The last time an air-to-air missile (AAM) was used was on February 10, when a US Northern Command F-22 Raptor fighter used an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile to shoot down a car-sized object hovering over Alaska.
The same jet-missile combination destroyed the Chinese balloon on February 4. Although some dogfights have taken place in the early days of the war in Ukraine, the use of missiles is unclear.
AAMs began their operational career in the Vietnam War. Moreover, they were deployed extensively in the Arab-Israeli and Iran-Iraq conflicts. In 1999 and more recently, the Pakistan Air Force Atlantique was shot down by an IAF MiG-21 in reaction to the Balakot attack.
Air-to-air missile Dynamics
Typically, AAMs are propelled by rocket engines that utilize solid fuel. Ramjet engines, such as those found in Meteor missiles, are gaining popularity because they can sustain a greater average velocity across their entire battle envelope.
Within the range of visible “dogfight” weapons, Close Combat Missiles (CCMs) have shorter ranges, less than 10 miles, and are designed for agility rather than range.
Modern infrared-guided missiles can detect the heat of an aircraft’s skin, which is generated by airflow friction, in addition to the fainter heat signature of the engine when the aircraft is viewed from the side or front. Along with their superior maneuverability, this provides them with omnidirectional capability.
For an off-sight launch, the pilot can also employ a helmet-mounted sight (HMS) to orient the missile seeker’s head toward the target. Beyond Visible Range (BVR) AAMs comprise medium- and long-range missiles. They sometimes mix active or semi-active radar guidance with inertial guidance.
Anti-radiation passively guided missiles could be used against AEW&C aircraft. Most missiles have conventional, fragmentation, or continuous-bar explosive warheads that detonate on impact or by proximity fuzing.
IR flares can fool infrared missiles, chaff, and electronic countermeasures to a radar-guided missile.
In 1956, American aircraft began to be armed with the AIM-4 Falcon, AIM-7 Sparrow, and AIM-9 Sidewinder, marking the introduction of the first AAMs. In 1957, the Soviets introduced the K-5 missile. Since then, both the agility and range of AAMs have increased.
AAM combat statistics
Eighty-five aircraft were shot down by MiG-21s using AAM in Vietnam, eighty-two in the Arab-Israeli conflicts, thirty-two in the Iran-Iraq war, and six in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. There have been 135 fatalities in F-14 Tomcats due to AAM (130 of them in the Iraq-Iran war), 102 in F-15s, and 76 in F-16s.
In January 1981, an Iranian F-14 piloted by Asadullah Adeli fired a Phoenix missile against a close formation of three MiG-23s, destroying all three with a single missile, setting a record.
Over 270 aircraft have been destroyed by AIM-9s over its long existence, making it one of the oldest, least expensive, and most successful AAM missiles.
Some examples of modern fighter aircraft that have yet to be destroyed by AAM in battle include the F-22 Raptor, Rafale, Tornado ADV, Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, J-10, MiG-31, Su-30, Su-33, Su-35, the JF-17, and the LCA.
An F-15C Eagle fighter from the United States Air Force claimed to have fired the longest air-to-air “kill” shot in history during an aerial test in April 2021. The fighter attacked a BQ-167 target drone with an AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM).
Due to operational secrecy, the scope was not disclosed in its entirety. The basic version of the AIM-120 entered service in the early 1990s.
The US Navy adopted the short-range AIM-9 Sidewinder (Air Intercept Missile) in 1956, and the US Air Force followed suit in 1964. It has undergone extensive upgrades, and its most up-to-date variants are standard issues for many air forces affiliated with the West.
The initial success rate in the Vietnam War was low. The omnidirectional variant of the AIM-9L proved much more effective in the Falklands war and in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
The AIM-95 Agile and the SRAAM are two updated variations. Almost 110,000 Sidewinder missiles have been manufactured for the United States and 27 other countries, with perhaps only one percent seeing actual combat usage.
In March 2010, Boeing was awarded a contract to support Sidewinder operations through 2055, ensuring that the weapon system would remain operational until at least that date. The Russian equivalents, the K-13, R-60, and R-73, also have excellent records.
Statistics of modern air-to-air missiles.
The Vympel R-37 is an extremely long-range hypersonic air-to-air missile developed by the Russian military. It’s made to take out C4ISTAR planes like tankers and AWACS without putting the launch pad in harm’s way from enemy fighters.
Two possible variations are the R-37 and the R-37M, with the latter featuring an ejectable rocket booster to extend the range by “300-400 km,” as reported by Janes. As the only vehicle capable of speeds greater than Mach 5, it is also the fastest.
The AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) is an American above-visual-range AAM that employs active transmit-receive radar guidance instead of semi-active receive-only radar guidance.
It’s a fire-and-forget weapon. Made by Raytheon, its latest variant, the AIM-120D, with speeds of up to Mach 4, costs over a million dollars. There have been almost 14,000 missiles produced.
As a land-based air defense system, Norway has the Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), which employs six AMRAAMs launched from boats. The AMRAAM-ER is the extended-range variant of the same. Raytheon has proposed an adaptation of the air-launched missile called the AMRAAM-AXE, or Air-launched Extended Envelope.
The United States Air Force intends to eventually replace the AMRAAM with the Lockheed Martin AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM), a longer-range air-to-air missile that is anticipated to compete more effectively with the Chinese PL-15 missile. This program differs from AMRAAM-AXE. The AIM-260 program began in 2017. About 30 full-scale aerial target drone tests had already been conducted.
In 2023, First Operational Capability (IOC) is anticipated. By 2026, production of the AIM-260 is anticipated to exceed that of the AIM-120. The missile’s dimensions are comparable to those of the AIM-120.
Triple Target Terminator (T3) is an advanced weapons program developed by DARPA and given to Boeing and Raytheon. The long-range missile is capable of engaging hostile aircraft, cruise missiles, and air defenses.
The missile will likely be equipped with multi-mode seeker and web-centric data links, providing high target discrimination, web-centric kinetic applications, and employment of loop-through human control.
A sophisticated multirole warhead is required to engage diverse targets with optimum lethality. Simultaneously, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is investigating new technology for a potential air-to-air weapon called “DRADM.”
Meteor is an active radar-guided European BVR AAM manufactured and developed by MBDA. It can also engage tiny targets, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cruise missiles, with a maximum range of approximately 180 kilometers in a heavy electronic countermeasures (ECM) environment.
It flies at Mach 4, and the solid-fuel ramjet engine provides the missile with thrust and acceleration halfway to intercept the target. A two-way data link enables the launch aircraft to give mid-course target updates or reorientation, including third-party data from off-board.
According to MBDA, Meteor has a kinetic performance between three and six times that of current AAMs. This almost 2 million dollar missile has the longest range without escape, 60 km. The Chinese PL-15 is an active radar-guided long-range AAM that was first tested in 2011.
As of about 2017, it equipped the Chengdu J-10C, Shenyang J-16, Shenyang J-11B, and the Chengdu J-20, JF-17 Block III in the PLAAF, having replaced the PL-12. The reported range of the Mach 4+ missile is 200-300 kilometers.
Astra is an Indian BVR AAM developed by the DRDO that can engage targets with a range of up to 110 km. The Astra Mk-1 has already been integrated into the IAF Su-30MKI and will be integrated into the Mirage 2000, LCA Tejas, and MiG-29. Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) is a production agency. Each missile will cost around 7-8 crores.
The IAF and the Indian Navy have placed significant orders. The Astra Mk 2 was launched from the Su-30MKI in late 2022. These variants will progressively replace all long-range air-to-air missiles of Russian origin. The Astra Mk-3 is based on the Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) engine India and Russia jointly developed.
The missile has undergone testing and has completed in-flight separation runs. The program aims to develop an indigenous missile to rival the AIM-260 JATM and the MBDA Meteor.
The Novator KS-172 was a Russian air-to-air missile project designed as an “AWACS killer” with a range of up to 400 km. At one point, India was going to be part of this project.
Combat Implications and Way Forward
A USAF study that analyzed more than 1,450 air-to-air engagements since 1965 found that long-range weapons and sensors have drastically reduced instances of dogfights.
More missiles will have ramjet engines. The propulsion will be more efficient. Thrust vectoring will provide great viewability from outside the firing range, even against targets to the rear of the hemisphere.
Missile accuracy is getting better, but it’s getting more expensive. Missile counters will continue to evolve. Maneuvring or employing other countermeasures can reduce the enemy missile’s envelopment.
Electronic warfare and directed energy would also serve to counter missiles. The AEW&C and the FRA will move further out of the tactical zone to stay safe. This would have operational implications. Meanwhile, big rig stealth is evolving.
Both Russia and China are developing low-frequency radars to enable the detection of stealthy platforms. Stealth itself is expensive to design and maintain.
The introduction of stealth-designed aircraft, equipped with sensors and new secure communication systems with multi-domain combat means, would be the basis for what would come later.
AAMs will continue to be one of the most critical components of all combat platforms. India has a well-conceived MAA design and development program. You need to speed it up to keep up with the competition and, later on, get ahead of it.