The best answer, USAF believes, is the Hughes AGM-65D, an imaging infrared (I2R) variant of the battle-tested Maverick line. Whereas the TV Maverick picks up visual target images, the I2R version senses the heat given off by a target. The Pentagon has not announced what the effective standoff range of the IR Maverick against a tank is, but published estimates of five to six miles sound reasonable. That would be a substantial improvement over what’s possible with the TV missile.
But in Washington, the heat-seeking IR Maverick is running into about as much heat as it can handle. The Washington Post has repeatedly attacked the program, calling it a “Fiasco in Weaponsland.” The General Accounting Office charges that “evidence is lacking that the IR Maverick can be effectively used by US military personnel in combat.” And Capitol Hill has doubts, too. So far, the Air Force has only been able to get funding for a limited pilot production of 200 missiles.
“I think IR Maverick suffers somewhat from its history,” says Lt. Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition. “If you go back to the mid- to late-1970s when we were initially developing the program, we had problems with it. Infrared tracker development at that time was not as sophisticated as we needed, and it could be spoofed by cannon fire and hot rocks and what have you. What I would now call ancient history tends to persist, though, and a lot of the critics are going back to that, not necessarily looking at what we’ve accomplished, say, in the last six months to a year in the program.”
Slipped schedules and cost overruns have hurt the IR Maverick’s reputation, and there have been problems with reliability and maintainability. The R&D contract was for a fixed-price incentive-fee, so after costs exceeded the ceiling, further expenses were borne by Hughes. Production costs grew, too, and for three reasons: inflation, increased complexity—such as the conversion from analog to digital—and restructuring of the acquisition, leading to program delays and less than efficient rates of production. It now appears the unit cost for IR Maverick will be $100,000.
The decision to go into limited pilot production was postponed for several months last year to allow for completion of the initial operational test and evaluation process after a series of launch failures. However, long-lead funding for the IR Maverick was provided.
The Air Force says it has a correction for every technical problem discovered in development and operational testing, and in December began flying reliability and maintainability validation tests to demonstrate those corrections. While acknowledging that the program has not been a model acquisition, the Air Force believes the IR Maverick is a missile it can go to war with.
Despite this, critics have indicted the TV Maverick along with the IR Maverick in the present controversy, contending that the whole family of missiles is unworthy. The main complaints about the TV Maverick are that it cannot find a camouflaged tank if the target melds into green vegetation, and that it does not work in darkness or in low-visibility conditions. These accusations are true, but they do little more than define the limits of electro-optical technology. A black-and-white television sensor requires a reasonable amount of light and contrast to produce an image. As for tanks blending into vegetation, that should not be much of a factor on a European battlefield, with armored vehicles moving by the thousands.
The IR seeker in the nose of the AGM-65D senses minute differences in temperature. A vehicle that has not been operating for hours, or even a building, will give off enough heat for Maverick to spot. The tracker can lock onto objects either hotter or colder than their surroundings. A mechanical scanning system converts these infrared readings to a TV-like image on a screen in the cockpit of the launching aircraft. Darkness does not hamper the IR seeker. In fact, it may work even better after the sun goes down, since the temperature difference—and thus the IR signature—between a tank and the landscape is likely to be sharper.
The AGM-65D is now billed as having a “limited adverse weather” capability, which GAO notes is a change from the previous wording of “adverse weather.” The extent to which foul weather degrades the IR Maverick’s performance has been a major point with some of its critics.
“As far as heavy rain is concerned—year, it’s a limitation. But it’s not a Maverick limitation—it’s a limitation that you have in any kind of a target acquisition system that uses an IR signature. You’re going to have degraded performance in any kind of condition that knocks down the signal, and obviously heavy rain is a very bad condition. You have the same situation in heavy fog or a very heavy snowstorm. On the other hand, there will also be some conditions of rain, fog, and snow where the missile will be effective.”
Operational ConceptIR Maverick can acquire targets in a variety of ways. It can be cued, for example, by the Pave Tack infrared sensor or the electronic sensor of the Wild Weasel defense suppression system. Compatibility with these systems was proved during operational testing.
“A critical assumption here is that you’re going to be operating in a very target-rich environment. The misconception, I think, has been that the pilot will be operating against very few targets in areas for which he will not have very much familiarity, and not knowing where the target is, he will have to use Maverick to search a fairly wide area to find his target. That is not the operational scenario as we see it.”
