A US Air Force F-22 Raptor popped a Chinese “spy balloon” on February 4 using an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, marking the first kill for the mighty Raptor. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the Sidewinder had destroyed a Chinese target.
The Sidewinder is the world’s first heat-seeking missile and is the most widely used missile in the West, with at least 27 nations operating the missile, other than the United States.
It is undoubtedly one of the most significant innovations in guided missile technology in the last 60 years, revolutionizing air warfare.
It all began in 1946 at the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS), Inyokern, California, which has now become the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, where the US Navy physicist William B McLean came up with a novel idea during his work with the lead-sulfide proximity fuzes that were sensitive to infrared radiation.
Maclean reasoned that if a proximity fuze could read infrared signatures to initiate detonation, they should also be able to track infrared signatures, based on which he envisioned a missile that would adjust its course mid-flight to keep the target’s heat signature reflected onto a sensitive photocell.
Thus, making the missile seek heat.
Maclean began working on his concept independently with a small team of volunteers and laboratory funding, designating the effort as ‘Local Fuze Project 602.’
His concept entailed a gyroscopically spinning magnet that would reflect the emissions from a heat source onto a sensitive photocell. When the source moves away from the gyro’s axis, the photocell generates a signal in a coil surrounding the magnet, prompting it to turn its axis toward the mobile heat source.
By 1950, Maclean came up with a name for his missile, ‘the Sidewinder,’ inspired by a snake that can detect its prey by sensing its body heat. Interestingly, the missile’s movement in the air also resembled that of a serpent.
Maclean’s developmental work did not receive official funding until 1951 when it was mature enough to show to Admiral ‘Deak’ Parsons, the Deputy Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance (BUORD). It subsequently received designation as a program in 1952.
Just one year later, in 1953, McLean’s Sidewinder missile successfully shot down its first target drone in a training environment, demonstrating the effectiveness of his concept.
The AIM-9 Sidewinder finally entered service in 1956. The nine-foot-long missile, with a glass nose containing its internal guidance system, had no means of pilot control after it was launched.
For the American pilots at the time, this new technology seemed like ‘out of this world!’ A US Navy pilot described the missile’s seeker as a “man-made eyeball” as he recalled how it was following the heat of the cigarette in his hand.
“I was a cigarette smoker in those days and had one in my hand. As I crossed the room, I noticed that the eyeball was tracking me,” said late American naval aviator, test pilot, and NASA astronaut.
Shooting Down Chinese Fighter Jets
The Sidewinder missile was used in combat for the first time during the second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958.
Taiwan signed a mutual defense treaty with the US in 1954. So, when the conflict erupted, Taipei requested Washington’s assistance, after which then-US President Dwight D Eisenhower ordered the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet to the region.
Additionally, the US Air Force (USAF) was also involved with fighters like the supersonic F-100D Super Sabre, F-101C Voodoos, and F-104A Starfighters, as well as B-57B Canberra tactical bombers.
Apart from that, in a highly secret effort called ‘Operation Black Magic,’ the US Navy modified some of the F-86 Sabre fighters of the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) – also unofficially called the Taiwanese Air Force – to carry the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile.
Two factors prompted the decision to provide Taiwan with the new and highly secretive Sidewinder missile: First was the massive numerical superiority of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the technical deficiencies of the Taiwanese Sabres against the Chinese MiG-15.
The MiG-15’s service ceiling of nearly 51,000 feet exceeded that of the US-made fighters by almost 2,000 feet which provided the Chinese with a massive advantage in terms of height in an era when dogfights usually entailed cannon fire.
This single advantage could turn the tide in China’s favor.
However, the Sidewinder negated this advantage, as the Taiwanese pilots could fire the missile from below the Chinese fighter jets, and the missiles would follow the heat signature of the targets.
A total of 40 Sidewinder missiles were sent to Taiwan, and 20 Sabres were modified to carry them via specialized launch rails.
On September 24, 1958, the PLAAF dispatched a total of 126 MiG-15s and the more advanced MiG-17s across the Taiwan Strait, whereas Taiwan could scramble only 48 F-86 Sabres for interception.
A sizeable number of Taiwanese jets were armed with AIM-9 missiles, enough to compensate for China’s numerical superiority and advantage of height.
The Chinese MiGs positioned themselves above Taiwan’s Sabre as expected. However, the Taiwanese pilots launched their Sidewinder missiles, scoring six confirmed kills with them and nine overall.
This forced the Chinese fighter pilots to break from the fight and retreat to their airstrips, and thus, the Taiwanese side emerged victorious without a single loss of jet.
Taiwan’s Victory Came At A High Cost For The US
One of the Sidewinder missiles fired by Taiwanese pilots hit a Chinese MiG-17 but failed to detonate and instead lodged itself in the airframe of the MiG, allowing the pilot to bring both plane and missile back to base.
The Chinese engineers then removed this Sidewinder, disassembled it, and shipped it off to the Soviet Union to see if it could reverse engineer the missile.
The Soviet engineers managed to copy the missile’s infrared tracking, in-flight steering, and stability mechanisms and created their self-guided missile called the Vympel K-13.
“The Sidewinder missile was to us a university offering a course in missile construction technology which has upgraded our engineering education and updated our approach to the production of future missiles,” Soviet engineer Gennadiy Sokolovskiy would later recount.
The K-13 entered service in 1960, only two years after the Chinese had captured the undetonated Sidewinder missile. Subsequently, the Soviets produced the R-3 version of the missile, which they began shipping to the Warsaw Pact nations.
The missile designs were also provided to the Chinese in return for their help in acquiring it. Only four years after the US acquired this revolutionary missile technology, it became the most prevalent air-to-air weapon in the arsenal of its adversaries.