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.

Reportedly, the US Air Force’s F-22 fighter will do the honors of carrying the first deployment of the JATM. It also plans to integrate the missile into all three variants of the F-35s, the Air Force’s F-15EX Eagle II, and the US Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters. The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) aircraft will eventually fit the next-generation air-to-air missiles, particularly on the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), which is an autonomous drone wingman assigned to fly alongside manned aircraft for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations; electronic warfare missions; or even as a decoy to draw enemy fire.

Chief of Staff official General Charles Q. Brown Jr. told the lawmakers that the AIM-260 JATM would play a vital role in future CCA as it is projected to strengthen the drone’s combat capabilities.

Speculated Features

As mentioned, the information regarding the JATM remains confidential. Still, some experts have speculated the potential features of the new-generation air-to-air missile based on what the Air Force has reported.

The latest The War Zone article discussed that the JATM would likely be able to fly the latest AMRAAM variant, AIM-120D-3, which features a new advanced seeker capable of traversing its way through highly contested areas and going against dynamic targets. According to assumptions, this combination of these missiles will likely reach between 56 and 161 km (75 and 100 mi), depending on the launching conditions and other factors.

Furthermore, with JATM’s speculated extended range, it is possible to use a two-way datalink, allowing the missile to receive mid-course targeting updates or change its trajectory altogether, similar to the updated features equipped in the AIM-120D-3.

The AIM-260 JATM will also likely share a similar structure to or the same as the later-generation variants of the AIM-20 missiles—a crucial feature as it will allow the JATM to fit inside the internal weapon bays of F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II fighter jets. These fighter jets are designed with stealth capabilities, making them difficult to detect by enemy radar. To preserve this and maximize its low-observable characteristics, the aircraft carry their weapons and stores inside their internal bays as external stores would significantly increase their radar cross-section.

Future Successor of AIM-120 Missiles

While the service seeks to replace the AIM-120 AMRAAM with the upcoming AIM-260 JATM, it will likely stay for a couple more years as either an option or complementary to the latter. After all, the AMRAAM has proven to be an effective air-to-air missile, and having them both will give the armed forces a more versatile air-to-air capability.

Besides, the Air Force has also requested an additional $1.5 billion in 2024 to procure more AMRAAMs, alongside AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs) and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASMs). During the May 2 Senate hearing, officials explained that the additional billion budget “will help facilitate … [and] increase the production rate” of the US Air Force’s entire munition arsenal, not just for the JATM.

The service working on the missile initially targeted to conduct flight tests two years following the disclosure of the JATM program, with operational testing to occur sometime in 2022. However, several factors, such as technical challenges, inflating costs, and competition, pushed back the JATM’s entry into service. China, in particular, has been rapidly modernizing its military and arsenal. Its dynamic progress drove the US Air Force to reassess and reorganize its modernization program to realign it accordingly.

Book recommendation: If you’re interested in learning about the future of warfare and the rise of unmanned systems, check out “Rise of the Drones: Unmanned Systems and the Future of War” here!