The Many Battles of Maverick

March 1, 1983
The Air Force urgently needs a better weapon to counter massive armored assaults in the event of a conventional war in Europe. The cannon on the A-10 attack aircraft is a certified tank-buster, but cannot be used from standoff range. The TV-guided AGM-65A Maverick missile is limited to the daylight hours.

The best answer, USAF believes, is the Hughes AGM-65D, an imaging infrared (I2R) variant of the battle-tested Maverick line. Whereas the TV Maverick picks up visual target images, the I2R version senses the heat given off by a target. The Pentagon has not announced what the effective standoff range of the IR Maverick against a tank is, but published estimates of five to six miles sound reasonable. That would be a substantial improvement over what’s possible with the TV missile.

In a test program completed last year, the IR Maverick scored twenty direct hits out of twenty-six launches. The Air Force leadership firmly believes it has a good missile and wants to proceed with fielding it, hoping eventually to have 60,000 IR Mavericks in its inventory.

But in Washington, the heat-seeking IR Maverick is running into about as much heat as it can handle. The Washington Post has repeatedly attacked the program, calling it a “Fiasco in Weaponsland.” The General Accounting Office charges that “evidence is lacking that the IR Maverick can be effectively used by US military personnel in combat.” And Capitol Hill has doubts, too. So far, the Air Force has only been able to get funding for a limited pilot production of 200 missiles.

Among the allegations are that the IR Maverick won’t perform in bad weather, that it can’t acquire a valid target from standoff range, and that it has been tested under unrealistically benign conditions. The Air Force and the Department of Defense reject these conclusions and feel the critics are either misinterpreting or overlooking significant data.

“I think IR Maverick suffers somewhat from its history,” says Lt. Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition. “If you go back to the mid- to late-1970s when we were initially developing the program, we had problems with it. Infrared tracker development at that time was not as sophisticated as we needed, and it could be spoofed by cannon fire and hot rocks and what have you. What I would now call ancient history tends to persist, though, and a lot of the critics are going back to that, not necessarily looking at what we’ve accomplished, say, in the last six months to a year in the program.”

Responding to a June 1982 GAO report critical of the IR Maverick, for example, the Defense Department said the GAO analysis was based largely on 1977 and 1978 data and had not considered most of the recent test results in full-scale development. This is especially significant, because after those early tests the IR tracker was redesigned from an analog system to a digital one.

Slipped schedules and cost overruns have hurt the IR Maverick’s reputation, and there have been problems with reliability and maintainability. The R&D contract was for a fixed-price incentive-fee, so after costs exceeded the ceiling, further expenses were borne by Hughes. Production costs grew, too, and for three reasons: inflation, increased complexity—such as the conversion from analog to digital—and restructuring of the acquisition, leading to program delays and less than efficient rates of production. It now appears the unit cost for IR Maverick will be $100,000.

“I think our concern for the cost now is to get an efficient production rate,” General Skantze says. “That’s what’s going to bring the cost down for us.”

The decision to go into limited pilot production was postponed for several months last year to allow for completion of the initial operational test and evaluation process after a series of launch failures. However, long-lead funding for the IR Maverick was provided.

Only two of the six failures in the launch program were guidance-related. Two were caused by simple solder joint failures, another by inadvertent grounding of the g-bias signal, and a fourth by a software coding error. No problem was found with the basic integrity of the system.

The Air Force says it has a correction for every technical problem discovered in development and operational testing, and in December began flying reliability and maintainability validation tests to demonstrate those corrections. While acknowledging that the program has not been a model acquisition, the Air Force believes the IR Maverick is a missile it can go to war with.

TV and Its Limits

The first Maverick, the TV-guided A model, has been in use since 1973. It was among the first of the “smart” missiles that revolutionized air-to-ground warfare. One hundred Mavericks have been launched in combat—most of them by the Israelis—and eighty-seven of these were direct hits. Another five were deliberate near misses that disabled their tank targets, as intended, rather than destroying them. (By contrast, one study finds that the probability of hitting a tank with an iron bomb is less than four percent, and that with a nonprecision guided munition, the probability is twenty-eight percent.)

