Air Weapons: The X Factor


July 16, 2008: In its first four years of mass production, 3,000 AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile have been produced. The Sidewinder, although the first successful heat seeking missile, has plenty of completion today (particularly the Israeli Python and European IRIS-T). There are endless debates over the relative benefits of each missile. But Sidewinder, and to a lesser extent Python, have one big advantage; combat experience.

Although over half a century old, the Sidewinder has been the most effective air-to-air missile ever produced. The first Sidewinder (AIM-9B) was 9.3 feet long, weighed 156 pounds and had a max range of five kilometers. The most current one (AIM-9X), half a century later, is 9.5 feet long, weighs 191 pounds and has a max range of over 20 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. The 9X entered service in 2000, but the older 9M is nearly as accurate, although more expensive to upgrade. Many AIM-9Ms are remaining in service, as they can still get the job done.

The Sidewinder has nearly 300 kills world-wide to date. But that means for every 380 Sidewinders manufactured, only one brought down an enemy aircraft. Only about one percent of all Sidewinders ever even got used in combat. The vast majority of the 110,000 built, spent their careers being carried by fighters, or stored away, waiting for a war or training exercise. For that reason, the latest version is designed for easy upgrades and maintenance. Meanwhile, many of those in service have some components that are over twenty years old. The missile itself, is more like an aircraft component, than an expendable weapon, with a lively market place of component manufacturers and firms offering to upgrade your old Sidewinders.


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