Armament of General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon

Last revised March 19, 2000

There are two primary components to the defensive armament of the USAF's F-15A/B--the AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-homing missile and an internal 20-mm cannon. The F-16C/D has the additional capability of being able to carry and launch the AIM-120 AMRAAM beyond-visible-range air-to-air missile. In addition, the F-16 has the ability to carry a wide variety of external stores on the centerline and six underwing pylons.


The APG-66 radar fitted to the F-16A/B was not originally intended to handle BVR missiles such as the Sparrow or the AMRAAM. However, the need for a BVR capability became apparent soon after the F-16A/B entered service. The long-term solution was to be the AMRAAM missile, which was originally scheduled to enter service in the mid-1980s, but was delayed by a protracted series of developmental difficulties. Possible interim solutions were the British Aerospace Skyflash or the Raytheon AIM-7 Sparrow.

The first tests of a Sparrow-armed F-16 were made by General Dyanmics with inert rounds attached to the wingtip, to the underwing pylons, and even to a pylon being attached to the mainwheel door. The undercarriage door location was used for some test firings with the Sparrow in November of 1977, and a test launch with a BAe Skyflash was made a year later.

However, the need for interim BVR missiles for the F-16 was questioned by some analysts, who claimed that the problem of positive target identification would always inhibit the use of BVR missiles, and that their high cost would limit the amount of live-fire training that could be carried out. Consequently, plans for an interim BVR missile for the F-16 were shelved.

The ultimate BVR weapon for the F-16 turned out to be the Hughes AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile), which is carried by the F-16C/D. The AMRAAM is intended to combine the BVR performance of the Sparrow in an airframe that is not much larger than that of the AIM-9 Sidewinder.

The AMRAAM is a "fire and forget" weapon. The Sparrow AAM had a semi-active radar guidance system which required that the target be continuously illuminated throughout the entire duration of the engagement. The AMRAAM is guided to the vicinity of its target by an inertial guidance system which can be updated if necessary by a datalink from the launching aircraft. For the final run to the target, the missile switches over to its own high-PRF radar seeker and homes in on the target. Since this seeker uses its own active radar, it does not require the launch aircraft to illuminate the target or to track the target. If the target attempts to protect itself with jamming, the AMRAAM seeker can be set to operate in a medium-PRF home-on-jam mode. Although the AIM-120 handles its own terminal homing onto the target, it usually still requires radar illumination from the fighter for a portion of its initial run-in to the target.

The AMRAAM is 11.97 feet long, has a wingspan of 20.7 inches, and a diameter of 7 inches. The AMRAAM is considerably lighter than the Sparrow, weighing only about 350 pounds at launch. It carries a 48-pound high-explosive directed-fragmentation warhead. Maximum speed is about Mach 4, and the maximum range is 35-45 miles.

The AMRAAM has suffered from a protracted development process, and was not fully operational until after the Gulf War of 1991 was over. However, the few times that it has been fired in actual combat, the results with the AMRAAM have been highly effective.


Most F-16s can carry an AIM-9 Sidewinder (today AIM-9M) infrared-homing air-to-air missile on each wingtip.

The Sidewinder infrared homing missile dates back to 1956, but the missile has been continuously upgraded over the years. Early F-16As carried the AIM-9J, which was the first major post-Vietnam improvement of the Sidewinder missile. The J model had an expanded target-engagement cone which enabled it to be launched at any spot in the rear half of a target aircraft rather than merely at its exhaust. Compared with the Vietnam-era AIM-9G, it had a more powerful motor and an improved warhead. The AIM-9J introduced the Sidewinder Expanded Acquisition Mode (SEAM), which slaved the seeker head of the missile to the radar when in "dogfight" mode, which enabled the AIM-9J seeker head to be uncaged, slewed toward a specific target by the aircraft radar, and made to track that particular target only before being launched. The AIM-9H introduced some minor improvements. The AIM-9L introduced in 1979 was "all-aspect", and was no longer limited to engaging an enemy aircraft from the rear. The seeker head was more sensitive and was able to pick up heat from the friction off the leading edges of an aircraft's wing and was able to distinguish between aircraft and decoy flares. The AIM-9L also uses a higher-impulse rocket motor, a more powerful warhead, and a proximity fuse rigged to blow outward toward the target in order to ensure better probability of a kill. The AIM-9M introduced in 1982 had better capability to distinguish between aircraft and decoy flares, and has a low-smoke rocket motor which makes it far less likely to be seen by its prey. The number of vacuum tubes was reduced to two.

