Watch This F-15 Take Out A Target With A Sidewinder Missile At Very Close Range

The U.S. Air Force has released video and photos of an F-15C Eagle fighter jet destroying a towed target at very close range with one of its Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, during a mission flown off the coast of the United Kingdom. It’s relatively rare imagery showing one of the air superiority fighters doing just what it was designed to do — being “the baddest guy in the air,” in the words of three-time MiG-killer and retired Eagle pilot Cesar “Rico” Rodriguez.

The photo sortie took place during a live-fire exercise over the Atlantic Ocean on December 8, 2020. The event was run by the 493rd Fighter Squadron, the “Grim Reapers,” which has its F-15Cs based at RAF Lakenheath, England, as part of the resident 48th Fighter Wing, the “Liberty Wing.”

An F-15C fires a Sidewinder training missile over the Atlantic Ocean, December 8, 2020., U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell

Video of the event shows a view from the cockpit as a Sidewinder missile streaks off one of the underwing pylons of an F-15C Eagle, which then abruptly climbs away. From another aircraft, we then see the heat-seeking missile slam into the target, leaving sparks and debris in its wake nearly as the launching F-15 passes it by.

You can watch a video of the exercise here:

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, “The training helped pilots gain real-world experience by using infrared-guided missiles aimed at flare packs being towed 300 feet behind a subscale drone.” The press release added that “the training enabled Liberty Wing fighter pilots to meet mission requirements, becoming combat-ready in a wartime environment.”

It was not revealed what type of drone was used, but this may well have been launched from Aberporth, on the coast of west Wales, which is a center of unmanned aerial vehicle testing in the United Kingdom.

An airman assigned to the 748th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron removes the safety pins from an NATM-9M missile at RAF Lakenheath., U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell
F-15Cs take off from RAF Lakenheath to participate in the live-fire exercise. , U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell

The missile, meanwhile, was a training version of the AIM-9M Sidewinder. While the “Mike” Sidewinder dates from the later years of the Cold War, it’s still regularly carried by F-15s and other fighters, despite the introduction of the far more capable AIM-9X Sidewinder. Nevertheless, there is some commonality between the two weapons, as the AIM-9X retains the rocket motor, fusing system, and warhead of the AIM-9M.

An F-15C carrying the NATM-9M that was fired at a flare pack being towed 300 feet behind a subscale drone., U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell
A 493rd Fighter Squadron F-15C heads out to the exercise over the Atlantic Ocean. , U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell

The “special air training missile” was specifically the NATM-9M version, a dedicated training round that carries the usual motor and infrared guidance package, but which has an inert warhead and also adds special test and evaluation equipment to check the parameters of the engagement and the missile’s reliability. Exactly how many missiles were launched was not revealed, but at least four F-15s apparently took part in the maneuvers.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell
A Sidewinder peels away as the F-15C climbs to a higher altitude after firing., U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell

These types of live-fire exercises frequently take place prior to a fighter squadron being deployed to an operational theater. Best known are the Combat Archer exercises, also known as the Weapons Systems Evaluation Program (WESEP), which is the Department of Defense’s largest live-fire evaluation exercise involving air-to-air missiles. These events take place at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, and make use of training areas over the Gulf of Mexico.

Aircraft assigned to the Lakenheath-based 494th Fighter Squadron, as well as the 67th FS and the 94th FS, on the flight line at Tyndall AFB, for the Combat Archer 19-8 exercise., U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Monica Roybal

Employing a live missile helps ensure the involved personnel are at the top of their game, by providing the pilot with a level of realism that can’t otherwise be replicated in a simulator, or with fully inert weapons that feature the infrared seeker to acquire a target, but which don’t then fly off the rail as they would in combat. The tests also serve to assess the effectiveness of the missiles involved, as part of ongoing evaluation.

A two-ship of “Grim Reapers” Eagles., U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell

It is not clear whether the 493rd Fighter Squadron’s recent exercise over the Atlantic is in conjunction with an upcoming deployment since these are not generally disclosed in advance by the Department of Defense, but the 493rd, like all of Liberty Wing, has a high deployment tempo. 

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Rachel Maxwell

Whatever the reason behind it, it will surely have provided a valuable opportunity to assess missile lifespan, as well as the performance of maintainers, aircraft armament specialists, and pilots alike.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.