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Air-to-Air Missiles: AIM-7 Sparrow

The AIM-7 Sparrow is a supersonic air-to-air missile that uses semi-active radar to strike targets at medium range. The U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy use the Sparrow, as do allied nations. The AIM-7 is a beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile used starting in the late 1950s up to the 1990s, when the AIM-120 AMRAAM was introduced. First developed as a guided rocket weapon for the U.S. Navy, the Sparrow underwent many refinements and upgrades during its decades of service.

USAF F-15 Eagles fire AIM-7 Sparrow missiles at a tactical air-launched decoy, 16 July 2006, during exercise Rim of the Pacific 2006 off the coast of Hawaii
USAF F-15 Eagles fire AIM-7 Sparrow missiles at a tactical air-launched decoy, 16 July 2006, during exercise Rim of the Pacific 2006 off the coast of Hawaii.

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AIM-7 Sparrow Air-to-Air Missile Development

Aviation ordnancemen shoulder an AIM-7 Sparrow missile as they remove it from an F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) while the aircraft carrier operates in the Persian Gulf, 5 March 1999
Aviation ordnancemen shoulder an AIM-7 Sparrow missile as they remove it from an F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) while the aircraft carrier operates in the Persian Gulf, 5 March 1999.

In the late 1940s the U.S. Navy wanted a guided rocket for use in air-to-air combat. Sperry was contracted to develop a missile based on a standard 5-inch HVAR (high-velocity aircraft rocket). Douglas Aircraft provided the airframe for the missile, which was first designated the KAS-1, then the AAM-2, and after 1948, the AAM-N-2. Douglas had to increase the airframe to 8 inches in diameter to create space for the missile's electronics.

Testing began in 1948 with unpowered flight tests, and the first aerial interception was successfully made in 1952. A further four years of development were needed before the AAM-N-2 Sparrow entered service in 1956. But this first Sparrow, now known as the Sparrow I, was a simple, limited missile. It used beam-riding guidance, requiring visual-range attacks, and performed poorly against a maneuvering target.

Douglas worked on improving the Sparrow I, developing an active radar missile first designated the XAAM-N-2a Sparrow II. In 1952 the new missile, capable of operating as a fire-and-forget weapon, was designated the AAM-N-3. The missile's size and poor radar performance led to its being abandoned.

Raytheon started development of a semi-active radar version of the Sparrow in 1951. Called the AAM-N-6 Sparrow III, this missile entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1958. The AAM-N-6a variant used a new Thiokol liquid-fueled rocket engine for better performance. The Air Force adopted the AAM-N-6a for its F-110A Spectre (also known as the F-4 Phantom), redesignating the missile as the AIM-101. A total of 7500 AAM-N-6a Sparrows were built starting in 1959.

In 1963 the Sparrow saw two key developments in its history. First, the AAM-N-6b reverted to the Rocketdyne solid-fuel motor, increasing the missile's maximum range to 22 miles. Second, the Air Force and Navy agreed to standardize designations for missiles. The Sparrow was designated the AIM-7, with the Sparrow I becoming the AIM-7A, and the Sparrow II, the AIM-7B. The AAM-N-6 became the AIM-7C; the AAM-N-6a, the AIM-7D; and the AAM-N-6b, the AIM-7E. The AIM-7E Sparrow was used extensively during the Vietnam War, with approximately 25,000 missiles manufactured.

The AIM-7E2 was introduced in 1969, with changes to the fusing and clipped wings designed for better performance in dogfights. Although performance improved to a kill probability of 13 pct in 1972, the missile still had problems. It often detonated prematurely, and experienced motor failures, fusing problems, and uneven flight. An E-3 version was introduced with further changes to the fusing. The E-4 version had a modified seeker for use with the F-14 Tomcat.

In the 1970s further improvements were made to the Sparrow. A dual-stage rocket motor was added to increase range, solid-state electronics were used to improve reliability, and a larger warhead was adopted. The result was the AIM-7F, which began service in 1976 as the primary medium-range missile for the F-15 Eagle.

The Sparrow underwent more redesign in the early 1980s. An inverse monopulse seeker, active radar fuse, better ECM resistance, and digital controls were added, resulting in the AIM-7M, which entered service in 1982. Additional upgrades to the M series became the AIM-7P, which includes better software and low-level performance.

The AIM-7 Sparrow remains in use on aircraft such as the F/A-18 Hornet, F/A-18 Super Hornet, F-14 Tomcat, and F-15 Eagle, but is being phased out in favor of the AIM-120 AMRAAM.

AIM-7 Sparrow Operational History

USAF Staff Sgts. Gabriel Coronado, right, and Arthur Hamabata, both assigned to the 154th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Hawaii Air National Guard, load an AIM-7 Sparrow missile onto an F-15 Eagle aircraft at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, 16 July 2006, during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006 exercise
USAF Staff Sgts. Gabriel Coronado, right, and Arthur Hamabata, both assigned to the 154th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Hawaii Air National Guard, load an AIM-7 Sparrow missile onto an F-15 Eagle aircraft at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, 16 July 2006, during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006 exercise.

The AAM-N-2 Sparrow I (AIM-7A) began service in 1956 with the F3H-2M Demon and F7U-3M Cutlass fighters. It was quickly superseded by the AIM-7B, which first entered service in 1958 with the U.S. Navy.

The AIM-7E saw considerable use during the Vietnam War. Due to limited fighter pilot training for air-to-air engagements, restrictive rules of engagement, and reliability issues, the Sparrow performed poorly, with a kill probability of less than 10 pct. Because of its limited performance, pilots often engaged in ripple-firing all four of their missiles in order to increase the change of hitting an enemy target.

The Sparrow recorded its first combat kill on 7 June 1965, when Navy F-4B Phantoms shot down two MiG-17s. A total of 55 aircraft were shot down using Sparrows in Vietnam.

The AIM-7M was used extensively during the Gulf War in 1991 by the U.S. Air Force. It was responsible for many air-to-air kills, though its kill probability remained under 40 pct.

Characteristics of the AIM-7 Sparrow (A and B variants)

Power PlantHercules MK-58 solid-propellant rocket motor
Length12 ft.
Diameter8 in.
Wing Span32 in.
Weight510 lbs.
SpeedMach 2.5
Range20 mi.
Warhead86 pounds of high explosive blast fragmentation
Guidance systemSemi-active radar

Note: Characteristics change slightly depending on the AIM-7 variant.

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