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AIM-95 Agile

Short-range air-to-air missile

AIM-95 Agile

Intended to replace the AIM-9 Sidewinder, the AIM-95 Agile was not accepted into service

 
 
Country of origin United States
Entered service -
Missile
Missile length 2.38 m
Launch tube length 2.54 m
Missile diameter 0.2 m
Fin span 0.3 m
Missile weight 135 kg
Warhead weight ?
Warhead type HE-FRAG (?)
Range of fire ?
Guidance Infrared homing

 

   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 replace the 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 surfaces.

   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 (USAF) initiated development of an equivalent missile program only a year later; the 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 politics).

   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 missile.

   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 their own.

   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-7 Sparrow variant (the 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 expendability.

   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 from.

   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 operational missile.

   There was also a similar missile developed later in Europe designated the 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.

 

Variants

 

   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.

 

Similar weapons

 

   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 not tube-launched.

   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 later.

 

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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AIM-95 Agile

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