E/F Gripen NGs once deliveries begin. A-Darters will also replace indigenous Mectron MAA-1 Piranha and AIM-9H Sidewinder missiles on some Brazilian aircraft, beginning with the FAB’s upgraded A-1M AMX subsonic fighters.
That may be as far as things go in Brazil. The FAB’s handful of Mirage 2000s retired in December 2013, leaving Brazil with upgraded F-5EM/FM supersonic light fighters, and “A-29” Super Tucano turboprops. The F-5s had been touted as the A-Darter’s base platform, but their coming demotion to secondary fighter status took most of the impetus away. The F-5Ms will do just fine with the FAB’s healthy stock of Israeli Python-3 and advanced Python-4 missiles, and the photo above seems to show one with AIM-9J/N/P Sidewinders. Those SRAAMs will accompany its medium-range, radar-guided RAFAEL Derby missiles.
For the Super Tucanos, a joint venture program between Mectron and EADS Cassidian is about to begin producing the MAA-1B upgrade of the Brazilian-designed Piranha SRAAM. The good news for A-Darter is that the deep involvement of Elbit Systems’ AEL subsidiary in Brazilian military aviation is giving their modernized AMX “A-1M” and F-5M jets, and A-29 turboprops, a very similar set of avionics. That will make common missile integration easier.
Beyond the 2 partner countries, Hawk integration is the biggest pointer to a larger export market. Hawks are very popular around the world as trainers, and many countries use them in a secondary role as light fighters and air policing aircraft. Even NATO planned to use them as airfield defense planes, in the event of a Soviet invasion. An integrated A-Darter would offer operators of advanced Hawk models a significant SRAAM upgrade over existing options, and might even become a reason to upgrade older Hawk models.
Contracts and Key Events
2011 – 2015
Qualification phase; Deal to manufacture in Brazil.
November 3/15: The South African Air Force will receive the first batch of A-Darter short-range air-to-air missiles in February 2016, following a six-month delay in development testing. The co-developed missile, a product of Brazil’s Mectron and South Africa’s Denel Dynamics, has reached a Production Baseline certification following the conclusion of a series of critical design reviews. The missile has been jointly funded by the Brazilian Air Force and the South African National Defense Force, with the project formally launched in April 2007.
Feb 13/15: The Brazilian Air Force is bragging (Portugese) about a successful test firing of an air-to-air A-Darter missile developed with along with South Africa. The news release appeared geared to an export market, noting that other missiles with similar technologies aren’t allowed to be exported from those producing countries.
July 7/14: South Africa’s defenceWeb looks at Denel Dynamics’ growing array of missiles and guided weapons. With respect to the A-Darter:
“On the A-Darter air-to-air missile front, Denel Dynamics is planning improvements for this weapon, including extended range and targeting. An A-Darter Mk II would feature improved acquisition, target tracking and countermeasures upgrades while an A-Darter Mk III would feature a mid-life update (MLU).”
Sources: defenceWeb, “Denel Dynamics upgrading missile range”.
May 16/14: South Africa’s defenceWeb reports that A-Darter is in its final stage of development, with testing complete for the SAAF’s JAS-39C/D Gripens, production expected to begin in 2015, and expected service entry by 2016. That means it would be in time to serve on Brazil’s leased JAS-39C/Ds as well. Integration on the SAAF’s Hawk fleet is expected to take about 2 years. They also report that cooperation could extend beyond A-Darter:
“One project that is moving forward is the joint development of a new air-to-air missile with a range of up to 100 km. Called Marlin by Denel Dynamics, the new weapon will feature a radar seeker head and will be developed into an all-weather surface-to-air missile (SAM) that can be used by South African and Brazilian Navies.
The Marlin technology demonstrator programme was contracted by the [South African] Department of Defence through [state conduit] Armscor and will result in a missile that is launched at a target in three to four years’ time. Marlin technology will subsequently be used for Navy, Army and Air Force applications, with synergy achieved due to common subsystems. The missile will use some subsystems and system architecture from Denel’s proven Umkhonto [link added] surface-to-air missile and the A-Darter.”
Brazil hasn’t formally signed on to anything yet, and South African defense budgets can’t even maintain their existing military. That leaves the Marlin project with little margin for error, absent a significant commitment by Brazil. Sources: “SA and Brazil to collaborate on missiles post-A-Darter”.
Dec 6/12: Infrastructure. The FAB signs a R 1.4 million (about $672,000) contract with Denel to prepare for a missile-building factory in the Sao Jose dos Campos industrial park. Production is expected to begin some time in 2015.
The release also discusses some of the thrust-vectoring missile’s characteristics, touting the 2.98 meter, 90 kg weapon as having capacity for 100g maneuvers, and the ability to hit targets behind the aircraft like other 5th generation SRAAMs. It also specifies Brazil’s upgraded A-1Ms and winners of its F-X2 competition as the designated platforms. FAB [in Portuguese] | Flight International.
