From the first combat aircraft of World War I to the early days of the Korean War, the most-used and effective weapons for fighters and fighter-bombers alike were specialized machine guns or cannon, and, by the 1940s, rockets. All were short-range weapons relying primarily on visual target acquisition – the classic aerial “dog fight.”
The arrival of aircraft radar in the 1950s allowed pilots to “see” enemy aircraft beyond visual range, but actual engagement was still within visual range. Aircraft also became faster through the 1950s and ’60s, as jets replaced props, decreasing the utility of guns and rockets. But while missiles capable of locking on to targets the pilots could not see began to replace unguided rockets during the Vietnam era, most aircraft continued to be equipped with guns, typically 20 mm to 30 mm cannon. Indeed, one of the “lessons learned” during the air war was that guns were still needed on board fighters, and the fourth generation of American fighters that followed (F-14, F-15, F-16) all carried an integral rotary cannon.
Vietnam also saw the first extensive use of air-to-surface missiles, employing advanced avionics for greater precision.
As aircraft speed, maneuverability, radars, and other sensors improved through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the advanced computer systems behind those also led to significant improvements in air-launched munitions (ALMs), both air-to-air (AAM) and air-to-surface (ASM) missiles, which comprised both air-to-ground and anti-ship missiles, and precision-guided “smart” bombs.
Given the speed and stand-off attack capabilities of modern fourth- and fifth-generation fighters – the latter currently in service restricted to USAF F-22 Raptors – dog fights are thought to be unlikely for top-tier air forces. Indeed, for the United States, aside from a few isolated incidents, air-to-air engagements have not been a major part of the air war since Vietnam, which has given the air-to-surface mission much greater importance as the United States also looks to AAMs for anti-missile defense.
Today’s global market for state-of-the-art (SOTA) air-launched missiles is dependent not so much on technology as on the capabilities, needs, missions, and budgets of the buying nations and the level of technology transfer allowed by the producing nations.
The “capabilities” component is a significant limitation for missiles made for the most advanced aircraft. As no other nation’s inventory includes B-2 bombers, F-22 fighters or some of the most advanced weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – nor true equivalents to those aircraft – the full capabilities of some missiles they carry may not translate to older-generation platforms. That also applies to the correlation of a given missile to specific platform capabilities – range, speed, altitude, sensors, payload capacity, the ability to penetrate enemy air defenses, etc. – and integration with weapons control systems.
Despite technology transfer limitations, the United States remains the world’s top missile designer and exporter. Europe’s defense industry is second in both SOTA and exports. Russia’s export market share has slipped significantly, in large part due to the deterioration of its industrial and technology base following the collapse of the Soviet Union. China is advancing its technology, which the market has long considered suspect, but has yet to become a major player in the global market for advanced systems. Among all other nations, only Israel produces true advanced technology ALMs, but their export is extremely limited.
Looking first at who is buying – or seeking – what in terms of ALMs across the missions spectrum, it should be noted some customer nations also produce and export AAMs or AGMs. European nations, for example, are focusing scarce funds on targeted programs of their own, but still rely on others – primarily the United States – to fill the gaps elsewhere.
But the size of market demand also has changed. In the closing decade of the Cold War, the United States exported more than 19,000 air-to-air missiles, but the current decade is expected to see only 35 percent of that volume. In part, that can be traced to post-Cold War changes, including reduced fighter aircraft production.
“The decline in export of advanced fighters from the former Soviet Union has also impacted air-to-air missile sales, since few of the former Soviet clients can afford the current generation of fighters, especially when obliged to pay in hard currency,” Teal Group analyst Steven Zaloga reported in his “2012 Air-to-Air Missile Market Overview.” “A decline in the fighter threat lowers the pressure to adopt new generation missiles, especially in Europe. There are some exceptions to this, notably along the Pacific Rim, where air force modernization has remained steady in recent years.
“So far, exports of the new generation of missiles have been underwhelming. This is in part due to their recent arrival, but also to the problems posed by aircraft integration [which] is time-consuming and costly. Many small air forces cannot afford this as part of the purchase price and delay their acquisition until a large number of integration programs have already been carried out and funded by others. Finally, these new missiles are substantially more expensive than the older generation of Sidewinder and its analogs due to the use of more advanced – and costly – imaging-infrared seekers on many of the new types.”
To reduce integration costs, most buying nations look to equip the jets they buy with missiles developed for their primary users, thus reducing integration costs. For example, the F-16, in service with some 25 nations, typically carries such U.S.-built air-to-air missiles as the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile), air-to-ground, AGM-65 Maverick or AGM-88 HARM, and anti-ship AGM-84 Harpoon or AGM-119 Penguin.