T3: Triple Target Terminator’s Terminus
In early FY 2011, DARPA awarded a pair of initial contracts for something called the Triple Target Terminator. In their own words:
“The Triple Target Terminator (T3) program will develop a high speed, long-range missile that can engage air, cruise missile, and air defense targets. T3 would be carried internally on stealth aircraft or externally on fighters, bombers and UAVs. The enabling technologies are: propulsion, multi-mode seekers, data links, digital guidance and control, and advanced warheads. T3 would allow any aircraft to rapidly switch between air-to-air and air-to-surface capabilities. T3’s speed, maneuverability, and network-centric capabilities would significantly improve U.S. aircraft survivability and increase the number and variety of targets that could be destroyed on each sortie.”
Oddly, T3 sounds very similar to an ongoing Air Force Research Laboratory project – and seems to confirm a trend toward multi-guidance, multi-role smart weapons. But can the USAF develop and field its desired Next Generation Missile from among these development programs? Seems not.
T3: Tracking the Trends
There are a couple of trends at work here. One involves electronics. The other involves stealth fighters.
Moore’s Law of computing power, and electronics miniaturization, continue to drive that industry. They make it possible to improve the quality of missile seekers, memory, and processors, even as they shrink in size. The natural corollary is weapons with multiple guidance modes, all correlated by on-board computers. At its simplest, this trend manifests itself as dual-mode GPS/laser guided bombs. Beyond that, tri-mode weapons like the GBU-53 Small Diameter Bomb II, the imperiled JAGM missile, offer designs and capabilities that would not have been possible before.
T3 will need to go after very different sets of targets. The ideal solution is a missile that can use different guidance modes including GPS, radar, imaging infrared/multispectral, and/or laser guidance, while possessing enough computer power and memory to interpret very different sensor results and adjust to maneuvering supersonic fighters, stealthy cruise missiles, and ground-based vehicles. Needless to say, these are very different problem sets.
There are unconfirmed reports of a dual ground/air, ramjet powered missile design back in the 1970s, proposed as an alternate approach for the AMRAAM air-to-air missile competition, but it was pushed aside. As computing power and electronics have improved, that very approach looks to be coming around again.
The other trend at work involves stealth fighters, which carry their weapons internally in order to keep their radar signatures low. While the F-22A Raptor and F-35A/B/C Lightning II are the best known examples, emerging upgrades like the F-15SE Silent Eagle, and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet International Road Map, are beginning to offer internal carriage for legacy fighters as well.
The problem is that fighters cannot currently carry dedicated air defense suppression weapons like the AGM-88 HARM/AARGM internally. They must rely instead on GPS-guided or laser-guided weapons, with shorter ranges, and less precise attack modes. A missile that combined the air-to-air capabilities of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and the radar-killing capabilities of missiles like the AGM-88E AARGM, within a carriage size at or very close to an AMRAAM missile, would solve a lot of problems for stealth fighters. Not only would it give them a stealth-compatible SEAD(Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missile, it would offer a versatile weapon for carriage in the aircraft’s limited internal spaces, ensuring on-board options against a wide variety of threats. Especially if it uses ramjet propulsion for extended rage, like MDBA’s Meteor air-to-air missile.
The USAF Research Laboratory has been tracking the same trends, of course, and appears to have a competing program called the Joint Dual Role Air Dominance Missile (JDRADM), aka. Next Generation Missile (NGM). FY 2011 budget documents [PDF] submitted in February 2010 have JDRADM integrated design beginning in 2011, with demonstration flights around the end of 2011 or early 2012.
Boeing received a Phase 2 technology demonstration award in March 2007 for the control and propulsion systems. That firm is also developing a JDRADM shaped charge warhead under the MR ROKM program, and guidance sensor and fuze technology under the SITES program. Aerojet has reported successful tests of a JDRADM solid fuel ramjet, and Raytheon is working on missile designs of its own, in the absence of firm specifications. Separate but similar projects like the SWIFT multi-fuzing and directional warhead might also become part of an eventual T3/JDRADM system development and demonstration effort, if they receive funding and prove successful.
At this stage of development, given the minor costs involved, that kind of parallel effort isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Parallel programs offer redundancies if particular technology subsets don’t work out in one program or the other, and may allow a difference in overall approaches and ambitions. DARPA is known for demanding extreme technological ambitions, for instance; AFRL isn’t as rigid about that.
Eventually, the hope is that this array of research programs will produce a Next-Generation Missile.
Contracts & Key Events
Feb 13/12: The USAF cancels NGM. Flight International quotes USAF chief budget officer Gen. Edward Bolton, who says the program was canceled for “affordability reasons”. Had it continued, developing the missile and equipping the US military was estimated to cost around $15 billion over many years. Instead, the US military will continue to buy AIM-120 AMRAAM and AGM-88 HARM/AARGM missiles for the foreseeable future.
The larger reality is that the USAF fleet will continue to age, as F-35 buys are delayed and cut. A strategic response might prioritize investment in missiles, as a way of extending the capabilities of the USA’s legacy fighters, and possibly of other aircraft as well. European, Russian, and Chinese firms continue to invest in new designs, adding impetus to the competition for both aerial supremacy and global buyers. The new AIM-120D AMRAAM cannot now be exported, while the new AGM-88E AARGM missile can. The question is what happens in future years, as competitors like MBDA’s longer-range Meteor missile arrive and raise the bar on the global scene.
Sept 9/11: Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have lost ATK from their team, and they didn’t win any T3 awards. But they’ve been doing research on their own, and continue to prepare for an expected Next Generation Missile (NGM) development RFP in late 2012. Flight International.
Nov 10/10: Boeing receives a $21.3 million cost sharing contract for the Triple Target Terminator program. Work will be performed in Saint Louis, MO (49.8%); Gainesville, VA (43%); Westminster, CO (6.9%); and Redmond, OR (0.3%).; and is expected to be complete in November 2011. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency manages the contract (HR0011-11-C-0008).
Oct 25/10: Raytheon receives a $21.3 million contract for the Triple Target Terminator (T3) program. Work will be performed in Tucson, AZ (67.6%), and Gainesville, VA (32.4%).; and is expected to be complete by Oct 22/11. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency manages the contract (HR0011-11-C-0009). See also The DEW Line | Flight International | WIRED Danger Room.
May 2009: DARPA’s Triple Target Terminator is reported as part of FY 2010 US military budget requests. DARPA requests | Aviation Week DTI via Military.com | Avio News | DoD Buzz.
- DARPA TTO – Triple Target Terminator (T3)
- FedBizOpps (Nov 1/10) – Triple Target Terminator (T3) Program
- Flight International (Dec 6/11) – IN FOCUS: USAF committed to replace AMRAAM and HARM with new missile
- Flight International & DEW Line (Feb 18/11) – Raytheon reveals first glimpse of next-generation missile. DRADM specifications aren’t final yet, so this is just one idea.