A new concept in missiles that can rapidly navigate busy airspace without using GPS or revealing their origin has been unveiled.
The proposed system, known as Hoplite, would enable troops to automatically call up precise strikes without having to wait for the surrounding airspace to clear or for a human operator to plan the missiles’ route.
The idea, revealed at this week’s Paris Air Show, is the latest to emerge from European missile firm MBDA’s annual Concept Visions programme, which aims to set out what military projectiles might look like in the future and how they might overcome problems faced today.
The Hoplite concept was designed to tackle several issues with surface-to-surface missile attacks, notably the need to clear surrounding airspace of friendly craft before a strike and the reliance of missile navigation systems on GPS, which can be relatively easily jammed.
In order to make the missile system more easily adapted to a variety of vehicles, the rockets have to take off vertically, which can put them into busy airspace and allow sophisticated enemies to track them back to their point of origin – and potentially attack the launcher.
To get around this, the Hoplite missiles would be fitted with spoilers and a propulsion system combination of a solid-propellant rocket with a turbine and compressor, which would allow the missiles to rapidly alter their speed and direction.
After launch, the missiles could quickly drop down into what is known as “army airspace”, the area up to 1km above the ground typically used by helicopters that can more quickly be cleared.
They could also alter their trajectory before approaching the target rather than moving in a straight line, in order to mislead enemies that might follow the direction of travel back to the launcher.
Another key aspect of Hoplite would be the autonomous mission planning system that would function like a car’s sat nav, automatically plotting a route according to the operator’s request for the fastest, safest or least visible route rather than entering waypoints.
‘It would very quickly give you solutions rather than manually having to go through it,’ said MBDA’s Tom Maisey, lead systems engineer on Concept Visions.
‘Obviously the operator would always have the fallback of being able to do it manually but in 20 years’ time we’d like to think that the algorithms would be there to do this.’
The difference from actual sat-nav systems would be that Hoplite wouldn’t rely completely on GPS for navigation but also be able to combine stored information about the terrain with readings from a laser sensor that would enable it to three-dimensionally map the area and work out its position.
Two different missiles have been designed: Hoplite-S, which uses a laser radar (ladar) to locate its target and a one-way datalink to receive mission instructions; and the more complex Hoplite-L, which has a more detailed 3D imaging system and can use a two-way communication system to direct other missiles to the target.
‘A lot of the principles we’re proposing are not that revolutionary; using them in this domain is new but conceptually it’s not impossible,’ said Maisey.
‘The difficulties would be proving that it’s robust and getting the computation to work in a suitable timeframe – we want to do this in seconds really – and getting it onto a suitably sized computer.
‘The real enabling technology for the concept as a whole is actually the propulsion system. Again, the principle has been around for a long time, but collaborating with Bayern-Chemie in Germany they’ve proposed a new architecture that transforms it for this application.’
The propulsion system would use a turbine and compressor sandwhiched between a gas generator rocket motor and the main combustion chamber. ‘The rocket drives the turbine and that drives the compressor, which draws air in and allows it to operate at lower speeds,’ said Maisey.
There was no indication that MBDA was planning on building the Hoplite system, but the Concept Visions programme, promoted every year at either Farnborough or Paris air shows, is designed to work in a similar way to concept cars at automotive shows, laying out possible ideas that may influence designers in the future.