Falklands 1982: Royal Navy Sea Harriers take out Argentine Mirages with heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles in “Fox Two”
by Don Hollway

The heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder went from lab-table exercise
to pre-eminent air-combat weapon of the jet age


as appeared in the March 2013 issue of AVIATION HISTORY magazine.

“Designed for air-to-air combat?”
Pre-Sidewinder, even propaganda films required stationary ground targets.


he Cold War flared hot on August 23, 1958, when Communist China bombarded Matsu and Quemoy, islands of the Nationalist Republic of China (Taiwan). As Red Chinese and American warships faced off in the Formosa Strait, Nationalist F-86F Sabres flew against MiG fighters, including the new MiG-17 “Fresco.” Cruising above and beyond the reach of the Sabres’ machine guns—weapons that remained basically unchanged since the dawn of fighter aircraft—Fresco pilots enjoyed not only superior numbers but superior technology.

Or did they? In late September the Sabres took on new, American-supplied weaponry—needle-like, 9-foot-long rockets that were barb-tipped and finned, with delicate glass noses instead of steel warheads. The new rocket had no wires, no radio, no way for the pilot to guide it after launch. Yet it was equipped with movable fins. It could change course. For the Taiwanese pilots the conclusion was inescapable, if unbelievable: The Americans had created a missile that could seek out and destroy the enemy on its own.

Prototype Sidewinder EX-O airframe at China Lake.
Note square canards forward and rollerons on rear fins.

From the Allies’ unguided Le Prieur of World War I to World War II’s wire-guided German Ruhrstahl X-4, air-to-air rockets had never proven particularly effective. After WWII, air combat was supposed to be all about intercepting nuclear-armed strategic bombers at long range. The experts fancied missiles with radar guidance, though this required launch planes to track and “paint” targets with microwaves throughout attack runs.

Meanwhile, at the U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Station at China Lake in California’s Mojave Desert, a few dozen gadgeteers under physicist William B. McLean were toying with lead-sulfide proximity fuzes that were sensitive to the infrared radiation generated by heat. China Lake’s directive was R&D, not weapon design, and critics derisively referred to his lab as “McLean’s Hobby Shop.” But that didn’t stop his little team from completely revolutionizing air warfare.

“It is easy to build something complicated;
it’s hard to build it so that it’s simple.”
Father of the Sidewinder:
Dr. William B. McLean

Reasoning that a fuze capable of exploding a warhead near a hot target could also be made to home in on it, McLean sought to put a guidance system entirely onboard a standard 5-inch air-to-ground rocket. With in-house volunteers, miscellaneous funds and spare time—but without official approval—he undertook to develop an intelligent fuze for a heat-seeking air-to-air missile.

It took five years. “I personally spent nearly three years [just] considering possibilities,” McLean later wrote. “It is easy to build something complicated; it’s hard to build it so that it’s simple.”

The final design was indeed simple: a parabolic mirror spinning gyroscopically at 4,200 rpm inside the rocket’s transparent nose. The distance of an infrared blip’s reflection from the axis of spin indicated its angle-off; current from the centrally mounted lead-sulfide detector kept the “eye” on target via electromagnets around its rim and controlled the missile’s canard guide fins.

Future astronaut Wally Schirra, then a hotshot Korea veteran with a MiG-15 kill to his credit, remembered his first visit to the lab. The China Lake eggheads had a “dome-shaped device, made of glass….a man-made eyeball,” he recalled. “I was a cigarette smoker in those days, and I had one in my hand. As I crossed the room, I noticed that the eyeball was tracking me.”

First Sidewinder Ace?
USN Capt. Wally Schirra (2nd from right) takes delivery of an F2H Demon from McDonnell design chief David S. Lewis, Jr. Lewis went on to become President of McDonnell and CEO of General Dynamics. Schirra became one of the Mercury 7 astronauts.

