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Missiles against Shaheds: How Ukrainian Armed Forces can use AIM-9 and not wait for F-16

Missiles against Shaheds: How Ukrainian Armed Forces can use AIM-9 and not wait for F-16 Ukraine will receive American AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles (Photo: Getty Images)

The United States of America announced another package worth $250 million for Ukraine, including an undisclosed quantity of AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles. These missiles are intended for air defense purposes. More details about these missiles and how the Ukrainian army can use them - in the material by RBC-Ukraine.

Not the first batch

The transfer of American AIM-9 missiles expands Ukraine's potential for air defense. However, this is not the first batch.

Back in May, after one of the "Ramstein" format ally meetings, a similar announcement was made by the Minister of Defense of Canada, Anita Anand.

"Canada is transferring 43 AIM-9 missiles from the arsenal of CAF (Canadian Armed Forces). The Minister noted that this will help Ukraine secure its airspace against Russian attacks," stated the Canadian Ministry's announcement.

When the missiles from the USA will arrive, whether Ukraine received the promised missiles from Canada, and which specific modification was referred to, Forbes observer David Axe believes that the Canadian Air Force was ready to share AIM-9M.

AIM-9 was developed as an air-to-air missile, and when talking about carriers, multi-role F-16 fighters are usually mentioned. But it's not excluded that Ukraine won't wait for Western aircraft and will start using Sidewinder without them.

The thing is, the missile can be used with the NASAMS ground-based air defense system, as well as potentially with Soviet-era aircraft in service with the Air Force. Although it needs to be integrated into the carrier aircraft's fire control system for its full potential realization, there are grounds to believe that Ukraine can achieve this.

What is known about AIM-9 missiles?

AIM-9 is a short-range missile produced by the American company Raytheon. It was adopted in 1956, has several modifications, and is still in serial production.

Development began in 1946, with designers aiming to create a compact (diameter no more than 12.7 cm) infrared-guided missile. Initially, the work was unofficial and not funded by the Pentagon.

Professor William McLean initiated the work. After demonstrations to senior officers of the US Navy, the program gained official status and government funding. In September 1953, the missile successfully hit an unmanned target during trials. In May 1956, it was accepted into service with the US Navy as AAM-N-7 Sidewinder IA. Its current designation, AIM-9, was given in 1963 as part of a new designation system.

During the first five years of Sidewinder's use, it demonstrated good maneuverability due to its modular design and the technical superiority of its infrared guidance head over the developed AIM-4 Falcon missile. The US military campaign in Vietnam only confirmed this advantage.

Technical specifications

The AIM-9M version that Ukraine will receive emerged in the early 1980s. Its modernization was carried out based on the experience of using the previous AIM-9L version during the Falklands War.

The AIM-9L (Lima) version, introduced in 1977, was considered a significant advancement in the missile's development. It was the first universal version capable of attacking in all directions, including head-on, drastically influencing close combat tactics.

Its first combat use dates back to 1981, when a pair of American F-14s shot down two Libyan Su-22s. During the Falklands War, the United Kingdom used the "Lima" against Argentine aviation, achieving an accuracy of up to 80%.

AIM-9M featured even larger control surfaces for better maneuverability, a new infrared homing seeker, and an upgraded engine.

It was widely used during the 1991 Gulf War. Around 12 Iraqi aircraft (Mirage, MiG-21, MiG-23, Su-22, Su-25) and helicopters were shot down. AIM-9M proved to be the most effective missile of its class among those used by the Coalition.

Key specifications:

  • Length: 2.87 meters
  • Launch Weight: 85.5 kg
  • Diameter: 127 mm
  • Wing Span: 0.63 meters
  • Range: 16-29 km
  • Speed: Supersonic at 2.5 Mach
  • Guidance System: Semi-active infrared
  • Warhead: Annular blast fragmentation

How can Ukraine use them?

AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles are compatible with most modern Western combat aircraft, including F-16, F-15, and JAS 39 Gripen, as well as fifth-generation American fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.

Regarding the NASAMS surface-to-air systems, as specified by the Defense Express resource, they can use AIM-9 in the modern AIM-9X Block II version, which can achieve a range of up to 10 km when launched from the ground (up to 20 km according to other sources). The MIM-72 Chaparral system used adapted ground-launched AIM-9 with a range of up to only 5 km. This is considerably less compared to modern man-portable air-defense systems.

Forbes commentator David Axe also believes that AIM-9M would be most effectively used as an air-to-air missile. According to him, Ukrainian aviation is engaged in a fierce struggle against Russian drones, depleting the supplies of R-73 missiles for MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft.

He also highlights that R-73 missiles are effective against slow-moving drones like the Shahed.

"These interceptions use munitions that are far more expensive and are available for Ukraine in more limited quantities than the Shahed-136 is likely to be for Russia," Axe cites a report for the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

He also notes that Ukraine manufactures homing seekers for R-73 but likely doesn't produce the missile bodies. This implies that it might not be able to replace launched missiles promptly.

In his opinion, several hundred AIM-9M missiles could support the interception of Shahed drones for months when R-73 supplies run out. However, if this happens before receiving F-16 fighters, Ukraine should begin integrating AIM-9M onto MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft now.

"It's not impossible to do. The Polish air force for years has been considering arming its MiG-29s with newer AIM-9Xs by kluging American-made LAU-129 launcher rails onto the MiGs' wings and adding a couple of new electronic boxes to their cockpits," he adds.

The United States has approximately 7,000 AIM-9M missiles in its arsenal.

Integration might be simpler than with the Storm Shadow

In the case of the Ukrainian MiG-29, the main challenge lies not in attaching the AIM-9M to the aircraft but in integrating it into its targeting system. This is why our aviation, for example, can only launch British Storm Shadow missiles without guiding them during flight.

As stated by Defense Express, integrating the AIM-9M might be significantly more manageable, as its Soviet counterpart, the K-13 (also known as R-13 or R-3), is already integrated into the MiG-29.

Open sources show that samples of AIM-9 Sidewinder were used in developing the K-13 missile. During the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in early 1958, China discovered remnants of an unexploded missile and handed them over to the USSR. Another sample was the AIM-9B missile, delivered to the Chinese MiG-17 within its fuselage.

Additionally, Swedish Colonel Stig Wennerström assisted in the assimilation. He provided detailed drawings while spying for Moscow simultaneously, resulting in a life sentence later commuted to 20 years.

As a result, the K-13 became nearly an exact copy of the AIM-9, compatible with spare parts. Exceptions included the infrared homing seeker and the rocket fuel. Due to the latter's lower efficiency, the effective range of the K-13 did not exceed 2.5 km.

Defense Express analysts believe that the technological lag of the USSR led its engineers to possibly replicate or create a system of information exchange between the missile and the aircraft that was as similar as possible. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense website, the K-13 missile was integrated into all aircraft of that period and later into the MiG-29.

It's not excluded that the AIM-9M from the USA and Canada could be successfully adapted to Ukrainian fighters through minor modifications. Ultimately, this could explain the transfer of the older version of the missile, AIM-9M, rather than the latest AIM-9X.