The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union ushered in one of the most dramatic arms races in history. As the two nations jockeyed for global supremacy, they posed such a dire threat to each other that deterring open conflict became a matter of survival. That meant building new and ever more capable weapons and constantly matching or offsetting any technological advantage created by the other side.
In few places throughout the conflict was that delicate balance more evident than in the Soviet Union’s efforts to reverse engineer the world’s first self-guided air-to-air weapon, America’s AIM-9 Sidewinder missile.
In 1946, U.S. Navy physicist William B. McLean had a novel idea. He and his team had been toying around with lead-sulfide proximity fuzes that were sensitive to infrared radiation. McLean reasoned that if a proximity fuze could read infrared signatures to initiate detonation, they ought to be able to track an infrared signature as well. In short: The missile would adjust course midflight to keep the target’s heat signature reflected onto a sensitive photocell, making the missile literally seek heat. There was just one problem: Designing new weapons wasn’t McLean’s job.
That didn’t stop him, even though to the researchers and engineers at the U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) in California’s Mojave Desert, McLean’s interest in an infrared seeking rocket was downright wasteful. After all, any time McLean’s team devoted to his pet project was time not spent on their official responsibilities. The office space occupied by McLean and his team as they worked on the novel concept came to be known as “McLean’s Hobby Shop,” an intentionally derisive label for the unofficial effort. McLean paid for the effort through NOTS’s discretionary funding and referred to his invention as an offshoot of his assigned work on infrared fuzes for the Navy.
Undeterred by his peers, McLean and his team developed a first-of-its-kind infrared guidance system for use inside the standard 5-inch air-to-ground rockets of the time. Getting it exactly right was tricky: In order to be effective, it needed to be reliable, which meant minimizing things like the number of required moving parts.
“I personally spent nearly three years [just] considering possibilities,” McLean later recalled. “It is easy to build something complicated; it’s hard to build it so that it’s simple.”
Work continued on the unofficial missile project, and by 1950 McLean had come up with a more fitting name for his creation: the Sidewinder, after a snake that can detect its prey by sensing its body heat. The missile itself also tended to move in the air in a serpentine way.
A year after the Sidewinder got its name, it was mature enough to show Admiral William “Deak” Parsons, who authorized formal funding for the program. Just two years later in 1953, McLean’s Sidewinder missile successfully shot down its first target drone in a training environment, proving the efficacy of the concept. The tinkerers in McLean’s Hobby Shop, operating in their spare time with nearly no funding, had managed to change the shape of air warfare forever.
The AIM-9 Sidewinder entered service in 1956 as the most advanced air weapon of its time, and the world’s first heat-seeking missile. The 9-foot-long missile, adorned with a glass nose housing its internal guidance system, had no means of pilot control after launch. It used a parabolic mirror spinning gyroscopically to orient itself toward an infrared heat signature. Even for American pilots, this new technology seemed practically out of this world.
It looked like a “man-made eyeball,” said U.S. Navy pilot (and future astronaut) Wally Schirra when describing his first time seeing the missile. “I was a cigarette smoker in those days, and I had one in my hand. As I crossed the room, I noticed that the eyeball was tracking me.” It was following the heat of that cigarette.
The missile was a technological wonder, capable of hunting down enemy aircraft using an onboard guidance system when computers still occupied entire rooms. It was also highly secretive. U.S. officials knew that enemy nations would have a harder time combating this new technology if they never knew about it at all.
From the Hobby Shop to a war zone
By 1958, China’s People’s Liberation Army had already been embroiled in conflict with the Republic of China (commonly referred to as Taiwan) for more than 30 years, starting with the Chinese civil war in 1927, and then the first and second Taiwan Strait Crises in 1954 and 1958.
Taiwan, keen to retain its newfound and tenuous independence, had signed a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. in 1954, four years prior to the second Taiwan Strait Crisis. As fighting erupted, Taiwan requested assistance. President Eisenhower promptly ordered the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet to the area. The U.S. Air Force was also involved, deploying fighters like the supersonic F-100D Super Sabre, F-101C Voodoos, and F-104A Starfighters, as well as B-57B Canberra tactical bombers to the region. In a less visible move, they also deployed Operation Black Magic—modified ROC Sabre fighters from the U.S. Navy that carried America’s newest air-to-air weapon, the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. The decision to provide Taiwan with the new and highly secretive AIM-9 was prompted by two factors: China’s superior aircraft numbers, and the technical shortcomings of Taiwan’s American-sourced Sabres themselves. Most important for Taiwan, the Sidewinder wasn’t limited by the Sabre’s service ceiling, and because it was self-guided, Taiwanese pilots could fire it from below the Chinese jets and still hit their targets.
China’s Soviet-sourced Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s were among the most advanced fighters in the world. While America’s Sabres were often seen as a match for the MiG-15, the MiG’s service ceiling of nearly 51,000 feet bested the American fighter’s by almost 2,000 feet. In an era when dogfights still often involved cannon fire, that capability gap gave the Chinese a distinct advantage: the proverbial (and literal) high ground. This single advantage could have turned the tide in China’s favor, had it not been for America’s revolutionary new AIM-9 Sidewinder missile.
Turning the tides
The United States sent 40 Sidewinder missiles to Taiwan, and 20 Sabres were modified to carry them via specialized launch rails. American troops installed the weapons and trained Taiwanese pilots regarding the weapon system’s optimal use. However, despite the incredible technology housed within these missiles, they were yet to be combat tested.
