Air-to-air missiles have changed the way the world looks at air wars. In times of war the air force having better missiles will always have an edge over its adversaries. These awesome technological achievements have evolved into mean killers, some capable hitting targets flying as far as 400 KMS away. There are lots of categories in air-to-air weaponry. From plain old bullets to long range active radar guided missiles. Let’s explore the coolest amongst these.
Guided missiles are intelligent rockets which can actually “chase down” its target. In the sense, an intended target cannot escape a missile by just moving away from its path (like the way ‘Neo’ dodges bullets in The Matrix). Guided missiles ‘lock on’ to the target based on information provided to it by the aircraft that launches the missile. Guided missiles have on-board computers that guide the missiles to its target. These computers take inputs fed to it by on-board sensors. These sensors may work on heat signatures or radar signatures. Missiles which work on heat signatures look for the heat emitted by the aircraft from its engines and heat produced by the air-friction on the aircraft surface. Radar guided missiles work by bouncing radar beams off the target aircraft. Sometimes the aircraft that launched the missile acts as the source for the radar beams and in certain cases the missile itself acts as the source of the radar beam required to track the target. This gives us the basic categorization of missiles. If the missile guides itself based on some information (heat signatures) from the target, they are termed passively guided missiles. Missiles guided using radar are either active or semi active means. In active mode of guidance the missile carries its own radar source. In semi-active mode, the missile will rely on the firing aircraft’s radar as a source of guidance. The firing aircraft bounces the radar beams of the target which is picked up by the missile.
Once the missile gets close enough, the missile detonates the warhead that it carries with it. The warhead is usually a high-explosive, high fragment warhead. This means that the missile need not actually hit the target to destroy it, it just needs to fly close enough so that the target comes within the ‘lethal radius’ (or the kill area) of the missile, then the missile’s fuse swings into action. Missiles usually carry a proximity fuse (Laser/Radar) which constantly monitors the missiles proximity to the target. Once when the missile detects that the target is within the kill area, it detonates the warhead. The high-fragment warhead is loaded with titanium fragments, which can rip through the aircrafts body damaging it physically and aerodynamically. Modern missiles carry fuses that can change its mode. The onboard computer decides upon the mode by keeping track of the targets maneuverability. If the computer decides that the missile is going to score a direct hit, it switches on the impact fuse. The impact fuse will detonate the warhead only after the missile hits the target. If the target is maneuvering a bit and the on board computer may decide that the best fuse to use would be a proximity fuse
Many countries have set benchmarks in air-to-air missile technologies.
AIM is an American designation given for air-to-air missiles. AIM stands for Air Interceptor Missile. AMRAAM stands for Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile. This missile incorporates active guidance and has a range of 75 KMS which gives the missile a very good beyond-visual-range combat capability. It also incorporates active radar in conjunction with an inertial reference unit and micro-computer system, which makes the missile less dependent upon the fire-control system of the aircraft. This means that the missile works more or less on its own to track down and destroying the target. This mode gets engaged when the missile is fired from close ranges to the target. If the target is beyond visual range, then the missile will require intermediate updates from the firing aircraft. The AMRAAM has proven on many occasions its worth to its operators. The AMRAAM is in use mostly in those forces which operate US made fighters. Once during routine testing the AMRAAM is set to have completely destroyed a test drone without even having a proper warhead!! Now that is reliability!!
The AIM-54 is a long-range radar guided air-to-air missile. This missile is guided semi-actively. Semi-active would mean that the missile is dependent on the firing aircraft for guidance for a certain period of time, after that the active seeker head in the missile swings in to action making the missile completely independent of the firing aircraft. The missile was intended to be used against the fast and high flying soviet aircraft, especially the mighty MiG-25 Foxbat. The Phoenix has an awesome range of 180 KMS. The Phoenix is mounted on the F-14 Tomcats. An F-14 can carry six of these missiles and they can be launched almost simultaneously. The missile works by rapidly gaining altitude using the incredible kinetic energy provided by its thrusters and then dives in to home on its target. The missile because of its ‘semi-active’ nature will require mid course updates on its target. So that would mean that if the aircraft that fired the missile is unable to give updates to the missile, the missile becomes useless. That is the only glitch in operating missiles of this type.
The AIM-9 Sidewinder is a short-range air-to-air missile. This missile is used by fighter pilots to take out targets at closer ranges. The missile has a range of about 25 KMS. The missile has a IR seeker head which controls the guidance of the missile. The missile is completely on its own after firing and home in on its target by using the heat produced by the aircraft’s exhaust and the heat produced on the body of the aircraft due to air friction. The missile is quite reliable in terms of target kills. The missile has now been modified so that it can be mounted on helicopters also. If the target is not making tight maneuvers, the Sidewinder can go right through the exhaust pipe of the aircraft, destroying the aircraft from the inside. Previously heat-seeking missiles were able to lock-on to target in a tail- chase scenario, but now the guidance technologies have improved so much that targets can be engaged no matter what the directions of the target is. The Sidewinder has undergone constant improvement and lots of new variants have come up. One such improvement is the AIM-9X Sidewinder. This missile has an improved range and has vectored thrust systems which enable the missile to take tight turns to get the aircraft within its crosshairs. The AIM-9s are also among the oldest of missiles remaining in active service. The AIM-9 is also very versatile. With minimal modifications the sidewinder can be mounted on helicopters. The AIM-9’s design and guidance is also one of the most copied. Many nations including the Soviet Union tried to copy the design of the AIM-9 but could only meet with limited success. The AIM-9 remains one of the widely used weapons in modern day warfare.
