Combat debut: Taiwan Strait, 1958
The first combat use of the Sidewinder was on September 24, 1958, with the air force of the Republic of China (Taiwan), during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. During that period of time, ROCAF North American F-86 Sabres were routinely engaged in air battles with the People's Republic of China over the Taiwan Strait. The PRC MiG-17s had higher altitude ceiling performance and in similar fashion to Korean War encounters between the F-86 and earlier MiG-15, the PRC formations cruised above the ROC Sabres, immune to their .50 cal weaponry and only choosing battle when conditions favored them. In a highly secret effort, the United States provided a few dozen Sidewinders to ROC forces and an Aviation Ordnance Team from the U. S. Marine Corps to modify their Sabres to carry the Sidewinder. In the first encounter on 24 September 1958, the Sidewinders were used to ambush the MiG-17s as they flew past the Sabres thinking they were invulnerable to attack. The MiGs broke formation and descended to the altitude of the Sabres in swirling dogfights. This action marked the first successful use of air-to-air missiles in combat, the downed MiGs being their first casualties.
During the Taiwan Strait battles of 1958, a Taiwanese AIM-9B hit a Chinese MiG-17 without exploding; the missile lodged in the airframe of the MiG and allowed the pilot to bring both plane and missile back to base. Soviet engineers later admitted that the captured Sidewinder served as a "university course" in missile design and substantially improved Soviet air-to-air capabilities. They were able to reverse-engineer a copy of the Sidewinder, which was manufactured as the Vympel K-13/R-3S missile, NATO reporting name AA-2 Atoll. There may have been a second source for the copied design: according to Ron Westrum in his book Sidewinder, the Soviets obtained the plans for Sidewinder from a Swedish Air Force Colonel, Stig Wennerström. (According to Westrum, Soviet engineers copied the AIM-9 so closely that even the part numbers were duplicated, although this has not been confirmed from Soviet sources.)
The Vympel K-13 entered service with Soviet air forces in 1961.
In 1972, when the Finnish Air Force started using Sidewinder (AIM-9P) in their Saab 35 Draken fighters, they were already using Soviet-made Atoll in their MiG-21s; Finns found the two so similar that they tested Sidewinders in MiGs and Atolls in Drakens.
Development during early 1960s
The Sidewinder subsequently evolved through a series of upgraded versions with newer, more sensitive seekers with various types of cooling and various propulsion, fuse, and warhead improvements. Although each of those versions had various seeker, cooling, and fusing differences, all but one shared infrared homing. The exception was the U.S. Navy AAM-N-7 Sidewinder IB (later AIM-9C), a Sidewinder with a semi-active radar homing seeker head developed for the F-8 Crusader. Only about 1,000 of these weapons were produced, many of which were later rebuilt as the AGM-122 Sidearm anti-radiation missile.
USAF adoption from 1964
The original USAF nomenclature for the Sidewinder was the GAR-8, although it too later adopted the name AIM-9. Although originally developed for the USN and a competitor to the USAF AIM-4 Falcon, the Sidewinder was subsequently introduced into USAF service. The US DoD directed that the F-4 Phantom be adopted by the USAF. The Air Force originally borrowed F-4B model Phantoms, which were equipped with AIM-9B Sidewinders as the short-range armament.
The first production USAF Phantoms were the F-4C model, which carried the AIM-9B Sidewinder, from December 1964. During the 1960s the USN and USAF pursued their own separate versions of the Sidewinder, but cost considerations later forced the development of common variants beginning with the AIM-9L.
Vietnam War service 1965–1973
When air combat started over North Vietnam in 1965, Sidewinder was the standard short range missile carried by the US Navy on its F-4 Phantom and F-8 Crusader fighters and could be carried on the A-4 Skyhawk and on the A-7 Corsair for self-defense. The US Air Force also used the Sidewinder on its F-4C Phantoms and when MiGs began challenging strike groups, the F-105 Thunderchief also carried the Sidewinder for self-defense. The USAF opted to carry only AIM-4 Falcon on their F-4D model Phantoms introduced to Vietnam service in 1967, but disappointment with combat use of the Falcon led to a crash effort to reconfigure the F-4D so that it could carry Sidewinders.
Performance of the 454 Sidewinders launched during the war, and the AIM-7 Sparrow was not as satisfactory as hoped. Both the USN and USAF studied the performance of their aircrews, aircraft, weapons, training, and supporting infrastructure. The USAF conducted the classified Red Baron Report while the Navy conducted a study concentrating primarily on performance of air-to-air weapons that was informally known as the "Ault Report". The impact of both studies resulted in modifications to the Sidewinder by both services to improve its performance and reliability in the demanding air-to-air arena.
US Navy develops AIM-9D/G/H
The Navy Sidewinder design progression went from the early production B model to the D model that was used extensively in Vietnam. The G and H models followed with new forward canard design improving ACM performance and expanded acquisition modes and improved envelopes. The "Hotel" model followed shortly after the "Golf" and featured a solid state design that improved reliability in the carrier environment where shock from catapult launches and arrested landings had a deteriorating effect on the earlier vacuum tube designs. The Ault report had a strong impact on Sidewinder design, manufacture, and handling.
US Air Force develops AIM-9E/J/N/P
Once the Air Force adopted the Sidewinder as part of its arsenal, it developed the AIM-9E, introducing it in 1967. The "Echo" was an improved version of the basic AIM-9B featuring larger forward canards as well as a more aerodynamic IR seeker and an improved rocket motor. The missile, however still had to be fired at the rear quarter of the target, a drawback of all early IR missiles. Significant upgrades were applied to the first true dogfight version, the AIM-9J, which was rushed to the South-East Asia Theatre in July 1972 during the Linebacker campaign, in which many aerial encounters with North Vietnamese MiGs occurred. The Juliet model could be launched at up to 7.5g (74 m/s²) and introduced the first solid state components and improved actuators capable of delivering 90 lb·ft (120 N·m) torque to the canards, thereby improving dogfight prowess. In 1973, Ford began production of an enhanced AIM-9J-1, which was later redesignated the AIM-9N. The AIM-9J was widely exported. The J/N evolved into the P series, with five versions being produced (P1 to P5) including such improvements as new fuzes, reduced-smoke rocket motors, and all-aspect capability on the latest P4 and P5. BGT in Germany has developed a conversion kit for upgrading AIM-9J/N/P guidance and control assemblies to the AIM-9L standard, and this is being marketed as AIM-9JULI. The core of this upgrade is the fitting of the DSQ-29 seeker unit of the AIM-9L, replacing the original J/N/P seeker to give improved capabilities.