The latest production order for AIM-9X-2 (Block II) Sidewinder air-to-air missiles brings total production of the X-2 so far to over 3,200. About half (93) of the latest order are for Poland which, like most foreign customers in East Europe, East Asia and the Persian Gulf are increasing the number of Sidewinders they have available because of perceived threats from Russia, China or Iran.
AIM-9X-2s cost about $620,000 each but depending on accessories and tech support ordered the per-missile price can double or nearly triple. The 9X maintains the popularity of the Sidewinder because this latest version can handle most of the new technology available and was meant specifically to operate with the new F-35 fighter.
Both the F-35 and 9X are equipped to handle the JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems), which is standard equipment in the F-35. JHMCS allows a pilot to see, displayed on his visor, critical flight and navigation information. Sort of like a see-through computer monitor or HUD (Head Up Display). Most importantly, the pilot can turn his head towards a target, get an enemy aircraft or ground target into the crosshairs displayed on the visor, and fire a missile that will promptly go after the target the pilot was looking at. For Sidewinder the pilot has to be looking at something giving off enough heat to catch the attention of the missile's heat sensor. With the X-2 the pilot can launch the missile before he has located the target via the JHMCS, saving a critical few seconds. The JHMCS can also be used in other aircraft, like the F-16, once the aircraft is equipped with the electronics and software interface. That includes the ability to use the 9X.
The AIM-9X-2 is the latest version of the Sidewinder, a missile that has come a long way since it first appeared in the 1950s. Back then it was the first heat-seeking air-to-air missile. The 9X-2 takes that simple “heat seeker concent” even further because 9X-2 can lock-on-after-launch. That is, the missile can be fired and then directed to a target via a datalink. That means it can be fired at ground targets or at an enemy aircraft behind you. The X-2 version also makes improvements in the warhead fuze and other components.
As impressive as all these features seem, most are already found in similar missiles made in several other countries (including Russia and China). In effect, the X-2 version is just keeping up. What the U.S. sells, in addition, is an impressive track record of reliability and actually performing as expected in combat. Over 6,000 X model Sidewinders have been built or ordered since it entered service in 2003. Block II (X-2) entered limited service and continued testing in 2009. By 2014 AIM-9X-2 was declared fully operational. Most of those already built to that point required software updates to take advantage of all the tweaks made during years of testing.
Meanwhile in 2012 work began on AIM-9X-3 (Block III) which is not expected to be ready for service until 2022. The main new feature will be longer range (from 35 kilometers to over 50 kilometers) to take advantage of the fact that the latest heat sensor on the X-2 is immune to electronic jamming and can handle a growing array of countermeasures for heat seeking missiles.
AIM-9 is a heat seeking missile and the heat sensors have become much more sensitive since the first AIM-9s. The current versions of the missile work by detecting a heat source at the point where the pilot is looking. This is done using the JHMCS or, in the case of Block III, radar or other long-range sensors in the firing aircraft or other air, ground or satellite based sensors. Block III will also have a lot of reliability, safety and ease of repair/upgrade features.