Thursday, December 16, 2010

DARPA Looks for a Triple Target Terminator

In early FY 2010, 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…

T3: Tracking the Trends

There are a couple of trends at work here.

One is related to Moore’s Law, and electronics miniaturization. As these trends play out, it becomes possible to improve the quality of seekers, memory, and processors, even as they shrink in size. The natural corollary is weapons with multiple guidance modes that can be correlated by onboard 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, and the forthcoming JAGM missile, offer designs and capabilities that would not have been possible before.

T3 will need to go after very different sets of targets, and it would be very advantageous to be able to use different modes including GPS, radar, imaging infrared/multispectral, and/or laser guidance, while possessing enough computer power and memory to be effective against maneuvering supersonic fighters, stealthy cruise missiles, and ground-based vehicles. Needless to say, those are very different problem sets. There are unconfirmed reports of 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.

The problem is that they cannot currently carry dedicated air defense suppression weapons like the AGM-88 HARM/AARGM internally, relying 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 the 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 missile, it would offer a versatile weapon for carriage in the aircraft’s limited internal spaces, ensuring onboard 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). FY 2011 budget documents [PDF] submitted in February 2010 have JDRADM integrated design beginning in 2011, with demonstration flights around end 2011-2012.

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. 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.

To learn more about the history of this program, click here

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