One of America's most potent air combat creations doesn't hang as a poster on adolescent boys' walls or gets featured in a Bruckheimer blockbuster. The humble yet game-changing Miniature Air Launched Decoy has had a quiet history and it is already operational in two iterations. Now, this radar stumping super-missile is becoming a 'networked' kamikaze smart drone.
The ADM-160 MALD, built by sensor and ordinance giant Raytheon, was born in the mid 1990s to fulfill a DARPA requirement for a small, standoff-range capable, air deployable, flying decoy. The system was envisioned as being small enough so that numerous units would be able to be launched from a plethora of active air combat aircraft, from a B-52 to an F-16 in size.
Once launched, the AGM-160A's wings would pop out and its turbojet engine would ignite. It would then autonomously fly a pre-planned route and mimic a specific radar signature via is Signature Augmentation System (SAS). The SAS could accurately replicate radar signatures ranging from a lumbering B-52 Stratofortress to a stealthy F-117 nighthawk.
Seeing as MALD is expendable, it isn't coming back whether it is shot down or not, it could be used to 'stimulate' and/or distract an enemy's integrated air defense system. These little guileful kamikazes of sorts could be used before the outbreak of full-on hostilities by lobbing them towards a prospective enemy's airspace, where subsequently that country's air defense network would 'light up' in an attempt to track and engage the intruders. An aircraft such as the electronic intelligence gathering RC-135' Rivet Joint' could then record, locate and categorize that enemy's electronic order of battle- where their SAM sites and air defense nodes are and how they react to certain perceived threats, from a standoff and safe distance.
This collected data from a 'pre-attack' could then be used for an actual attack, during which more ADM-160 MALDs could be lobbed deep into enemy airspace, creating fake 'ghost' formations of B-1 bombers and F-15C Eagles for enemy defenses to contend with, while in actuality a wall of F-16CJ 'Wild Weasels' follows behind the rampaging decoys. These F-16s would suppress the enemy's activated radars with AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs) or destroy the SAM sites and emitters all together via bombardment. Once these threatening air defense sites are destroyed, or their operators are not willing to activate them out of confusion or fear of death by Wild Weasel, strike aircraft can then flood into the area, taking out less threatening targets as planned.
Another way the basic MALD concept could be used is by having a B-52 or even a C-17 load of MALDs fly low, towards an enemy's strategic stronghold, to the north of a threatening cluster of enemy SAM sites, mimicking low-flying F-15Es radar signature. This distraction would allow for a formation of stealthy, high-flying, super-cruising F-22s to streak by to the south of said SAM site unmolested, on their way to targets deep inside enemy territory.
Although the MALD 'classic decoy' concept was very sound, the first iteration of the weapon, the ADM-160A, lacked the range it needed to be operationally effective. By 2002 the program was cancelled and in its place a new one was launched by the USAF for a larger, longer-ranged air-launched decoy. One that could potentially be adapted and evolved for different uses over time.
This new, larger and reinvigorated MALD program moved swiftly, with the first larger AGM-160B being delivered to the USAF in 2009. Since then, over 1,000 MALDs have been delivered, with 33 out of 33 test flights being a successful and the program has performed consistently under budget during the last half decade of its maturation and development. This development has included a second MALD version, the MALD-J, the J standing for 'jammer,' the first of which was delivered in 2012.
The jamming variant of MALD can work both as a traditional decoy like the ADM-160B and as a tactical jamming and spoofing asset, similar to the EA-18G Growler, although without the ability to address nearly as many threats at one time, or at the same ranges as the EA-18G can. What it lacks in power MALD-J makes up for in proximity, as it can fly toward a surface-to-air missile or radar site, be actively painted by it, and then proceed to jam it at fairly close range. Like its simpler cousin, the MALD-J can also produce fake 'ghost' contacts, appearing as many aircraft and then back down to one in the blink of an eye.
A swarm of MALD-Js, even paired with standard MALDs, could overwhelm, confuse and blind a whole series of air defense installations along a certain route and during a certain period of time, thus allowing for attack assets to safely traverse the threat area on the way to their targets. Additionally, MALD and MALD-J are seen as key capabilities that will keep non-stealthy strike aircraft, like the F-15E and Super Hornet, effective well into the future, even against an advanced enemy.
In addition to keeping the 'teen series' fighters relevant for years to come, the MALD-J in particular will allow for very high-risk, 'fist day of war' missions to continue to be flown by aging stealth aircraft, specifically the B-2 Spirit, and by low-flying cruise missile designs, like the Tomahawk, as these jamming decoys can venture downrange with these penetrating assets.
