The A-Darter IR-guided short-range air-to-air missile (SRAAM), developed jointly by South Africa and Brazil & co-funded by their respective air forces, has turned out to be an impressive achievement, with performance figures far in excess of what many believed the partnership could produce. As a fifth-generation missile, with a maximum range in excess of 20 km, maximum speed of around Mach 3, a scanning-array two-colour (SWIR & MWIR) imaging-infrared sensor with a 120º track rate & 180º look angle and target recognition, cockpit-selectable scan patterns, excellent flare & chaff rejection, low-smoke rocket engine, and extreme agility from thrust-vectoring controls allowing it to turn at more than 80 g, the A-Darter is in the same class as missiles like the AIM-9X, ASRAAM, IRIS-T, MICA, and Python-5. Moreover, only a handful of other countries, the US, UK, France, Germany, China, Russia, Japan, and Israel have managed to design and field a fifth-generation SRAAM in this class.

Even more impressively, the A-Darter was developed at a total cost over 10 years of only around R3.6 billion ($254 million) and was a clean-sheet design without using existing components or subsystems from the missile families that Denel or SIATT (previously Mectron) had previously produced. As a point of comparison, the development of the AIM-9X Sidewinder cost around $850 million in present-day terms and was an upgrade of the existing AIM-9M.

That the A-Darter was developed under such a tight budget is a credit to its project team, consisting of a core group of 30 or so engineers & managers and a total project team of around 100 people from Denel Dynamics, SIATT, Avibras & Opto Eletrônica in addition to full-time representatives from the South African and Brazilian air forces. The systems engineering approach used on the programme was effective in reducing risks and keeping costs under control. Extensive usage of simulation tools, like the Optronic System Simulator (OSSIM) developed by Denel Dynamics and the CSIR, were key to reducing costs as they meant that only 34 missiles, of which only 18 were air-launched, were required for the full development and qualification process. Similar programmes have regularly used over 60 missiles for the same task.

Not everything went to plan, of course. Economic slowdowns in Brazil and South Africa, some technical setbacks, and occasional difficulty in getting test range time all slowed down development at key points, pushing the in-service date back later than originally anticipated. On top of that, the management and funding crisis at Denel has alone caused delays in the industrialisation phase of more than a year, and the decision by Odebrecht, one-time owners of Mectron, to divest from the defence business has delayed the creation of the Brazilian production line. Were it not for the issues at Denel and Odebrecht, the A-Darter would already be in service.

As a result the intended integration on Brazil’s F-5EMs was cancelled and that on South Africa’s Hawk Mk120s delayed indefinitely. However, integration on the SA Air Force’s Gripens has been completed and Denel has been contracted to integrate the A-Darter on Brazil’s 36 new Gripen Es and Fs when they enter service.

In March 2015, the South African Air Force placed a production order to the value of R939 million (US$ 66 million) for an unspecified number of A-Darter missiles. By extrapolating from informed estimates about the unit cost that likely means an order of somewhere between 60 and 80 missiles, of which between 10 and 20 could be training missiles. Brazil has not yet placed a full production order, though one is expected shortly.

So now, with its final set of four qualification launches under its belt, including a spectacular verification of its ability to engage targets behind its launch aircraft, and industrialisation complete the A-Darter fifth-generation IR-guided short-range air-to-air missile (SRAAM) is entering full-scale production.

Those four guided launches, named S1.1 to S1.4, were carried out late last year against Skua target drones at Denel’s Overberg Test Range near Bredasdorp in the Western Cape, each replicating and verifying a different type of air combat scenario. In all cases a South African Air Force (SAAF) Gripen was the launch platform.

First to be tested was a Lock-On After Launch (LOAL) scenario at long range, where the A-Darter was fired in free-flight mode at long-range before its onboard infrared seeker had acquired the target. Relying only on its inertial measuring unit (IMU) and the programmed co-ordinates & flight path of the Skua before launch, the A-Darter navigated to where it expected the Skua to be, acquired a solid lock once its seeker was in range, and destroyed the drone with a direct hit.

The second scenario was the most dramatic, showcasing the A-Darter’s high level of agility, +80_g_tolerance, wide-seeker field-of-view, and high-off boresight (HOBS) targeting capability as the missile turned a full 180º after firing and engaged the Skua behind the launch aircraft, successfully passing close enough to have scored a kill had the fuse been activated.

Both the third and fourth scenarios were ‘blow-through’ scenarios, in which the A-Darter was fired at the target while being bombarded with electronic counter-measures (ECM), and the missile had to use its onboard electronic counter-counter-measures (ECCM) algorithms to ignore all decoy attempts and still hit the Skua target drone.

All four tests were successful, meeting the strict acceptance requirements set out when the programme began. As a result the A-Darter is cleared for full operational and combat use.

To place this milestone in further context, it’s worth looking briefly at the history of the project as well as at the question of why it was pursued rather than just buying existing missiles.

The story of the A-Darter began way back in the early 1990s with an internal SAAF staff requirement for a new SRAAM to replace the U-Darter. Over the next few years a few proposals and technology development programmes went back and forth, but it wasn’t until around 2000 that the basic design of the A-Darter was finalised.

Yet in 2001, when the SAAF formally initiated Project KAMAS for the procurement of an SRAAM, it did so with the intention of acquiring an existing foreign missile because it could not afford the costs of developing the A-Darter to completion alone.

