MARCH 1991. The war with Iraq was over, but the cease-fire was still in place, and Captain Tom Dietz and his wingman, Lieutenant Bob Hehemann, were patrolling the skies 50 miles north of Baghdad in their Air Force F-15 Eagles. During the fighting, they’d used Sidewinders to down four Iraqi jets making a run for the Iranian border. But according to the rules of engagement in force since the cease-fire, the Iraqis were allowed to fly helicopters. So when Dietz locked up a pair of targets on his radar scope, he assumed that’s what they were—until he realized that they seemed to be flying at 345 mph. “Let’s go investigate this,” he radioed Hehemann.
They pushed their throttles forward to military power. At a range of about five miles, Dietz started to make out the details of one bogey: Canopy. Sloped tail. Swept wings. Suddenly, his radio crackled: “VID Fitter.” Hehemann was visually identifying the Iraqi aircraft as a Sukhoi Su-22 fighter-bomber (“Fitter” is the Su-22’s NATO name). They would later learn that it was returning from a mission to bomb Kurdish civilians. Dietz, closing quickly, immediately activated the master switch, which cooled the seeker head of his Sidewinder by flooding it with argon gas. A second or two later, he uncaged the missile, got a good tone, and fired.
“I didn’t want to fly out in front of the Fitter,” Dietz recalls. “So I pulled up as soon as I saw the missile come off the rail. When I rolled back over and looked down, all I saw was a fireball. The AIM-9 went right up this guy’s tailpipe, and his airplane blew up just like the movies. There was not a discernible piece left, just a bunch of metal in a huge fireball.”
Since Desert Storm ended, the world has changed radically, and nobody knows what the combat environment will look like if and when airplanes trade ordnance again. In the future, some military thinkers suggest, aerial engagements may feature more unmanned vehicles than conventional fighters, and the diminishment of the human factor could change the calculus of weapon design. At the same time, history has taught us that each advance in military technology expands the weapon-engagement zone, from ancient swords with a range of only a few feet to beyond-visual-range missiles that can destroy targets seen only on radar screens.
Under the circumstances, says Dik Daso, a former Air Force F-15 pilot who is now the National Air and Space Museum’s curator for modern military aircraft, the role of the Sidewinder is bound to shrink. “These days,” he explains, “the object is to deploy your radar missiles so that when you get to the merge [the point at which two fighters pass each other], hopefully you see nothing but fireballs. But in air-to-air combat, nothing ever goes perfectly, and I think the AIM-9 is the best fallback for self-defense that you can have.” Says Captain Jeffrey Penfield, a former F/A-18 pilot who, until recently, ran the Navy’s Air-to-Air Missile Program Office: “When you get in a mano-a-mano, visual-versus-visual engagement, the AIM-9 is the weapon of choice.”
Military procurement officials apparently agree. Since 2001, more than 4,000 AIM-9Xs have been built, and the missiles have been sold to 10 countries, bringing the total production to more than 200,000 Sidewinders flown by 51 nations during the past half-century. An upgraded Block II version is poised to start coming off the assembly line in Tucson (in the cavernous plant that Howard Hughes erected to build the Sidewinder’s original rival, the Falcon). Current plans call for production to continue into the 2020s. It should come as no surprise that there’s talk of certifying the AIM-9X for the next-gen F-22 and F-35 fighters. In fact, unless some new technology (lasers? directed-energy projectiles? space-time-continuum shredders?) renders heat-seeking missiles obsolete, AIM-9s will likely still be in military inventories a century after the first successful launch at China Lake.
This time around, nobody’s betting against the Sidewinder.
Frequent contributor Preston Lerner wrote “Black Day at White Sands,” a look back at the McDonnell Douglas DC-X, for the August 2010 issue.