The Case For Arming Drone-Hunting Fighters With Iron Dome’s Tamir Missile

Israel’s Iron Dome system, built by a consortium of Rafael, IAI and Raytheon (now RTX), has proven incredibly effective at swatting down thousands of rockets and other projectiles, and is now being procured by the U.S. Marine Corps for drone and cruise missile defense. At the heart of the system is the Tamir interceptor, a highly agile and precise missile that is now also in use in a naval role as part of the C-Dome system. This relatively cheap and proven weapon could potentially help solve a very pressing problem for fighter aircraft.

Here’s how.

06 August 2022, Israel, Sderot: The Iron Dome’ Tamir interceptor is fired at a projectile launched from Gaza. (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

One of the most concerning topics in the world of defense and military technology as of late is the cost and availability of anti-air missiles. They are extremely expensive, take a long time to procure, and can be depleted very quickly on threats that cost a tiny fraction of their price tag – namely drones and lower-end cruise missiles. This is known as a poor shot exchange ratio and it’s something we have been talking about for many years, but more recent events in Ukraine, off the coast of Yemen, and over the eastern approaches to Israel have elevated the topic to new heights.

For fighter aircraft, an AIM-120 ARAAM costs around $1M. An AIM-9X Sidewinder costs about half that. A fighter’s gun is challenging to employ against relatively small targets puttering across the sky. There is an elevated danger of flying into such objects during a gun engagement attempt, and of rounds that don’t hit the target ending up landing somewhere below. So, swatting down lowly long-range one-way attack munitions (aka kamikaze drones) and rudimentary cruise missiles via a fighter aircraft can quickly become a very costly and resource-depleting affair.

A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 lies staged on the flight line loaded with air-to-air missiles at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, June 6, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Chloe Johnson) 

The Saudis learned this before anyone, running down their stocks of AIM-120s dealing with constant barrages of cheap, but still threatening Houthi drones and cruise missiles. Today, fighter aircraft are regularly engaging similar drones over and around the Red Sea. But maybe the biggest example of this glaring issue came when USAF F-15Es shot down over 70 long-range attack drones sent from Iran to strike Israel. Ukraine is also sucking down AIM-120s via the use of its ground-based NASAMS air defense systems.

An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 494th Fighter Squadron comes to a stop at RAF Lakenheath, England, May 8, 2024, with their jets adorned with kill markings after swatting down dozens of Iranian one-way attack drones. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexander Vasquez)

While replenishing advanced missile stocks takes years and costs many millions or even billions of dollars, America’s magazine is pretty deep when it comes to the air-to-air variety. Still, a sustained conflict against a capable peer, especially one in the vast Pacific, could quickly change this status quo dramatically.

Yes, it would be nice to use ground-based directed energy weapons, such as lasers and high-power microwave systems, to down these threats for the cost of tens of dollars per shot, not hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. But those weapons remain close-range systems and can easily be overwhelmed. An enemy’s warhead-laden long-range kamikaze drone or cruise missile is arguably already too close if directed energy point defense systems are being used and there are only so many of these expensive systems to cover key targets, as they are not capable of wide-area defense. The same can be said for surface-based gun systems. Lasers, in particular, are also negatively impacted by atmospheric conditions, especially inclement weather, further limiting their capabilities at any given time. Mounting lasers on fighter aircraft to burn drones out of the sky would be ideal, but that isn’t happening anytime soon (read more about this harsh reality here).

Still, none of this means directed energy systems can’t take on a very important and growing slice of the air defense pie, but they are in a totally different class than what many missile systems can provide.

The IDF’s Iron Beam C-RAM laser system. (IDF)

While longer-range surface-to-air missiles are one solution to reaching out and engaging drones and cruise missiles over greater distances and defending a much larger area, those systems are in high demand and low supply, and the missiles they fire are substantially more expensive than their air-launched cousins. This leaves fighter aircraft, which can put up a counter-drone and cruise missile ‘screen’ far ahead of the potential areas that the incoming weapons are likely to target, as a very attractive option. Doing so also allows for SAM systems to concentrate on taking out any ‘leakers’ that get by the fighters.

