USAF Testing ‘Mutant’ Missiles That Twist In Mid-Air To Hit Their Targets

The U.S. Air Force is exploring a novel concept for increasing the likelihood of scoring a hit in air-to-air combat. The idea is to use an air-to-air missile with a nose that bends to get at the target before it can get away. The service views this as one path to giving current and future combat aircraft, including a sixth-generation stealth jet being developed under the Next Generation Air Dominance program, a new way to engage increasingly maneuverable threats.

The Air Force Research Laboratory highlighted what is formally known as the Missile Utility Transformation via Articulated Nose Technology (MUTANT) project at this week’s 2023 Air and Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colorado. AFRL says that MUTANT leverages work that has been done over the past six years on related technologies, but notes the core concept takes advantage of related research and experimentation dating back all the way to the 1950s.

A graphic depicting a notional missile with an articulating nose section. USAF

“A more effective missile tends to have more range, maneuverability (g-capability), and agility (airframe responsiveness) with limited weight. The missile control actuation systems (CASs) affects all three of these metrics, and hence the ability to effectively close in on targets,” AFRL’s webpage on MUTANT explains. “Each CAS, or CAS combination, such as dual canards and fins, have distinct and strong implications to overall missile performance.”

“CASs good for range (fins only) tend to be bad for maneuvering and agility,” it adds. “CASs good for maneuverability and agility (canards, wings, jets, thrust vectoring) tend to be bad for range due to drag or additional weight.”

The Israeli Rafael Python-5, as depicted in the video below, offers a good example of the kinds of complex control surfaces utilized on more traditional current-generation air-to-air missiles to provide high degrees of maneuverability.

MUTANT seeks to upend this basic calculus. In terms of traditional control surfaces, the conceptual missile designs that AFRL has been working with only have tail fins. As noted, this helps make the missile less draggy and extend its range.

Typically this comes at the cost of maneuvering and agility. However, the MUTANT concept adds a conformal section in the forward portion of the missile body that allows the entire front end to articulate away from the center axis.

With a traditional air-to-air missile, if the target begins to move away from the point of intercept that its guidance system has calculated, the entire weapon has to change course. With MUTANT, the idea is that this ‘course correction’ essentially can be achieved by having the front portion of the missile physically move to bring it more in line with where the threat actually is.

The AFRL video below provides a visual explanation of how the entire MUTANT concept is intended to work.

The articulating nose section could also help better focus the force of the weapon’s warhead, which is typically relatively small on air-to-air missiles, on the target. It might help ensure the missile seeker, or seekers plural in the case of multi-mode designs, retains a lock, as well. Missiles with multi-mode seekers, especially ones that combine imaging infrared and active radar comments, often have those elements installed in complex ways that could impact the sensors’ fields of view in certain engagement scenarios.

AFRL does note that “historically, [the] size, weight and power [requirements] of morphing technology has been prohibitive to a missile system level benefit,” but says that “MUTANT is in the midst of tipping the scale in the morphing weapon’s favor.”

To make this work in a missile-sized form, “AFRL developed an electronically-controlled actuation system comprised of compact electromagnetic motors, bearings, gears, and structures,” the official MUTANT website says. “Careful design allows a circular pass-through for component wiring into the aircraft body.”

MUTANT’s articulating component is similar, in very broad strokes, to the articulating exhaust nozzle used on the short and vertical takeoff and landing capable F-35B variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, according to AFRL.

The potential technological hurdles also extend into the realm of material science. To be effective when utilized in an air-to-air missile, the articulating structure has to be able to withstand the high temperatures and other forces associated with high-speed flight. Furthermore, the weapon’s entire front end has to be capable of withstanding the effects of rapidly changing direction in flight.

With these demands in mind, AFRL has been working on a “composite structure involving a metallic internal skeleton that is infilled with an elastomer.” The MUTANT website says it expects the final design of this structure to be suitable for use on missiles traveling at high-supersonic speeds, where components could be exposed to temperatures in excess of 900 degrees Celsius, or 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit.

An AFRL graphic giving a very general overview of the high temperatures the MUTANT structures have to withstand at different speeds. USAF

There is clearly more testing needed to fully prove out the MUTANT concept before any steps are taken to actually integrate it into a real missile. AFRL has already conducted a number of ground tests of various components of the system in laboratory settings, as well as through the use of rocket sleds. The initial prototype design is based on a heavily modified AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missile.

AFRL says another round of ground testing is set to wrap up by the end of the 2024 Fiscal Year, “culminating in dual articulation and fin control in maneuvering” of the Hellfire-based prototype. Its website stresses that “the Hellfire is used for research purposes and is not necessarily the intended application” of the articulating system.

A composite image of the ‘Mutant’ Hellfire on a rocket sled before and during a testing. USAF

AFRL makes clear that developments like this are viewed as critical to the Air Force’s broader future aerial combat vision.

“Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) requires broad advancement in manned and unmanned aircraft, their family of weapons systems, and the communication between them,” AFRL says on its MUTANT webpage. “ACAS [articulation control actuation system] technology is directed at fulfilling future NGAD requirements through the intercept of highly maneuverable targets or threats at longer range with limited cost.”

The Air Force’s NGAD initiative is a multi-faceted effort that includes the development of advanced new aircraft, crewed and uncrewed, as well as new weapons, sensors, networking and battle management capabilities, advanced jet engines, and more. The expectation is that all of these systems will ultimately work together in a collaborative ecosystem and will help ensure the service maintains its qualitative edge, even against near-peer opponents like China or Russia. You can read more about NGAD, as a whole, here.

An artist’s conception of a future stealth combat jet design that Lockheed Martin released in 2022. Lockheed Martin

With regards to MUTANT, specifically, the project comes as the U.S. military as a whole is faced with a future that includes a growing number of increasingly maneuverable aerial threats, including advanced combat jets, drones, and missiles. Uncrewed platforms, which do not have to account for the physical limitations of a human pilot, have the potential to be capable of particularly extreme maneuvers. This could make existing missile systems less effective against them.

Many of these potential future advanced aerial threats could well be flying at high supersonic or even hypersonic speeds while also maneuvering. The ability to intercept maneuverable hypersonic missiles is of particular concern to the U.S. military and is one area where MUTANT could possibly be of value.

The Air Force is, of course, also in the process of developing other advanced air-to-air missiles with more traditional designs, as is the U.S. Navy.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the MUTANT project progresses and whether that technology ultimately winds its way into existing or future air-to-air missile designs.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.