By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“An experimental weapon…Let’s experiment.” — British actor Alan Rickman, Quigley Down Under, 1990.
The U.S. Army has an ultra-modern, extra-small, lightweight, high-velocity weapon, capable of destroying incoming rockets, artillery rounds, or mortar rounds with astoundingly-precise, pinpoint accuracy in mid-air. The Lockheed Martin Miniature, Hit-To-Kill (MHTK) ground-based, air defense missile is tiny, very fast, does not explode upon impact (it has no warhead), and has a tough, penetrator core to punch through airborne, metallic munitions.
The MHTK interceptor missile maintains an airspeed of Mach 2 (1,522 miles per hour, or about 2,260 feet per second!) for up to two miles, and kills its targets through the sheer, kinetic energy of a head-on collision! It sounds unbelievable to stop something as small as a four-to-10-pound, mortar projectile in mid-air, but that’s exactly what the MHTK does! It’s currently the very smallest, rocket-powered, guided missile in the world, measuring only 2.5 feet long, 1.6 inches (40.6mm) in diameter, with a 2.8-inch wingspan, and weighing a mere five pounds.
MHTK development began in 2012, with Lockheed Martin first studying the amazing successes of the Israeli Iron Dome missile-defense system, which proved 87-percent effective in stopping incoming, Hezbollah terrorist rockets and artillery shells from the Golan Heights and Gaza Strip in more than one thousand incidents. The company then applied their own, demonstrated, radar technology from the combat-proven, Patriot PAC-3 and Theater High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile systems, miniaturizing the radar seeker in the nose to create a tiny, five-pound, defensive missile with astounding accuracy.
It was first tested by the U.S. Army at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), New Mexico, on April 4, 2016, as a semi-active radar variant with four movable, nose fins and four fixed, tail fins. Then, on January 26, 2018, a new configuration of the MHTK was fight-tested at WSMR, this time with an active-radar seeker in the nose, and redesigned tail surfaces with four small, fixed, vortex-generating fins near the rear, ahead of four movable tail fins, for greatly-increased agility in flight, to rapidly achieve the correct, intercept geometry to strike a fast-moving target.
This new seeker contains an active, electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar unit, with a range of well over two miles, a 45-degree field of view in elevation angle, and a lateral, 90-degree scan angle, and is capable of autonomously detecting, tracking, and hitting airborne targets as small as mortar rounds.
The missile’s hit-to-kill technology in the terminal phase of interception uses the onboard seeker to search for and detect a threat, accurately calculate a desired, intercept point, and measure critical, target information. Then, the guidance system uses this intercept plan to steer the missile toward a direct, kinetic-energy impact with the target, aiming for the target’s most-vulnerable part. Just behind the seeker is a hardened, tungsten penetrator core for piercing metallic targets in the air.
MHTK will initially operate in conjunction with the MPQ-64F1 Improved Sentinel, short-range, air defense (SHORAD) radar system, which has a detection range of more than 25 miles. A new, Multi-Mode Sentinel upgrade adds a specific, software-modification mode for the acquisition and tracking of enemy rocket, artillery, and mortar (RAM) fire.
A multi-mission launcher (MML), based upon the Israeli Iron Dome system, will hold up to 15 Lightweight, Low-Cost (LLC) launch canisters from San Diego Composites (SDC), Inc., with each canister containing four MHTK missiles, so the full, launcher assembly has 60 ready-to-fire missiles available. The launcher can rotate 360 degrees, and elevate the missiles up to 90 degrees. An individual, empty canister, produced from desert-tan, composite material, weighs just 19 pounds, or 39 pounds fully loaded with four missiles.
In 2018, the U.S. Army awarded Lockheed Martin a $2.6-million contract to continue development of the MHTK beyond the basic, science-and-technology phase, into an actual, weapon system to defend Army bases from enemy RAM attacks, and even from enemy reconnaissance drones. More than a dozen flight tests have been completed thus far, and the unit cost of each missile has been established at $16,000 (although one source said $40k), which is less than half the cost of a proven, FIM-92H Stinger heat-seeking missile ($44k), yet it’s just as effective, in a different way, being radar-guided instead of infrared-guided.
While the MHTK is specifically designed as a ground-based interceptor system, one of the more-interesting, potential applications is as a self-defense weapon for military helicopters, or an air-to-air weapon for helicopter gunships. On June 28, 2005, two MH-47D Chinook special operations transports were participating in Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan, attempting to rescue four Navy SEALs who had been ambushed deep behind enemy lines, when one of the Chinooks, callsign “Turbine-33,” was hit by an RPG-7B rocket-propelled grenade fired from the ground by Taliban insurgents. The MH-47 crashed violently into the rugged mountains, killing all eight special operations crewmembers aboard, and the eight Navy SEALs who comprised part of the rescue force.
