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Air-to-Air Missiles

Air-to-Air Missiles

Air-to-air missiles are the primary weapon for modern air combat

 
 

   The Air-to-Air Missile (AAM) is a potent guided missile that changed the shape of aerial combat forever. Capable of destroying fast and maneuverable jet fighters at ranges sometimes exceeding 100 kilometers, these high-tech weapons dominate the skies.

   The idea for the air-to-air missile began soon after the advent of the fighter. After all, an unguided rocket used against aircraft isn’t all that different from a guided missile. During World War II, Germany developed the R4M rocket (which was used in the Me 262 jet fighter) and also attempted to create guided missiles. Lack of time and materials doomed this project, however.

   In 1955, Britain introduced the first operational AAM: the Fairey Fireflash. The next year, the United States began operating the AIM-4, AIM-7, and AIM-9. The Soviet Union soon followed suit with its K-5.

   To weapon theorists in the 1950s, missiles had eclipsed dogfighting. All a pilot needed was a fast plane, a good radar unit, and some guided missiles to shoot down foes before they could even see each other. On paper, this strategy was impeccable. In practice, it was a disaster. During the early portion of the Vietnam War, the United States relied exclusively on the missile—its primary fighter, the F-4, didn’t even have a cannon. Indeed, in a lot of combats, F-4s shot down enemy aircraft from afar. But in many other fights, the missile malfunctioned or was evaded and suddenly the F-4 was in a dogfight, and one in which the odds were heavily against it. The Vietnamese were flying nimble MiG-21s whose cannons shot down numerous helpless F-4s.

   Because of this, the next generation of jets featured cannons and high maneuverability. However, the AAM still remained the primary weapon for aerial combat. One major reason for this was the continual advancement of the air-to-air missile. The first generation of missiles (including the first versions of the venerable Sidewinder) had seekers with a poor field of view, making them hard to fire and easy to avoid. The subsequent generation featured improved but still limited seekers. These were followed by the “third generation”, which could be fired even at targets next to the launch platform (as opposed to in front of the launch platform).

   The fourth generation radically improved the AAM by introducing countermeasure-resistant seekers, massively increased seeker field of view, and much better agility, thanks to thrust vectoring. The most recent generation of missiles include infrared (also know as heat) seeking systems that can actually “see” the target, improving resistance to countermeasures, as well as better range and the ability to target the most vulnerable parts of the aircraft. Most of these missiles also have Lock On After Launch (LOAL). This means that their seeking system locks onto the target after launch, as opposed to before. This allows the missile to (1) be carried internally, (2) surprise the enemy, as they won’t be aware they’re targeted until the missile is already flying at them, and (3) be fired at targets behind the aircraft.

   Air-to-air missiles are divided into three categories: short-, medium-, and long-range. Short-range AAMs have extreme maneuverability (60 G turns) and high speed (around Mach 3 or 3 703 km/h). They can be fired at both fairly distant targets and those within dogfighting range. Medium-range AAMs are similar to their short-range cousins, but tend to have larger warheads, and have a range of around 50 km or more. This means that they can be fired at targets beyond visual range. Long-range AAMs are, by necessity, the most advanced in the whole class of air-to-air missiles. With astonishing speed, massive warheads, and tremendous range, they can blow large aircraft out of the sky from over 100 kilometers away. They also use different guidance systems—instead of instantly homing in on targets with infrared, they generally go without guidance to a certain pre-determined point, after which they activate radar homing and chase the target. However, these missiles are difficult to develop and very few have entered operational service.

   Latest AAMs are difficult to shake off once they’re locked on. Countermeasures include destroying the parent aircraft before the missile is launched, outrunning the missile (this can only be done if the target has enough of a lead), deploying chaff and other distractions, and hacking the seeking system with electronic countermeasures.

 

Important air-to-air missiles

 

   AIM-7 Sparrow: introduced in 1956, this medium-range AAM was produced in the tens of thousands, and achieved an unusually large number of kills. Due to its age, countries are currently phasing it out in favor of the AIM-120 AMRAAM or similar missiles.

   AIM-9 Sidewinder: this American missile is unarguably the most well-known, long-lived, and successful short-range AAM. First introduced in 1956, it has spawned numerous clones and variants, culminating in the recent AIM-9X. Although it has as many as 270 kills to its name, the Sidewinder is starting to show its age.

   AIM-120 AMRAAM: originating in the United States, this Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) entered service in 1991 to replace the AIM-7. It incorporated a number of improvements, such as fire-and-forget. It is currently used by numerous countries and has amassed ten kills.

   K-13 (Western Designation: AA-2 Atoll): this missile was the Soviet equivalent of the AIM-9. It entered service in 1960 and, with a respectable combat record, continues to serve in many countries, particularly those with low budgets.

   R-73 (Western Designation: AA-11 Archer): when introduced in 1984, this Soviet short-range AAM revolutionized its class. It was the first “fifth generation” AAM, and thanks to tremendous maneuverability and an advanced seeking system, it could best all others in its class. It prompted Western nations to develop the IRIS-T and ASRAAM.

 

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Air-to-Air Missiles

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Air-to-Air Missiles

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Air-to-Air Missiles

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Air-to-Air Missiles

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Air-to-Air Missiles

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Air-to-Air Missiles

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Air-to-Air Missiles

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Air-to-Air Missiles

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