Here comes the Israeli Python-5. Powered by one of the most ingenious guidance and locking systems, the Python-5 is one of the deadliest short range air-to-air missiles. The Python-5 uses a revolutionary LOAL technology. LOAL stands for LOck After Launch. This technology defies the conventional method of launching missiles. Conventionally the missiles are launched with the information about the target already transferred to it. Python-5 completely defies that logic and has an altogether new approach to locking on to its target. Conventional methods of firing would require the target to be within the crosshairs of the firing aircraft before unleashing the missile, but with LOAL technology, Python-5 can be fired in the direction of the target and quickly get out of harm’s way. . The missile has an advanced electro-optical imaging seeker that scans the target area for hostile aircraft, then locks-on for terminal chase and has a range of around 20 KMS. This missile is unarguably one of the best dog fighting missiles. It is one of the few missiles that can keep coasting along even after its rocket motor is spent using its extremely efficient aerodynamic characteristics. It has complex algorithms which are put to use in its on-board computers that enable it to hit the cockpit/belly of the aircraft to make sure that the target does not survive the hit. That makes the Python-5 one hell of a weapon for the air warrior.
The R-77 Adder is a Russian medium/long-range air-to-air missile with active radar guidance used for the terminal phase of the missile’s flight. The Russians claim that the ‘Adder’ can hit anything from low-flying cruise missiles to motionless objects like a helicopter. The missile has a range of over 100 KMS and a certain version (R-77 M1) is believed to have ranges of over 170 KMS. This missile was primarily used by the Russian forces to counter threats at long ranges. This missile is capable of withstanding around 12 Gs of forces. This would mean that the missile is capable of taking really tight turns to hit the target. This missile has not been put to use yet in battle to know its real might. Theoretically it’s an extremely capable missile which is superior even to the mighty AIM-120 AMRAAM in certain aspects. This missile forms the mainstay of the Indian Air Force’s long range air defence.
One of the deadliest missiles ever to grace the wing of any aircraft would be the R-73 aptly named by NATO as the ‘Archer’. The R-73 is the most modern of all Russian missiles. The R-73 is a heat-seeking missile with a sensitive, cryogenic cooled seeker with a substantial "off-bore sight" capability: the seeker can "see" targets up to 60° off the missile's centerline. It can be linked to a helmet-mounted sight (HMS), allowing pilots to designate targets by looking at them. Minimum engagement range is about 300 meters, with maximum aerodynamic range of nearly 30 km (18.75 mi) at altitude. “Off-bore sight” becomes important because of the fact that pilots and the planes would be put under extreme pressure and strain to keep a maneuvering target within its bore sight. With HMS the pilot can just look at the target, lock on to it and fire the missile. The Archer also incorporates a highly efficient thrust vectoring system which will enable the missile to take extremely tight turns and take out its target. The R-73 RDM2 has an extended range of 40 KMS, which means the Archer is no longer restricted to dogfights. The R-73 incorporates complex algorithms in its on-board guidance system which enables it to target the middle of the aircraft to ensure that crippling injuries can be delivered to the target. When coupled with the right aircraft (like the Sukhoi-30MKI) the missile can attack a chasing aircraft. In such a scenario the missile is fired normally but flips 180 degrees to lock on to the chaser. There are very few other missiles which can be compared to the unstoppable Archer!
The R-33 Amos is a long range air-to-air missile. It has a range of over 160 KMS. This missile was built to be carried exclusively by the mighty MiG-31 Foxhound. The missile is so large that even the MiG-31 can carry only one of these monsters. The missile has a very heavy warhead (around 50 Kg) that would make sure that when it detonates, nothing in the vicinity survives. The Soviets were constantly troubled by the high flying American SR-71s (The fastest aircraft in the world) and they tailor made the R-33s for taking out the SR-71s. There has been an instance, during the heights of the cold war, when a SR-71 was almost nailed by the R-33. The SR-71 ran into a bunch of charging MiG-31s and had to scramble for safety. The MiGs it seemed had the SR-71 locked on, but before they could fire the target crossed into international airspace. Others in the hit-list of the R-33 included the B-1 and the B-52 bombers. The "Zaslon" phased array radar of MiG-31 is the core of the new aerial interception system. The radar system was so robustly built that no electronic counter measure could jam the radar. This made an awesome combination for the Russians. But the R-33 has never been into combat and it still waits for its day of gleaming and fiery glory.
It is always a known fact that Russians always opt for brute force. But reading about this missile will give you some idea as to what they guys mean by brute force. The Novator R-172 is an extremely long-range missile designed for a maximum range of 400 KMS (Ouch!). It used a two-stage rocket engine with a flight speed of about Mach 4 ( for beginners, Mach 4 is 4 times the speed of sound and the speed of sound being ~ 1180 KMPH). The R-172 flies to the vicinity of the target by inertial navigation, and then activates its own active radar for terminal homing. No doubt, the R-172 has been baying for the blood of the SR-71. The R-172’s hit list included high value targets like AWACS (Air-borne warning and Control systems, essentially a flying radar), air-borne tankers etc.
The range and the speed remove the need to engage the aircrafts escorting the high value targets. An enhanced version is also under consideration, the objective: to take out spy satellites! Unfortunately due to poor funding this project is not taking off. But Russia is in discussion with an external partner to revive this program by getting into joint development. Any guesses who the partner is? It is India!
The Astra is India’s first indigenous air-to-air missile. The missile reportedly has a range of over 80 KMS which makes it a missile for BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagement. The missile was tested without control and guidance systems some time in 2003. Development work is on in full swing. When fully operational, the Astra will arm the SU-30MKI, the LCA, MiG-29s and the Mirage-2000s in the IAF. DRDO is working on building an advanced Laser/Radar fuse for Astra to make the missile more reliable.
That's it for now. Some of the well known missiles for your information... Watch this space for more!