AIM-120D vs MBDA Meteor

Design requirements

AIM-120 was started as a project to replace painfully ineffective AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-54 Phoenix (which are only effective against heavy bombers and (in case of later-iteration AIM-54) non-maneuvering fighters). It was to be relatively small BVR missile, so as to be able to be carried by the F-16.

Meteor is a result of joint European project to develop BVR missile to replace BAe Dynamics Skyflash. It was to be capable of shooting down a variety of targets, including low-RCS UAVs and cruise missiles, as well as maneuvering fighters of Flanker family. Another requirement was compatibility with Typhoon’s semi-recessed fuselage hardpoints, originally designed for AIM-120.


AIM-120D is a further evolution of US AIM-120 BVR AAM series. It uses classic fuel+oxygen combustion mix, and does not rely on air flow from outside. In fact, it uses the same engine as AIM-120C, with improvements being mainly in electronics. However, it has been reported that engine malfunctions in cold environments – exactly where it is most likely to be used.

Meteor is a ramjet BVR AAM. As such, it does not carry onboard oxygen, but rather uses oxygen from surrounding air, allowing it to hold more fuel. Result is better acceleration, top speed, and range for a given missile size.

While Meteor may not have as large maximum range as AIM-120D (only figure I have for Meteor is “more than 100 km”, with 100 km being “optimal range”, versus public figure of 160 km for AIM-120D), it is faster, and thus more deadly at any range it can reach. This is important, as BVR missiles are never fired at maximum range due to meager Pk against fighter aircraft. However, range varies on altitude, with best range for both missile types being achieved in high-altitude rare-atmosphere conditions, where maneuverability is almost nonexistent; at sea level, range is not much more than visual. Velocity loss after burn-out also varies with altitude, with 25% of current velocity being lost every 150 s at 24 km, 25 s at 12 km and 5 s at sea level.

Range can be reduced even further if enemy uses jammers. Thus, large NEZ (no-escape zone) is far more important. (To explain terminology here, NEZ is NOT a zone where a hit is guaranteed; rather, it is a zone where enemy aircraft cannot outrun missile, waiting for it to run out of fuel, but rather has to outturn it). Higher speed allows it to reduce time to target, and thus opponent’s reaction time, as well as to retain energy for longer after engine has burned out.

In fact, Meteor’s NEZ was to be three times as large as that of AIM-120B. Active version of missile is equipped with radar Aster, designed to shoot down cruise missiles, which thus can be used against targets with low RCS.

However, both missiles are BVR, making their actual value questionable. In fact, jamming and IFF issues mean that BVR missiles are far more likely to be used as a WVR weapon than in their intended purpose. While AIM-120 did achieve 6 BVR kills out of 13 firings, all but one were against non-maneuvering targets with no ECM and no awareness of missile. By comparing difference in Pk between maneuvering and non-maneuvering targets for AIM-9, it can be concluded that AIM-120 will achieve Pk of at most 11%; however, it is larger and heavier than AIM-9, as well as more vulnerable to countermeasures, so even that is an optimistic estimate.

EDIT: Meteor is estimated to have a range of 250-300 km with ballistic flight path, which suggests an improvement over initially cited goal. That being said, best option is to wait for performance figures after it enters service.


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21 replies

  1. I always undrestood NEZ to mean the area in which, while not necessarily suffering a direct hit, there is no aerodynamic maneuver the target can make that will kep it out of the lethal range of the warhead of a properly funcitoning missile. Escape would have to be by other means, such as some knd of countermeasures.

    • No, that is incorrect. Maneuverability always helps with evading missiles, and BVR missile used against Mach 0,9 target would have to pull 10-20 times as many g’s as target to secure a kill. Suffice to say, no missile does it: AIM-120D can pull 40 g, whereas modern fighters can pull in excess of 10 g.

  2. You claim not to spread disinformation, but your very first sentence that claims the AIM-54 was not intended to engage fighters is completely wrong. It was tested to engage fighter sized targets to include at least one test where an AIM-54 hit a target drone that performed a 6g maneuver. And, if primary sources (Iranian F-14 pilots) count, AIM-54s were used regularly and successfully against fighters during the Iran-Iraq War.

