Unveiling a MUTANT

In 2023, the Air Force Research Laboratory unveiled the Missile Utility Transformation via Articulated Nose Technology (MUTANT) program.  This new technology involves an air-to-air missile with a unique nose that can orient itself toward a target, mostly independently of the direction in which the air-to-air missile is traveling.  The warhead then detonates in the direction of the target, sending shrapnel into the projectile or aircraft to destroy it.  This allows the MUTANT to target agile threats more accurately, such as aircraft, either manned or unmanned, or with exceptional degrees of maneuverability, or hypersonic missiles, known for their high speeds and ability to rapidly change direction.  In a world of quickly accelerating aerial technology, the ability for America to deny its enemies the capability of operating in the air may be decisive in order for America to maintain air superiority over its near-peers in theaters like the Indo-Pacific.

Born in the 50’s

The MUTANT was born from articulation research in the 1950s.  While this research was able to demonstrate that an aimable warhead could potentially be fixed to a regular air-to-air missile, it was not until several decades later that this concept would move closer to becoming reality.  Early and modern air-to-air missiles rely on flying straight toward their target, exploding close to or on impact to destroy a target.  Due to hypersonic missile technology and advances in aircraft aerodynamics, advanced threats often have high degrees of maneuverability.  This may be due to the high speeds at which they fly, like hypersonic missiles, or abilities like thrust vectoring, the means of an aircraft engine to direct thrust at an angle to increase its turning abilities.

As America faces increasing threats from nations like Russia and China.  Russia is making heavy use of hypersonics in Ukraine, and China is expanding its capacity to field advanced aerial threats.  China’s J-20, its stealth air superiority fighter, is capable of high degrees of maneuverability and speed.  China is also expanding its quality and quantity of hypersonics, sure to be a fixture in any war with America.  The MUTANT, launched from F-22s or F-35s, will give America the greatest chance to shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles should tensions escalate.

Expensive, But Flexible

War with China and Russia isn’t inevitable.  Despite the frequent use of advanced aircraft and missiles in Ukraine, Russia hasn’t made any recent significant progress.  While China may be ahead of Russian technology, its lack of overall combat experience may hamper the deployment and operational capacity of technologically advanced weapons like stealth fighters and hypersonic missiles.  The MUTANT will likely be very expensive, but the technology behind it may make it launchable from the ground, thus increasing its flexibility.  While it is too soon to tell, MUTANT technology may also be able to better intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles, better protecting America from nuclear strikes.  Despite being decades old, MUTANT technology is still in its infancy, and while it may be the best option to defend against near-peer air platforms, it may still be years away from becoming operational.

About the Author

Headshot Christopher Gettel

Christopher Gettel is an 8-year US Army veteran who served with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne Division. He has been deployed to Iraq twice, including participation in the liberation of Mosul.