MQ-9 Reaper, Howitzer, Rocket Toting F-16 All Shoot Down Mock Cruise Missiles In Huge Test

The Air Force demonstrated the non-traditional forms of cruise missile defense while testing its new super command and control network.

byJoseph Trevithick|
AIM-9 Sidewinder photo


A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone used an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile to shoot down a target drone simulating a cruise missile during a recent demonstration of the service's still-in-development Advanced Battle Management System command and control network. A manned F-16 Viper fighter jet also destroyed another mock cruise missile with a laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II rocket. It was the second test of this weapon in this role and the first to occur over land. This follows reports that a U.S. Army XM1299 155mm self-propelled howitzer blasted yet another surrogate cruise missile out of the sky using a Hyper Velocity Projectile during this same large scale experiment. 

The Air Force has been steadily providing new details about the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) Onramp #2 event, which ran from Aug. 31, 2020, until Sept. 3, and involved various demonstrations in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as training ranges adjacent to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. A combined operations center and intelligence fusion cell at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland also support the experiments. The public affairs office at Creech Air Force Base revealed the new information about the cruise missile defense components of the experiment on Sept. 9.

"This truly was a combined effort to make this demonstration a success," Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Chmielewski, the commander of the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, said in a statement. "While early in development, this successful test opens the door to further explore integration opportunities the aircraft and cockpits could provide to JADC2 [Joint All-Domain Command & Control], as well as counterair capabilities and roles beyond the typical counter-terrorism role assumed by the MQ-9."

The 556th was the unit that flew the MQ-9 when it fired AIM-9X, reportedly an advanced Block II variant which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece, at the BQM-167 Skeeter target drone during the demonstration. The 26th Weapons Squadron and unspecified industry partners, likely including Sidewinder manufacturer Raytheon, were also instrumental in the successful shootdown, according to the Air Force.

The MQ-9 from the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron armed with an AIM-9X Sidewinder during the ABMS Onramp #2 event., USAF

This is only the second time an MQ-9 has fired an AIM-9X at an aerial target. The first launch was during another successful test of the drone's ability to engage other aerial threats with the Sidewinder in 2018. The Air Force had previously armed at least some MQ-1 Predators, the Reaper's now-retired predecessor, with air-to-air versions of the Stinger missile for self-defense as early as 2003, which you can read about more here

It's also interesting to note that the Air Force is looking to stop buying MQ-9s and pursue a replacement for its Reapers that would be more survivable in a higher-end conflict. The cruise missile defense mission could potentially breath additional life into these drones.

The recent ABMS event also reportedly included the employment of ground-launched AIM-9X, but details remain limited about that portion of the experiment. The U.S. Army has been testing a number of ground-based short-range air defense systems in recent years that could potentially have been the one to fire the Sidewinder.

The AIM-9X Block II features a two-way data-link and added range, as well as high-off boresight targeting and lock-on-after-launch capabilities. Together with thurst vectoring and an advanced imaging infrared sensor, the weapon is more agile and accurate that any previous Sidewinder variant. The weapon's increased range and adaptive flight profiles makes it easier for them to engage more diverse threats, such as cruise missiles.

A 2016 US Navy briefing slide showing various advanced methods of employing the AIM-9X Block II, including against cruise missiles., USN

The F-16 from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron also brought down a BQM-167 with its Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS) rocket, also known as the AGR-20A, the first such test over land during ABMS Onramp #2. The Air Force first demonstrated the ability of this weapon to be employed as a low-cost anti-cruise missile interceptor in December 2019 during a test off the coast of Florida, seen in the video below. 

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Using the APKWS II as an air-to-air weapon opens up a host of possibilities for Air Force combat jets, including shooting down cruise missiles, as well as small unmanned aircraft. Being a fraction of the cost of other air-to-air weapons, including the AIM-9X and the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), as well as fired from a pod capable of holding multiple rockets, APKWS II could offer a cheaper means of engaging these threats, as well as greater magazine depth to do so. 