Thus Denel Dynamics and the South African government looked for foreign partners willing to join the A-Darter project in return for technology transfer. Brazil, which was looking to enhance the capabilities of its defence industry while also acquiring fifth-generation missiles, agreed and in 2006 signed the formal partnership agreement.

As KAMAS was purely an acquisition programme and not a development programme, Project ASSEGAAI was initiated in mid-2006 to handle all A-Darter development and industrialisation work. The intention was to have these two projects running side-by-side, with KAMAS being used first to acquire an interim SRAAM, the Diehl IRIS-T, in small numbers to equip the SAAF during the upcoming 2010 FIFA Football World Cup, and then for it to remain on hold until ASSEGAAI was completed and it was necessary to acquire the new missile. Thus with last year’s qualification flights, ASSEGAAI is now complete and will soon wind up, whereas the 60-80 missiles ordered in March 2015, and potentially any integration onto the Hawk Mk120, all fall under KAMAS.

Interestingly, the initial integration of the A-Darter onto the Gripen C and D was done as part of Project UKHOZI, the Gripen acquisition programme, between 2007 and 2012. This is because integration was included in the SAAF’s purchase agreement with Saab for the aircraft, and while integration was conducted at the SAAF’s Test Flight and Development School in Overberg it was Saab’s responsibility to ensure it happened on time and within budget. An unwanted side-effect of this parallel process was that some elements of the integration had to start without all aspects of the missile’s development completed, forcing some clever planning and reconfiguration to ensure correct results were still achieved.

Then there’s the question of why it was decided to develop the A-Darter rather than just buying an existing off-the-shelf option, like the IRIS-T already acquired as an interim weapon. After all, while R3.6 billion is cheap in comparative terms, it’s expensive when one considers that just buying 60 IRIS-Ts would’ve cost only around R500 million.

The answer, and justification, centres around a few strategic arguments.

First, non-NATO and otherwise unaligned countries like South Africa and Brazil will never be granted full access to the technical details, onboard algorithms, and threat libraries of a missile like the AIM-9X, ASRAAM, or IRIS-T, which means that its pilots would only ever have a best guess as to the weapon’s performance in combat that might be inaccurate. Modern air combat is so complex that even slight mistakes or misunderstandings about the engagement envelope can cause failed shots, as was seen last year when an obsolete Syrian Su-22 was able to fire flares and evade a top-of-the-line AIM-9X fired by an F/A-18. With the A-Darter, the SAAF knows the missile’s performance to the tiniest detail and has programmed those models into both the simulation systems at AFB Makhado and the Gripens flown by 2 Squadron so that its pilots are always fully aware of what to expect and how to use it to its fullest. In addition, the SAAF is able to create and update its own custom threat libraries and algorithms on the A-Darter, ensuring that it’s always prepared for the types of aircraft 2 Squadron might face.

Second, the skills learnt and new techniques developed during the A-Darter programme and the improvements made to simulation software like OSSIM have had a direct and extremely positive impact on the CSIR and SAAF’s understanding of modern IR missile threats and how best to counter them with flares, directed infrared counter-measures (DIRCM) and other mechanisms. Te A-Darter programme led to the development of sophisticated onboard image classifiers using neural networks to correctly identify aircraft, flares, clouds, and the ground, which can easily be reversed so as to figure out how to fool similar high-tech classifiers. This directly enhances the survivability of SAAF aircraft elsewhere in Africa, especially as dual-colour imaging infrared MANPADS continue to proliferate as a threat.

Third, the A-Darter programme created a bunch of new engineers and other high-skill jobs, not only within Denel Dynamics and its counterparts in Brazil, but also in the 200 other local aerospace and defence companies that contributed to the development phase and the 150 local companies that form part of the full-scale production. It has been reported by the Royal Academy of Engineering that for every 1% rise in the engineering index of a country, measured as the sum total of high-level engineering skills, there’s a concurrent 0.86% rise in GDP. Without high-technology programmes like this, South Africa may not be able to create or sustain skills in fields like high-temperature ceramics, sophisticated imaging infrared seekers, laser fuses, high-velocity aerodynamics, hardened electronics, and so on.

Fourth, it’s a simple adage of high-technology development that each subsequent programme gets progressively easier and more effective because you’re able to build on the successes, lessons learned, and skills of its predecessors. This is abundantly clear in the case of the A-Darter, as the subsequent Marlin 100km+ BVR missile programme and the Mongoose-3 and Cheetah short-range surface-to-air missile programmes have both progressed much quicker and cheaper than would otherwise have been the case. These not only open up potential export markets, but provide new tactical options for the SAAF.

Fifth, by providing an ITAR-free fifth-generation SRAAM with less export limits than many of its competitors, the A-Darter may turn out to be an export success and a source of foreign income both for Denel Dynamics and for South Africa as a whole. Saab is already marketing it as a standard option on both the Gripen C/D and the upcoming E/F, and there’s strong interest in it from a number of countries. That sort of export success was not a primary goal of the programme, but it would be an advantageous side-effect.

In sum, the A-Darter demonstrates a successful model for the local development of high-technology systems like air-to-air missiles that can be competitive with the best in the world. Not every weapon the SAAF needs will be worth developing locally, nor will there always be a foreign partner available, but it’s a strategy that should be carefully considered and pushed for in cases where it makes practical sense. The benefits to local industry, and the economy as a whole, are self-evident.