US Air Force tests MUTANT missiles capable of “twisting and adjusting” and hitting highly maneuverable aerial targets

The US Air Force is reportedly testing “MUTANT” missiles capable of twisting in flight to accurately hit highly maneuverable targets, increasing the chance of a hit in air-to-air combat.

At the 2023 Air and Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colorado, the Air Force Research Laboratory presented the Transforming Missile Utility Through Technology project. articulated nose (MUTANT).

According to AFRL, the core concept of MUTANT benefits from relevant research and testing that dates back to the 1950s while utilizing efforts over the past six years on related technologies.

The concept is to use an air-to-air missile with a bendable nose to quickly hit the target and prevent it from escaping.

The US Air Force is considering using MUTANT missile technology as a potential solution to equip current and future combat aircraft with advanced capabilities to deal with increasingly agile threats. This includes the sixth generation stealth jet developed under the Next Generation Air Dominance program.

The AFRL webpage noted that a missile with greater range, maneuverability (g-capacity), and agility (airframe responsiveness) with limited weight is generally more effective. The missile’s control actuation systems (CAS) play a crucial role in these three parameters, which ultimately impacts the missile’s ability to successfully close in on targets.

The overall performance of a missile is significantly affected by each control actuation system (CAS) or combination of CASs, such as dual canards and ailerons.

CASs good for range (fins only) are generally bad for maneuverability and agility. In contrast, due to drag or extra weight, CASs good for maneuverability and agility (canards, wings, jets, thrust vectoring) often seem insufficient for range.

The MUTANT aims to change the conventional understanding of the impact of control actuation systems on missile performance. Unlike traditional missile designs, concept designs for the MUTANT feature only tail fins as control surfaces. This approach reduces the missile’s drag, making it more efficient and increasing its range.

Typically, drift-only missile designs sacrifice maneuver and agility for greater range. The MUTANT missile, however, overcomes this limitation by incorporating a conformal section into the front of the missile body that allows the entire forward end to articulate away from the centerline.

This added feature allows the missile to retain its extended range while improving its maneuverability and agility, which are crucial in air-to-air combat situations.

The EurAsian Times spoke with Kitsch Liao, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, to learn more about the “MUTANT” missile.

Liao said, “My current understanding is that the spin mechanism provides a way for the missile to redirect its high-explosive fragmentation warhead (or its continuous rod, I assume that’s also possible) to a different vector during the terminal phase. , effectively expanding the possible engagement. envelope.”

He pointed out: “The AFRL’s claim is that they essentially allow the missile to engage a more maneuverable target without needing to have the traditional control surfaces to steer the missile to fly close enough to the target – they expanded this effective “sphere” around the target where, if the missile could reach and activate the warhead, damage could be inflicted on the target.

“So because the need for control surfaces is less and the G-loading required for the missile is potentially less, the missile can be built lighter and with less drag compared to the same missile without rotation of the nose section and wanting to achieve the same engagement envelope. Alternatively, with the same structural strength and control surfaces, the missile would have a wider engagement envelope,” Liao added.

“These, however, do not take into account the trade-off for the rotary section, from the structural strength requirements (thus potentially negating some of the savings), to the weight and bulk of the rotary mechanism itself (again potentially negate some of the weight savings),” he explained.

Liao said it is therefore still unclear whether this will ultimately prove to be enough of an upgrade for the Air Force or other branch services to decide to adopt.

USAF mutant missile
File Image: USAF Mutant Missile

Difference Between MUTANT and Conventional Air-to-Air Missile

When using a conventional air-to-air missile, the entire weapon must alter its trajectory if the target moves away from the intended intercept point. With MUTANT, “course adjustment” can be accomplished effectively by moving the front of the missile to align it with the actual threat location.

The nose section that can move and adjust its position could improve the accuracy of the air-to-air missile warhead, which is usually small, by focusing its impact on the intended target. It could also help ensure that the missile seeker, or plural seekers in the case of multi-mode designs, maintain a lock.

Missiles that use multi-mode seekers, especially those that merge infrared imaging and active radar technologies, are often equipped with complex arrangements that could affect sensor viewing range in specific combat situations.

The AFRL acknowledges that in the past the size, weight and power requirements of morphing technology have made it impractical for use in missile systems, but says the MUTANT program is currently tipping the scales by favor of incorporating morphing features into weapons.

A graphic depicting a fictional missile with a hinged nose section. USAF

According to the official MUTANT website, the AFRL created an electronically controlled actuation system of small motors, bearings, gears, and electromagnetic structures to operate in a missile-sized form.

Careful planning allows the creation of a circular path for component wiring through into the body of the aircraft.

AFRL mentioned that the articulated component of MUTANT resembles, in very general terms, the articulated exhaust nozzle found on the F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Potential technological barriers also encompass the field of materials science. For the hinged structure to be useful in air-to-air missiles, it must be durable enough to withstand the high temperatures and other stresses that arise during high-speed flight.

An AFRL chart gives a general overview of the high temperatures that MUTANT structures must withstand at different speeds. USAF

In addition, the entire frontal section of the missile must be able to withstand the effects of rapid changes in direction of flight.

The AFRL has developed a composite reinforcement with an internal metal frame filled with an elastomer to meet these requirements.

Liao said: “I see less application for the other claimed advantage of being able to aim your finder in a different direction since it won’t change the fact that your finder’s field of view is still the same, and if he were looking to “turn” to keep the target in line of sight while potentially letting the rest of the missile continue to move in the original vector to optimize interception, we would also be faced with the sudden increase in drag and associated performance penalties, but it gets quite in the weeds – suffice it to say that the benefit is far from definitive and requires a lot more data and testing to see if the gain outweighs the cost.

Liao pointed out, “Based on what we currently know, this seemed like an evolutionary and potentially marginal improvement to the existing air-to-air. What this reminds me of is the sudden trend to start equipping fighter and experimental aircraft with vector thrust technologies in the 90s until they realized the gain wasn’t worth the increase in weight and complexity and could be further mitigated by aerodynamic improvements; I very much suspect this might be one of those projects that is a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.

Meanwhile, the MUTANT website reported that the final design of this structure should be suitable for use on missiles traveling at high supersonic speeds, where parts can be subjected to temperatures in excess of 900 degrees Celsius (1 652 degrees Fahrenheit).

The various components of the system have already been subjected to several ground tests by the AFRL in the laboratory and with rocket sleds. The prototype is built around a heavily modified AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile.

Another round of ground testing, according to the AFRL, should be completed by the end of fiscal year 2024 and will allow the Hellfire-based prototype to cruise with dual articulation and aileron control.

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