Developing Nations Are Accelerating Cruise Missile Evolution

AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo indigenous fighter
Taiwan’s Wan Chien is integrated onto the country’s AIDC F-CK-1 Ching-Kuo indigenous fighter. Two can be carried at one time.
Credit: Richard Pittman

With many countries now possessing at least some capability to develop unmanned air systems, it seems that integrating such technologies to produce a long-range missile is no longer the leap it once was. 

  • Pakistan and India are deep into new missile development
  • Brazilian air-launched cruise missile will be first in Latin America

It also suggests just how sought-after a standoff strike capability is by air forces and governments as new and advanced air defense systems spring up across the world.  

Brazil looks set to become the first Latin American country to introduce an air-launched cruise missile capability to the continent. Development of the country’s Long-Range Cruise Missile (MICLA-BR) should bring a whole new level of capability for the Brazilian Air Force, but it also shines a spotlight on the rapid proliferation and indigenization of cruise missile technologies. 

Brazil’s cruise missile development is one of a number of such programs that have come to the surface in recent years. Some are driven by the pursuit of growing national capability, while others are driven by necessity after their requests to U.S. or European governments to acquire such weapons are rejected. As for those who can access Western weapons, they do not want their freedom of action impeded by potential restrictions imposed by the sellers. 

“From an air force perspective, I would imagine that if you want a high-level capability, air-launched land-attack, cruise missiles are no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘need to have,’” says Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. 

He notes that U.S. success with such weapons prompted other nations to adjust their acquisition strategies. These weapons, with significant standoff range and large conventional warheads, had new utility because their accuracy improved so much over previous systems. 

Perhaps the most fervent activity, given the arms race between them, has been in India and Pakistan. Both countries are developing indigenous cruise missiles, with mixed success. They have been joined by Taiwan, which—having had requests for standoff weapons denied by the U.S.—has developed its own air-launched Wan Chien, a weapon with a range that allows it to be launched outside the range of air defenses arrayed on the Chinese mainland. Other nations undertaking indigenous efforts include Turkey, which is reportedly developing a cruise missile called the Gezgin. Propulsion for the weapon potentially may be developed with Ukraine, although it is unclear whether this will be in an air-launched configuration. Turkey had already developed, integrated and fielded the Roketsan SOM family of weapons for use on the F-16 and F-4. 

Although India has already integrated land-attack versions of its BrahMos missile developed with Russia into ground- and surface-launched systems, the country now also has access to MBDA’s Scalp missile following the purchase of the Dassault Rafale. It is also working on an indigenous cruise missile, the Nirbhay, an intermediate-range cruise missile with a range of 1,000 km (620 mi.). Several test flights have been completed, although the most recent, the eighth, which took place last October, was aborted after 8 min. of flight. Reports suggest the Nirbhay is using a Russian-supplied engine that will be replaced by an Indian-developed small turbofan in production models. 

In flight trials, the Nirbhay has been fired from a ground-based launcher. But India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, which is leading Nirbhay’s development, is also planning an air-launched derivative. This would likely be launched from the Indian Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-30 fleet. Indian media reports suggest the first flight trials of the air-launched Nirbhay could take place during 2021.

Across the border, Pakistan appears to have had more luck with its Ra’ad cruise missile, in development since 2007 by the country’s National Engineering and Scientific Commission. Initial versions launched from the Dassault Mirage fleet had a reported effective range of around 350 km, but a new version, the Ra’ad Mk. 2, tested in February 2020, has a reported range of around 600 km. Blurry images broadcast on Pakistani news channels showed the weapon to have a similar configuration to the MBDA Storm Shadow/Scalp with a cross-fin configuration rather than the large twin vertical stabilizers on the original version.

Brazil’s efforts are building on Avibras’ development of the AV-MTC/MTC-300 ground-launched cruise missile compatible with Avibras’ Astros II rocket artillery launcher system. Although agreements to develop the MICLA-BR were publicly agreed to last November, testing to support the development has been underway since at least 2019. Images published online showed a test weapon being loaded onto and flown on a Brazilian Air Force Northrop F-5 Tiger. The development of the MICLA-BR is one of the Brazilian Air Force’s 18 strategic projects, along with the introduction of the Embraer KC-390 airlifter and the Saab Gripen fighter. 

Avibras states that the development of the MICLA-BR, “will enable the design of a family of similar missiles for the various conflict scenarios.” 

Taiwan has been quietly developing the Wan Chien for two decades, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Its development was prompted by Taipei being denied a purchase of equivalent U.S. weaponry. Wholly designed by Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (Ncsist), current versions have a range of 240 km and feature a modular warhead system enabling high-explosive, semi-armor-piercing or submunitions to be installed. Local media reports suggest Ncsist is working on doubling the range of the weapon.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.