ADF Weapons: Was JASSM the right choice?
By Tom Muir
Delays in the JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile) program could impact on the RAAF’s air power transition planning; the other contenders for this program remain in the picture, but the USAF has said it intends to persist with the JASSM program.
There is no doubt that by the time this piece is published the troubled JASSM missile program will be back on track, most likely under a new plan agreed between the missiles' sponsor - the US Air Force - and its builder, Lockheed Martin.
This is because, despite the program's problems including burgeoning cost increases and latterly indifferent performance of the missile itself, the USAF does not want the US$5.8 billion program terminated and is working with Lockheed Martin to fix the problems revealed in recent test failures.
Assistant Air Force Secretary Sue Payton said they wanted a proactive, preventative plan where things were not going to break as much as they had been breaking.
“Lockheed Martin is not happy with the reliability on this program, and neither are we,” she said.
The Pentagon already has about 600 of the JASSM missiles in its inventory, and is looking to buy 4,000 more. Australia is acquiring only a relatively small number but as JASSM's only export customer this may be a factor in favour of continuing the USAF program.
Currently there are no restrictions on the use of the weapon, although there are somewhat simplistic suggestions that until the guidance problems are overcome, more missiles would have to be used to attack an important target.
Clearly, the news had not been good. JASSM, the Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile, selected for the Australian Air 5418 stand-off missile (SOW) requirement, had proved to be ineffective during four recent flight tests, which were conducted as the US government weighed whether to terminate the new stealthy cruise missile program due to cost increases.
During the tests, which took place on 30 April and 1 May this year, three of the cruise missiles impacted ‘well outside the target area,’ at distances greater than 100-200 feet, according to a preliminary USAF report on the mishaps.
The missiles failed to damage the intended targets while the developers are reported to have attributed the misses to GPS dropout, affecting the missile's ability to navigate to the impact point.
It seems that missile guidance is the major reliability concern and Lockheed Martin has been quick to point out that that the root cause of the GPS-related flight failures in the recent tests were due to a government-provided product embedded in the Lockheed Martin GPS navigation system.
Lockheed Martin has offered to remedy the problem at no cost.
The final missile flew its intended flight profile and hit the target, but experienced a fuzing problem that prevented so-called ‘high-order detonation' as planned. JASSM is designed to destroy land targets in protected areas.
But the missile’s effectiveness was not the only problem for this program. In April, the US DoD reported to Congress that JASSM's cost had increased more than 25 per cent from $4.3 billion.
This requires the Pentagon to conduct a full review, assess whether other solutions may be available to meet the requirement and, if other options are not present, affirm that the program's management is sound enough to proceed without further problems.
In its report to Congress, the Pentagon attributed the most recent cost spike to engineering increases resulting from work on the extended-range variant, a data link and maritime interdiction capabilities as well as reliability improvements for the weapon.
Australia is collaborating in the development of a JASSM variant capable of engaging relocatable and mobile targets, which depends on USAF development of a maritime interdiction capability that is suitable for the Australian application. A key requirement is the missile's ability to perform very low-level flight during its terminal attack.
But JASSM's recent test failures aren't the program's first - flight testing has twice been halted by the USAF for various reasons. Overall the missiles have, in 64 flight tests to date, recorded 39 successes and 25 failures.
Plus it seems that Angus Houston, when CAF, said the F- 111s would only be pulled from service when the B737 AEW&C and Airbus KC-30 air to air refuelling aircraft were in service, the Hornet upgrade program was complete and the JASSM missile operational.
With the F-111 due for withdrawal in 2010, JASSM needs to be operational in two years time.
Back in 1998, JASSM's development period was extended which led the USN to propose an alternative, the Standoff Land-Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER). This could be an option if the Pentagon decides to terminate JASSM and this country would probably follow suit, although there are other options.
It was only in February last year that the government announced that JASSM was to be acquired to equip the F/A-18 Hornets as part of plans to withdraw the F-111 aircraft, in the knowledge that JASSM’s development had encountered difficulties including cost and schedule overruns.
One of the arguments for its selection was its potential for equipping future platforms including the JSF. Two contracts are involved. One, an FMS case with the USAF (July 2006) for the supply of up to 260 AGM-158 operational, telemetry and captive training missiles worth an overall $US163 million.
