Missiles fail, especially air-to-air ones

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

The four Hornet and Super Hornet pilots who flew the mission where one of them shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter gave a talk at the Tailhook Association’s annual symposium:

The group of four strike fighters entered the close air support stack (CAS stack) overhead the JTAC and waited for any requests for strikes when a Russian Su-27 showed up and began loitering high overhead.

Mob, who was having issues with his targeting pod, was assigned to keep tabs on the circling Russian fighter while the other pilots continued with their CAS mission. He turned the Super Hornet’s master mode to air-to-air and began tracking the Su-27 and searching the skies around the area for other aircraft.

Then another radar track appeared — a fast moving aircraft coming from the south directly towards him. Although Mob figured it was probably a Syrian aircraft, he moved to intercept the target and eventually made a visual identification on what turned out to be a Syrian Air Force Su-22 Fitter swing-wing attack jet — the same type of aircraft used to deliver the gas attack that led to the Tomahawk missile strike a few months earlier.

Mob made it clear during the presentation that if the Syrian jet just turned away that would have been great as they had plenty to do in support of ground forces, but that didn’t end up being the case.

After identifying the Su-22, Mob got on the radio with an airborne command and control post, an E-3 Sentry, and had them broadcast warnings repeatedly over guard frequency to the Syrian jet. Those radio calls did not result in a change of course by the Syrian pilot. Then Mob “thumped” the Su-22 three times — flying close over the jet’s canopy and popping flares out in front of it before breaking off — to warn him away. That didn’t work either.

By then the Su-22 was in striking distance of friendly forces and it began to dive, releasing its weapons in the process, before making a climb out after the attack. Based on the rules of engagement that were briefed to the naval aviators, Mob locked the Su-22 up from behind with an AIM-9X Sidewinder and fired.

The missile zipped off the Hornet’s wing rail trailing smoke but quickly disappeared. It wasn’t clear why the missile failed to track the Su-22 or where it had gone. Mob quickly selected an AIM-120 AMRAAM and fired once again. He noted how long it took for the missile to fire off the Super Hornet’s “cheek” station located along the outer edges of its air intakes.

Regardless, the missile tracked the Fitter flying just a short distance away and exploded on its backside, pitching it violently to the right and downward. The pilot was clearly seen ejecting from the doomed swing-wing attack jet.

The ejection seat passed very close down the right sight of Mob’s canopy. He noted how live-fire training helped him during the engagement because he knew what to expect and quickly rolled away from the explosion instead of flying through it.

The Syrian pilot’s chute blossomed, it was white, green, and orange in color and his emergency transmitter beacon began going off over the radio.


What’s also worth discussing is the conjecture surrounding the AIM-9X’s failure in this engagement. By the panel’s account it sounded as if the AIM-9X just went stupid/malfunctioned on its own. There was no talk of the Su-22 launching flares, and even if it had, the fact that many military pundits are definitively claiming that the unique infrared signature of Russian-built low-end decoy flares threw the AIM-9X off course is just silly. Missiles fail, especially air-to-air ones. They are complex devices that get battered around under high gravitational forces and slammed down onto carrier decks and runways throughout their lifetime. And yes, it’s possible that under certain parameters weaknesses could exist when it comes to the AIM-9X’s ability to track certain targets that use certain decoys under certain conditions. Then again maybe they don’t. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that is what happened in this instance or that the AIM-9X is somehow a lousy missile because of it.

I recently listened to the audio version of Alas, Babylon, the 1959 post-apocalyptic novel, in which a nuclear war gets kicked off by a US pilot’s AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missile that goes off course and hits an ammunition depot in Syria.


  1. Adar says:

    This was a quite common event in Nam. Robin Olds in his book talks about it quite extensively. They always blamed the pilot, but NO!

  2. Adar says:

    That was the Aim-4 Falcon that barely worked in Nam. That missile was at the time too the main weapon of American interceptor air defense warplanes.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I recently listened to — and enjoyed — the audio version of Robin Olds’ memoir, Fighter Pilot. I was going to hunt down the passage where he discusses air-to-air missiles, but Coolbert did it for me, on his Military Analysis site:

    By the beginning of June, we all hated the new AIM-4 Falcon missiles. I loathed the damned useless things. I wanted my Sidewinders back. In two missions I had fired seven or eight of the bloody things and not one guided. They were worse than I had anticipated. Sometimes they refused to launch; sometimes they just cruised off into the blue without guiding. In the thick of an engagement with my head twisting and turning, trying to keep track of friend and foe, I’d forget which of the four I had (already) selected and couldn’t tell which of the remaining was perking and which head was already expiring on its launch rail. Twice upon returning to base I had the tech rep go over the switchology and firing sequences. We never discovered I was doing anything wrong.

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