    • You should understand what is written before attempting to correct it.

      “AIM-120 was started as a project to replace painfully ineffective AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-54 Phoenix (which are only effective against heavy bombers and (in case of later-iteration AIM-54) non-maneuvering fighters).”

      I never claimed that AIM-54 was not intended to engage fighters, just that it was not effective at doing so as long as pilot in target aircraft was competent (not the case with Iraqi pilots).

  3. ‘In fact, Meteor’s NEZ was to be three times as large as that of AIM-120C.’

    That’s incorrect. The Aim-120C did not exist when the Meteor was conceived. That specification most likely referred to the baseline i.e. Aim-120A variant.

  4. ‘Meteor’s NEZ was to be three times as large as that of AIM-120C’ Actually, that’s not true. Meteor’s NEZ is to be three times as large as that of AIM-120B. And here is a statement of MBDA Systems that may prove that: ‘the missile will achieve “three times
    the range of a Raytheon AIM-120B AMRAAM in a head-on engagement and
    five times that range in a tail chase’. Refrence:

  5. The F-35, F-22 is about future, Aim series of missile is no different the AIM missile will up dated to the Block 3.
    To create the new AIM-9X Block III, the NAVAIR will primarily focus on the missile’s rocket motor. “Increased range will be achieved through a combination of increased rocket motor performance and missile power management,” NAVAIR says.

    The AIM-9X features a fifth generation staring focal plane array IR seeker with a high off-boresight capability. AIM-9X is an advanced IR missile. It is mounted on a highly maneuverable (thrust vectored) airframe, along with digital guidance and IR signal processing that results in enhanced acquisition ranges, greatly improved infrared counter-countermeasures capability, and extremely high off-boresight engagement zones for unprecedented first shot/first kill air-to-air performance.

  6. How does the new I-Derby-ER compare with these missiles?

    • I-Derby-ER, from what I have found, is a classical-type missile with air-to-air range of 100 km. So maximum range is shorter than AIM-120D or Meteor. However, it has a “second-kick” capability, a propulsion system which activates during terminal approach to target. This means that its *effective* range is around 100 km against aircraft in approach, similar to Meteor and significantly more than AIM-120D. That being said, since this “second kick” is a secondary propulsion system and not primary one, I’d estimate its effectiveness at between AIM-120D and Meteor, but likely closer to Meteor.

  7. Similarly, any data on how the Python 5 compares to the the AIM-9X, Iris-T or the Mica IR?

    It occurred to me the Canada should not only now have a proper competition for a new fighter aircraft or combination of aircraft, but a competition for the best choice of missiles to equip the new aircraft. Maybe the best equipment is not simply what our neighbours are using. However, if the new aircraft are capable of carrying other A-T-A missiles that our allies use that is not the primary Canadian choice, acquire a number of training versions of the allied munitions so that in allied operations they could be capable of using what’s on hand if the first choice runs out.

  8. Hi, very nice blog,
    About the subject : Meteor vs. AMRAAM I would like to add one very important point about the meteor, which is in my opinion a game changing feature, is that its throttle control allows it two things:
    -First is that it can reduce thrust when close to its terminal phase causing a deceleration and thus reucing the speed factor relative to the target (missile’s speed/target’s speed) which is the decisive for a missile pulling G’s on its terminal phase in order to hit the target, even if it’s limited to 40 G’s though, but for example if missile reduces its speed to 2.0 Mach and target is pulling 9 G’s @ 1.0 Mach the missile will have to pull 36 G -within its claimed Load factor- (even though this example is not very representative but it gives a numerical form to my point).
    -Second point is that with thrust can be increased during end-game turns (not unlike “second-kick” on Derby) preserving energy level thus depriving the target of one of the main tactics to defeat BVR AAM’s which consists on making a missile -very likely on inertial cruising- to pull as much G’s as possible in order to burn-out its energy.

    I’d like to know your opinions on these two points guys =)

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