Air Force Fighters Almost Got An Air-Launched Ballistic Missile 40 Years Ago, Now They’re A Hot Item

In the early 1980s, the U.S. Air Force planned to arm its tactical fighter jets with an air-launched ballistic missile. The Joint Tactical Missile System program was run jointly with the U.S. Army and would have given the Air Force its own improved version of the Lance quasi-ballistic missile. In some ways, the program had parallels with Russia’s Kinzhal missile, which The War Zone has examined in detail in the past and, more loosely, it shared similarities with the types of air-launched ballistic missiles now under development in China.

During the 1970s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began to look at ways of attacking Warsaw Pact armor deep in enemy territory, without necessarily having to use nuclear weapons. The resulting Assault Breaker program brought together a range of different technologies — among them lasers, electro-optical sensors, airborne radars, and precision-guided munitions — to defeat these kinds of targets.

Two XMGM-52 Lance missiles are fired from A and C Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Artillery Regiment, at the White Sands Missile Range in 1987. The Lance served as the basis for the Assault Breaker, and later Vought’s JTACMS proposal. , Public Domain

However, the ambitious Assault Breaker program had begun to fragment by the early 1980s, with the Army focusing more on ground systems and helicopters, while the Air Force eyed new methods of delivering munitions from manned aircraft.

Amid pressure from the U.S. Congress to more closely align similar programs across the services, the Department of Defense drew up plans for new Joint programs in 1983, still with the broad aim of defeating rear-echelon targets. These new J-programs included the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), as well as the Joint Tactical Missile System (JTACMS), both of which were essentially spinoffs of Assault Breaker technologies.

JTACMS took shape when the previous Army-led Corps Support Weapon System (CSWS), intended to replace the MGM-52 Lance short-range ballistic missile, was integrated with the Air Force’s Conventional Standoff Weapon (CSW) program. The Army criteria for the weapon included a range greater than the existing tube-launched and rocket artillery systems, while the Air Force required a standoff weapon to attack high-priority targets.

Pre-development contracts were awarded to several companies, among them the Vought Corporation, the firm responsible for the Lance, as well as the Boeing Aerospace Company, and Martin Marietta Aerospace. These contracts were funded on a 50/50 basis by the Army and Air Force. However, the airframe competition was limited to Vought and Martin Marietta, who offered the same basic designs as they had for Assault Breaker: the T22 and T16, respectively.

The T22, Vought’s entrant in the Storm Breaker program, was repurposed as the JTACMS., Lockheed Martin

Vought produced an Improved Lance concept to meet the JTACMS requirement and, based on the firm’s publicity material, it seems that this reached the stage of a mock-up carried under the wing of an F-16. Desktop models were also produced showing Vought’s weapon carried by both the F-16 and by A-7 attack aircraft, while company advertising promoted the air-launched version of the Improved Lance as a potential B-52 weapon, as well.

While specifications for the air-launched version of the weapon are not available, it is known that the Vought T22-derived JTACMS was broadly similar in size to the original Lance, which had a length of 20 feet and weighed roughly 3,000 pounds, depending on the warhead type. Unlike the Lance, the new weapon featured cruciform-shaped mid-body wings, plus elevon control surfaces at the rear. For propulsion, the air-launched JTACMS traded the liquid-propellant rocket of the original Lance for a solid-fuel motor using low-cost propellant taken from the MLRS, which would have offered greater range, reliability, and safety. While the original Lance could deliver a conventional or nuclear warhead to a distance of up to 75 miles, in the Improved Lance version, this was extended to over 200 miles, and this is likely to have been the same for the ground-launched JTACMS, too.

The rival to the Vought airframe proposal, Martin Marietta’s T16 was derived from its Patriot surface-to-air missile. This retained the Patriot’s booster section but added a new nosecone carrying a submunitions warhead and inertial guidance package. It is likely that the Vought proposal featured the same warhead/guidance.

A rare image apparently showing the Martin Marietta JTACMS carried by an F-16. , PUBLIC DOMAIN

In both cases, the primary source of targeting data was expected to be via data-link to a Pave Mover moving target indication and synthetic aperture capable radar, which would also be able to correct the course of the missiles once in flight. This same technology would later provide the basis of the JSTARS system, now mounted onboard the Air Force’s E-8C platform.

Launching a ballistic missile from the air, rather than from the ground, would have had the advantage of increasing range even further (by a factor of approximately four), deployability, and flexibility. The aircraft carrying the missile would be able to release it without having to enter the engagement zones of hostile tactical surface-to-air missiles, striking key targets such as massed formations of armor, air defense sites, communications nodes, and airfields, with relative impunity. 

It would have provided a serious headache for enemy air defense operators and systems, otherwise optimized for targeting manned aircraft and slower-flying cruise missiles. Indeed, the presence of air-launched JTACMS would have demanded an appropriate response from the Soviet side, in the form of additional, more layered ballistic missile defenses, new targeting sensors, and longer-range anti-aircraft missiles to down the F-16, for example, before it could unleash its missiles.

