90’s AIM-120 missile is not suitable for hitting cruise missiles – US

There’s a fascinating development underway in the US military, a substantial indirect fire protection initiative that aims to shield against a variety of threats. We’re talking about everything from missiles to mortar shells. A key component of this massive project is the Enduring Shield air defense system, a revolutionary technology designed to parry long-range cruise missiles and high-tech drone threats. 

In South Australia, AIM-120s killed target drones flying at 5,000ft
Photo credit: Australian DoD

Now, there’s already some chatter about the kind of munitions it’ll utilize, and one that’s been named is the reliable AIM-9X Sidewinder. The Pentagon is on the hunt for a worthy companion for it. They’ve even put out a request—a critical first step to finding a complementary missile. They’re hoping to finalize a supplier, potentially more than one, by 2025, and to kick the tires with a capability demonstration the following two years. 

But here’s where it gets interesting, the AIM-9X isn’t without friends – the AIM-120 is often paired with it. This twosome forms the standard armament for all American aircraft and serves as the backbone of the NASAMS air defense system. Word on the street has it that Lockheed Martin will throw their hat into the ring, too, possibly with an undisclosed Rafael missile. There are whispers that the robust Tamir from the Iron Dome has a strong chance, of potentially being manufactured stateside under the new moniker SkyHunter. Quite exciting times ahead, wouldn’t you agree?

AIM-120 AMRAAM - Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

AIM-120 is not suitable

It’s still unclear whether RTX [Raytheon] will throw its hat in the ring for the selection of the second rocket. Despite its victory with the AIM-9, keep in mind that this same company manufactures the AIM-120. 

Interestingly, Brigadier General Frank Lozano, who serves as the executive director of the US military’s missile and space program, shared that the AIM-120 might not be the optimal choice for this type of air defense mechanism. He mentioned that when combating cruise missiles, the number of anti-aircraft missiles each launcher can accommodate is a crucial factor to consider. 

Here’s a fun fact – an Enduring Shield launcher can house 18 AIM-9X missiles. But, if you were to load it with AIM-120 launchers instead, it could only comfortably fit six. This fact is nudging the US military to embark on a quest to find a missile that would encompass the capabilities of the AIM-120D while maintaining the compact size of the AIM-9X. 

Now, you might be wondering, why launcher capacity matters that much? Well, when you think about it, it’s quite straightforward. An Enduring Shield equipped with four launchers and AIM-9X-sized missiles has the potential to take down up to 72 targets [give or take a few, as no destruction probability is ever a full 100%]. On the other hand, if you switch to the AIM-120, you’re only looking at a maximum of 24 targets.

The number is key


Regardless of the effectiveness of an air defense system, it can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cruise missiles or long-distance missile aircraft.  

This highlights why the quantity of launch-ready missiles is a crucial component of any air defense system. Its primary purpose is not only for aircraft deterrence but also to effectively counter the aforementioned threats. Lastly, cost plays a significant role. To put it in perspective, each unit of the American AIM-120D comes with a hefty price tag of $1.37 million.

The pair

Can the MQ-9 with AIM-9X missile fight air-to-air with Su-27?
Photo by David Monniaux

The AIM-9 Sidewinder and the AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles are indeed key components of the Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System [NASAMS]. They work in tandem to provide a comprehensive air defense solution. 

In the NASAMS, these two missile types complement each other, providing a layered defense against a variety of aerial threats. The AIM-9 Sidewinder is used for short-range engagements, while the AIM-120 AMRAAM is used for longer-range engagements. This combination enables the NASAMS to effectively cover a wide range of potential threat distances. 

Additionally, the use of both infrared and radar guidance systems enhances the system’s overall effectiveness. While the AIM-9’s infrared homing can be used to track and engage heat-emitting targets, the AIM-120’s radar homing can engage targets that are beyond visual range or not emitting significant heat. This dual-mode guidance capability allows the NASAMS to engage a wider variety of targets under different conditions.

About AIM-120

The AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, also known as AMRAAM, is an up-to-date, multi-purpose air-to-air weapon system. Developed by the United States, it is used by the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and allied nations. The AIM-120 AMRAAM is designed to engage enemy aircraft in beyond-visual-range [BVR] scenarios, thus providing a significant advantage in aerial combat. 

The AIM-120 AMRAAM comes equipped with progressive technologies to guarantee its effectiveness. It includes an active radar with an inertial reference unit and a micro-computer system, which causes the missile to be less reliant on the fire-control system of the aircraft. When the missile nears its target, its active radar guides it for interception, enabling the pilot to engage multiple targets simultaneously. 

Norway installs a digital electro-optical sensor system at NASAMS
Photo credit: Kongsberg

The missile stands at a length of 12 feet, with a diameter of 7 inches, and a wingspan of 20.7 inches. Weighing approximately 335 pounds, it is powered by a solid propellant rocket motor. This allows the AIM-120 AMRAAM to achieve astonishing speeds, up to Mach 4.

How it works?

The operational range of the AIM-120 AMRAAM varies depending on the model. The AIM-120A has a range of 55 nautical miles. The AIM-120B extends this to 75 nautical miles. The AIM-120C increases the range further to 105 nautical miles. The latest version, AIM-120D, boasts an estimated range exceeding 180 nautical miles, thus providing superior operational flexibility. 

The AIM-120 AMRAAM operates by a method known as ‘fire and forget.’ This means that once the missile is fired, it requires no further guidance from the pilot or radar. It uses its onboard radar system to accurately track and engage the target. This hands-off approach allows the pilot to undertake other tasks or engage with other targets. The missile’s warhead is triggered either by a proximity fuse or a contact fuse.


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