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AIM-7F Sparrow

Medium-range air-to-air missile

AIM-7F Sparrow

Developed in response to the poor performance of previous Sparrow missiles in the Vietnam War, the AIM-7F had sweeping improvements

 
 
Country of origin AIM-7F AIM-7G
Country of origin United States
Entered service 1976 -
Missile
Missile length 3.74 m 3.74 m
Missile diameter 0.2 m 0.2 m
Fin span 1.02 m 1.02 m
Missile weight 231 kg 231 kg (?)
Warhead weight 39 kg 39 kg
Warhead type Continuous rod
Range of fire 70 km 70 km (?)
Guidance Semi-active radar Semi-active radar

 

   The AIM-7F Sparrow is a medium-range air-to-air missile, intended to be used against hostile aircraft at Beyond Visual Range (BVR) distances. It features sweeping improvements over the previous models, and was developed based on combat experience with those missiles in the Vietnam War. Not as much an improved AIM-7E as an otherwise completely unrelated weapon that happened to look exactly like it, the AIM-7F's warhead, propulsion system, guidance system, and even its internal layout were entirely different from the previous model. The AIM-7F was originally to be named "Sparrow III", but its title was contracted to just "Sparrow".

   The AIM-7F was also license-built in Japan by Mitsubishi, for the JASDF's F-4EJ Phantom II and F-15J Eagle.

   The Sparrow missile had been used extensively during the Vietnam War, with literally hundreds launched, resulting in 55 confirmed kills, more than any other air-to-air weapon used in that war. However, while the Probability of Kill (pK) ratio of the Sparrow had been in the order of 80-90% during R&D and 50-60% during operational testing, its overall result in actual combat was closer to 10%. Not only did the Sparrow's accuracy and homing intelligence prove wanting, but so too did its reliability and durability.

   F-4 Phantom II pilots began to desperately salvo all four of their Sparrows at single targets, hoping that at least one would achieve a kill (often without success), and one period in the late 1960s saw 50 Sparrows launched in succession, without scoring a single hit (let alone a kill). The overall pK ratio of the Sparrow in some instances plummeted to as little as 5%. Needless to say, if the Sparrow program was to be salvaged, radical changes in the design needed to be implemented quickly. NAVMISCEN and Raytheon had been working on a solution since at least 1968, though a better-performing Sparrow wouldn't become available for nearly a decade.

   Development of the AIM-7F formally began in January 1972, while the Vietnam War was still underway. Work proceeded relatively quickly, with pre-production deliveries beginning in 1973. However, the AIM-7F's development wasn't completed soon enough to participate in the Vietnam War, nor even the Yom Kippur War. Production was initiated in 1975, and the AIM-7F Sparrow was declared operational in 1976. The AIM-7G's development was a different matter, which will be clarified further below.

   The external appearance and composition of the AIM-7F are almost indistinguishable from that of the AIM-7E; see the AIM-7A~E article for further details. However, so many changes were made to the internal layout and functionality of the AIM-7F that it was almost an original weapon.

   A completely new guidance system was installed into the AIM-7F, designated the AN/DSQ-35 GCS (Guidance and Control System), which was designed to make it compatible with pulse doppler radar systems (such as those used on the F-14A Tomcat and F-15A Eagle). The performance of all of the electronics in the AIM-7F were improved as well, by replacing all of the previous circuit boards with solid-state electronics --- a first for a Sparrow missile. These modifications also increased the reliability of the Sparrow.

   Further development of the AN/DSQ-35 resulted in the AN/DSQ-35A through H GCS', with ever-increasing guidance performance. Just as important is that these electronics had significantly reduced weight and volume, allowing for a larger warhead to be fitted to some versions of the AIM-7F (see below for details).

   The previous Mk.38 rocket motor was replaced with a new dual-thrust motor; the motor used in most AIM-7Fs was a Hercules Mk.58, but some examples were produced with the equivalent Aerojet Mk.65. The addition of a dual-thrust rocket motor not only greatly increased the range of the AIM-9F over its predecessors, but also its velocity, thanks in part to a sustainer thrust capability. The new motor produced 3 497 kg of thrust, compared to 2 700 kg with the AIM-7E's motors.

