Country of origin
Launch tube length
Range of fire
The Hughes AIM-95 Agile was an advanced short range air-to-air
missile developed in the 1960s and 1970s for the US Navy. It was the
most advanced weapon of its class yet developed, and it was meant to
AIM-9 Sidewinder, but it fared poorly in development and
testing, and was ultimately canceled.
The origins of the AIM-95 Agile are rooted in a mid-1960s study at
the Naval Weapons Center (NWC), at China Lake in the Mojave Desert
of California. This study investigated the performance of the AIM-9
Sidewinder in Southeast Asia, which had proven surprisingly worse in
combat than expected. Each launch in which the Sidewinder had been
fired and failed to hit it's target was investigated, and two common
threads were found with most of the missed shots; either the missile
had run out of fuel too soon to reach its target, or the enemy had
maneuvered out of the missile's azimuth faster than the missile
could steer to keep itself on-target.
The conclusion was that the Navy needed a missile that had a longer
range, a higher velocity, the ability to keep the target in its
sights at angles far off-boresight, and an "all-aspect" capability
(the ability to lock-up a target from any direction). This prompted
the Navy to initiate "Project Agile" in 1968, which also took place
at the NWC.
The effort to develop this new weapon was "Project Agile", and the
resulting missile would end up bearing that name as well. To achieve
the Navy's requirements, Project Agile called for a missile that had
greater maneuverability, a shorter minimum range, and greater off-boresight
capability than the Sidewinder. It was decided that the best
combination of design attributes to achieve these ends were a more
sensitive seeker mounted on a steerable gimble, an exceptionally
powerful rocket motor for a missile in the intended size category,
and steering via a thrust-vectoring nozzle rather than control
Development moved rapidly, and the design was finalized by 1969,
with prototypes of several subcomponents already completed, and the
AIM-95 designation was applied to it. The first live YAIM-95 Agile
was launched in 1970 near China Lake, as part of a testing program
imaginatively code-named "Quick Turn".
It was unusual for a new US weapon system to be developed this
quickly at the time, especially one as elaborate and futuristic as
the Agile, but it isn't surprising when one considers that the US Air Force
initiated development of an equivalent missile program only a year
AIM-82. It was inevitable that the two programs would
cross paths in Congress, and soon, resulting in the cancellation of
one or the other (or both, as is sometimes the case in US military
The AIM-95 Agile had an unusual appearance, even by today's
standards. Rather than large fore and aft fins used to maneuver it
(as with the Sidewinder), the AIM-95 had only a tiny, almost
vestigial set of folding fins at its base, which served only to
provide aerodynamic stability. Its fuselage was exceptionally wide
for a missile of its type, and yet it was also shorter than the
Sidewinder. The forward fuselage tapered-down to a slightly
elongated dome-like nose, composed of a highly transparent glass (or
perhaps a similar material, such as silicium), leaving the seeker
head highly visible as if on display. Internally, some
three-quarters of the missile's length was entirely its engine ---
hardly surprising, given that both a longer range and immense thrust
were called-for in the same missile. The material composition of the
AIM-95 is still largely classified.
Arguably the most significant feature of the AIM-95 Agile is its
guidance system. It featured an infrared seeker head with an
"all-aspect" capability; meaning, it was sensitive enough to
lock-onto an aircraft from any direction, even in a head-on attack.
The azimuth of the Agile's seeker has not been reported, but its gimble allows it to steer up to 50 degrees off-boresight of the
missile --- meaning, even if the targeted aircraft is able to
maneuver 45 degrees off of the Agile's axis of flight, it will still
have the target in sight and attempt to intercept it. The cooling
system was greatly improved over the Sidewinder as well, allowing
the Agile's seeker to remain cooled for a much longer period of time
than late 1960s and early 1970s Sidewinder variants. It was also
intended that the aircrew of an
F-14 Tomcat would use an
helmet-mounted sight to cue the Agile onto targets off-boresight,
simply by turning their heads and looking at the target, though this
feature was later scrapped.
Although these features aren't at all unusual in contemporary
short-range air-to-air missiles, all of them were almost unheard of
in the 1960s, let alone having all of them at once in the same
Little has been published concerning the propulsion of the AIM-95
Agile, save that it employed a dual-thrust solid fuel rocket motor,
with a thrust-vectoring nozzle. This motor must have had an
extraordinary thrust/weight ratio, as the Agile is said to be
significantly quicker, faster, and more maneuverable than the
operational Sidewinder variants of the early 1970s. Specifically,
this motor produced a shocking 133 kN of thrust; to put that into
perspective, the AIM-9B Sidewinder's Thiokol Mk.17 motor produced
only 18 kN of thrust. Thus, while the AIM-95 had 100% more weight
than the AIM-9B, it produced 750% more thrust.
