How are anti-aircraft missiles and counter-measures tested?

When they design an anti-aircraft missile, how do they test it so that it actually locks on to a target and destroys it? Do they simply fly a plane in the air and then fire a missile at it and have the pilot eject?

Similarily, how are counter-measures tested? Do they fire a missile at a target and check whether it misses?

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    $\begingroup$ See rense.com/general20/fail.htm for an example description of a test (and yes, these tests fail; that's why they do it...) $\endgroup$
    – Floris
    Aug 1, 2014 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ You don't want to ask how no-tears shampoo is tested! $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Aug 2, 2014 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ On enemy aircraft :-( $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2018 at 14:21

4 Answers 4


The short answer is that the final qualification tests are done against drones like the QF-4, which are converted from retired F-4 fighters. These tests are still extremely expensive, into the millions per aircraft destroyed, so there are many dry runs and non-destructive tests completed beforehand. Sacrificing a target drone isn't done until the project team is very confident of a positive result or they are unable to obtain necessary data by other means.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the original use-case for which the term "drone" was coined. I believe it was by the US Navy. The original aircraft which were called "drones" were RC planes with no autonomous capabilities and no cameras. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Aug 1, 2014 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ As a quality assurance professional, I can tell you that adding or removing humans changes the test drastically. Of course, adding humans to the test would change the cost of the test drastically and the ethics slightly. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Aug 1, 2014 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ Here is a video of an AIM-9X being tested against a QF-4. youtube.com/watch?v=4g4_jzqBJnA In some other videos the drone actually has countermeasures deployed. $\endgroup$ Aug 1, 2014 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ Let's not forget the Ryan Firebee. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2014 at 4:01
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    $\begingroup$ @corsiKa: What, only slightly? $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    May 5, 2018 at 3:01

A large part of the complexity of any missile is in propulsion and guidance. The warhead isn't trivial, but in comparison that's not the hardest part. This means that in testing, you can often replace the warhead with a sensor package. This applies both to missile development and counter-missile development.

Missile warheads additionally can be tested on test stands, without being launched first.

This just leaves an integration test where missile and warhead are tested in combination, and for that Brian's answer applies.


They also conduct many tests using towed dummy units. (TDUs) These will often be small in physical size but have radar reflection or heat generation to allow it to look like a normal aircraft to the missile. Much less expensive to destroy. The missile will also have a failsafe using the IFF technology so that it does not attack the towing aircraft, and an additional failsafe that the missile can be destroyed manually.


I begin with the premise that there are generally 3 different types of anti-aircraft missile systems. These are

(a) Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS) also called Very Short Range Air Defense Systems(VSHORADS) for example RBS-70 , Verba , Starstreak , (b) Ground based Medium-Range Surface-to-air missile systems for example BUK-3 and (c) Long Range Air Defense Systems for example Patriot MIM-104 and S-300V.

Now , the testing of these 3 different types are obviously different , however the cornerstone of these tests regardless of the type would include :

(a) Digital Simulation of launches - almost a million launches are simulated ; (b) Hardware-in-the-loop simulations – thousands of tests for each system with actual missile seekers and jammers (c) Flight Tests simulation (d) Functional configuration audit to verify compliance with system functional requirements (e) Live Fire tests - carried out on unmanned aerial vehicles that serves as targets


There are generally 3 main parts in a missile .

(1) The rear section contains electronic packages , a battery and the rudder mechanism (2) The central section contains the sustained motor and wings (3) The forward section contains electronic packages , the gyro and warhead

Therefore , Tests have to be conducted at the component, subsystem, or system level as well .

Missile Sub sections

Countermeasures for air defense systems are categorized into active and passive systems.

(1) Active countermeasures are for example flares and directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM)

(2) Passive countermeasures include infrared signature reduction, fuel tank inerting and redundant controls

Tests are carried out for Flares , Chaffs and Infrared .

The chaff cuts are tested for optimization so as to provide a broadband radar return .

The various tests carried out on Chaffs are related to their Performance Requirements shown in the image below

Chaff Performance Requirements

A Flare consists of (1) a firing cap, (2) a powder charge wadding between the charge and the bullet, and (3) a wad at the end that keeps everything in place.  The electrical firing “cap” creates a gas that ejects the plastic or nylon slider, 2 felt spacers that hold everything in place, and the end cap. All these 3 components have to be tested .

For evaluation of effectiveness against two-color systems, an integrated color ratio filter system is used to enable flares and target representation to contain the appropriate amount of energy in each spectral region of interest .


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