Later, on August 6, 2011, another Chinook, a CH-47D, callsign “Extortion-17,” was shot down by another rocket-propelled grenade over the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan, killing all 38 people aboard, including 15 Navy SEALs. It was the costliest, single day in SEAL history. Such tragic and terrible disasters could be avoided in the future by fitting a single, four-shot canister of MHTK missiles to an otherwise-unarmed, transport helicopter, simply to be able to intercept any incoming missiles, rockets, or rocket-propelled grenades.
But then, there’s the additional capability of employing the MHTK as both a defensive and offensive weapon aboard helicopter gunships, a definite possibility that I’ve been predicting and writing about since 2014 in two different manuscripts about the wars in Syria and Lebanon. These tiny missiles could serve in the same, self-defense role against enemy rockets and missiles for a gunship crew, but the MHTK could also be used to shoot down hostile drones, helicopters, and even jet fighters within its limited range.
Recently, Raytheon Technologies has proposed a very similar, kinetic-kill, Miniature Self-Defense Munition (MDSM) for fighter aircraft, winning a $375-million, U.S. Air Force contract to develop this new weapon system, which is slightly longer (3.3 feet), thicker, and heavier than the MHTK, with a correspondingly longer range. In addition, MBDA Missile Systems (of Europe) now offers a similar, Hard-Kill, Anti-Missile system, just 39 inches long, and weighing 22 pounds.
For helicopter gunships, however, DillonAero manufactures the Mission-Configurable, Armament System (MCAS) for MD500-series/AH-6M Little Bird attack helicopters and Bell 407GT/MRH gunships, which are essentially stub wings with either four or six weapon stations, and all necessary wiring. The version with six weapon stations accommodates one laser-guided, AGM-176B Griffin-B missile on each wingtip, weighing a total of 45 pounds, including the launch tube.
The Iraqi Army Aviation service has recently (as of 2019) received five Bell 407GT helicopter gunships with Dillon MCAS six-station, armament kits, and there’s a very high probability that the U.S. Army’s super-secret, Aviation Technology Office (ATO) special operations unit at Fort Eustis, Virginia, known to operate at least five dark-gray, Bell 407s, based upon Google Earth, satellite imagery and other sources, also has at least a couple of 407GT gunships in their inventory.
It would be quite simple to attach a single, fully-loaded, 39-pound, MHTK canister in place of one of the Griffin missiles, thereby incorporating an amazing, new weapon system that can literally shoot any metallic object, down to the size of a golf ball, out of the sky from up to two miles away, in less than 10 seconds! Furthermore, the MHTK missile is so small that it’s virtually invisible to most people, especially enemy pilots, from any distance, and emits very little smoke or flame to be detected.
In May 2018, the U.S. Navy announced that it was interested in acquiring a “hard-kill,” defensive system for a variety of aircraft, including cargo-carriers as well as combat aircraft, and the U.S. Marine Corps has recently been investigating potential methods for protecting helicopters from rocket-propelled-grenade attacks. In November 2018, Popular Science magazine chose the MHTK for their “Best of What’s New Award” for the very top, scientific innovations of the year.
As of October 15, 2019, however, MHTK development had been “paused” due to the Army suddenly shelving the MML launcher concept (for three different types of missiles) and temporarily adopting two Rafael Iron Dome systems instead, as an interim solution to close-range, air defense.
Defense News reported on April 10, 2020, that the recent, Iron Dome purchase was Congressionally-mandated in order to meet the acquisition timeline, with the next shoot-off between competitors scheduled for mid-2021 at White Sands. The Army is supposed to select a missile vendor to provide the final launcher and interceptor solution by October 2021, and the initial systems should be fielded by Fiscal Year 2023.
So, the still-experimental, miniaturized, MHTK missile certainly exhibits tremendous possibilities for saving American lives on the ground, in the air, and probably at sea, as well, offering incredible accuracy, speed, and agility in responding to various airborne threats to U.S. forces. Will it eventually be accepted as the Army’s newest missile? The ancient, Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that, “Change is the only constant in life,” and U.S. military modernization prospects certainly changed on January 20th of this year, with a new, far-left agenda that does not place a high priority on military innovation and life-saving technology.
We can only hope that the new Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired, four-star, Army general himself, a former paratrooper, and former commander of the U.S. Central Command, sees the extraordinary value of such an advanced, high-tech weapon system, and makes the right choice.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and also served as a missile crew commander and missile flight commander for four years. He had various assignments in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.