As a Sidewinder project test pilot, Schirra once had one of his own Sidewinders circle back at him. The ex-fighter pilot quickly turned into the “attack” and out-circled it.

Close-up of an AIM-9B’s “eye.” Schirra always remembered his first visit to the lab where China Lake eggheads had a “dome-shaped device, made of glass....a man made eyeball. I was a cigarette smoker in those days, and I had one in my hand. As I crossed the room, I noticed that the eyeball was tracking me.”

Since missile roll would interfere with the gyro’s spin, on the fly McLean’s team invented “rollerons”—tailfin-mounted, airstream-driven gyro wheels whose spin counteracted the missile’s. The crowning touch, however, was wiring the seeker to aim not where the target was, but where it would be. In dogfights the missile itself would take on enemy aircraft on their own terms: seek them out, run them down and outmaneuver them to make the kill. This can’t be overstated. More than 60 years ago, back when automobiles were lumbering hunks of Detroit steel, the proto-computer Eniac needed a room full of vacuum tubes merely to calculate ballistic trajectories and the only robots were costumed actors in sci-fi films, what Bill McLean’s China Lake team did—with just 14 tubes and fewer than 24 moving parts, in a package less than 10 feet long, 5 inches across and weighing 160 pounds—was invent fire-and-forget: an autonomous combat robot. They named it Sidewinder, after the Mojave horned rattlesnake, which stalks its prey by their heat signatures in darkness, and crosses the desert sands with a sinuous, winding motion not unlike the missiles’ corkscrewing trajectory.

U.S. Navy Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight (BuNo 123744) fires a Sidewinder 1-C missile at the Naval Weapons Center (NWC) China Lake, California (USA), on 27 June 1961. The escorting plane is a McDonnell F3H-2N Demon (BuNo 133550).

Schirra and other test pilots amused themselves by locking onto not only flying target drones, but also locomotives, tractor-trailers and Greyhound buses near China Lake. Their main complaint, since Sidewinder firing parameters varied with altitude, airspeed and G-load, was having to check a cockpit voltmeter to confirm lock-on: “We’ve got to get something besides the damn gauge. You can’t have a pilot, a fighter pilot in combat, looking [down] at funny little gauges to see if he can fire or not.”

It turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle. Anyone who’s flown a combat flight sim knows the 840 Hz Sidewinder “growl,” indicating missile readiness and target lock. (Newer versions chirp.) This robot doesn’t just think; it talks.

Just five years later, under the code name “Operation Black Magic,” Americans in F-100 Super Sabres were simulating Red Chinese Frescos, teaching Nationalist pilots “pitch-up” Sidewinder launches against high-altitude targets. The MiG pilots were about to get a nasty surprise.

First guided-AAM kills: Formosa Strait, 1958

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17
Maximum speed: 711 mph
Service ceiling: 54,450 ft
Wing loading: 48 lb/ft
Armament: one 37 mm and two 23 mm cannon

North American F-86 Sabre
Maximum speed: 687 mph
Service ceiling: 49,600 ft
Wing loading: 49.4 lb/ft
Armament: six 0.50 in M2 Browning machine guns, up to two AIM-9 Sidewinders

Taiwanese F-86F-25-NH at Chia AB, November 1958, may be fresh from combat. Note empty underwing Sidewinder launch rail and smudges around the gun ports.

The final tally depends on which side does the counting, but on a single day, September 24, 1958, the Nationalists’ Sidewinder-equipped Sabres shot down at least 10 Frescos. Two weeks later the People’s Republic sued for peace. Command of the air, and thus the battlefield, had been handed back to the West, courtesy of the Sidewinder. Yet one MiG reportedly returned to base with an unexploded missile still embedded in its wing root. Thus despite the project’s top-secret nature, on its first outing the Sidewinder had been outed.

The Soviets, weapons suppliers to half the world, later admitted that the Sidewinder’s near-biological intelligence was a complete revelation to them. They set about reverse-engineering a copy—the K15, NATO code name AA-2 “Atoll”—and devising tactics to defeat heat-seekers.

