Amid growing concerns in the U.S. that the country’s long range air to air missiles are increasingly outmatched by rival powers, with the Russian R-37M and particularly the Chinese PL-15 having no rivals in terms of performance in the American arsenal, Boeing unveiled a new missile missile design at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space, and Cyber Conference to bridge the performance gap. Referred to as the Long-Range Air-to-Air Missile (LRAAM), the missile uses a highly unusual two-stage configuration rather than a single stage as all existing missiles of its kind do, with a booster section that falls away after burning out. The missile appears to be far too large to be accommodated by stealth fighters such as the F-35 and F-22, which carry armaments in confined internal weapons bays, and is likely intended for F-15 heavyweight fighters including the new F-15EX ‘4+ generation’ jet. Such long range missiles could be particularly ideal as ‘AWACS Killer’ platforms to neutralise heavy unmanoeuvrable targets such as bombers and tankers. This has long been a shortcoming of the U.S. Air Force, and was abandoned by the U.S. Navy in 2006 to reduce operational costs.
The LRAAM is very still in the conceptual stage of development, and leverages technology Boeing developed for previous missile projects. The program has benefitted from new digital engineering and design techniques, and is expected to benefit from high manoeuvrability in its terminal stages largely due to its use of a separate kill vehicle which reduces drag and weight compared to a single stage weapons designed with similar ranges. This could potentially allow the missile to threaten small fighter sized targets at extreme ranges – for which it may also utilise an active phased array antenna much as Russia’s K-77M does for the same purpose. It has been speculated that Boeing’s new missile may not carry explosives, thereby reducing weight and instead relying on a hit-to-kill design much like the THAAD or David’s Sling air defence systems. Boeing specified at the conference that the LRAAM would not compete with existing air-to-air missile programs such as the AIM-260, indicating that it would provide an added capability for the Air Force to complement other programs. In this way, while the AIM-260 can be seen as a counter to China’s PL-15 and Russia’s K-77M, the LRAAM could be seen as a counter to the Chinese PL-XX and Russian R-37.