Hi Jason, i have some questions regarding infrared missiles. Why are they so dangerous? How come they can not be seen in radar and be seen by the pilot to evade them?
Thank you for your questions in regards to Infrared (IR) seeking missiles. As I’m sure you have read about, they are one of the biggest technological threats facing pilots on the battlefield as well as civilian pilots due to the rising terrorist threat. I will answer your questions to the best of my ability beginning with a little bit of information about the background of the IR missile.
In the 1960s much research was underway to develop and produce a “heat-seeker” missile that could be used for air defense purposes. This weapon would be able to be “fire and forget,” not requiring any kind of advanced Integrated Air Defense Network which is typically comprised of large radar sites, antennae farms, large surface to air missile launching sites, etc. As pilots learned they could “fly under” such radar, the enemy needed something to counteract this threat.
In 1972 the Soviet Union introduced what is known as the SA-7. It is what is now known as a “1st generation” MANPAD (man portable air defense). It is a shoulder launched passive IR seeking missile. It is passive meaning that it emits nothing that can be detected (such as a laser or radar signal). It’s basic operation is based on the seeker head. The head is an uncooled seeker that can detect heat signatures in the medium Infra-Red bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. This basically corresponds with the energy emitted from the exhaust of an engine.
Of course, the cat and mouse game of countermeasures ensued, and flares and other hardware was developed to fool these seeker heads. We will fast forward through several generations of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures to where we sit today.
Now we have much more advanced IR missiles, with cooled seeker heads that are much more sensitive to heat signatures, computer chips programmed to assist the missile in identifying a decoy, and improved range and speed. Likewise, we also have much more sophisticated counter measures that allow us to defeat such missiles. Of course, I cannot go into much detail on either the missile systems or the defensive measures so I will go on to answer your questions.
IR missiles are so dangerous because they are fast. They are very portable and able to be carried by one man on foot. They are hard to see from the air. Finally, when they are fired, you have only a second to react as many of the missiles fly faster than the speed of sound. By the time you see the smoke trail it may be too late.
Many of our aircraft are not equipped with radar. Even if they were, seeing a missile coming at you at 1200 mph would not give you much time to react. These missiles are fired from very short range, with the gunner pointing the launcher at the target aircraft. The missile has to have the target in its line-of-sight before being launched. This also gives the pilot an advantage. The enemy gunner only has about 30-40 seconds that he can fire the weapon before the battery/coolant runs out.
The bottom line is, while these weapons systems are indeed dangerous, they are expensive and require a certain amount of training and technical proficiency to operate. Our aircraft are well equipped to fight this threat technologically and our pilots are well equipped tactically. The end result of a poorly trained enemy and expensive weapons systems countered by our systems and pilots is a very low probability that the enemy can utilize such systems effectively against our aircraft.
If you would like to know more information about particular weapons systems, I would encourage you to check out www.fas.org. They have volumes of information on weapon systems from countries all over the world. If you look at the “rest of the world missile systems” you can find the SA-7, SA-14, SA-16, and SA-18. Those are the primary Soviet IR missiles. Of course the United States as well as many other countries around the world have developed their own IR seeking missiles. The information in that website as well as the information I have posted to your reply is unclassified.
I hope I was able to answer your questions effectively. If you have any other questions please feel free to ask.