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AMRAAM Annoys North Korea
by James Dunnigan
August 25, 2013

South Korea is buying another 260 AIM-120C7 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles in order to build up its war reserve. This is in addition to current back orders, the result of over two years delay in AIM-120 production because of rocket motor problems. The solution for that was finding another supplier who could produce rocket motors that worked. The former supplier, ATK, is still fixing the problem it had, which was the result of changing the formula for the rocket propellant several times to comply with environmental regulations. This led to their rocket motors becoming unreliable. It took over two years to sort all this out and it will take another 18 months to catch up on the 900 missile backlog.

Meanwhile, the AMRAAM manufacturer (Raytheon) has had to do some damage control with customers (Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, Finland, South Korea, Morocco, Chile, Jordan, Kuwait, Singapore, and Turkey) who are still waiting. There are other missiles like AMRAAM out there. Israel has some very nice stuff. So Raytheon added some warranty and financial sweeteners and hoped that none of the impatient customers got into a war while they were waiting for their long delayed AMRAAMs.

Meanwhile, South Korea is dealing with an increasingly unstable and aggressive North Korea. Fortunately the north does not have much of an air force, but the sooner South Korea can shut down what warplanes they do have the sooner any future war will be over. AMRAAM is considered a very capable weapon in South Korea and by the time South Korea got its aircraft modified and pilots trained to use another missile like AMRAAM, the backlogged missiles would be delivered. So South Korea has ordered more. North Korea responded by accusing South Korea of destabilizing Korea by ordering more missiles and enhancing its defenses against North Korea aggression.

AMRAAM entered service in 1992, more than 30 years after the first radar guided air-to-air missile (the AIM-7 Sparrow) appeared. 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 AIM-120D version entered service five years ago, has longer range, greater accuracy, and resistance to countermeasures. So far AMRAAMs have spent nearly 2 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. They are complex mechanical, electronic, and chemical systems and each of them, on average, suffers a component failure every 1,500 hours.

AMRAAM replaced Sparrow (AIM-7P), which is still in service. This missile weighs 230 kg (510 pounds), is 200mm (7.9 inches) in diameter, and 3.7 meters (12 feet) long. Max range is 50 kilometers and it is mainly used as a surface-to-air missile. Sparrow costs less than half as much as an AMRAAM. Over 50,000 Sparrows, of all types, have been built and over 20 percent of those are still in service.

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