Israeli Python Training Missiles Are Cleverly Disguised As U.S. Sidewinders

Israel may be in the top 10 of global weapons exporters, but, due to political sensitives on both sides, it’s not necessarily desired that attention is brought to every country that buys its arms. In most cases, that simply means that the details of weapons recipients are not disclosed. However, it seems there is a more covert approach when it comes to certain Israeli-made air-to-air missiles (AAMs), widely judged to be some of the most capable in the world.

Posting on Twitter today, Mike Yeo, an Australia-based defense and aviation reporter, noted how Singapore, for one, flies Block 52 F-16 fighters with Israeli-made Python 4 training missiles apparently disguised as dated U.S.-made AIM-9P Sidewinder AAMs. The post came on the same day that it was confirmed that Singapore’s F-16 upgrade will provide these jets with the latest Python 5 AAM, which is visually very similar to the actual Python 4, which looks very different compared to an AIM-9P.

Yeo added that, although there have been rumors for almost 20 years that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) arms its advanced F-16s with Python 4, “they have never been seen,” beyond the AIM-9P-lookalike training rounds.

In this guise, the missile is fitted with cruciform-type cropped forward fins, which make it look almost identical to the widely exported AIM-9P — a much less capable weapon of a previous generation. The training missiles also carry a blue band around the body, denoting the fact that they are inert. A live Python 4 is characterized by unique twin sets of closely coupled forward control fins, entirely absent from the training version.

A Brazilian F-5 pair takes off, with a Python 4/AIM-9P-lookalike training round on the furthest aircraft. Brazilian Air Force

In the tweet below, a live Python 4 is seen on a Brazilian F-5 by way of comparison:

An expert eye would soon identify the training rounds as Python, thanks to the characteristic Python 4 seeker head and the overall larger dimensions of the missile body compared to the Sidewinder. However, the fact that live versions of the missile have never been seen in RSAF service is probably enough to preserve the subterfuge.

Rafael’s Python family of infrared-guided AAMs was developed based on Israeli Air Force (IAF) experience with first-generation heat-seeking weapons during air combat in the 1960s and 1970s.

The original Python 3 was developed starting in 1978 and entered service in 1982, in time to see combat during the First Lebanon War of the same year, during which Israel claimed as many as 50 aerial victories using the new missile. The Python 3, despite its age, is still carried by frontline IAF fighters today, as you can read about here.

An Israeli Air Force F-15D with a Python 3 captive training round. You can just see the unique fin arrangement of a Python 4 on the other side of the missile rail. KGyST/Wikicommons

While early progenitors of the Python missile were simpler short-range heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, later versions were designed to be used with a helmet-mounted sight, with successive iterations of Elbit’s Display and Sight Helmet System (DASH). As well as having the ability to be slaved to the radar during the early part of the engagement, the Python seeker can be directed to nearly wherever the pilot’s head and helmet are pointed.

An F-16 pilot with Elbit’s Display and Sight Helmet System (DASH). Elbit Systems

Python 4 arrived in IAF service in 1992. This missile is reported to have a 60-degree high off-boresight (HOBS) capability during close-quarters combat and to be able to maneuver at up to 70g; it is also said to be able to make a 180-degree turn after launch to intercept a target behind the launch aircraft. Python 4 also brought external changes, with additional control surfaces. It features a dual-waveband imaging infrared (IIR) seeker and infrared counter-countermeasures (IRCCM).

It’s this weapon that was reportedly sold to Singapore, to arm its F-16s, but which has so far only been seen in its inert training form.

An AIM-9P Sidewinder missile preserved at the Royal Thai Air Force Museum. RoyKabanlit/Wikimedia Commons

As well as being carried by Singaporean F-16s, these ‘covert Pythons’ have been noted on upgraded F-5E/F Tiger II jets flown by both Brazil and Thailand. In these last two cases, it’s well known that the aircraft in question can be armed with Israeli missiles. For Singapore, however, it remains a closely guarded secret that these lookalike missiles help promote.

As for the latest Python 5, this is externally nearly identical to Python 4 but is further improved, notably in terms of its ability to shoot down targets with smaller signatures, including drones and cruise missiles.

Python 5 mock-up (front) and first-generation Shafrir 1 (back) air-to-air missiles on display. MathKnight/Wikimedia Commons

Video showing a Python 5 turning 180 degrees after being fired to hit a target behind the launching aircraft:

Singapore will add the advanced Python 5 to its F-16 fleet that’s being upgraded to a standard similar to the F-16V, including the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), and GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). While the AIM-9X Sidewinder was expected to be integrated too, the RSAF has now opted for the Python 5, and perhaps also additional Israeli-supplied electronic countermeasures pods.

As to why the Singaporean Python 5 has been disclosed, while details of the Python 4 remain restricted, this is likely because the RSAF is already a known operator of the Rafael Spyder air defense system. This is armed with both Python 5 and radar-guided Rafael Derby missiles.

The RSAF confirmed that initial deliveries of the upgraded F-16 began in June 2021 and the fleet is being upgraded in phases, allowing the jets to bridge the gap until they can start to be replaced by F-35 stealth fighters.

The RSAF already operates some of the most sophisticated F-16s anywhere in the world, flying a total of 62 jets completed to F-16C/D Block 52 standard and having transferred its surviving, older F-16A/B Block 15 OCU aircraft to Thailand. As well as air-to-air missiles, the RSAF’s Block 52 aircraft are equipped with other advanced Israeli-supplied equipment, including avionics, and electronic warfare kit, the latter including equipment housed in the jet’s enlarged dorsal fairing, similar to that found on the Israeli F-16D Barak.

An RSAF F-16D lands on a public road in Singapore during Exercise Torrent in November 2016. ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images

As to why Singapore, in particular, remains tight-lipped about Israeli defense equipment, this seems to stem primarily from sensitivities in a region of the world in which many nations don’t enjoy such cordial relations with Israel. Nevertheless, while Singapore’s military ties with Israel are low-profile, they are very close. This means the RSAF has received some very advanced arms from Israel, including the Gulfstream G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) aircraft, four of which were bought from Israel Aerospace Industries.

An RSAF Gulfstream G550 CAEW lands at RAAF Base Darwin, Australia, during Exercise Pitch Black 2012. Owen65/Wikimedia Commons

Other branches of the military have benefited from Israeli arms, too. There have been repeated rumors that Singapore acquired Merkava main battle tanks from Israel, but these vehicles have never been seen. Hiding heavy-duty armor might seem close to impossible, but the same was apparently also the case with Singapore’s earlier Centurion tanks. Delivered in a special Singaporean version known as Tempest, the existence of these fighting vehicles was only disclosed to the public after their retirement.

With the RSAF’s next-generation fighter, the F-35, also being operated by Israel, and also being subject to Israeli modifications, including Israeli-specific weapons, it’s quite possible that the Singaporean stealth jets might also receive some of those armaments. But if the current Python IV is anything to go by, any such acquisition could well remain a low-profile affair.

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