The sum of all of these attributes was a missile that had staggering
performance. During the aforementioned Quick Turn test in 1970 for,
example, the missile demonstrated turning performance far superior
to the Sidewinder, including 55g turns and an angle of attack
of up to 118 degrees. The acceleration of the Agile also proved to
be exceptional as well, reaching velocities in excess of Mach 2
within moments of its launch.
The Agile's warhead was a High Explosive Fragmentation (HE-FRAG) munition, but nothing else about
it has been published. Details concerning the size, weight, power,
and fuse mechanism of this warhead still seem to be classified
information. There is also no published information on whether or
not any Agile prototypes were ever actually fitted with live
warheads, nor if any were ever detonated in testing.
Though while some of the AIM-95 Agile's features were far ahead of
their time, others are unusual for air-to-air missiles even today.
The most significant is that the Agile wasn't carried directly on a
missile rail or pylon, but rather inside a hermetically-sealed
launch tube, not unlike many anti-tank missiles. This created more
drag than if the Agile were mounted directly onto the aircraft, but
also allowed the design to circumvent many issues with carrying an
exposed missile externally (such as moisture and munition handling
issues, that proved problematic on many US air-launched munitions
during the Vietnam War). Agile launch tubes could be mounted onto
single-rail or triple-rail pylons; during testing, the single-rail
pylons were fitted to F-8 Crusaders, while triple-rail pylons were
carried by F-14A Tomcats.
While the Quick Turn tests proved successful, the AIM-95 Agile had
another hurdle to overcome in order to remain in development; the USAF's AIM-82 missile. This rivalry finally turned into a political
showdown in Congress in 1970, in which the USAF argued that the
AIM-82 was a different design meant to be used in a different
manner. However, the USAF couldn't explain why Congress should fund
two parallel programs for extremely maneuverable short-range
heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, both of which were billed as a
universal replacement for the Sidewinder. Nor could they explain why
their stated objectives couldn't all be met with the AIM-95 Agile.
The deciding factor ended up being the progress made by the Agile,
and the outcome was never in doubt. The USAF's AIM-82 existed only
as mockups and blueprints, while working prototypes of the Navy's
Agile were already being tested. As such, congress forced the USAF
both to terminate the AIM-82 program and to adopt the Agile instead.
Once again, as with the failure of the USAF's AIM-4 Falcon in
earlier years, they were forced to adopt Navy missiles in place of
Contracts for the Agile were awarded in 1973. It was decided to make
it a joint program between multiple contractors, with Hughes
assigned responsibility for developing the guidance system, and the
propulsion system assigned to Thiokol. Relatively few live AIM-95
Agiles were ever launched, but simulated launches carried out during
development numbered in the millions.
However, 1974 brought about another hurdle to the AIM-94 Agile, in
the form of the AIMVAL/ACEVAL exercise (short for Air Combat
Evaluation and Air Intercept Missile Evaluation). Among the many
concepts and technologies tested in this exercise were the AIM-95
Agile, which was carried by Blue Force aircraft (F-14A Tomcats and
F-15A Eagles) against the opposing Red Force (F-5E Tiger IIs) in
mock combat. The US military was nonetheless supremely confident
that the Blue Force aircraft would achieve an overwhelming victory,
as the F-14 and F-15 were rated as the best fighters in the world,
and they carried the new AIM-95 Agile and the latest
AIM-7F), while the only missiles carried by the F-5s
(considered second-rate aircraft by the US military leadership)
armed with Sidewinders. One USAF General even boasted to the press
prior to AIMVAL/ACEVAL that the F-5s should out-number the F-15s by
at least 5-to-1 in each encounter, so that the F-5 would stand any
chance at all.
What transpired instead was completely different. In encounters
where the Blue Force outnumbered the Red Force, they still took
losses; when the Blue Force and the Red Force were evenly-matched in
large numbers, the result was always a draw; when the Blue Force was
outnumbered by the Red Force, the Blue Force was always annihilated.
All the technology of the hottest new aircraft and missiles counted
for little to nothing, even when the opposition operated inferior
aircraft and weapons, and there was no difference in the skill of
the pilots. It was a devastating blow to the Agile program, and one
which soon proved to be a mortal wound.
