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AIM-7 Sparrow Missile: Air-to-Air Killer or Terrible Missile?

Image: Creative Commons. A Royal Australian Air Force McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet (s/n A21-46) firing an AIM-7M Sparrow missile. The aircraft also carries another AIM-7, two AGM-84 Harpoon missiles and two AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles.
A Royal Australian Air Force McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet (s/n A21-46) firing an AIM-7M Sparrow missile. The aircraft also carries another AIM-7, two AGM-84 Harpoon missiles and two AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles.

AIM-7 Sparrow – An Explainer – When one thinks of predatory birds and their applicability to aerial combat technologies, species like eagles and falcons readily come to mind. One probably doesn’t think of the lowly little sparrow as much of a predator, though as it turns out, sparrows do in fact kill and eat other animals, namely insects such as caterpillars, aphids, bees, and ants.

And since “Aphid” happens to be the NATO reporting name of a Soviet-designed air-to-air missile, that makes a great segue to a discussion of a good old American air-to-air missile named for the bird that eats aphids. Say hello to the AIM-7 Sparrow missile, which on the one hand is one of the most longstanding air-to-air missiles in military history, but on the other hand is much maligned, the proverbial “unloved redheaded stepchild” of the missile world. Is this bad reputation truly deserved? Let’s take a deeper dive.

AIM-7 Sparrow Early History and Specifications 

The AIM-7 (“AIM” is an acronym for “Air Intercept Missile”) Sparrow debuted in 1958, developed by Raytheon. It soon became the West’s principal beyond visual range (BVR) and held that role until the 1990s. Other variants such as the AIM-7F, AIM-7M, and AIM-7P came out in 1976, 1982, and 1990 respectively.

All of the Sparrow variants use semi-active radar homing: in other words, the passive radar on the Sparrow missile tracks the target that is illuminated by either the launch aircraft, another aircraft or a ship based radar. Problem is, when target illumination ceases the missile is unable to find the target. Contrast this with a full-fledged active radar guided missile like the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM; affectionately nicknamed the “Slammer”) or heat-seeking missile like the AIM-9 Sidewinder; both of the latter have true “fire-and-forget” capabilities.

(As a bit of gee-whiz trivia for you movie buffs out there, more specifically fans of the 1996 sci-fi film “Independence Day,” the radio codes “Fox 1,” Fox 2,” and “Fox 3” refers to the launch of the Sparrow, Sidewinder, and Slammer respectively.)

The Sparrows were fitted with a continuous rod warhead in the early models and a blast-fragmentation warhead in the later models. The AIM-7P variant is 11.83 feet long and has a launch weight of about 510 pounds with Mach 4+ speeds and a maximum range of approximately 34.5 miles, packing an 85-pound Mk 71 high-explosive blast fragmentation warhead. It has two sets of delta-shaped fins – a set of fixed fins at the rear of the missile and a set of movable fins at the middle of the missile for steering.

The Sparrow in Vietnam and the Gulf War: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The AIM-7s got their first major baptism of fire during the Vietnam War, more specifically the AIM-7E used by American F-4 Phantom II pilots. According to a article, “Early model Sparrow missiles had a very poor combat record with a less than 10% kill probability during the Vietnam war. From the AIM-7F onward solid-state electronics were used and combat effectiveness improved drastically.”

Though I don’t have a copy of the book immediately accessible, back in 1999 – shortly before I shipped off to USAF Basic Military Training (BMT) – I recall reading in the late great Tom Clancy’s (R.I.P.) 1995 nonfiction book “Fighter Wing : A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing” that the AIM-7 scored the most kills of any air-to-air missile used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War AKA Operation Desert Storm, but still also had the worst hit rate, though I don’t recall what actual percentage was and how that compared to Vietnam. (If any of our readers have this figure handy, please let us know in the Comments section!)

The official U.S. Air Force info page on the Sparrow informs us that during the conflict, “Twenty-two Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft and three Iraqi helicopters were downed by radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles.” Proportionately speaking, that equates to 69.4% of the 36 total Iraqi aircraft shot down in aerial combat during Desert Storm.

An old Air Force buddy of mine, a retired intelligence officer whom I shall refer to only by his callsign of “Scrappy” and who was one of my instructors at Air Battle Manager School at Tyndall AFB, Florida back in the day, says that the Sparrow was “good for its time.”

Believe It Or Not: The Sparrow Is Still Flying

 As maligned as the Sparrow missile has been, it’s still soldiering on.

First and foremost, it lives on as a naval weapon, more specifically as a surface-to-air missile (SAM) known as the RIM-7 Seasparrow. According to the official U.S. Navy info page, “The U.S. Navy employs the RIM-7 Missile aboard three ship classes (CVN, LHA, and LHD) using the MK 57 NATO SEASPARROW Missile System (NSSMS) and MK 29 Guided Missile Launching System (GMLS)… The missile provides reliable ship self-defense capability against a variety of air and surface threats, including high-speed, low-altitude anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). It is widely deployed by U.S., NATO, and other international partner navies.”

As for the air-to-air version of the Sparrow, it is still in use, namely the AIM-7P, which is still employed by USAF F-15s and F-16s as well as their Japan Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) counterparts, though both nations are definitely in the process of phasing them out; the Yanks are doing so via the AMRAAM while the Japanese are doing so with the Mitsubishi AAM-4.

Reportedly the Sparrow is still in service with 19 other nations’ militaries, including Australia and Iraq. All-in-all, not bad for a 65-year old design and “unloved redheaded stepchild!”

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Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    May 6, 2023 at 10:41 am

    15% of the weapons used by Air Forces in Gulf War 1 were smart weapons vs. dumb weapons, Gulf War 2 (12 years later) saw that number rise to 65%.

    “Captains should study tactics, but Generals must study logistics.”

    The corresponding logistical burden (fuel, ammo, per/attack) dropped like a stone as reliable hits on the 1st shot meant targets rarely needed a 2nd. The logistical burden continued to drop throughout the War on Terror as indirect fires introduced Excalibur and GMLRS guided weapons, and TOW and Javelin ATGM’s gave ground forces long range reliable 1st shot kills.

    The years of target practice needed for the accuracy of dumb weapons became superfluous, as a raw recruit was nearly as combat effective as a trained sniper with years of training when both were given a Javelin with its several kilometer range and reliable 90%+ 1st shot kill.

    The need for combined arms coordination between air support, artillery, tanks, and infantry, also declined as any arm could destroy the enemy the moment it was identified. The recent excuse by tank supporters that the heavy armor losses being suffered by the Russians in Ukraine are due to the failure to use combined arms doesn’t pass the test. As nothing can prevent or protect against a smart weapon attack.

    Not only did the logistical burden fall precipitously, but the troop risk did as well, as engagement ranges increased and follow on attacks on an alerted enemy became unnecessary.

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