As the threat evolves, so must the AIM- 9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile program
By DANIEL P. TAYLOR, Special Correspondent
Adapting to Evolving Threats
9Xs do not need to be pointed in
the general direction of the target.
“The AIM-9X coupled with the
helmet-mounted cueing system
now lets pilots do some really
great work in the dogfighting
arena,” he said. “You now don’t
have to point the whole plane to
shoot the bad guy.”
The first block of the AIM-9X
entered service in 2003, and is in
need of an update, which is why the
program is working on Block II and
Block III versions that take advan-
tage of the latest technologies.
For one thing, obsolete computers in the Sidewinders will be replaced with new ones.
Also, the missile needs a redesigned fuse — one that is
improved so it will not do things like detonate on
clouds, for example.
But one of the biggest enhancements is the ability of
the new versions to pick out targets even with a cluttered background.
“The old AIM-9X, the Block I, it had what we call,
‘lock on after launch,’” Martins said. “You squeeze the
target, it doesn’t see it on the rail, but it will find the target on its own. If you challenged it with a high-clutter
background, such as a cloud, it wouldn’t do very well.
“The AIM-9X with the new computers can do very
well on its own,” he added. “So you can basically tell it
to go out a long distance and look for a target.”
Block II entered operational testing in May and the
program has conducted three live-fire tests, the first
one being against a target that was behind the aircraft
firing the missile, using a Link 16 data link with third-
party targeting from an E- 2 or other aircraft to “shoot
down a bad guy who’s chasing them down,” the cap-
The other two tests were against small cruise missile-type targets at low altitudes. The tests were successful,
With the popular AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, the Navy is looking to
replace obsolete components and improve performance.
■ The first block of AIM-9Xs entered service in 2003 and the
missiles need a new computer and redesigned fuse.
■ One of the biggest enhancements for the Block II and Block III
missiles will be the ability to pick out targets even with a cluttered
■ Block II entered operational testing in May and has had three
successful live-fire tests.
The AIM- 9 Sidewinder has been the heat-seeking, air-to-air missile of choice for the nation’s fighter aircraft for so long, pilots might be forgiven for
taking it for granted. But behind the scenes, work is being
done to make sure it can handle evolving threats.
Because countermeasures systems to combat the
AIM- 9’s abilities are improving, the program is working on the latest iteration of the missile — one that
would allow it to pick out the tiniest of targets even in
a cluttered environment. The program is seeking to
turn the Sidewinder into less of a missile and more of
an unmanned aircraft with a warhead.
Fighter aircraft have been using the AIM-9Ms since the
1980s, but the versions the program is getting ready to
roll out in the next few years are AIM-9Xs — Sidewinders
with better computer systems and ability to track targets,
said Capt. John Martins, the program manager.
“The older AIM-9M tracked raw heat, so that’s hot
metal or exhaust,” he said. “Now, the AIM-9X uses a
focal plane array to create pictures. So it’s really an
imaging seeker that uses IR [infrared] to create that
image. Because it sees everything, it’s harder to decoy
with infrared countermeasures.”
But there is another significant improvement: AIM-