The other is a commercial contract signed with Lockheed Martin in September, which covers integration and support arrangements for the missile. The overall project cost is in excess of $300 million.
But this project to acquire a follow-on air-to-surface stand-off capability, and its predecessor, Air 5398, has had to face a variety of hurdles, due to demanding requirements, subsequent changes in scope, unexpected integration difficulties and so on.
It all began with Air 5398, which sought the acquisition of an air-to-surface stand-off weapon (SOW) capability for the F/RF-111C aircraft to enable it to prosecute defended targets and to improve that aircraft’s survivability in the precision strike role.
By mid-1998 under Phase 1A the AGM-142E, fitted with either blast fragmentation or penetrator warheads, was selected as the SOW for use against unitary targets and semi-hardened targets. The RAAF variant included an imaging IR seeker to provide a 'fire and forget' capability and which could also be steered to target impact by the navigator via the data link.
An initial $US90 million order for basic-model AGM-142s was placed with the FMS system in 1998 and a follow-on order for E model variants was placed the following year. Boeing Australia was contracted in 1999 to undertake the aircraft integration effort with work commencing on preliminary design activities in 1999.
However, this activity came to a halt in mid-stage as funding was halted pending the release of the 2000 Defence White Paper. A sole source RFQ was issued to Boeing post-WP2000 to enable it to continue with subsequent stages of the design implementation activity.
But the scope of Air 5398 had broadened considerably over time with requirements for weapons optimised for a variety of targets on land and sea. These SOW varieties included Anti-radiation-SOW, Area SOW and Littoral SOW, each with their own specific requirements.
Alarmed at the cost and complexity of integrating and maintaining such a diverse inventory of weapons the then Defence Capability Committee opted for the concept of a family of weapons and subsequent phases of Air 5398 were scaled down and transferred to a new project, Air 5418 Follow-on Stand Off Weapon Capability.
Air 5418 FOSOW
An RFP for the provision of an airborne SOW capability to engage radar, area and maritime targets under Air 5418 was released in late 1999 with the intention of sourcing from a related family of weapons.
In addition to the AGM-142E, whose strike range was a comparatively modest 90 km, the F-111 would receive the Anti-radiation and Area SOWs, while the AP-3C would receive the Anti-radiation and the Littoral SOWs.
Fitment of all three capabilities to each project aircraft, would be considered ‘if it represented value for money’. The last category now included the F/A-18, attention being brought to its possible use in a strike role should the F-111 be withdrawn earlier than originally intended.
There were five responses to the RFP. The weapon systems proposed were the JASSM; KEPD 350; SLAM-ER; HARM 4/JSOW; and Delilah/Goliath.
Just seven years ago, by mid-2000, contenders were advised that the Lockheed Martin JASSM had been selected as the preferred weapon system and the Taurus KEPD 350 included in the shortlist of two ‘to ensure the project did not prejudge the consideration of SOW requirements being carried out as part of the development of the Defence White Paper.’
The KEPD 350, which had been highly rated in the earlier RFP process, was withdrawn from the tender by the TAURUS team due to their heavily involvement in the series preparation for the German Airforce, their troop trials in South Africa and their final negotiations with the Spanish Airforce which finally lead to a contract.
Concerned at the unexpected cost and delays associated with the integration of the AGM-142E Popeye and the superior capabilities of JASSM it was reported in early 2001 that the RAAF wished to abandon plans to install Popeye on F-111C aircraft in favour of an early acquisition of the JASSM under Air 5418.
Due to the cost of cancelling the FMS order, the onsale of the AGM-142Es to Greece was being explored by Lockheed Martin. Although the proposal apparently received Defence internal audit approval, it did not eventuate.
A change in plans
Air 5418 was rescheduled in the 2001-2010 Defence Capability Plan and amalgamated the requirements of the Air 5398 phases, subsequent to 1A, for Air SOW, Area SOW and Littoral SOW but with a longer stand-off requirement.
The year of decision was 2004-05 but the recipient aircraft were still the F-111 and AP-3C and possibly the F/A-18.
This all changed with DCP 2004-2014 in which Air 5418 was now concerned with the acquisition of air-to-surface weapons for the F/A-18 and the AP-3C with no mention of the F-111.
The government then announced that three SOW systems were under consideration for Air 5418. These were JASSM, SLAM-ER, and KEPD 350.
