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Orbital ATK announces further AGM-88E modifications

Orbital ATK has told MONS that it has “increased production rates” for its AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Missile (AARGM) air-to-surface weapon over the past twelve months, via a written statement.

The AGM-88E is an extensive re-working of the legacy Raytheon AGM-88C High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) adding several capabilities to improve the precision of the weapon. These include an enhanced Radio Frequency (RF) Anti-Radiation Homing (ARH) sensor and a Millimetre Wave (MMW) radar, to improve the missile’s field-of-view regarding the detection of the ground-based air surveillance and fire control/ground controlled interception radars that the missile is designed to target, while also providing high-resolution imagery of the radar’s end game so as to improve post-mission debriefing regarding its effectiveness in accurately hitting and destroying its target. Crucially, the AGM-88E initiative also adds a Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System (GPS/INS) to the missile. This latter augmentation is an important addition to its capabilities. The deployment of legacy AGM-88 HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) weapons in previous conflicts in the Middle East, notably during the US-led interventions in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and its use during NATO-led operations in the Balkans during the mid-to-late 1990s illustrated that the missile could be thrown off target by use of the so-called ‘switch off’ tactics employed by radar operators. Believing their radar to be under attack by an AGM-88 family weapon, the operators would switch off their radar depriving the missile’s seeker of the RF energy it required to home in on the target, causing it to break lock. The addition of a GPS/INS potentially neutralises this tactic by enabling the missile to be loaded with the GPS coordinates of the target, even once the missile is in flight. Secondly, the GPS/INS allows the missile to be loaded with geographical parameters regarding its permitted zones of engagement. This is an important enhancement regarding the reduction of friendly fire incidents as it will designate areas where the missile is not permitted to fly. For example, during NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, an AGM-88B missile reportedly hit a suburb of Sofia causing heavy damage to a house and destroying several cars, after missing its intended target. This incident was reportedly the result of the employment of the switch off tactic which had been used by a Serbian Air Force ground-based air surveillance radar which had illuminated a strike package of aircraft, causing the AGM-88B to be fired, before switching off its transmissions.

This January, the company was awarded a contract for non-recurring engineering regarding the design, development and qualification of the ARH and MMW executive processor circuit card assembly “as a form, fit and functional replacement” of the AGM-88E’s existing ARH and MMW apparatus, the firm continued in its statement. Added to this, it stated that the company, and its engineers “continuously evaluates evolving threats and the effectiveness of the missile to suppress and destroy enemy air defence threats while keeping the warfighter safe … We work closely with our US Navy customer to advance the AGM-88E’s counter air-defence capability.” The US Navy is the main customer for the AGM-88E (see below). Moreover, the need to ensure that the missile can counter emerging ground-based air defence threats is a serious concern. According to open sources, over the past seven years, significant exports of ground-based air defence systems have been concluded around the world. These have included the acquisition of such equipment by several so-called ‘countries of concern’: For example, Sudan reportedly acquired four Znamya Truda Plant 9K33 Osa (NATO reporting name SA-8 Gecko) family mobile low-altitude/short-range air defence systems in 2014, with Russia exporting four Almaz-Antey S-300PMU (NATO reporting name SA-10 Grumble) high-altitude Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems to the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2016, and the People’s Republic of China ordering six Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler) strategic SAM systems in 2015.

Orbital ATK continued that its customers, which include the US Navy and the Aeronautica Militaire (Italian Air Force) continue to evaluate the missile on several aircraft and to provide feedback to the company to ensure “high levels of confidence for the system.” To this end, in US Navy service, the weapon can be deployed by the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18C/D and F/A-18E/F combat aircraft, alongside the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. In Italian Air Force service, the weapon is deployed by the Panavia Tornado-ECR suppression of enemy air defence aircraft.

As of early April, the Italian Air Force had deployed four Tornado-ECR aircraft to the US Navy’s China Lake airbase in California for the operational test and evaluation of the weapon. In 2005, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States regarding Italy’s involvement in the weapon’s development, and its intention to procure up to 250 AGM-88E examples. The company’s written statement continued that the weapon is expected to reach its Initial Operational Capability (IOC) onboard the Tornado-ECR by the end of this year. The firm continued that, to date, it has delivered over 600 AGM-88Es. The US Navy achieved IOC with the weapon in 2012, following a test programme which involved twelve missile firings.

Thomas Withington

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