The United States may operate the most advanced fighters on the planet, but today, its stealth jets like the F-22 and F-35 fly into a fight carrying the same basic air-to-air missile loadout used in Desert Storm, more than two decades ago. But that’s all about to change as the U.S. currently has at least six advanced new air-to-air missiles cruising toward service, offering more speed, range, or capability than ever before.
Today, American fighters usually carry two different types of air-to-air weapons: the radar-guided AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, and one of several iterations of the infrared-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. These weapons have seen continued improvements over the years, but they’re no spring chickens. The AMRAAM has been in service since 1991, and the AIM-9 Sidewinder can trace its lineage all the way back to 1956.
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Why the US hasn’t needed to replace its air-to-air missiles for decades
Of course, it would be a mistake to assume these missiles are still the same weapons that were first fielded decades ago.
The latest AMRAAM, the AIM-120D, reached initial operating capability in 2015 and represents a massive leap in capability over the original weapon. With 50% more range than its predecessor, a two-way datalink with the launching aircraft, a GPS-enhanced Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), and high off-boresight launch capabilities, the most modern AMRAAM is still ranked among the most capable air-to-air missiles on the planet today.
In fact, despite being considered a “medium-range” air-to-air missile, the AMRAAM reportedly scored the longest air-to-air kill in history against a BQM-167 target drone during air combat exercises held in March of 2021 (though the exact distance has still not been released).
Today’s most advanced Sidewinder missiles, the AIM-9X, are even further removed from their earliest iterations. Widely touted as among the most advanced air-to-air missiles in history, the AIM-9X is, technically speaking, an infrared-guided weapon, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s guided by an infrared-imaging sensor that can store target models within its onboard computer and discern between them on the fly. As a result, this weapon has proven very effective against a wide variety of targets that aren’t traditionally considered “hot” — targets like the Chinese surveillance balloon downed by an F-22 Raptor off the coast of South Carolina in February.
The Block II AIM-9X goes even further, combining the weapon’s existing thrust-vectoring nozzle and high off-boresight targeting capability with a new lock-on-after-launch system that allows a pilot to launch the missile before its seeker has found the enemy, guiding the missile in via data-link until the missile itself is close enough to get a bead on the target’s heat signature.
These iterative improvements to America’s long-serving air-to-air missiles have allowed the U.S. to maintain a competitive edge in air combat without having to invest heavily into developing and fielding clean-sheet new weapons.
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Why America needs new air-to-air missiles now
Sticking with the same overall design of legacy missile systems is, in itself, a limiting factor, and these missiles were originally fielded long before stealth fighters had to carry their munitions internally. Now, with advanced new threats on the horizon and the need to jam as much firepower into the fuselage of fighters like the F-35 as possible, Uncle Sam is on the market for some brand new air-to-air weapons for the first time in decades.
But the need for new missiles isn’t just based on the need for increased capacity. The F-35 is currently amid a massive upgrade in computing power, known as Tech Refresh-3, that will directly lead to a massive series of fighter upgrades dubbed Block 4. The Block 4 F-35 will fly with more than 75 significant improvements over today’s jets, making it the most dramatic increase in capability the platform has seen since it first started flying in 2006.
That, in conjunction with the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance fighter and the Navy’s F/A-XX fighter programs, both aimed at fielding 6th generation platforms even more advanced than the F-35, means America’s fighters need new weapons that are advanced enough to leverage the full extent of these fighter’s capabilities. All of these aircraft place a massive emphasis on engaging enemy fighters from beyond visual range, which means they need munitions that reach farther than ever before.
But perhaps more pressing than the need to couple new fighters with new weapons are the emerging threats posed by advanced beyond-visual-range missiles entering service for Russia, and more importantly, China.
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Russia and China are fielding missiles with incredible range
Russia’s R-37, NATO reporting name AA-13 “Axehead,” is a beyond-visual-range hypersonic air-to-air missile with a reported top speed of somewhere between Mach 5 and 6 — accomplished via brute force using dual-pulse rocket propulsion. The R-37 itself has a reported range of more than 90 miles, which is short of the range offered by America’s AMRAAM, but the R-37M variant adds an additional rocket booster stage, extending its effective range potentially as far as 250 miles (400 kilometers).
