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
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
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.
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.
also known as the K-13
(Western reporting name: AA-2 or Atoll). This short-range missile
was a Soviet copy of the US AIM-9 Sidewinder. It entered service in 1961 and, with a
respectable combat record, continues to serve in many countries,
particularly those with low budgets.
R-73 (Western reporting name: AA-11 or 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
Article by The Tiger
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