AIM-9 Sidewinder

The AIM-9 Sidewinder is a heat-seeking, short-range, air-to-air missile carried by fighter aircraft and recently, certain gunship helicopters. It is named after the Sidewinder snake, which detects its prey via body heat and also because of the peculiar snake-like path of flight the early versions had when launched. The Sidewinder was the first truly effective air-to-air missile, widely imitated and copied; yet its variants and upgrades remain in active service with many air forces after five decades. When a Sidewinder missile is being launched, NATO pilots use the brevity code Fox two in radio communication, as with all rear-aspect, or "heat seeking" missiles.

Physics of infrared detection

In the 1940s, it was discovered that exposing lead sulfide to heat energy reduces the compound's electrical resistance. This is an example of a property called photoconductivity; photoconductivity is also seen with illumination by other wavelengths of light. One can measure the resulting current and then link that result to an action - in this case, a seeker head causing the missile to fly toward the heat source (a target aircraft or missile).


Early development

The development of the Sidewinder missile began in 1946 at the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS), Inyokern, California, now the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California as an in-house research project conceived by William Burdette McLean. McLean initially called his effort "Local Fuze Project 602" using laboratory funding, volunteer help and fuze funding to develop what it called a heat-homing rocket. It did not receive official funding until 1951 when the effort was mature enough to show to Admiral "Deak" Parsons, the Deputy Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance (BUORD). It subsequently received designation as a program in 1952. The Sidewinder introduced several new technologies that made it simpler and much more reliable than its United States Air Force (USAF) counterpart, the AIM-4 Falcon that was under development in the same time period. After disappointing experiences with the Falcon in the Vietnam War, the Air Force replaced its Falcons with Sidewinders.

The primary advantage to the Sidewinder is its effective, yet simple detection and guidance system. During WWII the Germans had experimented with infrared guidance systems in a large missile known as the Enzian, but were unable to get it to work reliably. The Enzian was guided by an IR detector mounted in a small, steerable telescope. A vane in front of the mirror shaded the detector, so the system could locate the target. By continually turning toward the telescope, the missile was guided toward the target using what is known as a pure pursuit. The Sidewinder improved on this concept and made it work.

The first was to replace the "steering" mirror with a forward-facing mirror rotating around a shaft pointed out the front of the missile. The detector was mounted in front of the mirror. When the long axis of the mirror, the missile axis and the line of sight to the target all fell in the same plane, the reflected rays from the target reached the detector (provided the target was not very far off axis). Therefore, the angle of the mirror at detection estimated the direction of the target in the roll axis of the missile.

The yaw/pitch direction of the target depended on how far to the outer edge of the mirror the target was. If the target was further off axis, the rays reflected from the outer edge of the mirror. If the target was closer on axis, the rays reflected from closer to the centre of the mirror. The mirror's linear speed was higher at the outer edge, though its thickness was the same. Therefore if a target was further off-axis its reflection occurred for a briefer time. The off-axis angle could then be estimated by the duration of the reflected pulse of infrared. If the pulse was long, the target was on-axis.

This signal makes the tracking system both simpler and better. Instead of simply pointing the missile at the target (which is inefficient), the Sidewinder "remembered" each flash's direction and time. By attempting to zero out the changes, instead of the difference between the detector and missile angles, the Sidewinder flies a course known as proportional pursuit, which is much more efficient and makes the missile "lead" the target.

However this system also requires the missile to have a fixed roll axis orientation. If the missile spins at all, the timing based on the speed of rotation of the mirror is no longer accurate. Correcting for this spin would normally require some sort of sensor to tell which way is "down" and then adding controls to correct it. Instead, small control surfaces were placed at the rear of the missile with spinning disks on their outer surface. Airflow over the disk spins them to a high speed. If the missile starts to roll, the gyroscopic force of the disk drives the control surface into the airflow, cancelling the motion. Thus the Sidewinder team replaced a potentially complex control system with a simple mechanical solution.

