The USAF tests mutant missiles that rotate in the air to hit their targets.

The United States Air Force is exploring a novel concept to increase the probability of a hit in air-to-air combat. The idea is to use an air-to-air missile with a bending nose to hit the target before it can escape.

The Next Generation Air Dominance program is developing a sixth-generation stealth jet to help the military deal with threats that are becoming more agile, and the service sees this as a way to equip current and future combat aircraft with a new tool to counteract these threats.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) highlighted the MUTANT (Missile Utility Transformation via Articulated Nose Technology) project at the Association of Air and Space Forces Warfare Symposium 2023, held this week in Aurora, Colorado.

 The AFRL claims that MUTANT builds on work done over the past six years in related technologies but notes that the core concept draws on related research and experimentation dating back to the 1950s.

The USAF tests "mutant" missiles that rotate in the air to hit their targets.
An AFRL graph that gives a very general view of the high temperatures that MUTANT structures must withstand at different speeds.

“A more effective missile tends to have more range, maneuverability (g-capacity), and agility (airframe responsiveness) with limited weight. 

Missile control actuation systems (CAS) affect all three of these metrics and therefore the ability to effectively approach targets,” explains the AFRL website on the MUTANT. “Each CAS, or combination of CAS, such as dual canards and fins, have distinct and strong implications on overall missile performance.”

“CAS good for range (fins only) tends to be bad for maneuvering and agility,” he adds. “CAS good for maneuverability and agility (ailerons, wings, jets, thrust vectoring) tend to be bad for range due to drag or extra weight.”

The Israeli Rafael Python-5, as shown in the video below, provides a good example of the types of complex control surfaces used in the more traditional current-generation air-to-air missiles to provide high degrees of maneuverability.

The MUTANT aims to overturn this basic calculation. As for traditional control surfaces, the missile concept designs the AFRL has been working on have only tail fins. As noted, this helps give the missile less drag and extends its range.

Normally, this is done at the cost of maneuverability and agility. However, the MUTANT concept adds a shaped section to the front of the missile body, allowing the entire nose to articulate away from the central axis.

With a traditional air-to-air missile, if the target starts to move away from the interception point that your guidance system has calculated, the entire weapon has to change course. With the MUTANT, the idea is that this “course correction” is achieved by essentially making the front of the missile physically move to more closely align with where the threat lies.

The articulated nose section could also help better focus the weapon’s warhead force on the target, which is typically relatively small in air-to-air missiles. It could also help the missile’s seeker, or plural seekers in the case of multimode designs, keep sights on. 

Missiles with multimode seekers, especially those that combine infrared imaging and active radar feedback, often have such elements installed in complex ways that could affect sensor fields of view in certain combat scenarios.

The AFRL notes that “historically, [the] size, weight, and power requirements of morphing technology have been prohibitive for a benefit at the missile system level” but states that “MUTANT is tipping the scales in favor of morphing. “morphing weapon.

“AFRL developed an electronically controlled actuation system made up of compact electromagnetic motors, bearings, gears, and structures,” says the official MUTANT website to make it work in the size of a missile. “The careful design allows a circular passage for the wiring of the components in the aircraft’s body.”

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

The Next Generation Air Dominance program is developing a sixth-generation stealth jet to help the military deal with threats that are becoming more agile, and the service sees this as a way to equip current and future combat aircraft with a new tool to counteract these threats.

Considering these demands, the AFRL has been working on a “composite structure that includes an internal metal skeleton filled with an elastomer.” The MUTANT website expects this structure’s final design to be suitable for use in missiles traveling at high supersonic speeds, where components could be exposed to temperatures in excess of 900 degrees Celsius, or 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit.

Further testing is needed to fully demonstrate the MUTANT concept before taking any steps to integrate it into an actual missile. The AFRL has previously run a battery of ground tests on individual system parts in labs and with rocket sleds. Initial prototype development was based on a substantially modified AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile version.

The AFRL claims another round of ground testing will conclude by the end of the fiscal year 2024, “culminating in double articulation and flap control in maneuvers” of the Hellfire-based prototype. Its website emphasizes that “the Hellfire is used for research and is not the intended application” of the articulation system.

The USAF tests mutant missiles that rotate in the air to hit their targets.
A composite image of the ‘Mutant’ Hellfire on a rocket sled before and during a test.

The AFRL clarifies that developments like this are critical to the Air Force’s broader vision of future air combat.

The next generation of air dominance (NGAD) requires extensive advances in manned and unmanned aircraft, their family of weapon systems, and the communication between them,” the AFRL states on its MUTANT website.

 “ACAS [articulation control actuation system] technology is targeted to meet future NGAD requirements by intercepting highly maneuverable targets or threats at the greater range at limited cost.”

The Air Force’s NGAD program encompasses a wide range of efforts, such as creating cutting-edge manned and unmanned aircraft, new weapons, sensors, network, and combat management capabilities, upgraded jet engines, and more.

It is hoped that all of these systems will eventually work together in a collaborative ecosystem and help ensure that the service maintains its qualitative advantage, even against close opponents such as China or Russia.

The USAF tests mutant missiles that rotate in the air to hit their targets.
A rendering Lockheed Martin released in 2022 showing an advanced sixth-generation stealth fighter jet.

With regard to MUTANT specifically, the project comes at a time when the US military is facing a future that includes a growing number of increasingly maneuverable aerial threats, such as advanced fighter jets, drones, and missiles.

 Unmanned platforms, which do not have to take into account the physical constraints of a human pilot, have the potential to be capable of very severe maneuvers. Because of this, conventional anti-missile defenses may be rendered ineffective.

Several of the future’s potentially advanced aerial threats could maneuver at speeds much above the speed of sound, making them capable of supersonic or even hypersonic flight. The US military is particularly concerned about being unable to intercept maneuverable hypersonic missiles, which is why MUTANT might be so useful.

The United States Air Force and the United States Navy are both working on the development of additional advanced air-to-air missiles with more conventional designs. The MUTANT project’s development and its technologies’ incorporation into existing and future air-to-air missile designs will be fascinating to observe.