It has been more than a decade since the US retired its last officially designated long-range air-to-air missile, the AIM-54 Phoenix—a Cold War-era weapon that could be used to take on multiple targets from more than 100 nautical miles (190km) at hypersonic speeds (above Mach 5). But the Phoenix was built for the F-14 Tomcat, and the longest-ranged weapon in the quiver of US Navy and Air Force fighter pilots since 2004 has been the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM)—also known as the “Slammer”—with a somewhat shorter reach (160km, or 86 nautical miles).
Air superiority doctrine for the past two decades has focused on taking the enemy’s aircraft out of the fight before they take off (with cruise missiles and stealth aircraft attacks on airfields) and technological superiority over whatever can get off the ground. The F-22 and F-35 both have emphasized stealth (or at least low observability) over weapon capacity and reach to ensure they can shoot down enemies before they’re even seen. But that’s not an equation that is balancing very well anymore as the US faces increased great-power competition from China and Russia. That is why the Department of Defense is rushing forward with development of a new long-range missile, the AIM-260—also known as the Joint Advanced Tactical Missile.
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