The US Air Force updated the Senate Armed Service Committee regarding the status of its top-secret missile project earlier this month, saying that it could be entering production sometime later this year and at an accelerated rate.

This next-generation air-to-air missile program, dubbed by the service as AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, or JATM, has been tightly kept under wraps since it first emerged mid- to late-2010s. It is one, if not the most significant ongoing future weapon project, expected to amplify the US Air Force’s lethality and air superiority against increasingly sophisticated threats.

Speaking at the Congressional hearing, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the lawmakers the projected production schedule of the new air-to-air missile and subsequently requested funds to allow them to increase the size and capacity of the JATM production line beyond “what [the service] originally had planned.”

While the service has not specified its production target for JATM, it may produce in large quantities to meet the needs of the Air Force and other service branches that expect to receive the missiles, including the air fleets of the Navy and Marine Corps.

The service invested $6.5 million in fiscal 2020 to secure sensitive information about the AIM-260 JATM through a Special Access Program (SAP) and even built a separate secure storage facility. This program has kept the development of the JATM under wraps for years.

US Air Force’s Secretive Program

The War Zone reported in 2019 that the US Air Force had been quietly working alongside the Navy, which led to the development of the AIM-260 JATM, which will replace the venerable AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). The program was also likely prompted by a growing concern within the US military in recent years about the increasing capabilities of foreign air-to-air missiles, including China’s PL-15, which can outrange American fighter jets by over 100 kilometers (67 miles).

VMA-223 launches an AIM-120
Marines load an AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) onto an AV-8B Harrier aircraft (Image source: DVIDS)

Designed by Lockheed Martin, the JATM, by definition, is a beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) that aims to address advanced threats. It is larger and more capable than the current primary air-to-air weapon of the US Air Force, the AMRAAM.

In addition, it has a more extended range—about 160 km (99 mi) longer than AMRAAM, which makes sense since the program seeks to improve the operational capacity of its air-to-air missile significantly. Moreover, experts speculate it would have a higher top speed and a multimode seeker that could go head-to-head with PL-15. The JATM is also expected to be more maneuverable than AMRAAM, making it more difficult for enemy aircraft to evade.