Subjects in the Focus IRIS-T, the short-distance missile of the latest generation

Subjects in the Focus

The armed forces are facing new security challenges. Multinational missions, asymmetric conflicts as well as the potential risk of terrorist attacks threaten security and pose new requirements for equipment, technology and logistics of armed forces.

IRIS-T, the short-distance missile of the latest generation

IRIS-T, the acronym of Infra-Red Imaging System – Tail/Thrust Vector Controlled, is the name of the short-distance air-to-air-missile of the latest generation that will replace the AIM-9L Sidewinder in Germany and the other five consortium nations step by step.

Germany and numerous other European nations need the Sidewinder successor for different reasons which became apparent in the beginning of the 1990s. German reunification for the first time provided access to reliable information on the performance of the Russian short-range guided missile AA-11 Archer. Detailed analyses and the resulting evaluation of the systems in use like the MIG-29, which is armed with the Russian guided missile AA-11 "Archer", revealed that several aspects of the existing "Sidewinder" guided missiles were no longer appropriate to match today´s threats. At the same time, it was evident that short-range air combat would continue to be highly important especially concerning future forms of conflict. Extensive air combat simulations at a manned simulator showed that in future air combat, far more enemy aircraft would enter the short and very short range of 500 to 5000 meters than previously assumed.

Since no suitable candidate could be found for this challenging task in the guided missile market, the IRIS-T concept was presented in 1995 and guided missile development started one year later under the leadership of Germany. The overall development costs were less than 300 million Euros, with Germany assuming the major part of 45%.

The Überlingen-based company Diehl BGT Defence GmbH & Co. KG (previously Bodenseewerk Gerätetechnik GmbH, BGT) was selected as prime contractor.

Partner companies from the consortium nations Germany, Greece, Italy, Canada, Norway and Spain developed the IRIS-T with Diehl BGT Defence assuming the overall responsibility. For political reasons, Canada decided not to procure the guided missiles and left the consortium shortly before the end of the development phase. Spain entered the program in its place at the end of 2002. 

During the development phase, there were several weeks of flight trial campaigns under realistic operational conditions. These were conducted almost exclusively in the firing range just off Capo San Lorenzo in the eastern part of Sardinia. The target was a remote-controlled Mirach 100/5 target drone employing typical evasive maneuvers as well as infrared decoys. The first guided missile fired with an infrared seeker head from an F-4F of the WTD 61 (Bundeswehr technical center) scored a hit on March 14, 2002. All IRIS-T firings achieved direct hits of the target drone during the development phase as well as the so-called validation phase (performance demonstration).

In summary, the development of IRIS-T included 168 flights with different carrier aircraft, four surface-launched firings, eleven separation firings as well as 16 live firings against target drones. The Bundeswehr Technical and Airworthiness Center for Aircraft (WTD 61) performed the major portion of the IRIS-T flight trials. The guided missile was tested with two F-4F Phantom II air defence versions. The aircraft were equipped with special instruments for this task.

In February of 2005, Diehl BGT Defence delivered the pilot lot.

Representing all six IRIS-T partner nations, the first series production IRIS-T guided missile was handed over to the German Air Force during a ceremony at the Laage air base – home of the "Steinhoff“fighter wing 73 – on December 5, 2005. Series delivery of initial orders to the consortium will be completed by the end of 2012.

The project was made ready for series production within the scheduled time and budget and in the meantime has gained the reputation of being an outstanding example for European armament cooperation. Rare praise came from the Federal Audit Office. Its positive assessment concluded  that IRIS-T-development remained within the stipulated budget.
The missile design, also comprising a large warhead with high target destruction probability, allows successful engagement of a broad range of targets including future threats from the air. IRIS-T exceeds the performance characteristics of the AIM-9L Sidewinder it replaces many times over in all areas. Since IRIS-T is delivered to the air forces, it has become the yardstick for present and future short-range air-to-air guided missiles.
It is characterized by extreme maneuverability and agility at all altitudes due to the combination of thrust-vector and aerodynamic control as well as its intelligent imaging IR seeker head. The innovative infrared seeker head generates high-quality images resembling those of a thermal imaging camera and is capable of distinguishing targets from deception measures of the adversary. IRIS-T features an acquisition range that is up to five times larger than that of comparable missiles and an extremely large look angle.

High target acquisition and tracking performance even against a difficult background enable the pilots to cue the missile to the target with a helmet sight as well. In combination with its  “fire & forget“ capability as well as the option to lock the seeker onto the target after firing (lock-on after launch) in conjunction with intelligent imaging processing provide ideal terms for short-range air combat. The ability of IRIS-T to counter approaching surface-to-air and air-to-air guided missiles as well strongly improves the survival capability of one´s own weapon system.

Thanks to these features, the pilot is able to launch the IRIS-T guided missile even if aiming at his adversary looking back over his shoulder. IRIS-T thus offers the flying crew a 360° defence capability.

IRIS-T is employed in fighter aircraft of the consiortium countries, in the Eurofighter (Germany, Italy, Spain), Gripen (Sweden), F-16 (Greece, Norway), EF-18 (Spain) and the Tornado (Germany). In all, approx. 4,000 missiles were ordered for the consortium – including training missiles.

At the end of 2005, Austria (Eurofighter), in 2008 South Africa (Gripen), in 2009 Saudi-Arabia (Eurofighter) and in 2010 Thailand (Gripen) secured the outstanding operational capabilities of IRIS-T for themselves as export customers.

IRIS-T can successfully engage flying targets at a distance of up to 25 kilometers, reaches a speed of clearly more than 3 Mach, weighs nearly 90 kg at a length of 2.94 meters and a body diameter of 12.7 centimeters. The missile is fully compatible with existing Sidewinder interfaces and warrants a high rejection rate against infrared and laser countermeasures.