In the mean time, the AIM-95 Agile program had become largely
stagnant following its early successes, and several successive
years of major funding increases failed to spur it forward. Congress
finally lost their patience with the AIM-95 Agile program in the
1970s, and formally canceled it in 1975, citing cost overruns and
inadequate progress. In 1972 alone, for example, the Agile program's
budget had been $74 million (an amount equal to $456 million in 2020 US dollars) --- an awful lot of money for a single short-range
air-to-air missile that's expected to have a degree of
The fate of the Agile is unsurprising, considering that it was a new
weapon intended to do many new and untried things all at once, and
to do so very quickly without any prior R&D experience to build
While the Agile program was terminated, it was followed by a number
of other DoD projects to develop highly-advanced short-range
air-to-air missiles. These included "Boa" (an NWC China Lake
program), "Box Office" (a Loral/Raytheon joint venture), "Top Hat" (USAF
and Hughes), and Thrust (a joint project between the USAF and an
undisclosed contractor), as well as the LCML (Low Cost Lightweight
Missile; USAF/Ford Aerospace) and CLAW (Close Range Attack Weapon;
USAF and another undisclosed contractor). However, all of these
programs were terminated as well, and never produced a single
There was also a similar missile developed later in Europe
ASRAAM (Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile),
which drew considerable interest from the US Navy. It was ultimately
designated as AIM-132 ASRAAM by the DoD at the request of the ADF,
but the US military ultimately never adopted the ASRAAM either.
The Soviet Union in the mean time developed the R-73 air-to-air missile.
It was code-named AA-11 or Archer by the West. Like the Agile, it had
an all-aspect infrared seeker head with an off-boresight capability,
and a thrust-vectoring nozzle. Though unlike the Agile, it was
otherwise a very conventional short-range missile, with numerous
fins and control surfaces to steer and stabilize it in addition to
the thrust-vectoring nozzle.
It would seem from the results of the AIM-82, AIM-95, and so many
subsequent efforts that the Sidewinder replacement option is
"cursed", and whether any suitable replacement ever surfaces remains
to be seen.
Infrared-homing version: Original design, as described above.
Electro-optical version: Replaces the infrared seeker head with a
camera and an image recognition guidance systems.
Anti-radiation version: A variant of the Agile with passive radar
homing guidance was planned, but none were built. It is unclear if
this weapon was meant to attack surface-based search and targeting
radar sets, or to attack aircraft with on-board radar.
AIM-132 ASRAAM: This European short range air-to-air missile was the
spiritual successor to the Agile, and at one time was intended to
replace the AIM-9 Sidewinder in US service as well. It has only a
tiny aft fin section used for stabilization, as it uses a
thrust-vectoring nozzle for steering, though unlike the Agile it is
R-73: Developed by Vympel in the Soviet Union, the R-73 (code-named
AA-11 or Archer by the West) was the first operational air-to-air missile
to combine an all-aspect capability, a steerable off-boresight
infrared seeker, and a thrust-vectoring nozzle.
MICA: First fielded in 1996, the MICA missile is produced in France
by MDBA, and features a thrust-vectoring nozzle (though not an off-boresight
seeker). This is further augmented by four square fins at the tail,
and four very long stabilizer vanes. The MICA name is a contraction
of "Missile d'Interception et de Combat Aérien", meaning
"interception and aerial combat missile". Curiously, the MICA also
has a radar-guided version, which was the first model fielded; the
infrared-homing model didn't become operational until 2000.
A-Darter: This recently introduced South African missile is very
similar to the AIM-132 ASRAAM, and by extension, the AIM-95 Agile.
AAM-5: First fielded in the early 2000s, the Japanese AAM-5 looks
and performs much like the MICA. However, the AAM-5 does have an
off-boresight seeker, and there isn't a radar-guided version.
AIM-9X Sidewinder: One of the most advanced and capable weapons in
its class, the AIM-9X is another further development of the
Sidewinder, and boasts an all-aspect capability, a steerable off-boresight
seeker, and a thrust-vectoring thrust nozzle. This is also a rather
interesting development in context with the AIM-95, as the AIM-9X
proves that it wasn't necessary to develop a completely new missile
just to gain these capabilities.
IRIS-T: A product of Diehl BGT in Germany, IRIS-T is another
Sidewinder derivative, though its appearance more closely resembles
the Japanese AAM-5. The performance of the IRIS-T is similar to that of the
AIM-9X. Interestingly, the IRIS-T's development began in the same
year as the AIM-9X (1990), and it entered service only 2 years
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