The Pentagon Has Been Working on a New Air-to-Air Missile
Quietly for two years
The U.S. military has been quietly working on a new long-range air-to-air missile since at least 2016, budget documents reveal.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense spent nearly $10 million in 2016 and 2017 developing concepts and technologies for the so-called “Long Range Engagement Weapon.”
“This project will complete the engineering and design work required to assess a multi-role, long-range interceptor for maintaining air dominance,” according to the military’s 2018 budget proposal. “Details of this project are classified.”
Users of the online Secret Projects forum first noticed the LREW line item buried deep inside nearly thousand-page budget. The new munition’s emergence after at least two years of development helps to explain the apparent inaction on a longstanding gap in U.S. military capabilities.
Russia and China are both developing air-to-air missiles with range in excess of 100 miles. The United States, by contrast, still relies on versions of the 1980s-vintage AIM-120 that reportedly can fly around 90 miles, at best. The U.S. Navy’s F-14s carried very-long-range AIM-54 missiles, but those fighters and their special weapons retired in the early 2000s.
The Pentagon hopes to apply its work on LREW to a formal acquisition program that could produce a common munition for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. “LREW will complete systems design, engineering and kill-chain investigations in FY 2017,” the budget explains. “When successful, LREW will transition to multiple services.”
The military didn’t request any money for LREW for 2018.
At top — LREW concept art. Above — the U.S. Defense Department’s 2018 budget proposal
It’s unclear what technologies and concepts researchers have developed for the new missile. But there are some hints. In April 2017, Chuck Perkins, the principal deputy to the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, circulated an artist’s impression of an Air Force F-22 launching a hypothetical LREW.
The missile in the image features two stages — a warhead and sensor up front and a rocket booster in the back. In the artwork, the F-22’s main weapons bay — the one designed to accommodate the 12-foot-long AIM-120, is open. By implication, the LREW can be no longer than 12 feet and still be compatible with the F-22.
Of course, it’s possible to fit a range of different boosters to a two-stage weapon. Industry could design LREW with a variety of front and back ends to produce different versions of the weapons with different seekers and ranges. For example, F-15s could carry larger and longer-range LREWs externally, while F-22s and F-35s stick with smaller, shorter-range versions of the weapon that fit inside their bays.
A modular, long-range weapon would fit within the U.S. military’s emerging concept for aerial warfare. The Air Force has developed tactics for combined formations of F-22s and F-15s, where a few stealthy F-22s fly ahead and designate targets for larger numbers of non-stealthy F-15s hauling heavy missile-loads.
Likewise, the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office is working on an “arsenal plane” that could fly behind a screen of stealth fighters and lob missiles at long range. Officials have mentioned B-1 and B-52 bombers as possible arsenal-plane candidates. With their large payloads, a handful of bombers could bring potentially hundreds of LREWs to an aerial battle.
It’s unclear whether — and how fast — industry might take up the LREW concept and begin to actually build missiles. China reported conducted the first test-launch of its own new, long-range air-to-air missile in late 2016.