The Sidewinder, now designated Air Intercept Missile (AIM) 9, proved decisive once again when Pakistan and India went to war for the second time over Kashmir in 1965. The air battle was unique: primarily American versus British and French warplanes. The Pakistanis were outnumbered 5-to-1, but they had Sidewinders.

First missile kill by a Mach 2 aircraft: 0525 hours, 6 December 1965, Wazirabad, India

PAF Flt. Lt. Aftab Alam Khan destroys an Indian Mystere IV and damages another.
Painting by Gp. Capt. S.M.A. Hussaini. Enlarge

The “Missile With a Man In It” carried missiles too: Lockheed F-104 in Pakistani colors
Maximum speed: 1,328 mph
Service ceiling: 50,000 ft ft
Wing loading: 105 lb/ft
Armament: One 20 mm cannon, up to four AIM-9 Sidewinders

On September 6, 1965, Flt. Lt. Aftab Alam Khan of No. 9 Squadron, Pakistan Air Force (PAF), caught four Indian Dassault MD.452 Mystère IV fighter-bombers strafing a passenger train. His Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was a high-level interceptor, not a down-low dogfighter. He blew through the Mystère formation on full burner, at better than Mach 1. The Indians scattered low over the deck, seeking to mask their heat signatures. But before they could make good their escape, Khan used his speed to come back around into a Sidewinder envelope. “I aimed the missile at the nearest aircraft, and heard the loud pitched missile tone,” he recalled. “The sight indicated that I was in range. With all other requisite firing conditions met, I squeezed the trigger, and kept it pressed. I waited, only to note that the missile had not fired. As I looked towards the left missile, I saw a big flash, and the missile leaving the aircraft. The missile had taken, as stipulated in the manual, approx. 8/10ths of a second to fire after the trigger had been pressed but in combat, this seemed like an eternity.”

Ground-control radar confirmed Khan’s missile kill, history’s first by a Mach 2 aircraft. According to Pakistani records, of 36 PAF victories in that war, eight fell to Sidewinders.

At the time, the United States was involved in its own Asian conflict. On June 12, 1966, U.S. Navy Commander Harold “Hal” Marr of VF-211 was flying top cover for Douglas A-4 Skyhawks off the carrier Hancock, bombing northwest of Haiphong, when North Vietnamese MiG-17s attacked. His Vought F-8E Crusader, famously the Navy’s “Last Gunfighter,” was in those early years of the war its prime Sidewinder platform. After a four-minute turning battle ranging from 550 to 350 mph and right down to 50 feet off the deck, Marr arrived on a Fresco’s tail, triggered a missile and called out “Fox Two!” (Fox Two is the radio call when a heat-seeker is fired; Fox One is for a semi-active radar-guided missile, Fox Three for active radar-guided.) The AIM-9B promptly guided all the way down, hitting the ground.

From gunfighter to missile platform

Mouthful of fire: Vought F-8 Crusader unleashes an AIM-9 from its cheek mount
Maximum speed: 1,225 mph
Service ceiling: 58,000 ft ft
Wing loading: 77.3 lb/ft
Armament: Four 20 mm cannon, up to four AIM-9 Sidewinders

No wonder they phased out the radar-homing AIM-9C with the Crusader. Imagine going through all these steps in the combat arena!
USN training film, 9 min. Enlarge

His squadron mates headed home, out of ammo and fuel, but Marr stuck around and launched another Sidewinder—his last. This time, he recalled, “The missile clipped the tail off [the MiG] and it went right into the ground.”

