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1999 Assessment of the Office of Naval Research's Air and Surface Weapons Technology Program
air forces, the U.S. Air Force, and ONR is to continue with existing AIM-9X-and AIM-120-class missiles and to concentrate on preplanned product improvements (P3Is) in the areas of propulsion, off-bore-sight capability, hard-kill countermeasures, and integration into a network-centric model. The stated long-range goal is to have a single, dual-range, air-to-air weapon by about 2015.
Given the recent history of air warfare, these objectives may seem to be legitimate. Since the war in Vietnam the United States has not lost a fighter in air-to-air combat. However, the United States may have been lulled into a false sense of security. Recent advances in foreign air-to-air missiles such as the AA-11 and Python-IV find the U.S. Navy lagging in several areas of missile performance. In the continuum of air warfare, U.S. capabilities that include the airborne warning and control system (AWACS), electronic intelligence (ELINT), National systems,1 aircraft performance, electronic warfare, and pilot training have given this nation an edge that has resulted in an enviable record in recent air combat.
Comments on Program Components
With such supremacy in air-to-air combat and the heavy emphasis on strike warfare, the natural tendency is to assume continued supremacy and devote fewer resources to air-to-air missiles and their capabilities. However, the Navy and Marine Corps especially could be faced with a worthy opponent in a come-as-you-are fight, without the vast support resources that have come to be expected and demanded since the Persian Gulf and Kosovo engagements. For this reason, the committee believes that the ONR ASWT program must continue to maintain detailed awareness of the technical developments of other countries and must ensure that U.S. capabilities under development are at least as good as those, if not better.
The air-to-air weapons component of ONR's ASWT program is designed to be evolutionary in nature. Performance improvements have been incremental but steady. The technology being used is at the forefront of propulsion and warhead technology. Current weapon performance is significantly better than it was 10 to 15 years ago. The ONR ASWT program has time-phased goals for 5, 10, and 15 years into the future. Although goals such as a 25 percent increase in weapon range (for the same weapon volume) and a 15 percent increase in weapon velocity may seem relatively modest, meeting them may well make the difference between success and failure in air-to-air combat.
Air-to-air weapon research is a relatively mature field where current weapon capabilities may be well up on the curve of realizable performance. The committee believes that as long as modest, but significant, improvements in performance can be achieved at reasonable cost, the ONR ASWT program should continue to support such work. However, the committee cannot escape questioning the merit, on these terms, of some of the current effort. For example, success in a short-range air-to-air encounter depends among other things on how far off-bore-sight an infrared (IR)-guided weapon can be fired. If one asks what an incremental improvement in an off-bore-sight capability translates into in the time domain, the answer is generally about a few tenths of a second. While the ONR ASWT program is addressing this problem with considerable success, the committee does not find very reassuring the prospect of future air superiority depending on such marginal gains in capability. The committee
The term “National” refers to those systems, resources, and assets controlled by the U.S. government, but not limited to the Department of Defense (DOD).