Flight test and service introduction

A prototype Sidewinder, the XAAM-N-7 (later AIM-9A), was first fired successfully in September 1953. The initial production version, designated AAM-N-7 (later AIM-9B), entered operational use in 1956, and has been improved upon steadily since.

Combat introduction

The first combat use of the Sidewinder was on September 24, 1958 with the air force of the Republic of China (Taiwan). During that period of time, ROC F-86 Sabres were routinely engaged in air battles with the People's Republic of China over the Taiwan Strait. The PRC MiG-17s had higher altitude ceiling performance and in similar fashion to Korean War encounters between the F-86 and earlier MiG-15, the PRC formations cruised above the ROC Sabres immune to their .50 cal weaponry and only choosing battle when conditions favored them. In a highly secret effort, United States provided a few dozen Sidewinders to ROC forces and a team to modify their Sabres to carry the Sidewinder. In the first encounter on 24 September 1958, the Sidewinders were used to ambush the MiG-17s as they flew past the Sabres seemingly invulnerable to attack. The MiGs broke formation and descended to the altitude of the Sabres in swirling dogfights. Air combat had entered a new era.

Compromised technology

The Taiwan Strait battles inadvertently produced a new derivative of Sidewinder: shortly after that conflict the Soviet Union began the manufacture of the K-13/R-3S missile (NATO reporting name AA-2 'Atoll'), a reverse-engineered copy of the Sidewinder. It was made possible after a Taiwanese AIM-9B hit a Chinese MiG-17 without exploding; amazingly, the missile struck the MiG-17 and became lodged within the airframe, and the pilot was able to return to base with the missile. According to Ron Westrum in his book "Sidewinder", the Soviets obtained the plans for Sidewinder from a Swedish Colonel, Stig Wennerström, and rushed their version into service by 1961 copying it so closely that even the parts numbers were duplicated. Years later, Soviet engineers would admit that the captured Sidewinder served as a "university course" in missile design and substantially improved Soviet and allied air-to-air capabilities. The K-13 and its derivatives remained in production for nearly 30 years. In the 1960s, the possession of the K-13 in the Soviet arsenal caused major changes in the USAF bombing tactics, forcing bombers from high-altitudes down to lower levels, below enemy radar coverage.

USAF adoption

Although originally developed for the USN as a competitor to the USAF AIM-4 Falcon the Sidewinder was subsequently introduced into USAF service when DoD directed that the F-4 Phantom be adopted by the USAF. The Air Force originally borrowed F-4B model Phantoms, which were equipped with AIM-9B Sidewinders as the short-range armament. The first production USAF Phantoms were the F-4C model, which carried the AIM-9B Sidewinder. The Air Force opted to carry only AIM-4 Falcon on their F-4D model Phantoms introduced to Vietnam service in 1967, but disappointment with combat use of the Falcon led to a crash effort to reconfigure the F-4D for Sidewinder carriage. The USAF nomenclature for the Sidewinder was the GAR-8 (later AIM-9E). During the 1960s the USN and USAF pursued their own separate versions of the Sidewinder, but cost considerations later forced the development of common variants beginning with the AIM-9L.

Continued evolution

The Sidewinder subsequently evolved through a series of upgraded versions with newer, more sensitive seekers with various types of cooling and various propulsion, fuse, and warhead improvements. Although each of those versions had various seeker, cooling, and fusing differences, all but one shared infrared homing. The exception was the U.S. Navy AAM-N-7 Sidewinder IB (later AIM-9C), a Sidewinder with a semi-active radar homing seeker head developed for the F-8 Crusader. Only about 1,000 of these weapons were produced, many of which were later rebuilt as the AGM-122 Sidearm anti-radiation missile.