Clearly, the AIM-9 was not infallible in the field. Its range was relatively short—from two miles in high, thin, cold air to less than half a mile in low, warm, dense air. Its infrared vision in wet weather was dodgy at best, and critics claimed its tail-chase launch parameters required the target’s full cooperation. Combat pilots learned to evade the heat-seekers by leading them into clouds or toward the sun, reflective ice or water, or even warm earth. Military aircraft became laden with diversionary flare launchers. A U.S. Air Force study found that from 1965 to ’68, its pilots launched 175 Sidewinders to score just 28 kills, a mere 16 percent success rate. But the AIM-9 was only beginning an extraordinarily long career, characterized by near-constant improvements.

AIM-9 Evolution


80,900 produced by Philco & GE, c15,000 European copies, 10,000+ updated by Ford Aerospace


9C semi-active radar-homing by Motorola (1,000+).
9D with improved IR/speed/maneuver, 950+ by Ford Aerospace for US Navy, basis for MIM-72 Chaparral


9B rebuilt with new, wide-angle seeker, cooled by Peltier effect. About 5,000 for USAF by Ford


9G: improved 9D with off-boresight lock-on (20,000 by Raytheon for USN).
9H with solid-state electronics (3,000 by Ford for USAF)


9J: rebuilt B/E, partly solid-state (14,000 for USAF by Ford)
9N: (formerly J1) further improved (circa 7,000)
9P: improved B/E/J, some new production, new motor/fuze, better reliability. 13,000 for USAF by Ford


9L: Argon-cooled indium-antinomide seeker
with fixed reticle/tilted mirror system for all-aspect attack.
9M: improved electronic counter-countermeasures, low-smoke motor


Proposed 4th-gen upgrade modification of 9M, replacing gyro with charged-coupled device (CCD). Never reached operational status; superceded by 9X


9X: imaging infrared focal plane array (FPA) seeker with claimed 90° off-boresight capability, compatible with helmet-mounted displays
9X Block II: Lock-on After Launch with datalink to other than launch aircraft for 360° engagements

The radar-homing 9C, designed for the Crusader, was phased out along with that airplane. (The remaining 9Cs were adapted as AGM-122A Sidearm anti-radar missiles.) The 9D, featuring a nitrogen-cooled seeker for enhanced heat sensitivity, employed a more powerful rocket motor to triple its range. The 9E introduced Peltier-effect thermoelectric cooling, while the 9H and 9J were the first to feature solid-state electronics. For a while the Air Force and Navy Sidewinders diverged on separate production lines, but all came together on the late-’70s AIM-9L. With an argon-cooled indium-antimonide seeker, the “Nine Lima” was the first model claimed to lock onto the merely warm parts of a target aircraft—like its nose, from dead ahead.

Much was made of this “all-aspect” capability, though in aerial combat a head-on shot usually presents itself only once per fight—if you’re allowed to take it. In the 1981 Gulf of Sidra incident, two Navy F-14s of the VF-41 “Black Aces” intercepted a pair of Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 “Fitters,” but U.S. rules of engagement required the 9L-equipped Tomcats to hold fire until fired upon. When one of the Fitters missed with an Atoll from nearly head-on, the Tomcats Sidewindered them both from behind as they fled.

1982 was the year of the AIM-9. When the British Royal Navy mustered a mere 20 Sea Harrier “jump jets” to reclaim the Falkland Islands, interim occupant Argentina anted up some 100 combat aircraft, many armed with the AIM-9B and foreign copies, including the French R.550 Magic and Israeli Shafrir. The U.S. hastily shipped 100 AIM-9Ls to the Brits, perhaps hoping to achieve the perfect 1-to-1 kill ratio with that head-on capability.

Falklands/Malvinas 1982

Dassault Mirage IIIEA with Matra 550 Magic
Maximum speed: 1,460 mph
Service ceiling: 55,775 ft
Armament: one 30mm cannon and two Matra R550 Magics.
(The Mirage did not carry AIM-9B Sidewinders until after the war.)
Aircraft pictured was flown by 1st. Lt. Carlos Perona of Grupo 8 de Caza when shot down on May 1, 1982.
Special thanks to reader Juan Contreras for the info!