The AIM-9 Sidewinder is 9.4 feet long, has a wingspan of 25 inches and a diameter of 5 inches. The missile has four tail fins on the rear, with a "rolleron" at the tip of each fin. These "rollerons" are spun at high speed by the slipstream in order to provide roll stability. The missile is steered by four canard fins mounted in the forward part of the missile just behind the infrared seeker head. The Sidewinder missile has a launch weight of about 180 pounds, and a maximum effective range of about 10 miles. The blast-fragmentation warhead weighs 21 pounds. Despite the advanced age of the basic design, the all-aspect AIM-9L Sidewinder still remains a potent threat, exceeded in effectiveness perhaps only by the Russian-built Molniya/Vympel R-73 (known in the West as the AA-11 *Archer*) which combines aerodynamic and thrust-vectoring control systems.

Other Air-to-Air Missiles:

Some export operators of the F-16 carry their own specialized air-to-air missiles in the place of the Sidewinder/AMRAAM set carried by USAF F-16C/Ds.

Some export users are not yet cleared to receive the AIM-9L, so they operate such export-model Sidewinders as the AIM-9P3 or the newer all-aspect AIM-9P4.

Pakistani and Belgian F-16s carry Matra R.550 Magic 2 air-to-air infrared homing missiles instead of Sidewinders. The original Magic I entered service in 1975, and the improved Magic 2 entered service in late 1985. The first qualification firings of the R.550 from the F-16 began in May of 1989. The Magic 2 differs from the Magic 1 in having an all-aspect infrared seeker, which can be slaved to the launching aircraft's air-interception radar and steered onto the designated target before launch (the Magic 1's seeker carried out an autonomous search before launch). The R.550 has a launch weight of 198 pounds, a length of 109 inches, a body diameter of 6.2 inches, and a fin span of 26.3 inches. The maximum range is of the order of 10 kilometers. The missile has a 28-pound rod/fragmentation type high explosive warhead with an all-sector proximity fuse or impact-loop detonation that is better suited to head-on interceptions than was the warhead of the Magic 1.

Israel F-16s can carry the Rafael Python 3 missile on the Sidewinder wingtip rails. The Python 3 was rushed into service during the 1982 Israeli incursion into Lebanon, with pre-production rounds being tested in actual air-to-air combat against Syrian aircraft. The Python 3 is an infrared homer having a weight of about 265 pounds and is 118 inches long with a body diameter of 6.25 inches and a fin span of 33.9 inches. The conventional rod-type high-explosive warhead weighs 24 pounds. It has a maximum range of about 15 kilometers and a maximum speed of Mach 3.5. The infrared seeker of the Python 3 has a plus or minus 30-degree gimbal angle and can be operated in boresight, uncaged, or radar-slaved mode. The Python 3 is claimed by Israel to have a speed, turning radius, and range superior to that of the AIM-9L Sidewinder.

Specialized F-16A/B aircraft serving with air defense units of the Air National Guard could carry and launch the AIM-7 Sparrow missile from the middle underwing hardpoints. In addition, export F-16 customers such as Bahrain and Egypt can carry and launch Sparrow missiles. The current versions are the AIM-7M and AIM-7P. The first Sparrow versions to see large-scale service were the AIM-7E, AIM-7E2, and AIM-7F, but combat results with these missiles during the 1960s over Vietnam were disappointing. The AIM-7F version of the Sparrow introduced solid-state electronics as substitutes for the miniature vacuum tubes of the earlier versions. This miniaturization enabled the warhead to be moved forward of the wings, with the aft part of the missile being devoted almost entirely to the rocket motor. The extra space that was made available by the introduction of solid-state miniaturization made it possible to introduce a dual-thrust booster/sustainer rocket motor that enabled the effective range of the Sparrow to be essentially doubled (up to 28-30 miles) in a head-on engagement. The AIM-7L had fewer tubes and more solid state features. The AIM-7M introduced in 1982 featured a inverse-processed digital monopulse seeker which was more difficult to detect and jam and provided better look-down, shoot-down capability. The AIM-7P was fitted with improved guidance electronics including an on-board computer based on VLSIC technology. It is intended to have better capability against small targets such as cruise missiles and sea-skimming antiship missiles.

