Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile (ASRAAM) is described by the RAF as;
It equips Typhoon and Tornado, and will be integrated with the UK’s F-35’s as a baseline weapon.
Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile (ASRAAM) History
To say ASRAAM had a rather convoluted history would be an understatement of epic proportions. It is also fair to say that we really were ahead of our time in the sixties and seventies.
The ASRAAM story starts with the Hawker Siddeley Dynamics Taildog.
Taildog first emerged in the late sixties as a counter to rapidly manoeuvring aircraft. It was revolutionary at the time, utilising thrust vectoring and off bore sight launch.
Taildog then became the Short Range Air to Air Missile (SRAAM-75) but even at this early stage, the RAF was considering an off the shelf purchase of the Sidewinder or Matra 550 missiles. By 1972, the government had placed initial development studies with Hawker Siddeley Dynamics for the SRAAM-75 missile. This was the world’s first thrust vectoring missile and included a novel air carriage system using a low drag canister, rather than free suspension of the missile on a pylon. The launch tube also contained a rear facing venturi to accelerate the missile clear of the launching aircraft at high speeds.
By 1973, SRAAM had a name, Mongoose.
The missile was built in three sections; the front housed the infra-red seeker, arming unit, warhead and electronics, the centre, main motor, and the rear, the thrust vector system and fins. Initial ground testing took place in 1973.
All was going relatively well until the 1974 Defence White Paper that saw significant budget reductions. The revolutionary SRAAM was downgraded to a technology demonstrator only. The RAF had decided to concentrate its funding on the UK variant (XJ521) of the US Sparrow missile.
A small number of flight trials from a Hunter were conducted in 1975. Nearing the end of the development phase, HSD submitted a request for further support from the Government, instead, they were notified that the RAF and RN would be purchasing the AIM-9L Super Sidewinder from the USA. Some funding was made available to continue development in infra-red technology for a future European collaboration on anti-aircraft missiles.
Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile (ASRAAM) was actually a joint USAF/USN requirement for a Sidewinder replacement, first mooted in 1979. The US government proposed that if NATO adopted AMRAAM, British Aerospace could become the ASRAAM prime contractor, with coproduction in the USA.
In August 1980, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the UK, France, Germany and the USA. In essence, this committed the UK and Germany to not develop a medium range air to air missile and instead, purchase the US AMRAAM. In return, the USA would purchase the UK/German developed ASRAAM. France, as usual at the time, would decide later, it was developing the Mica. The MoU did not force any production decisions but simply committed each party to only developing one or the other type. The BAe Skyflash 2 was subsequently cancelled in favour of AMRAAM.
British Aerospace and Bodensseewerk Geratetechnic (BGT) would work on an ASRAAM pre-feasibility to study to complete by the end of 1981. This study would examine all guidance and aerodynamic control options. Air to surface potential would also be considered.
ASRAAM was expected to enter service by 1990, naturally, US industry was not happy at this turn of events, despite the cessation of European development on medium range air to air missiles to the obvious advantage of AMRAAM. The extended period was largely due to the availability of the Sidewinder AIM-9L, a very advanced version of the older Sidewinder.
Meanwhile, in 1980, SRAAM made another successful series of flight trials at Aberporth.
In 1981, the contract for continued development of AIM-120 AMRAAM was awarded to Hughes Aircraft. To develop ASRAAM, BAE and BGT formed a joint company in 1983 called Bodenseewerk BAE GmbH (BBG). Canada and Norway also took a small stake. With large stocks of AIM-9L’s, many thought the likelihood of the US buying ASRAAM low, and the fact that the US Navy was still pursuing improvements to Sidewinder (instead of waiting for ASRAAM) simply reinforced the doubts.
A two-year definition contract was awarded to BBG in 1985, by then, US-Europe defence industrial relations were cooling. The MoD’s insistence that the UL elements of the ASRAAM programme were competitively tendered also produce a great deal of managerial and financial friction.
Despite this, by 1986 the AIM-132 ASRAAM was making good progress and was making inroads into the European Fighter Aircraft (EFA) helmet system for weapon cueing. The emergent design made use of a rail adapter called the Missile Support Unit (MSU) that contained the interface electronics and cooling equipment. The MSU would be retained on the rail after firing, its main advantage being that it enabled fitting of ASRAAM to multiple aircraft types with minimal modifications.
After years if disinterest, in 1987, the US DoD raised an objection to the Missile Support Unit concept and demanded a redesign so ASRAAM was directly compatible with all Sidewinder rails. Each of the ASRAAM partners (Norway, Germany and the UK) proposed their solutions to the MSU issue and in 1988, the UK BAE proposal was accepted by the consortium. The programme was also now to be led by BAE.
In July 1989, Germany pulled out of the consortium, effectively ending the agreement. Various reasons are often cited such as the ending of the Cold War and full realisation of the capabilities of the Russian R-73 missile, but many think this was a smokescreen for issues of finance and defence industrial share.
Despite efforts by BAE to rescue the consortium, by late 1989, the UK had decided to go it alone. This allowed the project to be freed from competing needs and compromises of partners. Eventually, BAE selected a US design from Hughes for the IR seeker but in time-honoured MoD fashion, insisted on a competition. The runners and riders for SR(A) 1234 were BAE’s new ASRAAM, the German version of ASRAAM (called IRIS-T) and the Matra Mica, a version called MICASRAAM.
This added yet another year’s delay.
As a footnote, this insistence on competition was none other than Peter Levene.
