The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is, without question, one of the most advanced combat aircraft ever to take to the sky. While most of the media coverage regarding the F-35 tends to focus on its stealth capabilities, the technology that makes the F-35 stand head and shoulders above its multi-role competition isn’t just skin-deep. By some estimates, it’s not the aircraft’s stealth that makes it so special — it’s the F-35’s data fusion capabilities. Unlike previous generations of fighters, the F-35 gathers data from assets all around it — ground based sensors, satellites, drones, and even other aircraft — and consolidates all of that information into a single, streamlined display that not only offers its pilots the best situational awareness ever achieved in a fighter platform, but can be transmitted to other assets to aid in further targeting.
This capability is why many associated with Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force can so often be heard touting the F-35 as a “quarterback in the sky,” because once its powerful computers have made sense of the combat environment, that shared information can even make fourth-generation fighters in the neighborhood more deadly as a result. With an F-35 coordinating attacks, every asset in the area benefits from its handling of data streams.
But for all its computing power and penetration capabilities, the F-35 is hampered by one significant short coming — in order to maintain its stealth profile, it has to store any weapons it carries into the fight internally. The F-35’s two internal weapons bays offer very little room for missiles that were designed to be carried under-wing on fourth generation platforms like F-15s and F-16s, resulting in a stealth load out of just four AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. It’s sort of like building the most capable gun ever devised and then only giving it a four-round magazine.
That is, until now. Raytheon’s new Peregrine Missile promises to offer the same destructive power and even more range than America’s 30-year-old AMRAAMs in a package that’s just about half the size. What does that mean for stealth platforms like the F-35 and F-22 Raptor? It’s hard to say — but feasibly, it means they might soon be able to carry twice as many missiles.
— Steve Trimble (@TheDEWLine) September 16, 2019
“On fourth or fifth generation fighters you can double or triple the load out,” Raytheon’s Mark Noyes says. “You can at least double the load out on an F-35.”
At just 6 feet long and weighing in at 150 pounds, the Peregrine missile is absolutely dwarfed by the older AMRAAM at 12 feet long and 335 pounds. Despite the difference in size, and although Raytheon has been rather tight lipped about this new missile’s exact capabilities, it’s been said that the new missile will perform just as well as its much larger predecessor (if not better) thanks to a combination of its “multi-mode autonomous seeker” that leverages both radar and infrared to chase down enemy aircraft, and its “new, high-performance propulsion section” that is supposed to offer greater range than the AMRAAM.
“It will go supersonic and that’s attributable to that new lightweight airframe and high-performance modular control system,” Noyes told Aviation Week. “That permits it [to] go and do incredible maneuvers, especially at the endgame where it’s needed most.”
That extreme maneuverability at the “endgame” is intended to allow the missile to make instant course corrections just as it closes with an enemy aircraft, allowing it to maintain its lock even as a fighter conducts extreme maneuvers to get out of its way. This, it seems, was accomplished through the force vectoring system that directs the flow of exhaust exiting the engine. This same technology can be found on the AIM-9X missile and a similar approach can be found on acrobatic fighter jets.
Perhaps just as important as its size, the new Peregrine missile is also expected to carry a smaller per-missile price point than others currently found in use. With some missiles ringing in at over $2 million apiece, that’s an important part of the equation if the U.S. intends to start doubling up on the number of missiles carried by F-35s and the like. It’s feasible that new mounting hardware could see F-35s able to carry eight high-performance air-to-air missiles into contested territory in the very near future, giving each fighter the twice the firepower of today’s F-35s. But, in order to do that, the missiles have to be affordable. That’s where Raytheon’s effort to use existing technology pays dividends.
“The beauty of it is we are using some of our additive manufacturing processes, military off-the-shelf technology, and readily available materials to put this together,” says Noyes. “It’s going to be rapidly produced. It is going to be low risk.”