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Net-Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE)

The Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) missile was intended for boost-phase intercept of ballistic missiles, using an AMRAAM missile frame with an advanced rocket motor and an infrared seeker from an AIM-9X. The Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) weapon system consists of netted launch aircraft, fire control, cueing and targeting sensors, and interceptors. The interceptors can be launched from manned or unmanned aircraft to provide a quick response to changing battle situations and mobile tactical ballistic missile launchers. This low-risk, boost- and ascent-phase interceptor enabled the warfighter to counter both short- and medium-range ballistic missile threats in a cost-effective manner using current airborne platforms.

Network Centric Airborne Defense Element could fill a critical niche in the Ballistic Missile Defense system and provides a low-cost approach to interceptor development and acquisition cost. NCADE was an air-launched weapon system designed to engage short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in the boost, ascent or terminal flight phases. NCADE was a missile defense system that could affordably leverage operational tactical missile technologies and infrastructure.

The Net-Centric Airborne Defense Element concept used modified components of the existing AIM-9X and AIM-120 "AMRAAM" air-to-air missiles, combined with a new liquid propellant second stage to produce a missile capable of boost-phase intercepts. The proposed missile could be carried by manned fighters or unmanned aerial vehicles and could be used against all ranges of missiles in the boost phase in those cases where aircraft could penetrate to within about 100 miles of the launch site.

Network Centric Airborne Defense Element also leverages proven imaging infrared seeker components from existing Raytheon production programs. This enables a potentially rapid development and fielding path. The NCADE interceptor leverages many proven components and technologies, including the aerodynamic design, aircraft interface and flight control system of Raytheon's Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile. NCADE's small size enables it to be carried by and launched from smaller unmanned aerial vehicles, providing a potential operational advantage.

The commonality with AMRAAM enables NCADE to launch from a wide variety of aircraft. NCADE has the same form, fit and interfaces as the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to Air Missile (AMRAAMT) and can be integrated onto current and future aircraft such as the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II, and many international aircraft. Using AMRAAM infrastructure decreases lifecycle cost persistent unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) applications with the integration of the AMRAAM launcher.

NCADE uses a combat-proven imaging infrared seeker that was in production. A nosecone and aerospike protect the infrared seeker during flyout and operation. Targeting can be provided by radar and infrared search and track sensors employed on existing aircraft.

The boost- and ascent-phase capability of NCADE was enabled by high-altitude launch and a high-performance two-stage propulsion system. The NCADE interceptor first stage was derived from the AMRAAM rocket motor and control section. The second stage uses a hydroxyl ammonium nitrate (HAN) fuel for all upper-stage propulsion - including axial, divert and attitude control system - to provide endo- and exoatmospheric flight. HAN was a liquid fuel with very high density and specific impulse. It was easy to handle and has very low toxicity, which may enable safe shipboard operations.

NCADE was the result of an FY2006 earmark. Net Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) also received a $6,000,000 earmark in FY2008. Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds. Congress includes earmarks in appropriation bills - the annual spending bills that Congress enacts to allocate discretionary spending - and also in authorization bills.

Raytheon was under contract to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for NCADE concept development and risk reduction. By May 2007 Raytheon Company had demonstrated a key propulsion component of the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) program. As part of the NCADE risk-reduction program, Raytheon and partner Aerojet tested an advanced hydroxylammonium nitrate thruster that provided more than 150 pounds of thrust for longer than 25 seconds. This test, which took place at the Aerojet facility in Redmond, Wash., demonstrated what the Missile Defense Agency calls "knowledge points."

The thruster was an advanced monopropellant that provides increased performance and high-density packaging that will result in lighter, higher- velocity interceptors. Hydroxylammonium nitrate was also less toxic and easier to handle than other propellants. This propulsion technology could eventually enable safe shipboard operation.

Raytheon also fabricated two prototype NCADE seekers. The seekers have undergone characterization testing in a high-fidelity simulator demonstrating their ability to track a booster in the presence of a bright rocket plume.

On 03 December 2007 a seeker characterization test for the Net-Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) was successfully conducted today at approximately 11:07 a.m. EST at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), NM. Preliminary indications were that planned flight test objectives were achieved. This test involved the successful imaging at close range of a boosting Orion sounding rocket by an NCADE seeker equipped AIM-9X missile launched from an F-16 Aircraft. Although not unexpected, the subsequent intercept destroyed the target. A second AIM-9X launched during the test observed through its seeker the intercept of the target by the first and was also on a trajectory to intercept the target. The target missile was launched from WSMR.


In 2012, the National Research Council's Committee on an Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense wrote that "Airborne-Based Interceptors Recently, ABIs, also known as airborne hit to kills (AHTKs), have been reconsidered and show some potential applications in certain conflict scenarios. The primary difficulty with ABIs, like all other proposed kinetic boost-phase systems, is the need to be close enough (within about 50 km) to the target so that an interceptor with a given speed and a KKV of sufficient agility can reach and successfully home in on the accelerating booster before the boost phase ends. ABI programs have existed in the past, but today only a few low-end ABI systems based on existing interceptors remain on the drawing boards—for example, the network-centric airborne defense element (NCADE), based on a modified advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) missile, and the air-launched hit-to-kill (ALHK) program, based on an air-launched version of the PAC-3 missile. These systems might be able to intercept boosting targets at very short range, but they rely primarily on aerodynamic forces for divert and, consequently, cannot intercept accelerating targets above approximately 30 km in altitude, where most of the boost phase occurs, especially for missiles with ranges beyond 1,000 km. Hence, they cannot provide a robust boost-phase intercept capability."

The NRC panel further noted that "Some observers consider the possibility of attacks by short-range ballistic missiles launched from ships near U.S. (or allied) shores to be a very serious potential threat.... boost-phase intercept could be practical. Existing SM-2 Block IV air defense interceptors launched from within 50 km of the ship launching the threat could engage such shorter range threats during boost phase, within the atmosphere. In addition, CONUS-based tactical aircraft carrying weapons if developed for theater boost-phase intercept could be scrambled to fly CAP either over any suspicious ship that evaded detection before reaching a threatening range or until an Aegis ship arrived. For example, a fighter aircraft interceptor platform equipped with an appropriate acquisition sensor and perhaps a modified AMRAAM could be first on the scene for that mission if no Aegis ship was within 50 km."

Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance on November 6, 2017 argued that the most expedient possibility to deploy boost phase missile defense could be the F-35 with ARAAM interceptors in the first 90 seconds. Using the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) on the F-35, that uses six mid-wave infrared cameras, that when knitted together create a 360 degree infrared view of the world all around the aircraft. The DAS was successfully tested in October 2014 to detect a missile launch and provide weapons quality tracking information on the ballistic missile and share that information through Link-16 that could then be used by an Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) ship.

"If you extrapolate into the future what you could do with the F-35 and how you would operationally use it, because of the 360-degree nature of the distributed aperture system, you don't always have to be pointed at the potential launch location. So it's fairly easy at that point to detect a launch, track a missile, and pass that off to other shooters." - Mr. Tom Lawhead, Chief of Staff, Air Force Joint Strike Fighter Integration Office.

"We're looking at a range of options, and the aircraft launch of missiles is not off the table for us, and it's certainly being considered as part of the BMD review that's in place right now, and I've personally gone through the equations that Dr. Canavan has laid down." - Rear Admiral Jon Hill, Deputy Director of the Missile Defense Agency.

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