So far this February, the United States has shot down four “flying objects.” One of them corresponds to the supposed and controversial Chinese spy balloon and the other three to unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP, by its acronym in English). In operations, as The Pentagon points out, the North American country has alternated between F-22 and F-16 fighters, but has always used Sidewinder missiles in its AIM-9X variant.
It may be curious that, with so many air strike devices, the United States has repeated its choice, over and over again. The answer may lie in the characteristics of this family of missiles dating from the mid-1950s, and which throughout its history has proven to be the most reliable alternative ever developed. Let’s see a little more in detail what has happened to the Sidewinders in recent times.
The missile that changed air combat
During World War II fighter pilots often had to get too close to their target to accurately aim and hit their weapons. As Western Standard points out, a wide variety of dizzying techniques, which required surprising skill on the part of the pilots. But when the Sidewinder came into play, they changed the rules of air warfare, making it much more tactical.
The AIM-9 Sidewinders, the fact sheet explains, are advanced short-range air-to-air missiles. These have heat seeking arrays that allow them to identify and pursue their targets beyond visual range. The system, however, is prepared to anticipate the future position of the enemy, calculating factors such as its speed and direction. The warheads, for their part, detonate when they get close to it.
Official development of these missiles began in 1946, in a gradually advancing project. In 1950, a year before the project was given a major boost with an injection of federal funding, it was named Sidewinder. This was chosen in relation to the rattlesnake ‘Crotalus cerastes’, very common in North America, which identifies its warm-blooded prey thanks to the heat it emanates. In 1955, production finally began.
The official launch of the Sidewinders was not long in coming. In 1956 it was adopted by the United States Navy, which that same year inaugurated its operational use in Grumman F9F-8 Cougars and FJ-3 Furies aircraft. Its introduction into the Air Force, yes, was made to wait for a while. After little more than a decade, in 1964, it was adopted by this branch of the Armed Forces.
The Sidewinder’s debut occurred during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. The Drive tells that the Air Force of the Republic of China (Taiwan) was the one that used the first missiles in the conflict thanks to a military assistance received by the United States, which included F-86F Saber fighter jets with the most modern weaponry. Later, with the passage of time, they have been used in the Vietnam War and in operations such as ‘Desert Storm’.
The evolution of the Sidewinder
Sidewinder missiles have evolved over time. The improvements come in different variants, the most modern and advanced being the AIM-9X. Specifically, according to official information, this version is built by the American contractor Raytheon. It has a length of 3.02 meters, a diameter of 0.13 meters and a wingspan of 17.6 meters. Its launch weight, including the granular fragmentation warhead, is 84.7 kilograms.
It should be noted that this is not an exclusive US airstrike device. More than 40 nations have equipped their armed forces with some of the variants of this type of missile whose unit cost is around 400,000 dollars. The Spanish Air and Space Army has the AIM-9L and AIM-9JULI variants, which according to their characteristics can launch from the EF-18 Hornet or Mirage F1 fighters. Globally, it is estimated that more than 100,000 units of this missile have been built.
But this advanced technology has also crossed borders unofficially. As we said, the Sidewinders debuted in 1958 in a confrontation between the Chinese PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF). Unfortunately for the United States, one of its missiles was lodged in an unexploded PLAAF MiG-17F, allowing Chinese engineers to reverse engineer it, according to the Eurasian Times.
Given the relations between China and the Soviet Union, Soviet engineers had almost immediate access to this technology. Thus they managed to copy the infrared tracking system, the direction of flight and the stability mechanisms to create his own missile called Vympel K-13. This air attack device entered service in 1960, two years after its Asian partners captured the unexploded Sidewinder missile.
Images: United States Navy (1) | United States Air Force (1, 2)
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