The missile can reportedly reach targets at such immense ranges through a combination of a data-link with the launching aircraft and its own internal semi-active and active radar guidance systems. In other words, it’s launched well before locking onto its target and is guided through a portion of its flight path until it’s close enough to lock on with its own internal systems. While this missile has reportedly scored kills against Ukrainian jets, it’s safe to say Russia has exaggerated some of this weapon’s capabilities.
China’s PL-15, NATO reporting name CH-AA-10 Abaddon, is a similar long-range air-to-air missile design that also leverages a dual pulsed solid-fueled rocket for propulsion and may be capable of achieving hypersonic velocities (though it’s likely in the Mach 4 range). The missile has a reported range of up to 124 miles and is guided to far-flung targets via two-way data link before transitioning over to its own internal active electronically scanned array radar that China claims is highly resistant to countermeasures. A RUSI analysis assessed that the PL-15 likely outclasses even America’s most advanced AIM-120D AMRAAMs, but falls a bit short of Europe’s highly capable Meteor missile.
These, of course, are just two of the myriad new air-to-air missiles in development by America’s competitors, but they point to a broader pattern of ever-longer engagement zones and air combat taking place over dozens, or even hundreds of miles.
So, in order to have first-kill opportunity or the first opportunity to strike, America needs new missiles that can not only reach farther than ever before to engage enemy Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) and other sluggish targets, but that can maneuver effectively enough to close with a nimble fighter at triple-digit ranges.
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America’s 6 new air-to-air missiles in development
AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM)
The AIM-260 JATM is perhaps the highest-profile new air-to-air missile in development for the United States. Slated to replace the long-serving AIM-120 AMRAAM, the AIM-260 is expected to be about the same size, but with a significant increase in range meant to offset the reach of China’s much-touted PL-15 radar-guided air-to-air missile, which has a claimed range of around 124 miles. Seeing as the AMRAM is already capable of reaching targets in triple-digit ranges, this advanced new replacement is expected to offer a significant leap in capability over the PL-15, renewing America’s beyond-visual-range advantage.
The joint Air Force and Navy JATM development effort was first disclosed in 2019, though few details have surfaced since. To date, the full range, propulsion type, or capability set expected to be offered by this missile all remain classified. All we know for certain is that, because this weapon is expected to offer similar dimensions to the AMRAAM, it should be easily stowed within the weapons bays of stealth fighters like the F-35 and F-22.
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Long-Range Engagement Weapon (LREW)
In 2017, the Pentagon announced that Raytheon was already two years deep into the development of another potential AMRAAM replacement known only as the Long Range Engagement Weapon, or LREW. Unlike the AIM-260, the LREW has been reported to be too large to be carried internally by stealth fighters, meaning it would likely be carried underwing by 4th generation fighters.
Like the AIM-260, little has been released about the LREW’s anticipated capabilities, but because it may not be limited by the internal dimensions of stealth fighter payload bays, it does open up some interesting possibilities. For instance, a ramjet propulsion system like the European Meteor could offer a potent mix of speed and range that currently can’t be crammed into an F-35.
As an extended-range air-to-air missile meant to external carriage on older fighters, the LREW may be perfectly suited for engaging vulnerable enemy targets like AWACS from standoff distances.
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Peregrine Air-to-Air missile
Raytheon’s Peregine air-to-air missile has actually been around for a few years already. First unveiled in 2019, this pint-sized powerhouse is only about half the size of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, but according to Raytheon, it offers similar — and sometimes even superior — performance to the long-serving radar-guided weapon.
Raytheon describes the Peregrine as having at least as much range as the AMRAAM with the high level of maneuverability allowed by the Sidewinder. By using modern propulsion systems and miniaturized components, Raytheon managed to cram all of that into a missile that’s just six feet long and weighs in at around 150 pounds. Raytheon says the Peregrine’s reach is “beyond medium range” and that it carries a tri-mode seeker, though they haven’t offered much more than that — leaving us to guess what type of seeker they mean. It’s possible that it may even fly with both a radar-guided and infrared-guided seeker onboard.
Most importantly, because of its compact design, stealth fighters can fly with more Peregrine air-to-air missiles than they could older AMRAAMs. That’s of particular importance for the F-35, which can currently carry only four weapons internally into the fight. The Air Force Research Lab awarded Raytheon a contract in December of 2022 to continue work on this missile.