During this year, it also emerged that the US would consider offering the latest version of Sidewinder to meet the new ASRAAM requirement if the UK recognised the MoU was effectively dead. Various shenanigans happened but Germany selected IRIS-T, the US, Sidewinder AIM-9X France, Mica, and the UK, the BAE ASRAAM.
In 1992, BAE was awarded a £570 million development and manufacture contract.
Subcontractors included Hughes Aircraft (IR seeker), MBB (warhead and sensors), Thorn EMI (fuzing), Royal Ordnance (rocket motor) and Luca Aerospace (actuators). In service date was expected to be 1997.
By 1992, the MoD had scaled back deployment and quantity options for ASRAAM. This was to the utter dismay of BAE, who had bid on the basis of an assured number of missiles. Plans for integration with Sea Harrier and Tornado ADV were also dropped.
In 1996, the first guided firing of ASRAAM took place in the USA, from an F-16, funnily enough. A year later, the Royal Australian Air Force shortlisted ASRAAM for its F-18’s. South Korea, Israel and the UAE also expressed an interest in the F16 ASRAAM integration work conducted in the UK to USA intergovernmental contract but their requests were denied by the US Government. In 1998, Australia selected ASRAAM for its Sidewinder replacement programme.
After some delays, cost overruns and even compensation payments to the MoD, the BAE AIM-132 ASRAAM entered service with the RAF in 2002, final programme cost was £823 million.
It is probably fair to say that the ASRAAM saga left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, many lessons, as they say, were learned.
In 2009, a Royal Australian Air Force F-18 conducted a rather impressive firing of the ASRAAM, a lock on after launch at a target behind the wing line.
Despite initial plans to integrate ASRAAM with the F-35 for both internal and external carriage, in 2012, the internal carriage for the F-35 was dropped. The original plan was for all UK threshold weapons (ASRAAM, AMRAAM and Paveway IV) to be qualified for internal carriage. There were proposals for a ‘trapeze launcher’ to enable safe release from the internal bomb but these were also dropped. Brimstone and Storm Shadow were also dropped from the Block 3 software release. Meteor and SPEAR Cap 3 are currently planned for the Block 4 release.
In October 2014, the MoD placed a £40 million support contract for ASRAAM with MBDA.
By 2014, the RAF’s stock of ASRAAM missiles were approaching their mid-life upgrade point but because MBDA were already in production with the Common Anti-Air Modular Missile and the two share a very high degree of commonality, they were able to simply replace the RAF’s stock with new missiles manufactured at MBDA’s new facility in Bolton at a lower cost than refurbishing them.
A lesson in commonality if ever there was one.
The £300 million contract was placed in 2015, with initial deliveries to take place in 2016.
These new missiles will have a number of improvements including a new seeker.
ASRAAM now equips RAF Tornado and Typhoon, and is a baseline weapon for the UK’s F-35 aircraft, although they will only be carried externally. ASRAAM is also in service with India and Australia.
In August 2016, the MoD and MBDA announced a £184 million contract for additional ASRAAM that will equip the UK’s F-35 fleet.
This contract is on top of the £300 million contract awarded in 2015, bringing the total UK investment in ASRAAM to over £1.3 Billion.
Integration with F-35 will be carried out under a separate contract.
This latest variant of ASRAAM missile will enter service on Typhoon in 2018 and F-35 in 2022, when the existing variant will be taken out of service.
In March 2017, MBDA announced that the F-35 had successfully conducted its first live firing of ASRAAM.
Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile (ASRAAM) Capabilities
ASRAAM is 2.9m long, 166m in diameter and weighs 88kg.
The fuse utilises both impact and laser proximity modes with the lock on after launch guidance provided by a 128×128 pixel focal plane infrared array seeker. The blast fragmentation warhead weighs 10kg
The missile body is wider than Sidewinder or IRIS-T and this gives a clue to the underlying operating concept for ASRAMM in comparison with other similar missiles.
The range is stated to be ‘in excess of 25km’ and variously reported to be around 50km.
It is this long range that makes ASRAAM different, instead of focussing on the extremely short range or within visual range manoeuvrability, the larger rocket motor on ASRAAM enables much longer range shots to be taken.
See first, shoot first, kill first, as the marketing blurb goes.
The Hughes (now Raytheon) focal plane array allows ASRAAM to be highly resistant to countermeasures and detect targets at extended ranges. ASRAAM can also be cued by the Typhoon’s PIRATE IRST or Helmet Mounted Sight or Display (HMS/D) for a total passive engagement sequence.
ASRAAM can also be fired at very high speeds and G loading, locking on to the target before or after launch.
Although many like to compare it to IRIS-T or Sidewinder, the fact is they are different, with different concepts of employment.
The original intent was for four ASRAAM to be carried internally.
This then changed to internal and external, some test fits were made on mock-ups and development aircraft.
Following the 2010 F-35C change and the subsequent reversion to F-35B, this was amended to external only. Brimstone was also dropped from the threshold list.
The current plan is to carry two ASRAAM on the outer wing low observable pylons, positions 1 and 11.
Together with Paveway IV, these are the ‘threshold weapons’. AIM 120-C7 AMRAAM will also be available and likely to be carried before Meteor is integrated as part of Block IV (together with SPEAR Capability 3).
Paveway IV, SPEAR Cap 3 (100B) and Meteor will all be internally carried.
MBDA have shown images of an air dominance role fit of 2 ASRAAM on wing pylons and 4 Meteor in the bay. A multi role fit can be 2 ASRAAM on wing pylons, 2 Meteor and 8 SPEAR Cap 3 in the bay.
ASRAAM Block 6 is currently scheduled for integration with the F-35B as part of the Block IV software release.