On Defense Watch at the Ottawa Citizen last week, David Pugliese had a photo essay of CF-18s of the Royal Canadian Air Force loading AIM-7 Sparrows at Hickam Field during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. That led me to wonder
Why is the DND interested in buying F-35s if it can’t get some proper missiles on its F-18s?
The Sparrow is, after all, hardly the latest-and-greatest amongst air-to-air missiles. The early models of this semi-active radar seeker had an unimpressive service record over Vietnam, leading one USAF fighter wing commander to tell his pilots to just salvo the whole load at any target (see Marshall Michel’s Clashes for more on this). The AIM-7M, the model used by the RCAF, performed rather better in US service in the 1991 Gulf War, but it was still pretty much off launch rails by the late 1990s. By that time, the fully active AIM-120 AMRAAM was on every front-line US fighter.
My question is a little unfair, as the jump wouldn’t be unique. The Aeronautica Militare Italiania wanted to skip from F-104S Starfighters to Eurofighters, but leased some F-16s until the Typhoons could be delivered. Those F-104s carried very old Sparrows, or just guns, and the US Air National Guard had retired its last one in 1975. In the case of the RCAF, the F-18s are hardly new, but plenty of other air arms fly the A through C-series Hornets.
The good news, as Defense News reports, is that the Department of National Defence is looking for more AIM-120 AMRAAMs to replace its remaining Sparrows, and later-model heat-seekers to replace its AIM-9M Sidewinders. In addition, the DND is thinking about Raytheon’s GBU-53 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) for more discriminating effects against ground targets. Some attacks during the Libyan Civil War may have been rather hard in their collateral damage, and a weapon smaller than a 500-pounder is sometimes in order. But what the RCAF really wants for its next fighter (whether that’s the F-35 or not) is "what it is calling a complex weapon—an advanced air-to-ground [and] air-to-surface weapon for use in a future network-enabled environment.”
Radar-guided anti-aircraft missiles have long had a secondary anti-ship role, so we’re already part way there. And whatever the "network-enabled" thing, I have been wondering about this possibility for some time. A Brimstone missile weighs about 110 pounds. An SDB weighs 250 pounds. The new GBU-53B SDB II is just entering production, and with a tri-mode (radar, infrared, and semi-active laser) seeker. Frankly, the AMRAAM weighs 330 pounds, and that was a huge improvement over 1000-pound AIM-54 Phoenix. So it seems plausible that a missile design today might just fit air-to-air, air-to-ground, and air-to-sea functions—to a reasonable degree of utility—into a 300-pound bag. This may not be an operational necessity, and it might not be the go-to weapon for every mission. My friends at China Lake are already laughing. But all that said, the operational flexibility imparted might at least be worth some exploratory engineering.
I’ve complained in this space that the Canadian government’s pursuit of Canadian-built warships, at whatever the cost, is a terrible way to try to defend Canada and the rest of the Alliance. Canada lacks a comparative advantage in shipbuilding, and in particular, facilitizing a yard just to build two or three refueling ships is a stupid use of the Crown’s tax revenue. But Canada does have a large and capable aircraft industry, and a project like this may be well within its capabilities. As Defense News also reported this past week, Norway has produced the very impressive Naval Strike Missile. Sweden has produced missiles and whole fighter jets for decades. Canada may very well manage a project playing to its relative strengths, and one with some serious export potential.
I have just one more request. If this complex weapon project does proceed to the drawing board, please someone name it the Arrow.