The mobility that fighters provide gives them extreme flexibility – you can move their location rapidly and put them almost anywhere – and makes them a key component of a multi-layer solution to a problem that is quickly snowballing in magnitude and frequency. The F-15Es proved exactly this during their defense of Israel, but this general flavor of defensive counter-air mission has been alive for many decades in various forms.

When it comes to long-range one-way attack munitions and lower-end cruise missiles, you are talking about easy targets, at least when it comes to the fact that they are defenseless and are basically flying a preprogrammed course on autopilot. In other words, they do not evade via hard maneuvers, cannot counterattack, don’t possess reactive countermeasures, and are unable to run away at high speed. They can be hard to detect and track, but modern active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars offer a massive improvement in this regard. The bottom line here is that you don’t need an AIM-120 or an AIM-9X to swat them down, but those missiles, which were built to engage far higher-performance, non-cooperative threats, are all that’s currently available.

A USAF F-16C Viper fires an AIM-120 AMRAAM. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Hoskins)

Enter the Tamir interceptor, known as the Sky Hunter in the United States. These missiles have been deep in mass production for nearly a decade and a half. This is a key benefit as standing-up production can be very time consuming and costly. Rapidly scaling it can be even more so. A new plant in Arkansas will be boosting production of Tamir interceptors even further in the very near term.

The Tamir has also been improved upon incrementally based on Israel’s real-world experience using thousands of the missiles. It is arguably the most proven modern anti-air missile in existence due to the IDF firing so many of them over a relatively short time span. Efficacy is notoriously high, leading to remarkable confidence in the missile.

Tamirs being loaded into launch canisters. (Rafael)

The Tamirs weigh in at 200 pounds and are just under 10 feet long – very similar to the Sidewinder in both metrics. The big difference is that it features an active radar homing seeker compared to the AIM-9X’s imaging infrared (IIR) seeker. Radar-guided missiles have proven very effective against smaller drones that have relatively tiny infrared signatures. The Tamir also has a proximity-fuzed conical blast-fragmentation warhead that is well-suited for taking down drones and cruise missiles. The AIM-9X features a similar warhead and both missiles feature data-link capability, with the AIM-9X getting it as part of the Block II enhancement.

Where the two weapons really differ is in cost. The Tamir costs about a third of an AIM-9X. Estimates for the price of the Tamir currently range wildly from roughly $50,000 to $150,000. The USMC bought small numbers of Tamirs for substantially more, around $220,000 each, although exactly what all this included and why the cost was substantially higher isn’t clear. Still, this is roughly half the cost of the AIM-9X. Any of these figures drastically lowers the potential shot exchange ratio. It’s worth noting that some more advanced one-way attack munitions, like the Shahed-136, aren’t exactly dirt-cheap either.

With so many Tamirs being bought for Israel and now the USMC, among other international customers, USAF and Navy orders could really increase economies of scale, and drop the cost per round significantly more. These missiles are also light enough to equip helicopters in the counter-drone role and their datalink could allow for non-radar or third-party off-board targeting. A Tamir-carrying Apache equipped with a mast-mounted radar could be an attractive option for rotary-wing counter-drone operations.

Considering their weight and dimensions, Tamirs could be mounted where Sidewinder missiles are today on fighter aircraft. Even multiple-launch racks could expand carriage options for some fighters, especially the F-15. The need for extreme agility isn’t a huge factor for counter-air operations in permissive airspace against waves of drones, which could help lead to maximum carriage configurations. And because Tamir features an active radar seeker and a datalink, multiple targets could be engaged very quickly, unlike, say, fighter-launched laser-guided rockets, which require the aircraft to lase each target at relatively close range till impact.

