Naval Air: Harrier Gets AMRAAM

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December 26, 2011:  For the first time U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B STOVL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft are being armed with long-range AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. Although the AV-8B is primarily a ground attack aircraft, it can also be quite effective in air-to-air combat. The first AMRAAM equipped AV-8Bs are aboard the amphibious ship (which looks like a small carrier) USS Makin Island.

The AV-8 first entered service in 1969. That early version was used mainly by the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. It was an 11 ton aircraft (7 tons when taking off vertically) that carried about two tons of weapons. In the 1980s, a more powerful 14 ton version (AV-8B) was developed, which could carry three tons of weapons. The U.S. is eventually replacing its AV-8s with the new F-35B.

The AIM-120D AMRAAM entered service in 1992, more than 30 years after the first reliable radar guided air-to-air missile (the AIM-7 Sparrow). AMRAAM was meant to succeed where the AIM-7 didn’t. Vietnam, in the 1960s, provided ample evidence that AIM-7 wasn't really ready for prime time. Too many things could go wrong. Several versions later, the AIM-7 got another combat test during the 1991 Gulf War. In combat, 88 AIM 7s were launched, with 28 percent scoring a hit. The AIM 9 Sidewinder did worse, with 97 fired and only 12.6 percent making contact. That said, most of these hits could not have been obtained with cannon, especially when the AIM 7 was used against a target that was trying to get away.

AMRAAM was designed to fix all the reliability and ease-of-use problems that cursed the AIM-7. But AMRAAM has only had a few opportunities to be used in combat but over half of those launched have hit something. The 120D version entered service four years ago and has longer range and greater accuracy and resistance to countermeasures. So far, AMRAAMs have spent nearly two million hours hanging from the wings of jet fighters in flight. Some 2,400 AMRAAMs have been fired, mostly in training or testing operations. That’s about a quarter of those produced.

AMRAAM weighs 172 kg (335 pounds), is 3.7 meters (12 feet) long, and 178mm (7 inches) in diameter. AMRAAM has a max range of 70 kilometers. These missiles cost about a million dollars each. The missiles are complex mechanical, electronic, and chemical systems and each of them, on average, suffers a component failure every 1,500 hours.

 


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