Despite this, critics have indicted the TV Maverick along with the IR Maverick in the present controversy, contending that the whole family of missiles is unworthy. The main complaints about the TV Maverick are that it cannot find a camouflaged tank if the target melds into green vegetation, and that it does not work in darkness or in low-visibility conditions. These accusations are true, but they do little more than define the limits of electro-optical technology. A black-and-white television sensor requires a reasonable amount of light and contrast to produce an image. As for tanks blending into vegetation, that should not be much of a factor on a European battlefield, with armored vehicles moving by the thousands.

The inability of the TV Maverick to function in darkness or under conditions of poor contrast is more serious, and is a prime reason why the infrared system is needed.

The IR seeker in the nose of the AGM-65D senses minute differences in temperature. A vehicle that has not been operating for hours, or even a building, will give off enough heat for Maverick to spot. The tracker can lock onto objects either hotter or colder than their surroundings. A mechanical scanning system converts these infrared readings to a TV-like image on a screen in the cockpit of the launching aircraft. Darkness does not hamper the IR seeker. In fact, it may work even better after the sun goes down, since the temperature difference—and thus the IR signature—between a tank and the landscape is likely to be sharper.

Night and Weather

“The IR Maverick is a major new factor in nighttime fighting,” says Lt. Gen. Thomas H. McMullen, Commander of the Aeronautical Systems Division. “We know we’re going to have to fight at night. The enemy is going to fight at night. We cannot afford the penalty of operating only during the daytime and in VFR conditions, because in Europe that would sometimes keep the Air Force out of the game for extended times. In fact, in the winter it would leave us out, on the average, twenty hours each day.”

The AGM-65D is now billed as having a “limited adverse weather” capability, which GAO notes is a change from the previous wording of “adverse weather.” The extent to which foul weather degrades the IR Maverick’s performance has been a major point with some of its critics.

“The majority of the DT&E and IOTE tests we ran were in humidity conditions representative of European winter or European summer,” says Col. Thomas R. Ferguson, Maverick program director at the Aeronautical Systems Division. “In all of those cases, we found that the missile performed satisfactorily. We do not see the humidity conditions you could expect to see in Europe as having any kind of operational impact on the missile. The effect of very high humidity is that you have to drive in a little closer to the target. It doesn’t mean the missile is not effective.

“As far as heavy rain is concerned—year, it’s a limitation. But it’s not a Maverick limitation—it’s a limitation that you have in any kind of a target acquisition system that uses an IR signature. You’re going to have degraded performance in any kind of condition that knocks down the signal, and obviously heavy rain is a very bad condition. You have the same situation in heavy fog or a very heavy snowstorm. On the other hand, there will also be some conditions of rain, fog, and snow where the missile will be effective.”

Given all this, General Skantze says that “in the central region of Europe, the IR Maverick triples the amount of time you have available to use your aircraft effectively against armored vehicles.”

Operational Concept

IR Maverick can acquire targets in a variety of ways. It can be cued, for example, by the Pave Tack infrared sensor or the electronic sensor of the Wild Weasel defense suppression system. Compatibility with these systems was proved during operational testing.

“The predominant method of attack, however—certainly predominant if you’re talking about the A-10—begins with pilot pre-briefings of targets in a pilot’s normal area of attack, an area he’s already familiar with,” says Colonel Ferguson, the Maverick program director. “Intelligence sources are going to say there are armored vehicles in such and such a location. Pre-briefed, the pilot goes in to his initial point, heads to the target area, uses the Maverick to look, and if he has targets in the kinds of formations he would expect to see, he can assume that’s his target.

“A critical assumption here is that you’re going to be operating in a very target-rich environment. The misconception, I think, has been that the pilot will be operating against very few targets in areas for which he will not have very much familiarity, and not knowing where the target is, he will have to use Maverick to search a fairly wide area to find his target. That is not the operational scenario as we see it.”