“If you can get close enough, then you might as well shoot ’em in the eyes with the gun,” says Maj. Nick Nicolai, a pilot with more than 1,100 hours in the A-10 and who flew many of the IR Maverick tests. “The gun is cheaper, and it’s more reliable. In cases where you have friendly troops in extremely close contact with the enemy, you probably wouldn’t use an IR Maverick except in a dire emergency. There are minimum distances established for all weapons in our inventory.
Quality of the ImageThe pilot will have a great deal of information in addition to what he can see on his cockpit screen, but the quality of the image on that screen has been central to much of the criticism of IR Maverick. Variously, it has been charged that all a pilot can see on his display is “a bunch of bright spots,” that he cannot pick a valid target out from thermal clutter on the battlefield, that the sensor’s narrow field of view is like “looking at the world through a drinking straw,” and that Maverick cannot tell an enemy tank from a friendly one.
The Air Force says that in IR Maverick operational testing, pilots found they were able to lock onto armored vehicle targets with a high degree of confidence. They had no difficulty in sorting out armored vehicles from other vehicles. Nor were they confused by burning hulks or such thermal clutter as burning oil barrels set out on the range. Even in earlier testing, the missile’s breaking lock after acquisition—a problem since fixed—was more of a concern than its locking onto objects other than valid targets.
The IR Maverick has a three-degree angle of view, which can be focused down to one and a half degrees for better resolution. While this does not provide a panoramic view, three degrees takes in a fair amount of real estate when the angle begins spreading out from a standoff distance. An ample stretch of the target area was visible on the tapes shown to this magazine.
The pilot will seldom be patrolling a broad area with nothing but the Maverick seeker to point him toward the target. Most of the time, intelligence sources, forward air controllers, and various cuing aids will have gotten him in the proper vicinity. The standoff acquisition range and the desired field of view depend on the circumstances.
Neither the IR Maverick nor any device in existence can distinguish an enemy tank from a friendly one at any reasonable standoff range. Target selection is the pilot’s responsibility.
“There are a lot of parameters you look at besides the features of the tanks: where they are pointed, where they are in respect to each other. I think you can tell as well with the IR Maverick as you can with any other weapon—or with your eyeballs in most cases. It takes a guy who’s very knowledgeable to tell the difference in two tanks sitting out there, but most of the fighter pilots, the attack guys, are that knowledgeable. You could reasonably expect to define Soviet armor vs. friendly?”
The main shortcomings cited by GAO were that the pilots quickly became familiar with the test ranges and visual landmarks because they flew repeated missions in the same small areas, that target briefs had told them what to look for, that “potentially serious operational constraints were omitted from the testing,” and that the environment did not adequately simulate a battlefield.
The test ranges are relatively small because the areas available for live firing of ordnance are limited. This was partially compensated for by vectoring aircraft in from longer distances and from varying orientations. The lengthy test program included not only launches but also hundreds of hours with the missile in airborne captive carry—during which much larger test areas were used and in which target acquisitions were run.
Launch velocities and altitudes were consistent with the battle tactics of the five types of aircraft—F-4s, A-10s, A-7s, F-16s, and F-111s—that flew the tests. “Environmental test conditions ranged from hot and humid at Eglin AFB, Fla., to snow background at Fort Drum, N.Y.,” the Air Force says. “Realistic battlefield clutter such as disabled vehicles and burning hulks, countermeasures, as well as smoke camouflage were used to simulate expected conditions.”
The other is more elusive. The requirement is that the missile have an eighty-five percent probability of working properly after fourteen hours in captive carry. So far, the test results have fallen short of that. Program officials say the standard would work out to a mean time between maintenance of eighty-six hours, which may be unreasonable to expect. The TV Maverick, a mature system on which reliability has been good, averages only sixty-six hours between maintenance.
AlternativesThere has been some suggestion that the Air Force cancel IR Maverick and go instead with the AGM-65E laser-guided Maverick, which is being built for the Marine Corps. That missile has a blast/fragmentation warhead, more powerful than the shaped-charge warhead in the TV and IR versions. Accuracy of the laser Maverick in operational evaluation tests has been sensational—fifteen hits in fifteen shots.
Looking ahead—beyond electro-optical, laser, and infrared technology—the next generation of antitank weapons will possibly employ millimeter wavelength radar. That could overcome some of the limitations of the older technologies, but millimeter wave weapons are still several years into the future. The Soviet and Warsaw Pact armored threat to Europe is in place now.
It is not a perfect weapon, but much of the criticism made against it appears ill-founded. Nothing else that might do the job better is in sight.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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