Nov 7/12: Brazil. Brazil’s air force chief of staff, Gen. Aprigio Eduardo de Moura Azevedo, offers some missile program updates at IQPC’s International Fighter conference in London, UK. The A-Darter is in its prototype performance verification phase, with qualification scheduled to begin in Q2 2014, production and manufacturing baselines scheduled to be fixed by mid-2015, and production to commence in Q3 2015. That would place FAB operational service somewhere in 2015-2016. Flight International adds that:
“Once operational, the A-Darter will arm the Brazilian air force’s upgraded Northrop F-5EM/FM fighters (above), operations of which are expected to continue until 2025, and the service’s future F-X2 combat aircraft, as well as the South African Air Force’s Saab Gripens.”
Gen. Azevedo also says that Mectron’s MAR-1 radar-killing missile is now involved in final flight tests of a new software update, aboard an AMX fighter. Low Rate Initial Production of the missile is scheduled for Q3 2013. Flight International.
April 18/12: Argentina? Argentina’s defense minister Arturo Puricelli reportedly expresses interest in the A-Darter missile, as part of a wider range of proposed cooperation on military programs. The most likely candidate within Argentina’s limited air force would be its A-4AR Skyhawks, which could be done as a joint program that also upgraded Brazil’s carrier-based fighters.
Despite a long history of strained relations with Brazil, Argentina has already signed an MoU to participate in Embraer’s KC-390 medium tactical transport program. Puricelli was also reportedly interested in Brazil’s SATCOM-equipped version of Elbit’s Hermes 450 UAV, and in modernization of Argentina and Brazil’s stocks of Exocet missiles to the MM40 variant. defesanet [in Portuguese].
March 7/12: Testing. As the program enters its 5th year of development, South Africa’s DefenceWeb reports on a successful series of undisclosed A-Darter guided launches in January 2012, against Denel Dynamics high sub-sonic Skua aerial target drone. Denel’s Business Development Manager for Air-to-Air missiles, Deon Olivier, provides confirmation. The report adds that:
“The programme has now entered its qualification phase, and is well on its way to completion by next year (2013), with the ultimate goal of being production-ready by the end of that year. The initial fighter aircraft for integration are the Hawk and Gripen for the South African Air Force (SAAF), and the Northrop F-5M for the Brazilian Air Force. It is likely that A-Darter will enter into operational service in both air forces in 2014, Denel Dynamics said in a statement released at the Defence and Security Asia 2012 show in Thailand.”
June 7/11: South Africa. Jane’s Missiles and Rockets reports that the SAAF is likely to retain both the A-Darter and the IRIS-T missiles for its Gripens, while making A-Darter the main air defense weapon for its Hawk Mk120s. The pilots liked the design’s inherent range, and the unofficial SAAF web site summarizes that:
“Specific aspects of the A-Darter mentioned to by SAAF pilots include the absence, under favourable atmospheric conditions, of the tell-tale (aluminium oxide particle based) smoke trail (no aluminium is used in the rocket propellant), giving opposing fighter pilots no visual warning other than a very discrete launch flash… a 90-degree look angle; the availability of cocpit-selectable [sic] seeker scan patterns; quick target acquisition, which “rarely needs a second scan cycle”, was told; after-launch scanning for lock-on-after-launch engagements, which is particularly valuable in “over the shoulder” engagements; and the 120-degrees per second track rate.”
2006 – 2010
Program launch, tests.
Sept 22/10: Market. Reuters Africa quotes Denel Dynamics CEO Jan Wessels, who sees a bright market future for the A-Darter. He’d hardly say it was rubbish, but for the record, here’s his take:
“In 10 years time I predict that a significant percentage of the missile business in the developing world will be kept among themselves, with many of them getting their sourced technology from South Africa… We will see as a percentage of the missile market the developing countries share possibly doubling to 20 percent, and importantly they are no longer buying from traditional suppliers but keeping the business among themselves…” [Wessels] cited the A-Darter air-to-air missile, a joint development with Brazil, as one example.”
July 21/10: Testing. The 1st A-Darter firing takes place from a South African Air Force JAS-39D Gripen, at the Overberg test area in South Africa. Magnus Reineholm Project Manager for the integration of A-Darter at Saab:
“The A-Darter and the Gripen aircraft have worked beyond our expectations and we are extremely pleased with the test firing results.”
April 23/10: South Africa. The South African Air Force reportedly intends to fit A-Darter missiles to its fleet of 24 BAE Hawk Mk. 120 lead-in fighter trainers and light attack aircraft, as well as its 26 JAS-39 C/D Gripen Fighters.
The move will give Denel Dynamics a larger market within South African and also abroad – Hawk aircraft are flown by about 18 countries. South Africa’s Defence Web.
April 22/10: Testing. The A-Darter missile program has completed a series of ground- launched flight tests, and Denel Dynamics executive manager for air-to-air programmes, Denise Wilson, says the project will be ready for full production by 2012. Denel is reportedly working toward a 2011 date to supply early unarmed training missiles for the SAAF.