Vietnam influence on Sidewinder development

When air combat started over North Vietnam in 1965, Sidewinder was the standard Short Range Missile (SRM) carried by the US Navy on its F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader fighters and could be carried on the A-4 Skyhawk and on the A-7 Corsair for self-defense. The Air Force also used the Sidewinder on its F-4C Phantoms and when MiGs began challenging strike groups, the F-105 Thunderchief also carried the Sidewinder for self-defense. Performance of the Sidewinder and the AIM-7 Sparrow was not as satisfactory as hoped and both the Navy and Air Force studied their performance of their aircrews, aircraft, weapons and training as well as supporting infrastructure. The Air Force conducted the classified Red Baron Report while the Navy conduct a study concentrating primarily on performance of air-to-air weapons that was unofficially called and better known as the "Ault Report". The impact of both was modifications to the Sidewinder by both services to improve its ability to perform in the demanding air-to-air arena and increase reliability.

Navy AIM-9D/G/H

The Navy Sidewinder design progression went from the early production B model to the D model that was used extensively in Vietnam. The G and H models followed with new forward canard design improving ACM performance and expanded acquisition modes and improved envelopes. The "Hotel" model followed shortly after the "Golf" and featured solid state design that improved reliability in the carrier environment where shock from catapult launches and arrested landings had a deteriorating effect on the earlier vacuum tube designs. The Ault report had a strong impact in aspects of Sidewinder design, manufacture and handling.

Air Force AIM-9E/J/N/P

Once the Air Force adopted the Sidewinder as part of its arsenal, it developed the AIM-9E, introducing it in 1967. The "Echo" was an improved version of the basic AIM-9B featuring larger forward canards as well as a more aerodynamic IR seeker and an improved rocket motor. The missile, however still had to be fired at the rear quarter of the target, a drawback of all early IR missiles. Significant upgrades were applied to the first true dogfight version, the AIM-9J, which was rushed to the South-East Asia Theatre in July 1972 during the Linebacker campaign, in which many aerial encounters with North Vietnamese MiGs occurred. The Juliet model could be launched at up to 7.5g (74 m/s²) and introduced the first solid state components and improved actuators capable of delivering 90 lbf·ft (120 N·m) torque to the canards, thereby improving dogfight prowess. In 1973, Ford began production of an enhanced AIM-9J-1, which was later redesignated the AIM-9N. The AIM-9J was widely exported. The J/N evolved into the P series, with five versions being produced (P1 to P5) including improvements as new fuzes, reduced smoke rocket motors and all aspect capability on the latest P4 and P5. BGT in Germany has developed a conversion kit for upgrading AIM-9J/N/P guidance and control assemblies to the AIM-9L standard, and this is being marketed as AIM-9JULI. The core of this upgrade is the fitting of the DSQ-29 seeker unit of the AIM-9L replacing the original J/N/P seeker giving improved capabilties.

All-aspect Sidewinders


The next major advance in IR Sidewinder development was the AIM-9L ("Lima") model, introduced in 1978. This was the first "all-aspect" Sidewinder with the ability to attack from all directions, including head-on, which had a dramatic effect on close in combat tactics. In its first combat use by Israel over Lebanon and by the United Kingdom during the Falklands War, the "Lima" reportedly achieved a kill ratio of around 80%, a dramatic improvement over the 10-15% levels of earlier versions. In both initial combat uses of AIM-9L, the opponents had not developed any tactics for the evasion of a head-on missile shot of this kind, making them all the more vulnerable. The AIM-9L was also the first Sidewinder that was a joint variant used by both the US Navy and Air Force. The "Lima" was distinguished from earlier Sidewinder variants by its double delta forward canard configuration and natural metal finish of the guidance and control section. The Lima was also built under license in Europe by a team leaded by BGT. BGT also markets an improved version of the basic Lima as the AIM-9L(I) or Improved. This has an improved seeker more resistant to IRCM and is considered an operational equivalent to the initially "US only" AIM-9M.


