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April 19, 2010—The Air Force is nearing the date for declaring MALD, its new miniature air launched decoy, ready for combat. The Raytheon-built expendable system—and a later variant known as MALD-J to jam air defense radar—is expected to play a crucial role in enabling strike aircraft to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses in future battles.

Overall, the Air Force intends to procure a hefty amount of MALDs and MALD-Js: "a total of 3,000," USAF acquisition officials tell the Daily Report. The exact mix of decoys and jammers "will depend on when MALD-J cuts into the current MALD production line," they said.

Already in March, MALD-maker Raytheon met its contractual schedule obligations by delivering "an operationally significant quantity" of the decoys—enough so that Air Combat Command may deem the new weapons system available for real-world use on F-16 fighters and B-52H bombers once pilots and maintainers are trained and the support infrastructure is in place.

"ACC is reviewing progress" regarding the in-service date, stated the acquisition shop officials in written responses to our query. However, they added, the date is "unknown at this time."

That said, declaration that a new weapon system is available for real-world use frequently follows the delivery of the required assets for initial operational capability—as Raytheon completed in March—fairly closely, let's say within several months.

Raytheon is already under contract for the first two MALD low-rate production lots. It is currently delivering Lot I units. The decoy performed well during its test phase, with 41 successes in 43 test events.

The jammer version will enter the inventory at a later time. Initial deliveries of it are scheduled by the end of September 2012, according to USAF's acquisition office.

MALD-J had its first free flight in December 2009 when it was launched from an F-16 during a test. The jammer then passed its critical design review in January.

The decoy is designated the ADM-160B, while the jammer variant is the ADM-160C.

MALD is designed to mimic the performance characteristics and signatures of actual combat aircraft in flight after its launch. The goal is for these decoys to fool or confuse enemy air defenses into going after the MALDs or to overwhelm the enemy by presenting them with an inflated number of would-be air targets—sparing the actual combat aircraft.

The MALD and MALD-Js will be key components in the US military's future airborne electronic attack architecture, comprising systems like escort jammer aircraft and perhaps penetrating remotely piloted or autonomous jammer platforms to help strike aircraft survive in contested airspace.

When the MALD program first started, the Air Force considered the F-16 and B-52 as the threshold (i.e., initial) platforms for MALD integration, but not the only ones. For example, there was talk of potentially incorporating MALD on the F-15E. But now, the service says it "currently has no plans to integrate the MALD on any other platforms."

The Air Force is still conducting initial operational test and evaluation for MALD. Its completion was held up somewhat "due to weather and aircraft availability delays," according to the acquisition office. The release of the final official IOT&E report is currently expected in the spring of 2011. Successful completion of IOT&E is the prerequisite for Raytheon getting the nod to move the decoy into full-rate production.

Raytheon has also been under contract to study a second-generation version of the jammer, dubbed the MALD-J Increment II. It would feature increased radiated power to disrupt the enemy radar.

"The increase in effective radiated power has been quite promising," Mike Spencer, Raytheon's MALD senior manager told the Daily Report in an interview.

As part of the MALD-J Increment II study, Raytheon looked at data links that would give the jammer the ability to adjust its activities based on in-flight commands.

Spencer said the company's work showed that incorporating a data link is technically viable.

But, according to the Air Force's acquisition office, service officials "determined that pursuing a data link was not cost effective for the resulting gain in operational capability." Thus, it's not being pursued further.

The MALD air vehicle roughly resembles Raytheon's AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile.

"It's a little bit smaller in length, but it's a little fatter," said Spencer.

MALD and MALD-J look identical.

"On the outside, you cannot tell a decoy from a jammer," said Spencer.

It's the insides of the vehicles that are different via modular components. And it's that modularity that gives the MALD air vehicle the ability to evolve into additional roles since there is still internal space for further upgrades, said Spencer.

"The ability to make this thing do other things is out there," he said.

Raytheon has already tested a warhead that would give the MALD air vehicle the ability, when coupled with a seeker, to attack a ground target once the MALD air vehicle's fuel expires and it descends towards the ground.

The potential also exists for the MALD air vehicle to host a payload that disrupts enemy communications, said Spencer. But he said the company does not currently plan to mature this concept or test it on its own dime.

As for the Air Force, the service acquisition officials said there are "no plans at this time" to develop the MALD air vehicle beyond the role of decoy and jammer. In the past, USAF officials have expressed interest in a kinetic option (i.e., warhead).

Spencer said there has been "some interest" in MALD from potential foreign buyers. But IOT&E must be done before the option of foreign sales opens up.

The MALD air vehicle fits on any aircraft that has 14-inch suspension lugs, he said. This "basically means if a US fighter can carry a 500-pound bomb, it can carry the miniature air launched decoy," he said. It can be integrated either with smart or dumb interfaces, meaning via a 1760 bus or a pulled lanyard, respectively.

Spencer said MALD has been a "very successful program."

(For more on the Air Force's future airborne electronic attack architecture, see Electronic Warfare Meets Austerity from the January 2010 issue of Air Force Magazine.)