How did a 30 year-old Su-22 defeat a modern AIM-9X?

Sailors US Navy/MCS3C Nathan Burke

Sailors US Navy/MCS3C Nathan Burke

At approximately 18.43hrs local time on June 18, a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet operating over Syria shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) Su-22M4 ‘Fitter’ fighter-bomber near Tabqah, Syria.

The F/A-18E (reported as BuNo 168914/AJ304) was assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87 ‘Golden Warriors’ (also known as ‘War Party’), which is assigned to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8.

Its pilot engaged the ‘Fitter’ and initially fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder close-range heat-seeking missile from a range of about half a mile, which was defeated by flares launched by the Su-22 pilot. The Super Hornet then re-engaged and fired an AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile), which hit the ‘Fitter’ despite being fired from relatively close range.

The pilot was able to eject and was later recovered safely, according to local sources.

It marked the first shootdown of a manned fighter by a US aircraft since May 4, 1999, when Lt Col Michael ‘Dog’ Geczy, US Air Force, downed a Serbian MiG-29 with an AIM-120 fired from his F-16CJ during Operation ‘Allied Force’.


However, the engagement poses some interesting questions, not least; how was a 1980s-era ‘Fitter’ able to defeat a cutting-edge US air-to-air heat-seeking missile?

Our good friend and contributor Angad Singh Tweeted this morning a fascinating feature he recalls, written by the great Bill Sweetman.

This Fitter shootdown reminded me of a great 4477 TES story (AIM-9P could reject US but not Soviet flares)

— Angad Singh (@zone5aviation) June 22, 2017

The linked feature Tweeted by Singh quotes John Manclark, who was the commander of the famous 4477th Test & Evaluation Squadron ‘Red Eagles’ from 1985-87, a top secret unit flying Soviet fighters to train US pilots and evaluate new equipment.

One particular exerpt makes fascinating reading:

“We had 210 maintainers,” Manclark recalled. “They were dedicated, just unbelievable, tech sergeants and master sergeants. The CIA gave us a flare dispenser from a Frogfoot [Su-25] that had been shot down in Afghanistan. We gave it to maintenance – it was just a thing with wires coming out of it. Four hours later they had it operational on a MiG-21.”

That proved to be a very important test. “In 1987 we had the AIM-9P, which was designed to reject flares, and when we used US flares against it would ignore them and go straight for the target. We had the Soviet flares – they were dirty, and none of them looked the same – and the AIM-9P said ‘I love that flare’.

“Why’d that happen? We had designed it to reject American flares. The Soviet flares had different burn time, intensity and separation. The same way, every time we tried to build a SAM simulator, when we got the real thing it wasn’t the same.

“I use the AIM-9P because it is out of the system and I can talk about it. The same thing happened to a lot of things that are still in the system and that I can’t talk about.”

The Syrian ‘Fitter’ in the latest incident appears to have had success with flares against the AIM-9X. There are also reports that the SyAAF ‘Fitters’ had received upgraded flare packs.

From 1979–82 40 new Su-22Ms were delivered to Syria. They flew around 40 sorties during the Lebanon War of 1982: while Israel claimed no fewer than eight shot down, Syria confirmed the loss of only one example.vAdditional batches including 20 Su-22M3Ks were delivered in 1983, followed by no fewer than 42 Su-22M4Ks delivered between 1984 and 1985, while all surviving Su-22Ms were locally upgraded to Su-22M2K standard.

However, the fleet was depleted and by 2014 only around a dozen Su-22M4Ks soldiered on. Iran donated 10 ex-Iraqi Su-22M4Ks to Syria, early in 2015. Tom Cooper wrote recently in Air Forces MonthlyPrior to the recent US strike on Shayrat, the SyAAF included around 30 Su-22M-3, Su-22M-4K and Su-22UM-3K jets with three squadrons; this number is now down to around ten aircraft, just five or six of which are operational.

Ultimately, having defeated the AIM-9X, the ‘Fitter’ wasn’t as successful against the radar-guided AMRAAM. However, this engagement will surely have a few Top Gun and Weapons School graduates scratching their heads and trying to understand exactly how and why a 30 year-old ‘Fitter’, probably in a poor state of condition, beat-off America’s best close-range missile.