I know Infrared missiles don't work on long ranges, so I will keep my question limited to short ranges only, in which both missiles can work.

In such short ranges, which guidance system has more chances of success/kill in an air to air combat? Infrared homing or Radar homing?

If one can also lump in Active radar homing and Passive radar homing in his/her answer, that will be an added bonus. Thanks!

  • $\begingroup$ Among IR, active radar, and semi-active radar, semi-active radar definitely wins the range because you can almost use arbitrary sized aperture and transmit power using ground station, without being limited by the size and weight of the missile, which is the choice for long range missile like S-300, AIM-54, R27. IR works well in close range simple because IR has a much shorter wave length hence a larger relative aperture for the same diameter. $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2017 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ But it's indeed an interesting topic why there isn't IR + radio instruction homing mode isn't popular, but active radar + radio instruction is. They both share a lot of characteristics like maximum range but IR is much better close range. My guess is active radar is better head-on, which fits the interception use case better. $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2017 at 15:46

1 Answer 1


This topic is very broad, and there is copious material available on it. Therefore, this answer will be generalized.

IR targeting is very useful against jet engine aircraft, because there is a clearly defined thermal contrast in the thermal output of the engines. At close range it is low cost and low complexity compared to a passive radar targeting system. It is essentially, a point and shoot.

Passive radar targeting utilizes a more powerful, larger antenna on the deploying aircraft, and relies on the more powerful illumination which the targeting aircraft is capable of. If the illuminating transmitter is in the front of the deploying aircraft, then the aircraft's attitude must be maintained to continue to illuminate the target until strike. This exposes the deploying aircraft to increased risk, and is avoided in close quarters.

Active radar targeting requires more on the missile electronics, but can work better in a point and shoot environment, and does not require the deploying aircraft to continue illumination of the target, allowing evasive maneuvers and pursuit of other threats.

The trade space between targeting methodologies is great and is dependent upon situational conditions. For example, at a long range, a passive radar targeting method can provide increased target strike assurance, and lowers the SWAP (size, weight and power) of the targeting package in the missile.

At close range, IR homing is often selected because it works well on close targets, has the best SWAP, allowing more weight for ordinance and motor.

All targeting systems have their disadvantages. For example, while IR is very effective against jet engines, having the sun, or even glint can foil them, as can IR flares. Shooting against a ground target may not be as effective with an IR seeker, but it is done. A passive radar seeker can be more effective against countermeasures, particularly when multi-static radar is employed. In that case, several transmitters illuminate the target, from different aspects, and the passive receiver in the targeting unit can eliminate most countermeasures.

In the world of countermeasures, there are similarities. For example, IR Chaff is about as effective as RF Chaff, and does a good job at breaking target lock and inhibiting target acquisition.

Getting back to active radar, the SWAP is greatest for this targeting system, but it has the ability to act autonomously, similar to IR targeting. Antenna diameter is a limiting factor for good SN ratios. But this strategy is good for point and shoot, and works well at closer ranges.

With respect to kill rates, that is highly dependent upon the type of target and we haven't narrowed the discussion to aircraft vs ship vs vehicle, which influence the choice due to background radiation, reflections, etc.

The question is extremely broad, and coverage of the broad topic with multiple questions in this venue is limited.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't really agree active radar has great size/wieght. It's the heaviest among passive IR, semi-active radar, and radio instruction. It's not great for close range, either. $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2017 at 15:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user3528438: I don't think "greatest" was intended to mean "best", but rather "largest". $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2017 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ I don't like the term semi-active radar, because radar and lidar by their inherent mechanisms require active illumination of a target. Bistatic with a passive receiver would be more accurate terminology. With regard to the comment, higher SWAP is higher size, weight and power, and also translates normally into higher cost. Rough rule of thumb, double the warhead targeting SWAP and that the cubed hit in cost. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Oct 3, 2017 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ Hi, FYI - I have edited the question to cater only to the air-to-air combat. $\endgroup$
    – amsquareb
    Oct 4, 2017 at 9:33
  • $\begingroup$ @mongo: nevertheless, semi-active is the standard term used in military aviation (and SAMs) to describe systems with external illumination. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:24

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