   The new propulsion system created a dramatic improvement in flight performance for the AIM-7F. While it didn't gain any speed over the AIM-7E, the sustainer phase of the Mk.58 allowed the AIM-7F to retain thrust for a much longer period of time, and by extension, its full speed. The result was not only a missile that reached the same range as an AIM-7E much sooner, but also boasted a more than doubled range (70 km versus 30 km).

   Initial production models of the AIM-7F were armed with the same Mk.38 continuous rod warhead as the AIM-7C and E. Though in later AIM-7F variants, the enlarged WAU-10B warhead section allowed for a larger and more powerful Mk.71 continuous rod warhead to be fitted instead. This increased the already formidable firepower of the Sparrow, improving the AIM-7F's chances of successfully destroying its target. Another notable change is that the AIM-7F's warhead is mounted further forward than in previous missiles, and is located in front of the guidance set.

   Years before any combat launch of an AIM-7F took place, its first real test was the Aerial Intercept Missile Evaluation (AIMVAL) and Ace Combat Evaluation (ACEVAL) exercise in 1974. No live rounds were used in this exercise, but rather captive air training missiles. AIMVAL/ACEVAL pitted a "Blue Force" (F-14A Tomcats and/or F-15A Eagles --- depending on the scenario tested --- armed with AIM-95 Agile and AIM-7F Sparrows) against a "Red Force" (F-5E Tiger IIs armed with AIM-9J Sidewinders), in an attempt to evaluate the performance of the F-14 and F-15 and their new missiles against aircraft deemed comparable to most Eastern Bloc fighters (i.e., the F-5E). However, the results weren't what the US Air Force (USAF) or US Navy had hoped for.

   In advance of AIMVAL/ACEVAL, the USAF's experts and senior officers publicly predicted the F-15 would achieve a 78:1 exchange ratio using the AIM-7F Sparrow alone (it is worth noting that this was the same faction of the USAF that had concocted the disastrous TAC Avenger simulation, which is recounted in the AIM-82 article). Though despite the senior leadership's enthusiasm for the Sparrow, the referees decided that no BVR attacks would be carried-out by the Blue Force. There were three reasons for this.

   First, the Rules of Engagement (ROE) in the Vietnam War forbade BVR combat, because large numbers of US and allied aircraft in the air at any given time and place meant there was no telling whether an unseen aircraft the missile was locking-onto was friend or foe --- one of the few permitted attempts at a BVR shot resulted in an F-4 firing at what turned out to be another F-4; disaster was averted when the attacker got close enough to see the target's smoky exhaust (the F-4 was infamous for it, and the VPAF's MiGs were far less smoky), and broke the lock. It stood to reason that the same ROE was inevitable in all future air conflicts for the same reasons. Second, the Red Force pilots insisted that radar warning receivers be fitted to their aircraft if BVR was allowed, as all operational Warsaw Pact combat aircraft already had them by the 1970s. The Blue Force pilots concurred. The Department of Defence ultimately disallowed BVR combat, as the prospect of the exercise ending with nearly all BVR shots being foiled by evasive maneuvers was a potential embarrassment (as the Pentagon had invested substantial funding and prestige into BVR combat, and feared it would be discredited). Third, as previously noted in the AIM-7A~E article, the US military had already admitted roughly once every decade since the 1960s that  friend or foe identification technology never worked. Attacking a target at BVR distances requires positive identification, and as friend-or-foe identification was never much more than a "black box" technology (further exposure of which risked further loss of face and funding for the Pentagon), the generals and admirals weren't thrilled at the prospect of *this* issue being exposed either.

   The end results of AIMVAL/ACEVAL were a devastating blow to the AIM-7F's reputation. The exchange ratios achieved by Blue Force were never high enough to constitute an advantage (even when they won, due to the relative expendability and cost-effectiveness of the F-5E), and the pK Ratio of the AIM-7F never approached that of the AIM-9J. Nearly all encounters in which the maximum allowed number of aircraft were used (4 versus 4) resulted in a draw, and encounters in which the Red Force had and numerical superiority almost always saw them dominate the Blue Force.