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Modular Advanced Missile (MAM)
The Modular Advanced Missile (MAM) is among the newest additions to this list. The public first got wind of this program in the U.S. Air Force Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Appropriations portion of the branch’s 2023 Fiscal Year budget request, and as you might expect, details are scant. To date, we don’t know what type of seeker, propulsion system, or capabilities this missile is intended to offer, but we do know that, in March of last year, the Air Force announced plans to conduct a test launch of this weapon from a fighter in the near future.
But despite the mystery surrounding the MAM program, the use of the word “modular” in its title may give us an important hint. There are a number of ways a modular missile design could be beneficial, whether it means being able to swap propulsion systems, warheads, or seekers. It would effectively mean fielding a wide variety of new missile types, representing different types of threats for enemy aircraft, without repeated and costly development cycles.
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Lockheed Martin’s Cuda
Despite being around for some time now, not much is known about Lockheed Martin’s Cuda missile, including whether or not Cuda is, itself, an acronym. This weapon is often discussed in terms of the Air Force’s Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM) effort and appears to be a similar concept to Raytheon’s Peregrine. Lockheed Martin has described the Cuda as a small “AMRAAM-class radar guided dogfight missile” that could allow the F-35 to triple its internal capacity. Today, the F-35 can carry only two AMRAAMs internally, though Lockheed Martin has already announced that they can (and soon will) double that capacity to four.
However, like the Peregine, the Cuda is sufficiently smaller than the AMRAAM to allow for a whopping 12 of these air-to-air missiles to be stored internally, giving the F-35 a massive leap in air combat capacity. Interestingly, the Cuda uses hit-to-kill technology, rather than an explosive warhead, to take down enemy jets. This allows for the omission of a large, heavy warhead, accounting for some of the missile’s small size.
Related: F-35s encountered China’s J-20: Here’s what the Air Force says happened
Long-Range Air-to-Air Missile (LRAAM)
Boeing’s Long Range Air-to-Air Missile (LRAAM) was first unveiled in 2021, with the Air Force Research Laboratory awarding a continued development contract to the firm in 2022. This missile has a two-stage design, not dissimilar from multi-stage rockets. When fired, the booster stage ignites to provide an initial burst of speed while carrying the forward kill vehicle a certain distance. At that point, the booster separates and the kill vehicle ignites its own rocket booster to close with the target.
This two-stage design is expected to provide a great deal of speed, range, and maneuverability, allowing for different propulsion approaches for initial flight and then for more aerobatic terminal guidance.
Boeing says they don’t see this missile as a potential replacement for the AMRAAM or as a competitor for any other current missile program, but rather as a new capability altogether for American jets.
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Makes top gun look quaint. No pilot is safe from a 250 mile guided missile. And everything keeps improving at an exponential rate.
Thomas Birchfield says
“We’re So Far Behind, We’ve Got To Move Our A$s.”
“Therefore, “We Must Think Anew and Act Anew, “We Must Also Remember We Have “Limited Resources.”
“Real Difficulties Can Be Overcome; “It Is Only The Imaginary Ones; “That Are Unconquerable.”—-Theodore N. Vail
Screw these missiles, it’s time to use phasers and photon torpedoes. Just saying
Bob Ailanjian says
Read a story just last week that said the newer long range missiles won’t fit into the weapons bays of the F35 or the F22 without modifications to the bays. If that is true, what kind of idiot designed the bays without thinking about new missile design compatability?
Jason Ariola says
Thanks Alex for the update. Very much appreciated, unlike these other knotheads.
As a former air defense specialist in the U.S. Army, I find your knowledge about these new editions to the US inventory encouraging, furthermore. America needs to keep working
To develop a bigger stick that reach farther to ensure are enemies understand what they are facing when they decide to kick the big dog.
Johnathan Galt says
“ …the LREW has been reported to be too large to be carried internally by stealth fighters, meaning it would likely be carried underwing by 4th generation fighters.”
Or, load a few hundred inside a B-21 Raider….
The Peregine would be a very nice addition to Our P-8 Posidens that are facing the CCP’s J-15’s over the South China Sea . Just saying .
John Rafael says
What if boeing turned a p8 poseidon into a bomber, and used amraam turrets like the turrets of a b17
Jesus. So many mistakes in one article. It’s like reading a comic book.
Matthew Schilling says
Thanks for the detailed information you included in your reply to back up your dismissal of the article. Oh wait…
Well, at least you prayed first.