Defence would advise the government of its preferred weapon the following year after a process of information solicitation and evaluation. The project was worth $350-$450 million and the new weapons would be introduced into service between 2007 and 2009.
And what of Air 5398? By May 2003 Boeing Australia announced that it had achieved a significant milestone toward integration of the AGM-142E with the F/RF-111C fleet with the Boeing Aerospace Support Centre at Amberley having successfully simulated the launch and operation of the weapon using aircraft hardware and software in the Systems Engineering Laboratory.
By July 2005 then Defence Minister Robert Hill announced that two missiles had been successfully fired from an F-111 aircraft at the Woomera Test Range. He then went on to say that formal introduction of the missile into operational service was scheduled for early the following year.
Well that hasn’t happened and the troubling and long drawn out task of integrating a modern missile with an old airframe suggests to us that the AGM-142E is unlikely to be fully introduced into service with the F-111 fleet much before that aircraft’s retirement in 2010, suggesting the whole process has turned out to be a very costly ($450 million) investment in little more than software engineering and integration skills.
Fall back options
Should difficulties persist with the development of JASSM, including those anti-ship capabilities the ADF would like, does the DMO have a fallback position? Does the JASSM contract include performance guarantees? Is it locked into a contract that, in case of a change in heart, leaves it in the position it now endures with the AGM-142E?
J-SOW, which is operational with USN Super Hornets, and which we understand will form part of the weapons fit of the RAAF Super Hornets, was earlier eliminated from Air 5418 contention but would now seem a sensible low cost solution on the basis that if J-SOW is good enough for the F-111 to JSF ‘bridging capability’ then why not arm the A/B fleet with the same missile.
By the time that the JSF is introduced into service we would probably want a better weapon than JASSM anyway, such as the air-launched version of Kongsberg's Naval Strike Missile, which is designed to be carried and launched internally from the F-35 Lightning II fighter's internal bays (two missiles), or external hardpoints.
The 1000 lb, stealth-enhanced NSM missile uses GPS/INS guidance plus an imaging infrared seeker, in-flight data link and an automatic target recogniser (ATR). It strikes ships or land targets with a titanium warhead and programmable fuze.
The TAURUS KEPD (Kinetic Energy Penetration Destroyer) 350 stealthy missile has a range in excess of 500 km. Powered by a turbofan engine at Mach 0.8-0.9 it can be carried by the Tornado, Eurofighter Typhoon, Gripen and F/A-18 aircraft.
The missile weighs about 1400 kg and has a maximum body diameter of one metre. Intended targets range from hardened bunkers to ships or submarines in ports and bridges. The missile also includes counter measures as a self-defence mechanism.
The KEPD 350 is said to be the world's only precision stand-off guided missile system that is capable of navigating over long distances without GPS support. Once there the missile commences a bunt manoeuvre to an altitude intended to achieve the best probability of target acquisition and penetration.
During the cruise flight a high resolution infra-red camera can support the navigation by using IBN and is also used for GPS-free target attack.
The missile attempts to match a camera image with the planned 3D target model.
If it can't, it defaults to the other, navigation systems, or, if there is a high risk of collateral damage, it will steer to a pre-designated crash point instead of risking an inaccurate attack with undesired consequences. Germany has ordered 600 KEPD 350 missiles and Spain has acquired 43 for integration into Spanish Air Force F/A-18s.
But one aspect of the original capabilities sought under the earlier SOW requirement was an anti-radiation capability. Now ATK and MBDA have combined in the development of the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AGM-88E), compatible with all F/A-18 variants.
AARGM is a medium range, supersonic, air-launched tactical missile that might well enhance the offensive capabilities of both RAAF Hornet and Super Hornet.
JASSM is being acquired for the F/A-18 Hornet fleet partly to retain a quasi-strike capability after the F-111s are retired and more importantly as a SOW for the JSF when it is introduced into service.
But that may be in nine or ten years time - will the missile selected back in 2000 still suit this country's strategic needs in 2017?
If current development work on JASSM's extended range, maritime strike capabilities and so on, is curtailed under any new programming arrangement between the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin, then perhaps we should be looking for more advanced strike capabilities than those that are soon to grace our ageing F/A-18s.
Copyright Australian Defence Magazine, August 2007