BAe Sea Harrier FRS 1 with AIM-9L
Maximum speed: 746 mph
Service ceiling: 51,000 ft
Armament: two 37mm cannon, two AIM-9L Sidewinders

In the first day’s battle Flight Cmdr. Nigel “Sharkey” Ward, commanding No. 801 Squadron, turned into attacking IAI Dagger (ex-Israeli Nesher) fighters from Grupo 6 de Caza (6th Fighter Group) and spotted contrails descending toward him. “I tried to lock one of my [Sidewinders] onto them,” he said, “but the ‘contrails’ turned out to be smoke trails from the missiles they had fired at us!” The Argentine rockets fell into the ocean, but the Daggers escaped.

If the 9L still had trouble acquiring targets head-on, against jet pipes it was a magic bullet. On May 24, No. 800 Squadron leader Lt. Cmdr. Andy Auld and wingman Lt. Dave Smith were vectored onto the tails of four Argentine Mirages attacking just above the sea. From first launch to last kill, the dogfight lasted less than five seconds. As Auld put it: “We were down at two hundred, at five hundred fifty knots. I fired two missiles in very quick succession against two targets. The missiles guided, and....I was trying for a gun kill on the third, when my wingman fired over my shoulder and his missile scored.”

With its double-delta canards pulling 35 Gs in a turn and its laser-triggered proximity fuze setting off a 22-pound annular-blast fragmentation warhead, over the Falklands the 9L achieved an 82 percent kill rate. Argentine A-4 Skyhawk pilot Lieutenant Benito Rotolo reported: “All we could do was try to escape at low level at full throttle....The Sidewinder L is a very, very effective missile and our older models could not hope to equal them.”

Lebanon 1982: The Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 “Flogger”
Maximum speed: 1,553 mph
Service ceiling: 60,695 ft
Armament: one 23mm cannon, variety of missiles including R-60 (NATO codename “Aphid-A”) and R-23 (“AA-7 Apex”), shown

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
Maximum speed: 1,500 mph
Service ceiling: 50,000+ ft
Armament: one 20mm cannon, variety of stores including 2000lb Mk 84 bombs and AIM-9 Sidewinders (shown)

“The lopsided results of the battle stem from a number of factors. The most visible in any air engagement are the quality and capabilities of the weapon systems employed, especially aircraft and air-to-air armament. The IAF had a definite qualitative advantage in both. The primary Syrian fighter during the Lebanon War was the relatively obsolescent MiG-21, with considerable numbers of export model MiG-23s and Su-20s also deployed. The Israelis, on the other hand, were flying new-generation McDonnell Douglas F-15s and General Dynamics F-16s....

“...The AIM-9L, which accounted for the majority of the kills, was particularly effective with its “all-aspect capability.” Simply put, the missile could be launched at an opposing aircraft from any angle, including head-on, thus eliminating the need to maneuver behind the enemy to shoot. The AIM-9L had been used earlier during the Falklands campaign.... The Syrians had no comparable ordnance, relying instead on the 1960s vintage AA-2 ‘Atoll.’”


Just a few weeks later, over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Israeli F-15s and F-16s used Limas to score 51 of their 55 victories over Syrian MiGs. The 9L proved so deadly, in fact, that the U.S. allowed only its most trusted allies to purchase it. For the rest of the market there was the dumbed-down 9P, of which more than 20,000 were sold. For American fighters there was the AIM-9M, a low-smoke 9L with even better target recognition and anti-countermeasures. Standard equipment during the First Gulf War, the “Mike” version actually scored little, but its reputation was enough to thwart the enemy: Usually the American pilots only got a brief glimpse of Saddam Hussein’s planes at extreme radar range, as they fled over the border to Iran.

Ground-launched, the AIM-9 became the MIM-72 Chaparral. Downsized, it inspired the shoulder-launched FIM-92 Stinger, which ran Soviet Hind helicopters out of Afghanistan.