The subsequent AIM-9M ("Mike") has the all-aspect capability of the L model while providing all-around higher performance. The M model has improved capability against infrared countermeasures, enhanced background discrimination capability, and a reduced-smoke rocket motor. These modifications increase its ability to locate and lock on a target and decrease the missile's chances for detection. Deliveries of the initial AIM-9M-1 began in 1982. The only changes from the AIM-9L to the AIM-9M were related to the Guidance Control Section (GCS). Several models were introduced in pairs with even numbers designating Navy versions and odd for USAF: AIM-9M-2/3, AIM-9M-4/5, and AIM-9M-6/7 which was rushed to the Persian Gulf area during Desert Shield to address specific threats expected to be present. The AIM-9M-8/9 incorporated replacement of five circuit cards and the related parentboard to update infrared counter counter measures (IRCCM) capability to improve 9M capability against the latest threat IRCM. The first AIM-9M-8/9 modifications were fielded in 1995 involved deskinning the guidance section and substitution of circuit cards at the depot level, which is labor intensive and expensive as well as removing missiles from inventory while it is accomplished. The AIM-9X concept is to use reprogrammable software to permit upgraded software changes in the container.

Developing the next generation


The Navy began development of AIM-9R, a Sidewinder seeker upgrade in 1987 that featured a Focal Plane Array (FPA) seeker using video-camera type charge-coupled device (CCD) detectors and featuring increased off-boresight capability. The technology at the time was restricted to visual (daylight) use only and the USAF did not agree on the requirement being interested in another technology path. AIM-9R reached flight test stage before it was cancelled and subsequently both services agreed on Joint development of the AIM-9X variant.


China Lake developed an improved compressed carriage control configuration titled BOA. Data from the testing was leveraged for subsequent AIM-9X development. The BOA design reduced size of control surfaces eliminating the rollerons and returned to simple forward canard design. Although the Navy and Air Force had jointly developed and procured AIM-9L/M, BOA was a Navy only effort supported by internal China Lake Independent Research & Development (IR&D) funding. Meanwhile, the Air Force was pursuing a parallel effort to develop a compressed carriage version of Sidewinder for the F-22 called Boxoffice. The Joint Chiefs of Staff directed that the services collaborate on AIM-9X, which effectively put an end to the disparate efforts. The results of BOA and Boxoffice were provided to the industry teams competing for AIM-9X and elements of both can be found in the AIM-9X design.

AIM-9X: The next generation Sidewinder

After looking at advanced Short Range Missile (SRM) missile designs during the AIM portion of the ACEVAL/AIMVAL Joint Test and Evaluation at Nellis AFB in the 1974-78 timeframe, the Air Force and Navy agreed on the need for the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile AMRAAM. But agreement over development of an Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile ASRAAM was problematic and disagreement between the Air Force and Navy over design concepts (Air Force had developed AIM-82 and Navy had flight-tested Agile and flown it in AIMVAL). Congress eventually insisted the services work on a Joint effort and AIM-9M became the result thereby compromising without exploring the improved off boresight and kinematic capability potential offered by Agile. In 1985, the Soviet Union did field a SRM (AA-11 Archer/R-73) that was very similar to Agile. At that point, the Soviet Union took the lead in SRM technology and correspondingly fielded improved IRCM to defeat or reduce the effectiveness of the latest Sidewinders. As relations improved in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, the West became aware of how potent both the AA-11 and IRCM were and SRM requirements were readdressed.

For a brief period in the late '80s, an ASRAAM effort led by a European consortium was in play under a MOA with the United States in which AMRAAM development would be led by the US and ASRAAM by the Europeans. The UK working with the aft end of the ASRAAM and Germany developing the seeker (Germany had first hand experience improving the Sidewinder seeker of the AIM-9J/AIM-9F). By 1990, technical and funding issues had stymied ASRAAM and the problem appeared stalled so in light of the threat of AA-11 and improved IRCM, the US embarked on determining requirements for AIM-9X as a counter to both the AA-11 and improving the IRCCM features. The first draft of the requirement was ready by 1991 and the primary competitors were Raytheon and Hughes. Later, the UK resolved to revive the ASRAAM development and selected Hughes to provide the seeker technology in the form of a high off-boresight capable Focal Plane Array. However, the UK did not choose to improve the turning kinematic capability of ASRAAM to compete with AA-11. As part of the AIM-9X program the US conducted a Foreign Cooperative Test (FCT) of the ASRAAM seeker to evaluate its potential and an advanced version featuring improved kinematics was proposed as part of the AIM-9X competition. In the end, the Hughes evolved Sidewinder design featuring virtually the same seeker as used by ASRAAM was selected as the winner.

