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Assuming that a missile is able to track, lock and effectively guide itself to another missile for sake of argument, would say an AIM 9X or AIM120 be able to shoot down its respective counterpart?

Note the AIM 9X and AIM 120 are just examples, I'm talking about in general. Air launched air to air missiles are the scope of the question. So anti-ballistic missiles, cruise missiles etc are out of scope.

The reason I ask is because active protection systems against kinetic energy penetrators, especially depleted uranium rounds, face significant challenges in achieving hardkill. An APS system isn't going to do much other than breaking it up a bit or causing the incoming round to tumble or wobble. Either way an APFSDS round is smashing against hull armor and punching a nasty gash at the very least. Speed is one of the issues that make APS systems ineffective compared to stopping HEAT.

Missiles on the other hand are launched way higher in the sky, with a high initial velocity and a powerful rocket motor. While the motor quits eventually, there's still a lot of kinetic energy. However, missiles are more beholden to the laws of aerodynamics and loss of kinetic energy. I'm not entirely sure if blast frag or a continuous rod warhead could expand fast enough to cut up a missile. Or if there was non catastrophic damage, would the damaged missile body and fins allow a missile to still limp its way to a target for a successful kill, or would the missile bleed kinetic energy like crazy eventually falling out or self detonating.

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    $\begingroup$ Because the process involves tracking, locking and guiding, your first paragraph essentially asks: Assuming a missile could shoot down another missile, could a missile shoot down another missile?. What specific element of “shooting down” are you NOT assuming, and therefore asking about? $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2022 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Hall - That was my question exactly. That whole first paragraph is exactly how you shoot down something else. Acquire, track, guide, close, explode. $\endgroup$
    – WPNSGuy
    Dec 4, 2022 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall actually a good point :). I simply answered a bit broad... $\endgroup$
    – U_flow
    Dec 4, 2022 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall The reasons I specified the tracking part was because I wanted to avoid a conversation about if a missile can track another missile. I'm more concerned about if a missiles warhead can detonate in time and yield enough damage to cause a missile to not reach an enemy. A parallel would be me asking if an APS system can destroy a KE penetrator assuming that an APS could track, react, and fire fast enough. In the question here, the focus on is the damage from an APS good enough to counter APFSDS. To which the answer as of now is no because the rod is still flying incredibly fast. $\endgroup$
    – FIRES_ICE
    Dec 4, 2022 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ if a missiles warhead can detonate in time and yield enough damage to cause a missile to not reach an enemy You only have one question: can it detonate in time. If the warhead can take down a plane it's more than enough to take down another missile. The hard bit is fusing (just as the hard bit of anti ballistic missiles is fusing) $\endgroup$ Dec 6, 2022 at 1:47

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Yes they can, although they might have a hard time doing so.

General

Generally speaking, a missile searches for a suitable signal source which it tries to hit, e.g. an IR source such as an engine, or a radar return. Once aquired it alters its trajectory such that it hits the signal source. Therefore for a missile it is no different if the heat source it tracks is the hot turbine engine of another jet, or the (still) hot rocket engine of another missile. The same hold for radar guided missiles.

Example

I think a good example is that of the Diehl IRIS-T Anti-Air missile. Originally conceived as an air-to-air missile, it has been converted to an surface-launched anti-air missile by mainly upgrading the rocket engine, therefore equipping that missile with more energy. This missile was recently deployed to Ukraine in order to defend against incoming missiles. While the missiles the IRIS-T is defending are not typically air-to-air missiles, it shows that a (converted) anti-air missile is capable of hitting another missile.

Physics constraints

However one has to realize that an air-to-air missile is not a good fit to shoot down another air-to-air missile. Both missiles are roughly equally fast and equally maneuverable, however typically you would want your defending missile to have an advantage of higher maneuverability (a value I heard often is 3 times more maneuverable) then your enemy. Additionally, the flight time even of long range A/A missiles is short (at longest a couple of minutes), making targeting and tracking difficult. The angle at which the incoming missile can be tracked and killed is small, the position from which the defending missile has to be launched is narrow. Therefore your defending missile is not as likely to hit the enemy missile

Effector

I am no expert in this, however consider this: Even small holes or damages create huge air-drag at a speed of mach 3. Therefore if you manage to damage the enemy missile even slightly (perhaps a couple of holes, or half a fin), I would say that this missile is doomed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. In that case lets say an AIM 9X or a Python 5 is tracking onto an AIM120 or even an AIM54 since the former are far more maneuverable since they have a closer weapons envelope. I'm assuming the annular blast frag from them would shred apart the missile's ability to maintain aerodynamic stability and guide for a high probability of kill? $\endgroup$
    – FIRES_ICE
    Dec 4, 2022 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ Iris-T can hit cruise missiles, possibly short range ballistic missiles in boost. Those are quite different targets than an air-air missile (or SAM). Much larger, less agile, and in case of the cruise missile typically slower too. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Dec 5, 2022 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Robe The maximum lateral acceleration is normally used in units of a load factor. E.g. an R-73 Wympel can pull around 60Gs, an IRIS-T apparently in excess of 100Gs. $\endgroup$
    – U_flow
    Dec 5, 2022 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ @FIRES_ICE The intercept angle depends on how the agressor missile is maneuvering and how fast it is. The faster, the narrower the intercept angle will be. If that angle is outside of your tracking angle capability, then you will not be able to track that missile. If target data can be submitted by an external source, it might be a bit different. It is not possible to answer this without looking at specific engagments. Perhaps you can write a (2D) simulation in Matlab or Python to build more intuition. For whatever you are trying to achieve, such a simulations might be helpful. $\endgroup$
    – U_flow
    Dec 5, 2022 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Robe Maneuverability is normally defined as the capability of lateral acceleration, wherebey the unit of measurement is the maximum load factor. Therefore, the higher the lateral acceleration is, the tighter the turn can be. E.g. an R-73 Wympel can pull around 60Gs, an IRIS-T apparently in excess of 100Gs. Note that at the speeds of AA missiles, the limiting factor is not how much aerodynamic lateral acceleration can be flown (that is virtually unlimited), but how much your missile can take from a structural point of view. Therefore how many G's can be missile handles before it breaks apart $\endgroup$
    – U_flow
    Dec 5, 2022 at 12:23
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When you design a missile, a significant part of the parameters are based on "what are you trying to kill?" The effort needed to disable an aircraft in order to knock it out of the sky is quite different from that needed to destroy a missile.

The processing speed of the computers inside your missile also limit the upper speed that you can track. In the past, designers used to also specify the lower speed limits - the widespread introduction of helicopters put an end to it. During WW2, there were stories of mechanical computers (used for aiming anti-aircraft guns) on board naval vessels being unable to target some torpedo bombers because the aircraft travelled slower than the computers were designed to handle.

This video shows a reconstruction of the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine. Missiles do not impact the target as if they were large bullets. Instead they detonate nearby and shred the target with shrapnel. The only aircraft that I am aware of that are designed to survive in an environment full of shrapnel are ground attack aircraft such as the A-10. For these aircraft, fuel consumption is irrelevant. For passenger aircraft, fuel consumption is the most important operating characteristic that airlines measure. As missiles are far more compact than aircraft, they are harder for the shrapnel cloud to affect and will therefore sustain far less damage than human occupied aircraft.

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