The South African Air Force is to fit the fifth-generation A-Darter short-range imaging infra-red air-to-air missile currently under development at Denel Dynamics to its fleet of 24 workhorse BAE Systems Hawk Mk120 lead-in fighter trainers in addition to integrating it on to the 26 more sophisticated Saab Gripen C and D advanced lightweight fighter.
The move will effective double the SAAF missile combat fighter fleet and will give Denel Dynamics a significant new market for the R1 billion missile programme as the Hawk is flown by about 18 countries.
Denel Dynamics CE Jan Wessels says the new weapon, under joint development by SA and Brazil since March 2007 is on track and on target for delivery to the SAAF and the Brazilian Air Force from early 2013, now less than three years away. Wessels adds training missiles will be delivered from 2012.
Wessels says the A-Darter has now passed a series of development tests, the latest just last month. “For a missile like this the so-called guided flight test is the key test. That’s where you first test it against a target. Now everything has to work as a system. What you now do is you have an actual infra-red target in the air, in this case a parachute flare… now you check if everything is working as a system,” he says.
The test followed a series of programme flight tests where the missile had to fly a series of pre-determined routes, or circuits, “and it is very extreme, left, right up down, all the difficult manoeuvres. But it doesn’t engage a target. You are exercising its manoeuvrability. Can it pull the G’s etcetera. That was done by February,” Wessels adds.
“In parallel the so-called integration missiles that went to Saab. So they have in Sweden already integrated the missile with the structure of the aircraft, the mechanical integration of the missile with the aircraft and with the avionics, which is very complex on the Gripen. They conducted a series of flight tests where they flew with this missile in extreme angles of attack up to 12G, 12 times standard earth gravity) and up to 13 700m in altitude to ensure the aircraft wasn’t damaged. The firing of the missile off the aircraft will be tested as a separate activity but it is these days fairly predictable. That will happen in the latter half of 2010,after AAD, because depends on the availability of aircraft, pilots and this and that.
“The rest of the programme is now qualification and industrialisation. So the real technology has all been solved. On a programme like this those were the risks. On a fifth generation missile like this there were many things we had never done. They have all now been ticked off. Now we can increase the reliability and maturity of the system.”
The next step is to take the missile to the Gripen. “We will repeat the March test, which was ground-launched, but this time from the aircraft, then we will go into clean-up mode and start to prepare for production, reliability testing and the like.”
SAAF director air combat Brigadier General John Bayne let the A-Darter out of the Hawk bag earlier this week. Wessels says fitting the missile to the aircraft will be a new project “that is currently being negotiated. We have a RFI [request for information] to respond to” from the Air Force through ATE and BAE Systems, the original equipment and avionics manufacturers.
“We think there is a lot of potential for [A-Darter on Hawk],” Wessels says. One operating scenario will see the more expensive (in terms of purchase price and operating cost) Gripen act as a command aircraft for one or more Hawk, staying aloof from close combat while feeding command and radar data to the Hawk via the Link ZA datalink both aircraft carry. The Hawk will then close with and engage the adversary using the data transmitted from the Gripen.
“The more they [the SAAF] use the Hawk as a workhorse, the better for our industry. The access to that platform, that product is ten times easier” than the more sophisticated Gripen, Wessels says.
Pic: A very dated artists’ impression of a SAAF Gripen firing A-Darter (note the old-style SAAF roundel)