The United States has long relied on its arsenal of advanced and powerful cruise and ballistic missile platforms to serve as force multipliers, enforcers of American foreign policy, and of course, a nuclear deterrent. The American military boasts a massive stockpile of such missiles, deployable from land, sea, and air assets, and is able to launch an attack with short notice from nearly anywhere on the planet… there’s just one problem with America’s reliance on this sort of missile-based warfare: it’s extremely expensive.

Enter the U.S. Air Force’s “Gray Wolf” missile program. With an increased emphasis on the potential for war with a peer, or near-peer level military, America needs a missile platform that can be relied on to circumvent increasingly advanced enemy missile defenses and engage targets inside denied territory, clearing the way for aircraft and ground troops. While one way to do so requires developing faster, stealthier, and more advanced platforms (which America, China, and Russia are all doing, of course) the Gray Wolf aims to solve the problem by cutting costs, rather than increasing them.

The concept behind the Gray Wolf platform is simple in theory: instead of relying on developing a missile platform that’s advanced enough to circumvent enemy defenses, simply build one that’s cheap enough to launch a swarm of missiles that can overwhelm advanced missile defense systems. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense awarded $110 million contacts to both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to develop just such a platform; placing an emphasis on low-cost, high capability and modular construction to allow for upgrades and variety in the platform’s loadout.

Lockheed Martin’s concept for the Gray Wolf missile will be an affordable, counter-IAD [integrated air defense] missile that will operate efficiently in highly contested environments,” Hady Mourad, the director of the Advanced Missiles Program for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said in a press release. “Using the capabilities envisioned for later spirals, our system is being designed to maximize modularity, allowing our customer to incorporate advanced technologies such as more lethal warheads or more fuel-efficient engines, when those systems become available.”

The missiles need to be compatible with a variety of air frames, particularly the F-35, the Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagle, and the Marine Corps and Navy F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet. Plans to deploy Gray Wolf missiles on the Lancer B-1B, B-2, and B-52 bombers are also expected to follow suit. As a result, the cruise missiles will need to be able to manage targeting tasks themselves, as the threat advanced air defenses pose to America’s aging bomber fleet has been increasing rapidly in recent years.

A modular design will also permit the Gray Wolf platform to be utilized in a variety of applications, including traditional munitions and even electronic and cyber-warfare loadouts. Gray Wolf missiles could be equipped with decoy suites, intended to mimic the radar signature of larger aircraft, while others with traditional munitions engage and overwhelm the air defense employed to engage those decoys. Effectively, a swarm of cheap Gray Wolf missiles could be used to distribute a massive attack over a large geographical area, and offer enough radar signatures and powerful munitions to plummet a nation’s air defenses into utter chaos before U.S. Aircraft enter to establish total air superiority.

Of course, “cheap” is a subjective term. Most cruise missiles employed by the U.S. military ring in at just about $1 million a piece, and a concerted effort is already underway to bring the cost of Lockheed’s Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile down to $800,000 each. That means the real challenge posed by the contracts awarded to Lockheed and Northrop isn’t the technical means required to fulfill the DoD’s requirements, but rather, finding a way to do it for less money.

If successful, the Gray Wolf could change the way the United States would fight a war against a near-peer level opponent like China or Russia, who have each been developing hyper-sonic missile technology that promises to be a game changer in its own right.

While there’s no disputing the strategic value of super-advanced, super-fast, and super-expensive missile platforms, the Gray Wolf program may prove an even more effective means of accomplishing some of the same objectives, as a swarm of cruise missiles blot out the sun over enemy targets.


Image courtesy of DARPA