In most years, no aircraft are brought down by air-to-air missiles.
Yet air forces have to maintain inventories of these missiles, and buy new
ones. Thus, each year, nearly two billion dollars is spent on buying over 6,000
new missiles. Yet there have not been any breakthroughs in air-to-air missile
design, just incremental improvements, for decades. Still, these missiles have
been the primary air-to-air weapon since the 1970s.
first effective air-to-air missile, the U.S. Sidewinder, is still in service.
It relies on a heat seeker to detect and follow the target. Initially, the jet
exhaust of the enemy aircraft was the heat source. German engineers
experimented with heat seeking missiles during World War II, but the heat
seeker technology wasn't yet good enough. A decade later, it was. This is a
common pattern with high-tech weapons. The basic concept is usually ready to go
before the technology is.
of small improvements have paid off. Today's Sidewinder is far more capable.
The first Sidewinders, which entered service 51 years ago, scored a hit about
12 percent of the time. This rose to 16 percent in the 1970s, and by the 1980s,
improvements in the guidance system, got that up to 80 percent. Over 110,000
Sidewinders have been produced so far. It's the most successful air-to-air
missile, with at least 270 kills. The Russian version of Sidewinder, the AA-2,
was actually a reverse engineered Sidewinder. During the late 1950s, as Chinese
and Taiwanese jets fought with each other over the Taiwan Straits, the U.S.
provided Taiwan with some Sidewinders, mainly to see how the missile would
perform in combat. There, in 1958, the Sidewinder scored it's first kill
against a Chinese MiG-17. But in another battle, a Sidewinder hit a Chinese
MiG, but didn't explode. The Chinese aircraft made it back to base, the largely
intact Sidewinder was removed and given to Russian engineers, who carefully
took it apart and used that knowledge to build the AA-2.
first Sidewinder (AIM-9B) was 9.28 feet long, weighed 156 pounds and had a max
range of five kilometers . The most current one, half a century later (AIM-9X)
is 9.5 feet long, weighs 191 pounds and has a max range of 18 kilometers. The
latest version can go after the target from all angles, while the AIM-9B could
only be used from directly behind the target. The AIM-9X is about seven times
more likely to bring down the target than the AIM-9B.
heat-seeking air-to-air missiles have a range of up to 30 kilometers. But for
all practical purposes, it's rare to get a hit beyond ten kilometers. For
longer range kills, you need a radar guided missile. These were developed about
the same time as the Sidewinder, but the technology took longer to mature (and
become reliable.) This didn't really happen until the 1980s, when the 1950s
Sparrow (AIM-7) got "perfected", and then, in the 1990a, when the U.S. AMRAAM
(AIM-120) arrived. Actually, the U.S. Navy developed a long range, radar guided
missile (the AIM-54 Phoenix), in the 1970s. But it was too heavy (half a ton)
and expensive (a million dollars each) for wide scale use. The navy justified
the cost because of the need to keep missile equipped Russian bombers away from
American aircraft carriers.
radar guided missiles have an effective range of over a hundred kilometers,
although in practice, most of them achieve their kills at ranges closer to
fifty kilometers. As the quality of the radar guided missiles continues to
improve, it is likely that this type of missile, and not the shorter range heat
seekers, will become the principal air-to-air weapon. While most fighters are
still equipped with cannon, it is the missiles that do most of the damage in
air-to-air combat. The longer range of the radar guided missile is
fundamentally changing air warfare, as the best way to defend against these
missiles is to have good electronic warfare gear. This is expensive, and must
be constantly updated. Those nations that cannot afford to keep up in the ECM
race, become target practiced for opponents equipped with radar guided
heat seekers are still a lot cheaper than radar guided missiles (costing about
a third as much), but if you can't get close enough to use them, it's false