A Cold War-era Department of Defense image of an SA-6 Gainful mobile surface-to-air missile system. The air-launched JTACMS promised to allow aircraft to launch the missiles before penetrating much of the Warsaw Pact’s air defense network., PUBLIC DOMAIN

Despite this promise, the Air Force only remained in the JTACMS program until 1985, when it left to pursue its own goals once again, shelving the idea of an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) altogether. 

In any event, the end of the Cold War changed almost entirely the types of targets that the Air Force was likely to be assigned anyway, at least in the short term, and instead of prioritizing speed and size for its munitions, the service’s next generation of standoff weapons was tailored for range and low-observable characteristics.

The Army was left to continue what was now known as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which resulted in Vought being chosen as prime contractor for the MGM-140 missile that was first test-flown in prototype form in 1988. This weapon is also roughly similar to its Lance predecessor in terms of weight, but is somewhat more compact, with a length of 13 feet. The ATACMS — pronounced “attack-ums” — can carry a 500-pound warhead to targets approximately 186 miles away. 

An ATACMS is fired over the cab of an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launcher. , U.S. Army

The MGM-140A ATACMS became operational in January 1991 and saw its first combat use during Operation Desert Storm in the same year. Today, improved versions of the ATACMS remain in use with the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and have been widely exported. The current prime contractor for ATACMS is Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control and the same contractor is now working on a planned replacement, under the Precision Strike Missile program, or PrSM.

While the Air Force had tried and failed to field a strategic air-launched ballistic missile in the 1960s, the concept of a tactical ALBM proved just as unsuccessful in the early 1980s. But that is not to say that the air-launched JTACMS would not have been successful.

One modern parallel to the air-launched JTACMS is the Russian Kinzhal, an adaptation of the Iskander tactical ballistic missile, which is itself broadly comparable to the ATACMS. While the Iskander on which the Kinzhal is based is similar in length to the Lance, at 24 feet, it is a substantially heavier missile, weighing around 8,400 pounds. This requires the missile to be carried by the MiG-31 heavy interceptor, which can accommodate a single Kinzhal under the fuselage.

A MiG-31 armed with a Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile., Russian Ministry of Defense

China, for its part, is also developing ALBMs. Apparently intended primarily for the anti-ship mission, these include an air-launched version of the DF-21D and they will be expected to function as part of the anti-access/area-denial strategy aimed at keeping U.S. Navy carrier strike groups at bay. Potentially, we may also in the future see some of China’s short-range ballistic missile designs migrated to air-launched applications, provided that isn’t already happening.  

A closer modern counterpart to the air-launched JTACMS is perhaps the Israeli Rampage, an air-launched derivative of IMI Systems’ ground-launched Extended Range Artillery guided artillery rocket, or EXTRA. You can read more about the Rampage here, suffice to say, it is also suitable for carriage aboard the F-16 and is similarly intended to strike fixed targets at standoff range, using its speed to confound complex air defense environments.

Test launch of the Rampage missile from an Israeli Air Force F-16., IMI SYSTEMS

Meanwhile, the Israeli Rocks missile is also similar, an air-launched ballistic missile that combines features from existing precision-guided bombs and a ballistic missile defense surrogate target missile. Like JTACMS and Rampage, this weapon has also been certified for carriage by the F-16, although it seems to be intended primarily for attacking hardened targets.

Weapons like the Kinzhal, Rampage, and Rocks are potentially ideal for short-notice strikes on time-sensitive and highly defended targets, including mobile air defense systems and mobile ballistic missiles, giving them little, if any time to fire, seek cover, or otherwise relocate. There is no reason why the JTACMS couldn’t have provided the U.S. Air Force with similar capabilities. These would have provided a relatively low-cost means to holding key targets at risk across the enemy rear area and could have engaged them rapidly at the onset of hostilities. 

The Rafael Rocks missile bears a striking resemblance to the Cold War-era JTACMS., Rafael

Today, the focus of related activity in the United States is firmly on the B-52, set to become a major launch platform for oversized weapons. While the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, might look like an air-launched ballistic missile, its centerpiece is a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle payload that is capable of maneuvering inside the atmosphere at extreme speeds. The Air Force is looking to integrate other boost-glide vehicles, as well as air-breathing hypersonic missiles onto the B-52 in the future. 

These weapons all promise high speed and impressive range but, for now, as far we know, the United States is not working on a true ALBM, and certainly not one that could also be mounted onboard a relatively small fighter jet, like the F-16. 

However, the growing interest in ALBMs — especially those that are lower-cost adaptations of existing ground-launched systems — suggests that a weapon like the JTACMS could still be a useful part of the Air Force armory today.

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Thomas Newdick Avatar

Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.