Even as the B-2's radar cross section becomes more visible due to advances in radar technology, with pinpoint jamming the detection and engagement 'threat rings' around enemy emitters and SAM sites will remain small. As a result, these 'kick down the door' types of assets will continue to have room to navigate around these rings without having to resort to initiating defensive jamming themselves, which could give away their position.
As you can see, the MALD is a low-profile but very important part of America's future air combat doctrine. Now, this indispensable little decoy-missile is becoming way more capable than ever before via the addition of a data-link that was first test flown just this week. No longer will US air combat forces be tied to a strict 'game plan' based on where MALDs and MALD-Js are and what they are doing at any given time of an orchestrated attack. Instead, with a networked MALD-J, a Super Hornet pilot leading a flight of four jets can tell the drone-like jammer to go make it look like another flight of four Super Hornets are coming straight at a threatening SAM site that has unexpectedly 'popped up' blocking their way to their target. Once that SAM site has attempted to lock onto the spoofing MALD-J, then the Super Hornet crewman can command it to jam that site so that the real Super Hornets can slip by. Once the Hornets are safely past the threatening SAM site in question, the pilot can redirect the data-link equipped MALD-J toward another threatening site, or they can tell it to just wait for orders until the flight of Super Hornets returns from attacking their targets.
This capability to dynamically control MALD-J in real-time from the cockpit of a combat aircraft will impact the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD) missions more than any other. Now, a F-16CJ can direct a MALD-J to toy with a enemy SAM site as they sling Small Diameter Bombs and Wind Corrected Munitions Dispensers at said SAM site from a different vector.
A ghost formation of A-10s here, jamming a tracking radar there, the MALD-J is a Wild Weasel's dream.
EA-18G Growler crews will also find their ultimate 'force multiplier' in the data-link equipped MALD-J, as they will no longer be a slave to their own platform's capabilities in relation to their geographical location. Instead, they can work as electronic warfare battle managers, directing an orchestra of MALD-Js while also providing standoff jamming support for aircraft over the battlefield. They can also use MALD-J's radar 'sniffing' senors and remotely integrate its collected information with their own via data-link. This expands their sensor picture and increases its fidelity.
MALD-J will also allow the Growler to better integrate with upcoming stealthy platforms, such as the F-35C and the yet to be selected stealthy UCLASS combat drone. Being able to send MALD-Js downrange with these stealthy assets, while providing standoff jamming and MALD command and control at a safe distance will bridge the gap between stealthy and non-stealthy aircraft combat doctrine within the Carrier Air Wing and beyond.
As time goes on, the sub-500lb, 500NM ranged MALD platform will increasingly become just that, a platform for different payloads. Now that the MALD is data-link capable, there is no reason why this system could not be equipped with unique sensors that can work together in a 'constellation,' with their combined sensor data being fused and sent to aircrews via data-link, resulting in greatly enhanced situational awareness over the battlefield. There is also no reason the MALD platform could not be armed with warheads and used as missiles. Since these are expendible munitions to begin with, in that once they are fired they cannot be reused, it is quite logical to equip them with even a small explosive charge so that they can be used to attack targets of opportunity, or at the very least, to slam themselves into enemy emitters once they run low on fuel. Finally, this advanced flying decoy could also be a delivery system for cyber attacks on the enemy's communication nodes and air defense apparatus.
The MALD-J's new data-link also means that multiple MALDs could not only talk to their controllers, but in the future they may also be able to talk to one another. In doing so, they could work as swarm to rapidly envelope an enemy's air defense and command and control network in a widespread, highly coordinated and efficient electronic attack.
A networked MALD-J also brings America's air combat forces into the realm of unmanned aircraft 'tethering.' This is where an unmanned aircraft works as a facilitator for a manned aircraft while under direct control from that manned aircraft. Whether it be flying more weapons into the fight and acting as an 'arsenal ship,' dynamically attacking targets as directed or even by providing remote sensor information from a different location, this concept will bridge the gap between unmanned combat aircraft autonomy and the 'man in the loop' dominated unmanned systems we use today. This concept is currently being integrated into the AH-64E Apache fleet and was one of the main arguments for retiring the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter force.
The Miniature Air Launched Decoy, especially in the latest networked and jamming form, is a pilot's and mission planner's best friend, as it will allow previously unsolvable tactical problems to be solved with relative ease and with a high degree of certainty. In addition, it will provide longevity and relevance to aging weapon systems that are not as survivable in combat as they once were. Yet above all else, it will further open the door for the blending between manned and unmanned combat capabilities over the battlefield, as well as further muddying the meaning of the terms 'missile' and 'drone.'
Pictures via DoD/Raytheon
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com