A Viper with Sidewinders: A Unique Look at the AH-1Z’s Retired Air-to-Air Capability.

The missile closely resembles an early AIM-9 Sidewinder, which is modified from. (All images: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

An interesting glimpse at the USMC AH-1Z Viper Attack Helicopter with AIM-9/AGM-122 missiles.

You didn’t have to be particularly observant to pick out one of the most interesting static displays at the 2019 MCAS Miramar Air Show on Saturday September 28, and Sunday, September 29, 2019.

The usual pairing of a USMC UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper was on static display and participating in the sensation Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) demonstration. But the AH-1Z Viper gunship on static display had a conspicuous armament package that drew many comments, and questions: a pair of what appeared to be inert AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

The Viper crew on hand with the aircraft was kept busy helping airshow attendees in and out of the Viper’s narrow, cramped cockpit (“How do you even fit in there?” was a common inquiry), posing for photos, signing autographs and answering the most common question every airshow enthusiast had about the aircraft, “What about those Sidewinders?”

Most aircraft observers noticed this unusual combination at the MCAS Miramar Airshow last year.

“It’s a possible configuration. We don’t train with them commonly, mostly for loading practice, but it is a capability we have and we wanted to show it,” one of the aircrew told TheAviationist.com at MCAS Miramar.

The first dedicated, production attack helicopter to carry both the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile and nearly identical looking Motorola AGM-122 Sidearm anti-radiation, air-to-ground missile was the Bell AH-1W Super Cobra. This aircraft was in service with the U.S. Marines prior to the latest AH-1Z Viper variant, the most advanced “Cobra” attack helicopter to date. The AGM-122 Sidearm missile was first produced in 1986 and also briefly tested on the Army’s AH-64 Apache. After the existing inventory of the missiles was depleted, it was retired from service and not replaced. That is what made this configuration so interesting at the MCAS Miramar show.

Both of the missiles, the AGM-122 Sidearm and the AIM-9 Sidewinder, launch from the same LAU-7 rail launcher. They each have a range of about 15 km, and a top speed of Mach 2.3. They share the same 25-pound, WDU-31B blast-fragmentation warhead, effective in heavily damaging or destroying an aircraft in flight or a ground-based surface to air missile radar system.

The blue color of the missile indicates its inert, un-fueled and unarmed status for use in training exercises such as practice loadings for ground crew.

Interestingly, there may be a resurgence of interest in mounting air-to-air missiles, like a Sidewinder variant, on the AH-1Z attack helicopter because of its integration with the Marine’s new F-35B and F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. An Oct. 8, 2019 article by journalist Chen Chaunren for ainonline.com included remarks from USMC Captain Daniel Kelly, an AH-1Z pilot and the unit’s flight line officer in charge at the time. Capt. Kelly told Chaunren, “The introduction of the F-35B to the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) gives the ability for the jets to jam and neutralize radar threats, giving the helicopters a higher survivability, and allowing them to perform their escort and close air support tasks. The powerful avionics of the F-35 are also able to oversee the battle and ‘manage’ the helicopter assets below them. Moreover, the greater range of the F-35 compared with the AV-8B Harrier II means that the amphibious assault ship can be located at a greater stand-off range before deploying helicopters and amphibious vehicles.

Chaunren’s report went on to say that, “Capt. Kelly also noted that the Viper’s Target Sight System (TSS) is ‘incredibly important,’ and could provide target designation for the F-35 up to a 10-digit grid accuracy, which gives the jet the ability to release its munition from above thick cloud cover. While currently there is no datalink between the two platforms, Link 16 is expected to be integrated into the Viper by FY22/23 under the H-1 upgrade program, along with Digital Integrated Full Motion Video data transfer capability.”

New capabilities interfacing with the F-35 may make the use air-to-air missiles on the AH-1Z a viable option again.

So, while the inert practice missiles seen by those attending the MCAS Miramar Airshow were an interesting curiosity of a prior capability , it also looks like they were a glimpse into an emerging capability for the USMC’s AH-1Z Viper in combination with their F-35s.

About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.