The AIM-9X Sidewinder, developed by Raytheon engineers, entered service in November 2003 with the USAF (lead platform is the F-15C; USN lead platform is the F/A-18C and is a substantial upgrade to the Sidewinder family featuring an imaging infrared focal plane array (FPA) seeker with claimed 90° off-boresight capability, compatibility with helmet-mounted displays such as the new U.S. Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, and a totally new three-dimensional thrust-vectoring control (TVC) system providing increased turn capability over traditional control surfaces. It retains the same rocket motor, fuse and warhead of the "Mike," but its lower drag gives it improved range and speed. AIM-9X also includes an internal cooling system eliminating the need for use of nitrogen bottles (U.S. Navy and Marines) in the launch rail or argon internal bottle (USAF). It also features an electronic safe and arm device (ESAD) similar to the AMRAAM allowing reduction in minimum range and reprogrammable InfraRed Counter Counter Measures (IRCCM) capability that coupled with the FPA provide improved look down into clutter and performance against the latest IRCM. Though not part of the original requirement, AIM-9X has demonstrated a Lock on After Launch (LOAL) capability, allowing for possible internal use for the F-35, and even in a submarine launched configuration for use against ASW platforms.

Design architecture

The AIM-9 is made up of a number of different components manufactured by different companies, including Aerojet and Raytheon. The missile is divided into four main sections: guidance, target detector, warhead, and rocket motor.

The Guidance and Control Unit (GCU) contains most of the electronics and mechanics that enable the missile to function. At the very front is the IR seeker head utilizing the rotating reticle, mirror, and five CdS cells or “pan and scan” Focal Plane Array (FPA) (AIM-9X), electric motor, and armature, all protruding into a glass dome. Directly behind this are the electronics that gather data, interpret signals, and generate the control signals that steer the missile. An umbilical on the side of the GCU attaches to the launcher, which detaches from the missile at launch. To cool the seeker head, a 5,000 psi (35 MPa) argon bottle (TMU-72/B or A/B) is carried internally in USAF AIM-9L/M variants while USN uses a rail mounted nitrogen bottle. AIM-9X contains a Sterling cryoengine to cool the seeker elements. Two electric servos power the canards to steer the missile (except AIM-9X). At the back of the GCU is a gas grain generator or thermal battery (AIM-9X) to provide electrical power. The AIM-9X features High-Off-Boresight capability; together with JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System), this missile is capable of locking on to a target that is in its field of regard said to be up to 90 degrees off boresight. AIM-9X has several unique design features including Built-In-Test (BIT) to aid in maintenance and reliability, an Electronic Safe and Arm Device (ESAD), an additional digital umbilical similar to AMRAAM and Jet Vane Control (JVC).

Next is a target detector with four IR emitters and detectors that detect if the target is moving farther away. When it detects this action taking place, it sends a signal to the Warhead Safe and Arm device to detonate the warhead. Versions older than the AIM-9L featured an influence fuse that relied on the target's magnetic field as input. Current trends in shielded wires and non-magnetic metals in aircraft construction rendered this obsolete.

The AIM-9H model contained a 25-pound (11 kg) expanding rod-blast fragmentary warhead. All other models up to the AIM-9M contained a 22-pound (10 kg) annular blast fragmentary warhead.

Recent models of the AIM-9 are configured with an annular blast fragmentation warhead, the WDU-17B by Argotech Corporation. The case is made of spirally wound spring steel filled with 8 pounds (4 kg) of PBX N-3 explosive. The warhead features a safe/arm device requiring five seconds at 20 g (200 m/s²) acceleration before the fuse is armed.

