Extended Range Weapons
Why extended range matters and how we get there
In recent years, the U.S. military has pivoted towards addressing peer and near-peer threats. It is now widely recognized that to respond to these adversaries, technology must be able to match, or ideally exceed, that of these emerging threats.
Adversaries have evolved, and they are much more sophisticated in both tactics and weaponry. To address this new challenge, solutions must be developed that apply to both developmental systems, as well as in-service systems that will benefit from an increase in capability.
For tactical missiles, range is the primary discriminator that will provide strategic advantage: whichever side can shoot the furthest and operate from the greatest distance from its threat will ultimately prevail. Missile propulsion is therefore the key to enhancing this performance.
"Being able to make our long range, tactical weapons go further than they currently do, and go further than the enemies' weapons do, is really the primary consideration of closing that technology gap," according to Ken Tappe, tactical propulsion expert at Northrop Grumman.
So, what is the silver bullet that will guarantee the furthest tactical missile range?
In short, there isn't one. There are many different considerations for extending the range of tactical missiles, all of which vary depending on the operator, the weapon's intended use, the existing infrastructure, cost, risk, service life, and schedule, to name just a few.
The Complete Toolbox
In fact, a whole toolbox of features needs to be available to operators to select the right modifications for their missile systems based on specific requirements.
If risk, for example, is a key consideration, then opting for a newly developed technology with limited pedigree behind it may not be the best option. If you have the capacity to introduce a larger system, meanwhile, then certainly technologies that take up real estate in a system could be an option, unlike more compact systems that lend themselves to smaller technologies.
These considerations will help determine what extended range (ER) propulsion system will be opted for to enable the tactical missile to go further, and only the availability of a toolbox of solutions will provide operators with all the required options.
The good news is that there is a vast range of propulsion technologies available to the user. Each technology has its own merit and will work in some circumstances better than in others.
These include variations of solid rocket motors, namely minimum smoke propellants, reduced smoke propellants, high performance propellants, or "exotic" propellants that will produce as much performance as they can from the solid rocket motor.
Multi-pulse solid rocket motor technology, meanwhile, can be a simple way of extending range, alternating between phases of boost and coast during flight. This is a prime example of evolutionary technology development; propulsion does not have to be completely redesigned to be effective for today's warfare.
Highly loaded grain motors, throttleable solid rocket motors, and air-breathing motors are other options or alternatively more traditional turbojet and turbofan solutions. Simple tailoring of the aerodynamic properties of the system is also an option.
All the Tools in One Northrop Grumman Box
Having developed its toolbox over many years, Northrop Grumman is well placed to be able to offer this to its customers, and has applied many research and development dollars to ensure that it stays ahead in developing disruptive propulsion technologies.
"It is without a doubt an advantage to have all of those things at your disposal," Tappe added. "And as the threat becomes more and more sophisticated, that feature becomes more and more important.
"All of those toolbox items exist in various places throughout our industry, but Northrop Grumman is one of the very few that has virtually all of them in some form or fashion within the company."
He adds that Northrop Grumman does not have to be parochial in terms of what solutions it recommends because it has them all available, and "we can be fair arbitrators of what the best solution is, because we're not vested in one versus the other.”