Procurement: Magical Missiles From America

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October3, 2008:  American air-to-air missiles are the most popular in the world. That is largely because U.S. missiles have the most impressive track record in combat, as well as a reputation for reliability and good technical support. Saudi Arabia, for example, recently bought 346 AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles, for $474,000 each. This includes 96 training missiles.

The Sidewinder relies on a heat seeker to detect and follow the target. Initially, the jet exhaust of the enemy aircraft was the heat source. Years of small improvements made it possible for the seeker go after smaller amounts of heat. 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, major 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. In 1958, the Sidewinder scored its first kill against a Chinese MiG-17. The 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.

Turkey recently bought 107 AIM-120 AMRAAM radar guided missiles for $1.47 million each. This missile entered service in 1992, more than 30 years after the first radar guided air-to-air missile (the AIM-7 Sparrow). Vietnam 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. While 88 AIM 7s were launched, with only 28 percent scored 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, and over half of those launched have hit something. AMRAAM weighs 335 pounds, is 12 feet long and 178mm in diameter. AMRAAM has a max range of 70 kilometers.

 

 


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