An Advanced F-15 sporting ‘Amber racks’ capable of expanding missile carriage. Aircraft could potentially load up on the relatively lightweight Tamir for counter-drone operations. (Boeing)

Launched from an aerial platform, especially a fast-moving fighter, the Tamir’s range would be drastically increased compared to when it is fired from a canister on the ground. The max range of the Tamir isn’t clear and claims range wildly, from 10 to 40 miles, and obviously it would be based on a huge set of factors for each engagement, including the speed and altitude of the target, and the maneuvers needed to intercept it. Even with a 10-mile range in ground-launched form, this would be significantly expanded if launched from a fighter’s weapon’s rail, especially at speed and altitude.

A major unknown is what it will take, if anything of major significance, to adapt Tamir to the rigors of fighter carriage and air launch. The missiles are already very capable of extreme G maneuvers and can survive being pounded in their canisters while at sea and transported on the ground, but a Tamir for air-to-air engagements could need some tweaking for the vibrations of on-wing use. Integrating the Tamir with a fighter’s fire control system will also need some attention, especially in order to take advantage of the aircraft’s sensors for cueing, including in lock-on after launch (LOAL) mode, as well as mid-course telemetry updates.

Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system intercepts a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, above the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on May 11, 2021. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s worth noting that Israel has adapted other ground-launched weapons to air-launch. This includes the Stunner interceptor that is the effector for the IDF’s highly-capable David’s Sling air defense system, and other weapons from around the globe have done the same, so this is in no way insurmountable. Still, migrating an air-launched missile to a surface-launched one is far more common. There is also the possibility that components from Israel’s Derby intermediate-range air-to-air missile, which is something of a distant cousin to Tamir, could be leveraged for an air-launched Tamir. Still, the goal should be to take as close to a production example of Tamir as possible, if not one right off the line with simple modifications, and using it for air-to-air applications.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – SEPTEMBER 11: Visitors examine missiles named Derby (C), Derby-MR (L) and Iron Dome (R) of Rafael Advance Defense Systems Ltd. during Azerbaijan International Defense Industry Exhibition at the Baku Expo Center in Baku, Azerbaijan on September 11, 2014. The Azerbaijan International Defense Industry Exhibition (ADEX 2014) takes place for the first time from the 11th to 13th September at the Baku Expo Center. (Photo by Resul Rehimov/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

An air-to-air Tamir would be very attractive on many levels for this specific mission set, but it wouldn’t be a magic wand. It would still be part of a menu of weapons options for fighter aircraft to employ against drones and cruise missiles, including more expensive, traditional air-to-air missiles and potentially even less capable laser-guided rockets. This mix of options would allow fighters to be as flexible as possible for dealing with these threats, from low-volume, lower-risk engagements to very high-risk, mass engagements, where hitting targets across multiple missile range envelopes as fast as possible will be critical.

Above all else an air-launched Tamir could provide economic efficiency not currently realized for airborne counter-drone and counter-cruise missile operations without sacrificing the ability to engage these targets rapidly, and all in an extremely proven, mass-produced package. It would also open up yet another air-to-air missile source that could really help in refilling arsenals more quickly in times of need.

A missile is fired from Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, along the Israeli-Gaza border on May 5, 2019. (Photo by Jack GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

So much can be saved by not developing something from scratch and needing to spin up new production while working out the kinks, which can take years. Taking something off the shelf and adapting it to an urgent need, while maybe not as perfect a solution as a clean-sheet alternative, is hugely advantageous. The disparity between target and effector cost and the numbers of those targets that will likely be involved in future conflicts makes this all that much more important. Tamir would check all those boxes. The fact that it’s already in the DoD’s inventory is also a big plus.

At the very least, the concept should be explored and if an air-to-air Tamir can be delivered at a significantly lower price compared to the currently available alternatives, it should be pursued immediately and in large quantities, especially considering a fight in the Pacific could see a massive need for a continuous supply of just this type of effector.

Author’s note: TWZ reached out to Raytheon to discuss the possibility of an air-launched Tamir for counter-drone and counter-cruise missile applications, but they would not discuss it or answer any of the questions we provided regarding the concept.

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