On September 24, 1958, China sent a massive wave of 126 MiG-15s and more advanced MiG-17s across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan was able to scramble just 48 F-86 Sabres to intercept. Despite being outnumbered by a wide margin, a number of Taiwan’s jets had already been fitted with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, and their pilots were itching to try the new super-weapon out.
In an era where dogfighting often entailed extremely close engagements and cannon fire, the Taiwanese Sabres engaged the Chinese MiGs from distances as great as 9,000 feet—a significant jump from the 700 to 800 feet seen as the maximum effective range of cannons during World War II. As the battle unfolded, China relied on its MiG’s superior service ceiling, placing their aircraft above the Sabres as they had before. But this time, the Taiwanese pilots unleashed their Sidewinder missiles, earning six confirmed kills with the missiles, and nine overall.
“We no longer had to get to the perfect place in space and time to allow a bullet to hit another aircraft traveling 500-plus knots, but rather just had to generally get behind the enemy aircraft,” says Major Justin “Hasard” Lee, a U.S. Air Force F-35 pilot instructor.
The Chinese force broke from the fight and retreated to Chinese airstrips. With nine confirmed kills and two more considered probable, Taiwan had not lost a single jet. The first battle ever to use the heat-seeking missile proved the guidance system’s efficacy, and two weeks later, China would sue for peace. But Taiwan’s success came at a high cost.
One Sidewinder missile found its target in a Chinese MiG-17, but after colliding with the aircraft, it failed to detonate and instead lodged in the fighter’s airframe. Once the pilot landed, Chinese engineers removed and disassembled the missile before shipping it off to the Soviet Union to see if it could be reverse engineered. America’s super missile offered Taiwan the advantage in the Strait Crises, but that advantage proved to be short-lived.
A Soviet windfall
The American Sidewinder missile offered the Soviets a crash course in advanced weapon systems. The technology that went into the AIM-9’s gyroscope was more refined and smaller than anything the Soviet Union had on its shelf. “The Sidewinder missile was to us a university offering a course in missile construction technology which has upgraded our engineering education and updated our approach to production of future missiles,” Soviet engineer Gennadiy Sokolovskiy would later recount.
The Soviets copied the missile’s infrared tracking, replicated its in-flight steering and stability mechanisms, and created their own self-guided missile: the Vympel K-13.
The Vympel K-13 entered service for the Soviet Union in 1960, two years after the Chinese captured the undetonated AIM-9. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets produced the R-3 version of their new missile and began shipping the new weapon to different Warsaw Pact nations. They also provided the plans for the missile to the Chinese in exchange for their help in acquiring it. Just four years after the United States first developed this revolutionary missile technology, it was becoming the most prevalent air-to-air weapon in their enemy’s arsenals, with a production run in the tens of thousands.
However, the United States had already begun work on improving the AIM-9 missiles, releasing a number of iterations and quickly regaining the advantage in terms of guided missile capability. Although the Soviet Union had learned a great deal from the undetonated missile they’d received from the Chinese, they still lacked the technical prowess to keep pace with American advancements.
Acquiring one missile had been a lucky break for the communist nation, but if they were going to match America’s missile prowess again, they needed to get their hands on a newer one.
A missile in the mail
On October 22, 1967, a German architect and Soviet spy named Manfred Ramminger managed to sneak into Neuburg Air Base in Germany. Once inside, Ramminger and two accomplices simply loaded a modern, operational AIM-9 missile into a wheelbarrow and wheeled it down the airstrip to his waiting Mercedes-Benz. Sometimes espionage is just that simple.
The nine-foot-long missile wouldn’t fit in the back seat of his sedan, so Ramminger wrapped it in a carpet, smashed out his back window, and left the missile hanging out of the vehicle. In order to avoid suspicion, he tied a red piece of cloth to the end of the carpet that was concealing the missile, in keeping with Germany’s traffic laws.
Once home, Ramminger disassembled the missile, loaded it into a box, and mailed it to Moscow. He then boarded a plane headed for the Soviet Union to meet it there, only to learn that his package hadn’t arrived. Frustrated, the spy returned to Germany and discovered that the airline had sent the box to the wrong destination. He shipped the missile out again, and boarded yet another plane for Moscow.
Using the new missile, Soviet technicians were able to once again reverse engineer the improved technology the Americans had developed, resulting in the R-13M missile just a few years later. The Soviet Union had closed the technological gap with their American opponents, this time for the paltry sum of $79.25 in shipping.
The Soviets would go on to share this weapon with the Warsaw Pact nations as well as others, making it one of the most common weapon systems American aircraft have had to worry about in the decades since. In total, some 28 nations have flown with some variant of the “Soviet Sidewinder.” Today, many of Russia’s most advanced air-to-air weapons still draw direct inspiration from McLean’s invention.
America’s AIM-9 Sidewinder missile that started it all has continued to see upgrades and modifications through the years.
“The Aim-9 is still in use today,” Lee says, “although it’s nearly unrecognizable from the original missile built in the 1950s.”
Today’s highly advanced Block II AIM-9X missiles, entered into service in 2015, can be used over the horizon, allowing pilots to fire the missile without a lock and let it acquire its target along its flight path. It can even be used to attack ground targets like tanks without modification. The Sidewinder remains one of the most widely deployed air-to-air weapons in service today, flying aboard American fighters ranging from the longest-serving F-15s to newest F-35s just rolling off the assembly line.
Not too bad for a project born out of McLean’s Hobby Shop.