Short-range, IR air-to-air missile.


This quite exceptional development programme started at what is now called the US Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, California in the late 1940s. The first prototype flew in 1953 and the first generation of Sidewinder, the AIM-9B, entered service with the US Navy and US Air Force in 1956. Designed by the US Navy staff at China Lake, the Sidewinder family is now in its third-generation, with the latest version AIM-9X now in development. The basic Sidewinder airframe shape and simplicity of design has been carried through the 45 year life of the family, although there has been a continuing product improvement programme, with new versions developed at about five year intervals. A surface-to-air variant called MIM-72 Chaparral, was developed by the US Army. Many marks of Sidewinder have been made under licence in other countries and many `lookalikes’ have been built without licence, such as the Russian AA-2 `Atoll’. The first generation of Sidewinder, AIM-9B, divided into three separate development programmes, all funded by the US Army, US Navy and US Air Force. The US Army developed the MIM-72 Chaparral surface-to-air variant, the US Navy developed AIM-9D and a semi-active radar seeker version AIM-9C and the US Air Force developed AIM-9E.

These second-generation systems entered service in 1965 but were improved again when the US Navy developed Sea Chaparral and AIM-9G/H, while the US Air Force developed AIM-9J and P. Export versions of AIM-9J were designated AIM-9N and AIM-9P. Finally, the US Navy and Air Force came together and moved to a joint development programme for the third generation of Sidewinder missiles in 1970, making the major performance change from earlier tail aspect engagement only, systems in the first- and second-generation Sidewinders, to an all-aspect capability with AIM-9L Sidewinder. In addition, the AIM-9L was designed with stringent reliability requirements, superior to any other air-to-air missile system with a long storage life and several hundred hours of aircraft-carried flight without defect. The Chaparral system was developed further by the US Army to an equivalent standard with MIM-72-C/E/F/G and H versions. Production of AIM-9L started in the US in 1976 and under licence in Europe and Japan in the early 1980s. Further development continued and the AIM-9M version entered production in the US in 1982, with principally an IR countermeasures capability to detect and reject decoy flares, but also with a new reduced smoke motor. AIM-9M flare rejection circuits were upgraded following operational experience in the 1991 Gulf war. AIM-9S is almost the same as AIM-9M, but with a slightly larger warhead. AIM-9R was being developed to improve further on AIM-9M and was expected in service in the early 1990s, fitted with a visual band CCD seeker, but this programme was halted in 1992. Further development of Sidewinder is being pursued by the US, with several programmes funded since 1989 examining various options for what has become known as AIM-9X or Sidewinder 2000. A final selection for AIM-9X was made in December 1996, to be known as Evolved Sidewinder. This will be a tail control missile, but still using the basic Sidewinder airframe, warhead and motor. Details of the AIM-9X programme are given in the Unclassified Projects entry at the front of the Air-to-Air Missiles section. A development programme started in 1982 to modify old AIM-9C semi-active radar guidance and control sections for use on Sidewinder airframes as anti-radiation missiles and these entered service in 1989 as AGM-122A Sidearm. 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. Ford Aerospace, now Lockheed Martin, has developed a dual-mode passive RF/IR seeker for the Sidewinder guidance and control assembly, but it is believed that this is intended for use on the SAM variant MIM-72 Chaparral. Sidewinders have been fitted to a very large number of aircraft throughout the world and these have included the F-4, F-104, F-5, F-8, A-4, A-6, A-7, Mirage III, MiG-21, A-10, JA 37 Viggen, Kfir, F-20, OV-10, Mirage F1, Mitsubishi F-1, Hawk, Sea Harrier, Harrier, Tornado GR. 1, Tornado F3, Nimrod MR2, Jaguar, F-14, Buccaneer, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18. There have been trials from helicopters over several years, including AH-64A Apache in 1987 and AH-1 Cobra in 1988. AIM-9M/S missiles have been launched from the F-22 Lightning (ATF) prototype, using an extending trapeze rail launch system from the internal weapons bay. An unconfirmed report suggests that the F-117 can carry up to four Sidewinder missiles in internal weapons bays, with trapeze frames lowering the missiles on their launch rails into the airstream, prior to firing.


The AIM-9 Sidewinder missile has four swept front control fins and four clipped delta-wings at the tail with the distinctive rollerons at the trailing-edge tips. The AIM-9L and 9M versions are 2.87 m long, have a body diameter of 127 mm and a wing span of 0.64 m. Both missiles weigh 87 kg. The IR seeker has an all-aspect engagement capability and the 9.5 kg blast/fragmentation warhead has an active laser fuze. Several modes can be used depending upon the avionics fit in the carrying aircraft; primarily there is the simple boresight mode, an uncaged scan mode and a mode with the missile seeker slaved to the aircraft radar or to a helmet-mounted sight. The AIM-9M version is known as AIM-9S in USAF service, and is believed to have a 10.15 kg warhead which has also been fitted as a replacement to some AIM-9M missiles. The AIM-9P versions are 3.07 m long, have a body diameter of 127 mm, a wing span of 0.64 m and weigh 82 kg. These missiles, in the 9P-3 and 9P-4 later models, have an all-aspect engagement capability; in addition, 9P-4 has an active laser fuze similar to that first introduced on AIM-9L. AIM-9P-5 has additional IRCCM capability.

AIM-9R was basically the same as AIM-9M but with a visual band CCD seeker and microcomputer tracker. This seeker has improved acquisition range and IRCM circuits, as well as having the cryogenic cooler used in all other Sidewinder versions removed. The one limitation with the visual seeker however, is that it cannot be used at night. An improved seeker with dual mode, thought to be visual and IR, is believed to be in design for later Sidewinder (AIM-9X or Sidewinder 2000) versions as well as reduced size wings and fins to give a smaller radar cross-section and less aerodynamic drag. AIM-9X might well be fitted to early versions of the ATF, and hence internal carriage would be made easier by smaller or folding wings and fin assemblies.

There have been several AIM-9 Sidewinder training systems produced, but in 1993 Martin Marietta marketed a Rangeless Environment for Air Combat Training (REACT) system housed in a Sidewinder airframe modified to contain a GPS receiver, microprocessors, an air-to-air datalink and a command system. This system can be used for air-to-air and air-to-surface operational training. The REACT system can be carried on any AIM-9 launcher.

Operational Status

AIM-9M and -9S Sidewinder are at present in production in the US and development of the AIM-9R started in 1987. Captive carry flights for AIM-9R started in 1988, and plans were that initially 5,000 AIM-9M would be converted to AIM-9R standard by modification kits during the period 1992-94 for the US Navy, but the AIM-9R programme was halted in 1992. Export variants and licence manufacture of AIM-9P are still in production. AIM-9X started engineering and manufacturing development in 1997, with an expected in-service date of 2003. The total number of Sidewinder missiles built exceeds 200,000 and exports have been made to a large number of countries including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, South Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, UK, Venezuela, Vietnam and Yemen. AIM-9 Sidewinder have been widely used in conflicts including the Middle East, Vietnam, the Falkland Islands, and in the 1991 Gulf War, during which they shot down 11 Iraqi aircraft.