   The first combat encounter in which AIM-7Fs were used occurred on June 27th 1979 over Lebanon, and it was also the first combat action of the F-15 Eagle --- though for the AIM-7F, the results were disappointing. As recounted in "Israeli F-15 Eagle Units in Combat", IDF pilots Moshe Melnik and Benny Zinker were intercepted by Syrian MiG-21s over Lebanon, and opened fire with two AIM-7Fs... which both missed their targets. The two IDF F-15s closed to within visual range and fired Python 3 missiles (infrared-homing within visual range missiles), which each shot-down the opposing aircraft on the first try. Once again, the AIM-7F had failed to lived-up to the promises it was based on.

   The IDF had better luck in later skirmishes with the AIM-7F, and out of some 13 aircraft shot-down over or near Lebanon, at least one was brought-down with a Sparrow; a MiG-25MP on February 13th 1981, which was the first confirmed kill of a MiG-25. The F-15 pilots were once again Melnik and Zinker. A second MiG-25 was shot-down using an AIM-7F on the following February 23rd, this time by F-15 pilot Shaul Simon. However, the second MiG-25 kill was within visual range, and the AIM-7F missed much more often that it hit throughout these exchanges.

   The first major use of the AIM-7F in combat once again involved the IDF. This time during the 1982 Lebanon War, which included the Battle of the Bekaa Valley, the largest air battle in any conflict outside the World Wars. F-15s and F-16s achieved a combined 92 kills against aircraft and helicopters, without any losses in this war.

   Though while this was an impressive feat, the AIM-7F still failed to deliver its promised performance. 44 kills of these 94 kills were achieved by IDF F-16As, whose only weapons for air-to-air combat at this time were short-range missiles (the AIM-9L Sidewinder and Python 3) and guns, and nearly all of the F-15's kills in this war were achieved with short-range missiles or gunfire. Moreover, all of the F-15's AIM-7F kills were attained at within visual ranges. The first kill in the 1982 Lebanon War, achieved by IDF pilot Offer Lapidot on June 8th, was via another Python 3 --- following an AIM-7F launch that missed the same target. There were also a few kills achieved by Kfirs, which like the F-16A did not have a BVR capability at that time. The famed Double Tail Squadron (an F-15 formation) achieved 33 kills during this war, including 3 with gunfire, but only 10 were attributed to the AIM-7F.

   The 1982 Lebanon War also appears to be the last confirmed use of the AIM-7F in battle. All US Sparrow kills following the Vietnam War were attained using the AIM-7M, while Iran's latest Sparrow model was the AIM-7E, and Saudi Arabia's F-15s achieved no Sparrow kills during Operation Desert Storm.

   According to Forecast International's report on the AIM-7 Sparrow, the AIM-7F has been used by Columbia, Germany, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and USA. The same source also states that Columbia also uses the AIM-7F as a SAM, as does Venezuela (though the latter never used in an air-to-air role), but doesn't clarify which weapon systems these users employ to launch it. However, the status of the AIM-7F in the inventories is unclear, particularly as it has mostly been superseded by the AIM-7M and AIM-7P.

   Production ended in 1981, by which time over 15 000 AIM-7Fs were produced. There are claims that 19 000 were produced. Some sources also state that earlier Sparrows were rebuilt as AIM-7Fs, but it is unclear how that affects the total production run.

   With a development cost of $170 Million in 1986 dollars, the AIM-7F has a unit cost $224 010 in 1986 dollars. Factoring-in inflation, this is a unit cost of $526 907 in 2020 US dollars.

   The AIM-7F is no longer available for production, and due to its outdated electronics and the advancing age of even the newest examples. However, it isn't exactly the most attractive BVR missile on the market, and many have either been rebuilt as later Sparrow variants or expended in training. Further rebuilds are unlikely as well, due to the abandonment of R&D on air-to-air versions of the Sparrow family in favor of naval SAM systems.

   As such, if any operational AIM-7Fs still remain as of mid-2020, they aren't likely to be usable for very far into the future.

   The AIM-7G was broadly similar to the AIM-7F, but was designed especially for use by the F-111D Aardvark. It featured a new seeker head which could lock onto targets illuminated by the F-111D's APQ-130 radar system. This would theoretically allow a formation of F-111D to clear the skies of hostile aircraft in their path, without relying on short-ranged weapons like the M61A1 Vulcan 20 mm cannon or AIM-9 Sidewinder (an important consideration in an aircraft unsuitable for dogfighting).

   However, as the cost, complexity, and unreliability of the F-111D were already spiraling out of control before the first airframe was even completed, its Sparrow capability was deleted as part of an effort to reduce these problems. The AIM-7D was never adapted for use by any other aircraft, and it never achieved mass production or operational service.

