Putting all speculations to rest, the Pentagon has finally decided to provide Ukraine with the advanced AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), known for its air-to-air combat kills, including those of Soviet-origin planes still in use with the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS).
AMRAAM is a medium-range, all-weather guided air-to-air missile developed by the American defense company Raytheon Technologies. It is a beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile capable of all-weather day-and-night operations.
Instead of semi-active receive-only radar guidance, it uses active transmit-receive radar guidance, making it a precise-strike weapon posing an enhanced risk to enemy aerial assets.
In a regular contract notice published on August 31, the Pentagon noted that “Raytheon Missiles and Defense, Tucson, Arizona, was awarded a US$192,000,000 indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract for the purchase of Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM).
This contract provides for Raytheon to purchase fielded AMRAAM weapons from various sources. Work will be performed in Tucson, Arizona, and is expected to be completed by November 29, 2024.
Further, the notice noted that the contract was a sole-source acquisition and that US$7,688,220 was being obligated at the time of award from the Fiscal 2023 Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds.
The AIM-120 missile is the primary air-to-air weapon of all types of modern fighter jets of the United States Armed Forces. However, it is also used as an anti-aircraft missile for the Norwegian-American NASAMS air defense system, which is already operational in Ukraine.
The recent development comes almost two months after media reports indicated that the next batch of AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles will be produced by the missiles and defense division of RTX, formerly known as Raytheon Technologies, under a nearly US$1.2 billion contract from the US Air Force (USAF).
At the time, it was noted that the most significant firm-fixed-price agreement ever made for AMRAAM weapons would include the purchase of missiles for sale to several international partners and allies, including Ukraine. According to the contract, the production of missile weapons is expected to be completed by January 31, 2027.
The development comes when NATO countries like The Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway have announced that they would be transferring at least 60 F-16 fighters from their arsenal to Ukraine. The announcement was made earlier this month after securing approval from Washington.
In March this year, when speculations were rife that the missile could be handed over to Ukraine, EurAsian Times detailed how it might be integrated into the Soviet-era jets of the Ukrainian Air Force, which you can read about here.
However, with the F-16s now making their way into Kyiv, the transfer of AIM-120 seems to be a more straightforward and rational precedent.
The Ukrainian Air Force operates archaic Soviet-era fighter jets, often downed by Russian warplanes conducting stand-off attacks from their airspace using long-range air-to-air missiles. Even though neither side has established air superiority, Kyiv needs modern air capability to take on the advanced and numerically superior Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS).
It is believed that cutting-edge missiles, like the AIM-120 and the AIM-9M Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles that the United States recently pledged to Ukraine, could help turn the tide in its favor even if it fails to win air superiority over Russia.
The AIM-120’s delivery to Ukraine could be significant given its impeccable combat record. Currently, the missile is used by the United States and at least 25 ally countries. Most importantly, the missile has at least 16 air-to-air kills in its name, most of which were against Soviet-origin fighters still extensively used by the VKS.
AIM-120: Killer Of Soviet Jets
AIM-120s would prove to be valuable weapons for fighting Russian helicopters and planes. Russian aircraft that enter its engagement zone would be seriously threatened. Air operations near the front lines would be significantly hampered by an active radar missile like the AIM-120, which is a long enough range.
Additionally, the AMRAAM has proven to have a solid potential for engaging drones and cruise missiles flying at low altitudes. The Royal Saudi Air Force has frequently used them against drones and targets that resemble cruise missiles launched in Yemen by Houthi rebels whom Iran supports.
On December 27, 1992, a USAF General Dynamics F-16D Fighting Falcon used the AMRAAM for the first time to shoot down an Iraqi MiG-25 that had violated the southern no-fly zone. Almost a month later, a USAF F-16C downed an Iraqi MiG-23 in January 1993, giving the AMRAAM its second combat kill.
The Iraqi Air Force, for the most part, was dominated by Soviet-era fighter jets, with the MiG-23 being its primary ground-attack aircraft and the MiG-25 being a potent interceptor and reconnaissance aircraft. The AIM-120 shot down the two central warplanes that formed the Iraqi Air Force, both of Soviet origin. None of these jets, however, is operated by the VKS.
However, several years later, the missiles saw their most prominent action in the Operation Allied Force bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999. NATO forces reportedly shot down six Serbian MiG-29 aircraft using AIM-120 missiles fired from four USAF F-15Cs, one USAF F-16C, and one Dutch F-16A MLU.
The MiG-29s shot down during this NATO campaign were also of the Soviet-origin. Incidentally, these aircraft remain in service with Russia and Ukraine and have been extensively deployed by either side in the ongoing war. The MiG-29s, thus, could be facing off with F-16s equipped with AIM-120s yet again.
Another Soviet-origin jet hunted down by the AMRAAM was the Syrian Su-22, this time by a US Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet. The AIM-120 took the Syrian fighter down, allegedly after an AIM-9X failed to hunt down the target.
Turkish F-16s have also scored multiple kills using the AIM-120 AMRAAM against hostile Soviet fighter jets operated by its regional enemies. For instance, in 2014, a Turkish Air Force F-16 from 182 Squadron used an AIM-120C-7 to shoot down a Syrian Arab Air Force MiG-23BN.
Later, in 2015, Turkish Air Force F-16 downed a Russian Su-24M strike aircraft with an AIM-120 missile after it allegedly violated Turkish airspace. Another Su-24 belonging to the Syrian Air Force was similarly downed in 2020 using the AIM-120.
The Su-24 Fencer aircraft is still operational with the VKS and is widely used along the frontlines in the ongoing war.
In one significant instance, the AIM-120 missile was used by Pakistan against an Indian Air Force MiG-21 aircraft during Operation Swift Retort, which followed India’s Balakot Strikes. At the time, Indian officials exhibited pieces of what they claimed to be an AIM-120C-5 missile as evidence that it was used in the engagement.
While Pakistani officials claimed they could also hunt down an Indian Su-30MKI Flanker-H in the operation, the MiG-21 was the only verified casualty.
The AMRAAM missile is a flexible and effective weapon that may be used in various situations, including air-to-air and surface-launch engagements.
Raytheon claims no other missile can compete with the AMRAAM missile in the air-to-air role. The weapon’s advanced active guiding component significantly increases the aircrew’s combat versatility and lethality. It can easily detect targets in even the most combat-difficult circumstances because of its sophisticated seeker design.
The delivery of this cutting-edge missile, whenever possible, is expected to bolster the Ukrainian Air Force’s combat capability against the much more advanced and numerically solid Russian Aerospace Forces.