Northrop Grumman Shows Off Shipping Container-Launched Anti-Radiation Missile Concept

The idea pairs a standard ISO shipping container with the latest and greatest anti-radiation missile technology.

byTyler Rogoway|
AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) photo


The Association of the United States Army conference and expo is underway in Washington DC and our own Joe Trevithick was making the rounds around the show floor and spotted a very interesting concept from Northrop Grumman. It takes the increasingly popular containerized weapons trend and mixes it with the company's newest anti-radiation missile designs, the AARGM, which is the advanced AGM-88E version of the long-proven High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and the longer-range AARGM-ER with its sleeker form factor. You can read all about that missile here. In essence, such a system could place enemy threat emitters at risk in a persistent manner anywhere within the range of launcher's missiles. And that containerized launcher could be located on a road or at sea, as well as in semi-fixed positions. 

These missiles can be fired in a lock-on after launch manner, flying out to a certain area where an enemy emitter is active before locking on and making their terminal attacks. Being networked, they can even be retasked in flight. Electronic surveillance aircraft, including fighters equipped with advanced electronic support measures suites and operating deep behind enemy lines, could detect electronic threats and call up these surface-based missiles remotely on demand to suppress and/or destroy those threats. This not only drastically expands magazine depth for tactical aircraft when it comes to countering SAM sites and other hostile air-defense nodes, but it also adds a high level of unpredictability to counter-air defense operations.

AGM-88E in testing. , USN

These missiles aren't just anti-radiation missiles anymore, really. They are uniquely capable of prosecuting time sensitive and fleeing targets from standoff ranges—even those that may have stopped emitting electromagnetic energy, or never even emitted any all. The AGM-88E can be told to strike a target at a particular GPS coordinate and its active radar seeker can even track and refine its attack path on a target that begins to move away from that area. This is especially deadly for road-mobile anti-aircraft systems, but it can also be so for other target types, as well. 

So yes, you get an incredibly capable anti-radiation missile that can even blast emitters that stop broadcasting with a high degree of certainty, but you also get a missile that can destroy smaller time-sensitive targets, including ships and vehicles on the move within a certain geographical area. Oh, and it can do all that while careening towards its target at over Mach two. 

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If anything else, this concept is another reminder of how the very understanding of the suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD) missions are evolving in unique and creative ways. This goes along with the sentiments of one of the most famous Wild Weasel and fighter pilots of our time, Dan Hampton. In an interview from April of 2017 with The War Zone, Hampton stated:

"There are ways in and around those systems and I will go back to one of my life-long premises—anything that kills a SAM or part of a SAM can be a Wild Weasel. So it doesn't necessarily mean it's me in a tactical airframe. It might be special forces teams on the ground blowing up radars. It might be naval warships standing offshore if they're within range of their guns and just blasting the hell out of them."

AARGM-ER mock-up mounted inside and F-35's weapons bay. , Orbital ATK

But really, this idea isn't entirely new. Israel, a country that has pioneered many SEAD/DEAD concepts, adapted the AGM-78 Standard air-launched anti-radiation missile to be fired from the ground via a specialized M809 truck-mounted box launcher system. This system, deployed in the 1980s, was called 'Keres' (Hook) with missile itself being called 'Egrof Segoal' (Purple Punch). The AGM-78 was itself a retooled SM-1 Standard ship-launched surface-to-air missile—talk about coming full circle. 

Although the AGM-78 packed a big warhead—215lbs—that system wasn't even as remotely as capable, as versatile, or as long-reaching as the AGM-88E and its forthcoming sister missile, the AARGM-ER. 

Keres anti-radiation missile launcher.,  Bukvoed/wikicommons

An even cruder Israeli ground-based anti-radiation missile system predates Keres. The 'Kilshon' was basically an AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missile that launched from a rail mounted atop an M4A1 Sherman tank. This system served throughout the 1970s following the Yom Kippur War and was eventually replaced by Keres.

Eventually, Harpy suicide drones and their successors replaced Keres and the land-based anti-radiation missile concept in IDF service, but in some ways, it is still alive today. In this day and age, Israeli ground-launched cruise missiles get fed coordinates of active enemy radar systems and are fired at those sites on short order. These cruise missiles, such as the ground-launched Delilah, lack the speed of their anti-radiation predecessors. Now, Israel also has an evolved series of guided artillery rockets that are very fast, but not as long-ranged, and they don't possess the ability to chase down active emitters or moving targets. 

Yet what makes this concept most exciting is its modularity and deployability. It can be strapped to the deck of a ship, carted around by a semi or flatbed truck, or get airlifted into a remote firebase. It could even potentially be hidden aboard a vessel masquerading as a civilian transport, ready to provide fast-reacting suppression of enemy air defenses capabilities in support of an incoming aerial assault. Because it uses a standard ISO container, under very certain circumstances the system could even potentially be snuck into enemy territory, or into a less hostile country that shares a border with it, and be used by surprise to kick-down the enemy's air defenses ahead of or during an air operation—all without even putting an aircraft at risk. 

Using this system during a ground operation in contested territory could help significantly with providing protection for Army helicopters and other lower-flying assets from pop-up radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery and road-mobile SAM systems. 

The containerized weapon system concept began to emerge about a decade ago and has steadily become an increasingly attractive and versatile deployment concept for both higher-end and lower-end combat capabilities. Russia, in particular, has embraced the idea and is now designing entire ships around it. The U.S. seems to be following suit, albeit slowly. 

We will keep an eye out to see if or how this concept evolves, but regardless, it really does underline just how capable and flexible the next generation of anti-radiation missiles really are.

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