Over the decades the Sidewinder and its heat-seeking kin have been so effective that, just as the threat of predators forces prey to adapt in the animal kingdom, they’ve influenced aircraft evolution. Witness the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter and B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, whose exhaust slots leave wide, thin—and cool—jet wakes.

Defense against heat-seekers

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk showing slotted outlet to diffuse jet exhaust

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet pops a flare to distract pursuing missile

Some 60 years after it was first introduced, the AIM-9 looks to be one of those weapons, like the AK-47 and B-52, that are more easily improved than replaced. The British AIM-132 ASRAAM couldn’t do it; America’s own AIM-95 “Agile” couldn’t do it either. To date, more than 200,000 Sidewinders have been built for 28 countries, making it the most widely used missile in the West—not to mention one of the oldest, cheapest and most successful, with nearly 300 kills worldwide and counting.

One problem:
Everybody has Sidewinders

Venezuelan F-16
with AIM-9

Iranian Air Force F-14
with Sidewinder, AIM-7 Sparrow
and AIM-54 Phoenix

21st Century Sidewinder: the AIM-9X

Of special note from this publicity artwork is that the forward canard fins are now fixed;
all steering input comes from the wings and 3D vectoring nozzle at the rear. See videos below for effect.

The current fifth-generation AIM-9X is to the old 9B what humans are to homo erectus. Paired with a pilot’s helmet-mounted display, it can “look” 90 degrees off-boresight for its target and, with three-dimensional vectored-thrust steering, turn 180 degrees in pursuit. One test pilot at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev., freshly returned from getting every visual-range first-shot “kill” on Top Gun instructors in F-18s and F-14s, enthused, “If you have [a weapons-sight] helmet and AIM-9X, you are King Kong of the air.”

“Cloud shooting:” Newest versions permit the missile to receive targeting instructions after launch, from other than the launching aircraft.

Inert training round showing the 3D-vectoring nozzle which permits the 9X to turn 180° in pursuit

9X in action

US Air Force video
promoting 9X features

US Air Force footage of 9X trials.
Keep in mind this was over 10 years ago.
How much slower was your computer back then?
How much better is the Sidewinder now? Enlarge

Against lesser-armed opponents, Navy and Air Force test pilots have achieved 9X kill ratios of better than 50-to-1. In December 2007 at White Sands Missile Range, a modified 9X fired from an F-16 caught and downed a boosting Orion sounding rocket. The latest versions have “lock-on after launch” capability, lending themselves to “cloud shooting,” 360-degree target selection via data link from aircraft other than the launching fighter.

No wonder the Sidewinder lives on. Versions are expected to remain standard equipment well toward the next century. Their capabilities by then can scarcely be imagined. If they ever learn to refuel, run.

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fires a 9X from its interior weapons bay

Next: Airborne Terminators? Read more.

The Sidewinder’s effectiveness against strategic bombers
was tragically proven in 1961. Read more.

© 2012 Donald A. Hollway


Chant, Christopher. The Presidio Concise Guide to Military Aircraft of the World. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1981. ISBN 0891411348

Davies, Peter E. US Air Force F 4 Phantom II MiG Killers. 1965 68. Oxford: Osprey, 2004. ISBN 1841766569

Ethell, Jeffrey L., and Alfred Price. Air War South Atlantic. New York: Jove, 1986. 0515091502.

Fricker, John. Battle for Pakistan: the Air War of 1965. London: I. Allan, 1979. ISBN 0711009295

Gunston, Bill. An Illustrated Guide to Modern Airborne Missiles. New York: Prentice Hall, 1986. ISBN 0668058226

Nordeen, Lon O. Air Warfare in the Missile Age. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1985. ISBN 0874746809

Ward, Sharkey. Sea Harrier over the Falklands: a Maverick at War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1992. ISBN 1557507562

Westrum, Ron. Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1999. ISBN 1557509514

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