The AIM-7M is 12 feet long and has a launch weight of about 500 pounds. The missile carries a 85-pound high-explosive blast fragmentation warhead. It has two sets of delta-shaped fins--a set of fixed fins at the rear of the missile and a set of movable fins at the middle of the missile for steering. The maximum effective range is of the order of 45 kilometers (28 miles).


For the very closest air-to-air encounters, the F-16 carries a 20-mm M61A1 cannon installed in the port wing leading edge lip. The gun is fed by an ammunition drum containing 515 rounds located inside the central fuselage.

There were some initial problems with the M16A1 when carried by the F-16. Gun firing from the F-16 was temporarily suspended in September 1979 following two incidents in which the firing of the gun resulted in uncommanded yawing movements. It turned out that vibrations produced by the firing of the gun had affected an accelerometer in the flight control system, causing it to feed false data into the control computer. A simple modification insulated the accelerometer from vibration. All 106 F-16s delivered with the original pattern of accelerometer installation were modified.

Bombs and Ground-Attack Missiles:

The F-16 has six underwing hardpoints and one under-fuselage hardpoint for the carriage of fuel tanks or weapons. A huge variety of weapons can be carried, including air-to-surface missiles, "smart" bombs, conventional iron bombs, and even tactical nuclear weapons.

One of the more important warloads carried by the F-16 is the Hughes AGM-65 Maverick, which is used to make precision attacks on point targets. The Maverick carries a 135-pound shaped-charge warhead which is effective against a large variety of targets, including tanks.

The Maverick comes in AGM-65A, B, and D versions, which use television guidance, scene magnification television guidance, and imaging infrared guidance respectively. In the AGM-65A and B, a imaging vidicon seeker is carried in the nose of the missile which can be slewed on its mounting and used to view the target area. The image seen by the seeker is displayed on a TV screen in the cockpit, and the pilot can align the target on the aiming mark, then command a lock-on. The A-version has a 5 degree of view, and the B version has a 2.5-degree field of view but can detect targets at a longer range. The TV Mavericks are not ideally suited for launch from single seat fighters because of the time needed to acquire the target and to lock the seeker onto it. In addition, the system cannot be used at night or under conditions of low visibility.

The AGM-65D infrared Maverick uses an infrared rather than a vidicon seeker, and displays an infrared image on the cockpit display. Two magnifications are provided, a wide angle for target acquisition and a narrow angle for final identification and lock-on. Once a target is identified, the protective cover is jettisoned from the cooled infrared seeker, allowing the infrared seeker to "view" the target. The seeker is steered manually onto a suitable target. The system is tricky and awkward to use in combat. During Desert Storm, pilots complained about having to keep their heads down while watching the screen, locking the seeker onto the target, and launching the missile.

The AGM-65D can also be slaved to or cued by target acquisition systems such as infrared lasers. These target designation systems can be carried by other aircraft or can be operated by soldiers on the ground. Later blocks of the F-16C/D can carry their own laser designation equipment (e.g. the Martin Marietta LANTIRN pods), so they can operate independently of other designation aircraft.

Guided weapons that can be carried by the F-16 include antiradiation missiles such as the AGM-45 Shrike, the AGM-78 Standard, and the Texas Instruments AGM-88 HARM.

Norwegian F-16s have an important anti-shipping role, and can carry and launch the locally-built Kongsberg Penguin antiship missile. Deliveries of the Penguin 3 began in 1987. The weapon was tested by the the USAF under the designation AGM-119. Midcourse guidance is by an inertial system and radio altimeter, while final aiming is by an infrared seeker.

An impressive array of bombs can be carried on the six underwing pylons. The F-16 can deliver smart, laser-guided bombs if there is another laser-equipped aircraft nearby (or a facility on the ground) which can illuminate the target to be attacked. Later LANTIRN-equipped F-16C/Ds can carry their own laser designator and can therefore deliver smart bombs without assistance.


  1. Combat Aircraft F-16, Doug Richardson, Crescent, 1992.

  2. General Dynamics Aircraft and their Predecessors, John Wegg, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

  3. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  4. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  5. F-16 Fighting Falcon--A Major Review of the West's Universal Warplane, Robert F. Dorr, World Airpower Journal, Spring 1991.

  6. The World's Great Interceptor Aircraft, Gallery, 1989.

  7. Modern Military Aircraft--F-16 Viper, Lou Drendel, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1992.

  8. Lockheed F-16 Variants, Part 1, World Airpower Journal, Volume 21, Summer 1995.

  9. E-mail from Ben Marselis