The Mk36 solid propellant rocket motor provides propulsion for the missile. A reduced smoke propellant makes it difficult for a target to see and avoid the missile. This section also features the launch lugs used to hold the missile to the rail of the missile launcher. The forward of the three lugs has two contact buttons that electrically activate the motor igniter. The fins provide stability from an aerodynamic point of view, but it is the "rollerons" at the end of the wings providing gyroscopic precession that prevents the serpentine motion that gave the Sidewinder its name in the early days. The wings and fins of the AIM-9X are much smaller to accommodate two each per side bay in the F-22 Raptor as originally planned, AIM-9X control surfaces are reversed from earlier Sidewinders with the control section located in the rear, while the wings up front provide stability. The AIM-9X also features vectored thrust or Jet Vane Control (JVC) to increase maneuverability and accuracy, with four vanes inside the exhaust that move as the fins move. The last upgrade to the missile motor on the AIM-9X is the addition of a wire harness that allows communication between the guidance section and the control section, as well as a new 1760 bus to connect the guidance section with the launcher’s digital umbilical.

Other Sidewinder developments


A version for the U.S. Army with a launcher of four Sidewinder AIM-9D missiles on a tracked vehicle called MIM-72/M48 Chaparral was also developed. In this configuration an operator sat in a protected capsule that was incorporated into the launcher assembly that rotated as an integrated unit. The Chaparral was introduced into service in 1969 and remained an integral part of the Army's air defense network for several decades.


The Sidewinder was also the basis for the AGM-122A Sidearm anti-radiation missile utilizing an AIM-9C guidance section modified to detect and track a radiating ground-based air defense system radar. The target-detecting device is modified for air-to-surface use, employing forward hemisphere acquisition capability. Sidearm stocks have apparently been expended, and the weapon is no longer in the active inventory.

Anti-tank variant

China Lake experimented with Sidewinder in the air-to-ground mode including use as an anti-tank weapon.

Larger rocket motor

Under the High Altitude Project, engineers at China Lake mated a Sidewinder warhead and seeker to a Sparrow rocket motor to experiment with usefulness of a larger motor.


The Sidewinder is the most widely used missile in the West, with more than 110,000 missiles produced for the U.S. and 27 other nations. It has been built under license by some nations (including Sweden, which builds it under the local designation Rb24). The AIM-9 is one of the oldest, least expensive and most successful air-to-air missiles, with an estimated 270 kills world-wide to date.

It has been said that the design goals for the original Sidewinder were to produce a reliable and effective missile with the "electronic complexity of a table model radio and the mechanical complexity of a washing machine" - goals which were well accomplished in the early missiles. The United States Navy hosted a 50th anniversary celebration of its existence in 2002.

General characteristics (AIM-9L)

  • Length: 2.85 m (9 ft 4 in)
  • Wingspan: 630 mm (24¾ in)
  • Diameter: 127 mm (5 in)
  • Launch weight: 91 kg (190 lb)
  • Speed: Mach 2.5
  • Range: 1–18 km (0.6–11.3 mi)
  • Guidance: infrared homing
  • Warhead: 9.4 kg (20.8 lb) annular blast-fragmentation
  • Contractor: Raytheon Corporation; Ford Aerospace; Loral Corp.
  • Unit cost: US$84,000


  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • Chile — 1976 receive AIM-9B and J in F-5e Tiger II, post 1980-90 Aim-9P
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Egypt
  • Finland
  • Germany — will be replaced by IRIS-T
  • Greece
  • Indonesia, used on F-5, F-16 and Hawk 209
  • Iran
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico - used on F-5
  • Morocco
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Pakistan
  • Philippines
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Spain - AIM-9L, L(I) and JULI. To be replaced by IRIS-T
  • Sweden — called Robot 24 and Robot 74.
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Turkey
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Zimbabwe

Please note that this list is not exhaustive.

See also


  • Babcock, Elizabeth (1999). Sidewinder – Invention and Early Years. The China Lake Museum Foundation. 26 pp. A concise record of the development of the original Sidewinder version and the central people involved in its design.
  • Westrum, Ron (1999). "Sidewinder—Creative missile development at China Lake." Naval Institute Press. ISBN-13: 978-1557509512
  • The Sidewinder Story

External links

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