You can be the best fighter pilot in the world – flying the most capable fighter jet known to man – but unless you have something to throw at the enemy, you might as well be in a parachute.
As technology progresses, so does the lethality of weaponry. In the early days of aerial combat, the fighters had to get within very close range in order to affect a kill. It all began with pilots shaking their fists at each other, which progressed to taking pot shots at each other with pistols, then spraying bullets from airframe mounted machine guns, and eventually to shooting air-to-air missiles. It stands to reason the greater the standoff range at which a weapon can be fired in an engagement, the greater the survivability of the shooter. That’s why air-to-air missiles play such a crucial role in today’s aerial combat.
Here is a brief primer on two broad categories of air-to-air missiles to help those unfamiliar with these technological marvels understand their importance in the fighter pilot’s death-dealing toolkit.
Radar Guided Missiles
Radar theory can get quite complex, but the concept of radar is a relatively easy one to grasp. A radar transmitter emits an electromagnetic pulse, which travels in a straight line at a constant speed (the speed of light). If an object is in the path of the pulse, the electromagnetic energy is reflected off the object and returned to the original emitter where it is received by the radar’s antenna. The radar’s processor uses the azimuth upon which the pulse was emitted and received to determine bearing, and it uses the time it took the pulse to make the round trip to calculate range. Sounds pretty simple right?
Radar guided missiles use variations of this basic concept to track and home to their targets. The aircraft’s radar plays a huge role in tracking effectiveness and the ranges at which a radar guided missile can be launched. Airborne radars on fighter jets are much bigger and capable of producing more power than the miniaturized radars in an active radar missile seeker head. Aircraft radars typically must first find the target, and then pass target location data to the missile so the missile knows where to look for the target and at what range it should begin looking.
Raytheon Inc. is the producer of the America’s Beyond Visual Range (BVR) workhorse, the Aim-120 AMRAAM. AMRAAM stands for Active Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile. It is called “Active” because of the actively emitting radar onboard the missile. This missile is publicly referred to as a “fire and forget” missile, meaning the pilot can shoot the missile at the target, and then turn around and leave without having to support the missile through intercept with the aircraft’s radar. I’m sure you can imagine how this would come in handy – especially when you are outnumbered!
Infra-Red (IR) Guided Missiles
IR guided missiles are often called “heat seekers” (or “heaters” if you’re a fighter pilot) because they passively guide on the infra-red heat signature emitted by an aircraft. The seeker in an IR missile must be able to distinguish the target’s heat signature from that of other heat sources/reflectors in the background (like clouds!) In order to help the seeker discriminate amongst various heat sources, the seeker head must be cooled to about -200 degrees C.
Because of the nuances associated with atmospheric effects on an aircraft’s IR signature and the ranges at which a seeker lock can be obtained, these are typically shorter-range missiles than radar guided missiles.
Raytheon also produces the U.S’s premier IR missile: the Aim-9 Sidewinder. The missile gets its name from the flight path of the missile and the way in which it resembles the movement of a species of rattlesnake found in the southwestern United States.
The Aim-9 is commonly thought of as a “dogfight” missile – the missile you will use when you’re in close enough to see your opponent.
As early as World War II people were talking about dogfighting becoming irrelevant due to developing technology. Vietnam-Era aircraft designers were so sure that the air-to-air missile had made dogfighting a thing of the past that they designed the F-4 Phantom without a gun! Even today, this rhetoric continues. What we must remember is that as missile technology progresses, so do countermeasures. There is no “sure thing” in air-to-air combat, and you can bet that air battles of the future will include a dogfight or two.
As good as today’s air-to-air missiles are, there is simply no substitute for several hundred rounds of 20mm.