 

Variants

 

   ATM-7F: This is a training version of the AIM-7F. This model has a live rocket motor, allowing it to be launched from an aircraft, though it is unclear from literature on the Sparrow whether the ATM-7F has a seeker head or live warhead.

   CATM-7F: Another training variant of the AIM-7F, this model does not have a rocket motor, and has a ballast in place of its warhead, and is used as a captive air training missile (as denoted by the "C" prefix in its designation). It is carried by fighters during training to allow pilots to practice locking-onto other aircraft, but cannot be launched, and will not explode, though it may be jettisoned in an emergency.

   DATM-7F: This is an inert dummy version of the AIM-7F. It is used to train ground crews for munitions handling, and it has ballasts in place of a seeker, warhead, or motor.

   CAEM-7F: Yet another training version of the AIM-7F, the CAEM-7F is a modified version of the CATM-7F, with a variety of electronic monitoring and recording equipment built into it.

   AIM-7G Sparrow: This was a modified AIM-7F, with a new seeker head, intended especially for use in the F-111D Aardvark. A few prototype YAIM-7G missiles were built, but the AIM-7G not enter production or service. The Ardvark's planned Sparrow capability was deleted as part of an effort to reduce development problems of this aircraft.

   RIM-7F Sea Sparrow: Naval SAM version of the AIM-7F. It was short-lived in production, as the more capable RIM-7M became available only a few years later.

   RIM-7H Sea Sparrow: Though its designation sequentially follows the AIM-7F, the RIM-7H actually preceded the former in operational service. It is not derived from the AIM-7F however, but rather is an evolution of the preceding RIM-7E. This missile was also the primary munition for use in the NATO Sea Sparrow Missile System (NSSMS) weapon system.

   RIM-101A: This naval SAM system was proposed in 1974, and it believed to be an evolution of the RIM-7H Sea Sparrow.

   Aspide: Produced under license in Italy, the Alenia Aspide was an even further development of the AIM-7F.

   Skyflash: The UK's counterpart of the Aspide, the Skyflash is yet another foreign-built licensed development of the AIM-7F.

   The designations AIM-7H, AIM-7I, AIM-7K and AIM-7L were not used with any operational missile. They appear to have been skipped. The AIM-7H probably would have been an air-launched version of the RIM-7H, while the US military usually avoids using an "I" letter at the end of a numerical designation.

 

Similar weapons

 

   R-23: Code-named AA-7 or Apex by the West, this Soviet missile had more in common with the performance of earlier Sparrows, but it was introduced into service shortly before the AIM-7F. It has much in common with the Sparrow, such as it's medium size, weight, and range, large warhead, semi-active radar homing guidance, and a tendency to miss far more targets than it hits. There was also an infrared homing version, the R-23T.

   R-27: Code-named AA-10 or Alamo by the West, the R-27 was developed as a rapid follow-up to the R-23, once its lackluster performance became known. Usually seen on the MiG-29 and Su-27 that it was mainly designed for, the R-27 is broadly comparable to the AIM-7F (including the use of semi-active radar homing guidance), though it has a very different appearance due to its different nose and fin assembly. There is also an infrared homing version, the R-40T. Unfortunately for a missile that had the benefit of hindsight (of the AIM-7F) to build from, it performed no better, achieving a pK ratio of only 4% in the 1999 Eritrean-Ethiopian War.

   Super 530F: Developed for the Mirage F-1, this French missile made by Matra is a much improved version of the earlier R.530 missile. It employs semi-active radar homing guidance, and an improved guidance system, electronics, propulsion, and warhead compared to its predecessor, just like the AIM-7F. The Super 530F has a markedly different appearance, with a slightly longer fuselage, fences in place of the delta-shaped forward fins, and square-shaped fins in place of the R.530's rhombus-shaped aft fins. This missile is also faster than even the AIM-7F, with a maximum velocity of Mach 4.6.

   Super 530D: Despite its alphabetically earlier designation, the Super 530D is a further development of the Super 530F. It was developed for the Mirage 2000, and has even further-improved performance. Incredibly, this missile is even faster than the Super 530F, with a maximum velocity of Mach 5.

 

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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AIM-7F Sparrow

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