The Air National Guard is also in the process of upgrading its F-16C/Ds with AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radars, an active electrically-scanned array type, that will greatly improve their ability to spot and track threats, even smaller ones, with greater precision at longer ranges. This could make them particularly effective platforms for detecting and engaging cruise missiles, including the AGR-20A.

Cruise missile defense was a major component of the ABMS Onramp #2 experiments beyond these air-to-air engagements. A U.S. Army XM1299 howitzer notably brought down yet another BQM-167 from the ground with a Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP). The HVP, originally designed to be fired out of the electromagnetic railguns the U.S. Navy and Army have been testing, is now being adapted for use in conventional guns, including 155mm howitzers and five-inch naval guns. A five-inch naval gun on a ground-based test fixture was also present at the recent ABMS test, as was a modified 175mm M107 self-propelled gun that the Army uses for test purposes.

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The HVP was originally designed as a kinetic projectile with no explosive warhead that would destroy its target by crashing into it. However, the versions that have been in development for conventional guns are said to have a high-explosive payload that could make it easier to engage a flying target, such a cruise missile.

Railguns were supposed to propel the HVP up to hypersonic speeds, Mach 5 or greater. Conventional guns cannot accelerate projectiles to the same speed, but the goal has been to find ways to get them up to at high supersonic velocities around Mach 3. 

From top to bottom, mockups of HVPs loaded into discarding sabots to fit inside five-inch naval guns, 155mm howitzers, and electromagnetic railguns., Joseph Trevithick
A briefing slide showing additional detail about the variants of the HVP for use in different guns, including versions with high explosive payloads., USN

This is fast enough to make it feasible for surface-based guns to engage fast-moving aerial threats, even smaller ones, such as cruise missiles. The goal for HVP has always been for it to be a multi-purpose weapon able to engage targets on land, at sea, and in the air.

A graphic showing the many potential uses for the HVP, including cruise missile defense., USN

"Just for the record, [a] tank shooting down cruise missiles. That’s just awesome," Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, said, referring to the self-propelled howitzer bringing down the drone during the ABMS Onramp #2 event. "That’s video games, sci-fi awesome. You’re not supposed to be able to shoot down a cruise missile with a tank. But, yes, you can, if the bullet is smart enough, and the bullet we use for that system is exceptionally smart."

It is important to note that all of the cruise missile defense capabilities demonstrated during the recent ABMS event are still very much in the experimental stage. It's likely there is still much work to be done before the U.S. military would ever employ them in an actual operational context.

However, the ever-growing threat of enemy cruise missiles, both to friendly forces on land and at sea, has been a major concern for the U.S. military as a whole for some time now. The Pentagon's latest Missile Defense Review, which came out in 2019, added an entirely new emphasis on the need for additional defenses to protect against these weapons. The previous Missile Defense Review, which was published in 2010, focused entirely on ballistic missile defense. 

This notably drove the U.S. Army's decision to purchase Israel's Iron Dome as an interim cruise missile defense system, an initiative the service brought to an end earlier this year over concerns about integrating it with its own new integrated air defense network. There were also questions about whether the system, which is designed to shoot down lower-tier threats, such as incoming artillery rockets and shells and mortar bombs, could reliably engage cruise missiles.

An Israeli Iron Dome system fires one its Tamir interceptors., AP Photo/Dan Balilt

The Air Force sees the ABMS network as the glue that will hold all of these other cruise missile defense capabilities, as well as a host of others, together. The idea is to develop an overarching network infrastructure that will allow for the rapid exchange of all kinds of information between various platforms in the air, on land, and at sea, and in space, including high-quality targeting information. The service often talks about ABMS as a way to ensure the right sensors are linked to the right shooters whenever they need to be. 

ABMS could well find itself tied into other similarly broad networking initiatives that the Navy and the Army have been working on, especially the former's Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) and Navy Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) architectures. The ABMS events already follow a host of other networking experiments and demonstrations across the U.S. military in recent years.

The next ABMS experiment is presently expected to occur early next year. It will be exciting to see what new "firsts" might come out of that event. 

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