Program manager Deon Olivier is quoted as saying that the project is now at the stage “where uncertainties have decreased considerably,” thanks to increased confidence in the seeker stemming from December 2009 – January 2010 seeker tests. Step 2 was a series of ground-based test shots to evaluate the missile’s aerodynamics and control, followed by guided shots in which all the components were tested together in flight. March 2010 saw the completion of carriage clearance tests of the A-Darter missile on the JAS-39C/D Gripen, at up to 12g instantaneous maneuver and 45,000 feet/ 13,700m.
Future tests include imminent ground-launch programmed tests for aerodynamics and flight control evaluations, followed by firing clearance from the Gripen aircraft to test missile and seeker performance. Johannesburg Business Day.
April 16/09: Tech transfer. Defense News covers a presentation from Denel Dynamics at the 2009 Latin America Aerospace and Defense (LAAD) conference. Col. Ian van Vuuren, director for the A-Darter program at Denel Dynamics:
“…gave a basic “how-to” seminar on establishing a framework for technology transfers between countries. “One of the typical problems with technology transfer is everybody agrees to do it, [but] it takes two and a half years for the client receiving the technology to put the establishment team in place in his own country,” van Vuuren said. In that time, knowledge is lost and training loses its effectiveness… Van Vuuren’s presentation focused on the process Denel and the governments of South Africa and Brazil used to establish a framework for the technology transfer as part of the A-Darter program. Key to the process is having over-arching government support, formalized in cooperation agreements, and creating a joint contracting body to award the contract to companies.”
May 28/08: South Africa. Diehl BGT announces that the South African Air Force has picked the IRIS-T short range air-to-air missile to equip their Gripen fighter aircraft “as an interim solution until the local missile development – the A Darter – will be operational.” This makes them IRIS-T’s 2nd export customer outside the original 7-nation consortium.
The South African arms acquisition organization Armscor placed a contract order for the IRIS-T missiles “in the second half of May 2008,” and the missiles will become operational on SAAF Gripens in 2009. Industrial offsets are also involved, which will be tricky given the A-Darter’s explicit status as a future competitor.
April 26/07: Formal Launch. The A-Darter program is formally launched at the April 2007 Latin American Aerospace and Defence exhibition in Brazil.
The firm adds that it expects to employ at least 200 engineers over the duration of the contract, and hopes to use the program to attract young engineers to the company. while this is an excellent long-term strategy, it would have development implications if implemented. Meanwhile, 10 Brazilian air force members have begun work on the program at the Denel Dynamics plant, to be joined by another 20 people from “the Brazilian defence companies.”
Denel spokesperson Joe Makhafola said that current contracts amount to ZAR 1 billion [about $145 million], and that future export contracts are expected to add another ZAR 2 billion over the program’s 15 years. Denel | The Arms Deal Virtual Press Office.
Formal project launch
Aug 11/06: Contract? South Africa’s Engineering News reports that the A-Darter agreement was signed “a few weeks ago,” and that a team of 5 specialists from the FAB’s Aerospace Technical Centre (CTA) is now in South Africa to participate in development.
The contract is between the Brazilian Ministry of Defence and South Africa’s Department of Defence, though the government contacts will involve Brazil’s FAB dealing with South Africa’s Armscor. A certain amount of development has already taken place in South Africa, and the rest of the development will be divided 50/50.
Brazil has reportedly allocated $52-million, but estimates of the final cost could reach $100 million or more. The FAB currently expects the missile to enter service in 2015, nine years from now. Brazil’s CTA is known to be holding talks with missile-maker Mectron; rocket, missile and armoured vehicle maker Avibras; and strategic systems software house Atech for Brazilian participation.
Feb 14/06: Initial agreement. South Africa and Brazil have agreed in principle to a ZAR 300-million (about $57.5 million) project to finish developing Denel’s A-Darter short-range air-to-air missile. The investment was disclosed in an extract of an “exemption from tendering” notice published on Jan 27/06 in Brazil’s Official Daily of the Union. Subsequent inquiries lead to descriptions of the agreements as being “80 percent to 90 percent there.” So they’re not a signed contract yet, more like agreement in principle.
Reports indicate a government-to-government agreement, involving the Brazilian Air Force’s department of research and development and South Africa’s Armscor agency for defence acquisition, disposal, research and development. Meanwhile, Denel has created a “Denel do Brasil” subsidiary office in the city of Sao Jose dos Campos. South Africa’s IOL.
- Mectron – Armamentos Inteligentes [in Portuguese]. Includes MAA-1 Piranha variants as well.
- SAAF (unofficial) – Weapon – Air-to-Air – V3E A-Darter
- DID – Brazil’s F-X2 Fighter Competition
- DID – Brazil’s F-5BR Fighter Fleet Upgrade Program. The F-5BR program produces F-5EM/FM fighters.
- DID – Enhancing Brazil’s AMX Light Attack Fighters. They’ll become A-1Ms in Brazil.