The method of attack—and the choice of weapon, for that matter—depends on the situation. The missile and the gun complement each other.

“If you can get close enough, then you might as well shoot ’em in the eyes with the gun,” says Maj. Nick Nicolai, a pilot with more than 1,100 hours in the A-10 and who flew many of the IR Maverick tests. “The gun is cheaper, and it’s more reliable. In cases where you have friendly troops in extremely close contact with the enemy, you probably wouldn’t use an IR Maverick except in a dire emergency. There are minimum distances established for all weapons in our inventory.

“I think the IR Maverick is great—but it’s not always great. Just take the TV Maverick and the gun are sometimes good and sometimes not good. I have to take a given situation on a given day, with given weather constraints, the way I feel, the way the airplane has been performing, what the enemy has been doing. Then I dig into my bag of tricks and apply the ones that I need to defeat a target and survive. Tactical flexibility is the key to my survival.”

Quality of the Image

The pilot will have a great deal of information in addition to what he can see on his cockpit screen, but the quality of the image on that screen has been central to much of the criticism of IR Maverick. Variously, it has been charged that all a pilot can see on his display is “a bunch of bright spots,” that he cannot pick a valid target out from thermal clutter on the battlefield, that the sensor’s narrow field of view is like “looking at the world through a drinking straw,” and that Maverick cannot tell an enemy tank from a friendly one.

In a series of videotapes of Maverick engagements shown to Air Force Magazine, even an untrained eye could distinguish tanks at a considerable range, and fine details become clear as the sensor moved closer in. an experienced pilot can, of course, read much more from those images. Program officials are taken aback by the “bright spots” accusation, because the picture on the screen is pretty good.

The Air Force says that in IR Maverick operational testing, pilots found they were able to lock onto armored vehicle targets with a high degree of confidence. They had no difficulty in sorting out armored vehicles from other vehicles. Nor were they confused by burning hulks or such thermal clutter as burning oil barrels set out on the range. Even in earlier testing, the missile’s breaking lock after acquisition—a problem since fixed—was more of a concern than its locking onto objects other than valid targets.

Last year, Dr. Alton G. Keel, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research, Development and Logistics, told Congress that in operational testing the IR Maverick had demonstrated a sixty to eighty percent probability of acquiring a valid target.

The IR Maverick has a three-degree angle of view, which can be focused down to one and a half degrees for better resolution. While this does not provide a panoramic view, three degrees takes in a fair amount of real estate when the angle begins spreading out from a standoff distance. An ample stretch of the target area was visible on the tapes shown to this magazine.

“In tests at Fort Riley, we saw columns of tanks with at least nine vehicles in the line of attack,” says Major Nicolai.

The pilot will seldom be patrolling a broad area with nothing but the Maverick seeker to point him toward the target. Most of the time, intelligence sources, forward air controllers, and various cuing aids will have gotten him in the proper vicinity. The standoff acquisition range and the desired field of view depend on the circumstances.

“If tanks are rolling across sand or dirt or something, or if there’s been a battle going on and I can see smoke and flames, I might visually acquire the target ten miles away,” says Major Nicolai. “Whatever the situation, I’d want to do as much as I could to identify the target with the IR Maverick’s larger field of view. At some point, I want more information on the target, and I have the option to change the field of view to give me more resolution.”

Neither the IR Maverick nor any device in existence can distinguish an enemy tank from a friendly one at any reasonable standoff range. Target selection is the pilot’s responsibility.

“When I squeeze the pickle button to release the IR Maverick, I’ve made sure to the best of my ability that this is an enemy target,” says Major Nicolai. “I wouldn’t squeeze the trigger if I had not been able to make that definition.

“There are a lot of parameters you look at besides the features of the tanks: where they are pointed, where they are in respect to each other. I think you can tell as well with the IR Maverick as you can with any other weapon—or with your eyeballs in most cases. It takes a guy who’s very knowledgeable to tell the difference in two tanks sitting out there, but most of the fighter pilots, the attack guys, are that knowledgeable. You could reasonably expect to define Soviet armor vs. friendly?”

Were the Tests Too Easy

“We find that it has been demonstrated that the IR Maverick had limited success when operating under relatively benign test conditions,” last year’s GAO report charged. “On the other hand, we find that it is not known whether the IR Maverick can work well under less-than-favorable test conditions, as may happen in combat.”

The main shortcomings cited by GAO were that the pilots quickly became familiar with the test ranges and visual landmarks because they flew repeated missions in the same small areas, that target briefs had told them what to look for, that “potentially serious operational constraints were omitted from the testing,” and that the environment did not adequately simulate a battlefield.

The Air Force does not regard these criticisms as valid. Pilots do learn a test range after awhile, but during wartime they would also be flying repeated missions in the same areas of attack, and they would have substantial knowledge of those areas ahead of time. Certainly, they would have been briefed in detail on targets and cues to watch for.

The test ranges are relatively small because the areas available for live firing of ordnance are limited. This was partially compensated for by vectoring aircraft in from longer distances and from varying orientations. The lengthy test program included not only launches but also hundreds of hours with the missile in airborne captive carry—during which much larger test areas were used and in which target acquisitions were run.

Early developmental tests—on which the bulk of the GAO commentary was based—were designed to test specific attributes of the system. Complexity and operational realism increased as the program moved toward full-scale development and operational testing.

Launch velocities and altitudes were consistent with the battle tactics of the five types of aircraft—F-4s, A-10s, A-7s, F-16s, and F-111s—that flew the tests. “Environmental test conditions ranged from hot and humid at Eglin AFB, Fla., to snow background at Fort Drum, N.Y.,” the Air Force says. “Realistic battlefield clutter such as disabled vehicles and burning hulks, countermeasures, as well as smoke camouflage were used to simulate expected conditions.”

Reliability and Maintainability

Two major reliability and maintainability standards were set for the IR Maverick. It has already met one of them, demonstrating a thirty-six-hour mean time between failures.

The other is more elusive. The requirement is that the missile have an eighty-five percent probability of working properly after fourteen hours in captive carry. So far, the test results have fallen short of that. Program officials say the standard would work out to a mean time between maintenance of eighty-six hours, which may be unreasonable to expect. The TV Maverick, a mature system on which reliability has been good, averages only sixty-six hours between maintenance.

“I think a mistake we made was to establish a threshold for reliability and maintainability that was based on the current TV Mavericks out in the field,” General Skantze says. “That system has a degree of maturity that we’re not at yet with the IR. I don’t see any reason to change the standard at this point. I think a lot of people recognize that it’s a mature standard. We’re going to get as close to it as we can. The trend data’s there that says we are now moving up the curve.”


There has been some suggestion that the Air Force cancel IR Maverick and go instead with the AGM-65E laser-guided Maverick, which is being built for the Marine Corps. That missile has a blast/fragmentation warhead, more powerful than the shaped-charge warhead in the TV and IR versions. Accuracy of the laser Maverick in operational evaluation tests has been sensational—fifteen hits in fifteen shots.

The Air Force was once in the laser Maverick program, and is still acquiring it for the Marines, but plans to buy none for itself. The main problem is that the AGM-65E requires a designator, either on the ground or airborne, to continue playing a laser beam on the target up until the missile impacts. The Air Force wants a weapon that it can launch and leave.

Looking ahead—beyond electro-optical, laser, and infrared technology—the next generation of antitank weapons will possibly employ millimeter wavelength radar. That could overcome some of the limitations of the older technologies, but millimeter wave weapons are still several years into the future. The Soviet and Warsaw Pact armored threat to Europe is in place now.

The Air Force sincerely believes the IR Maverick is a good system, and wants the capability it can add for operating against armor at night and under the weather.

It is not a perfect weapon, but much of the criticism made against it appears ill-founded. Nothing else that might do the job better is in sight.