An improved autopilot and better fusing, in the AIM-7F, was first introduced in 1977, solid- state electronics were substituted 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 an inverse-processed digital monopulse seeker which was more difficult to detect and jam and provided better look-down, shoot- down capability. The AIM-7P is 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 anti-ship missiles. Over 40.000 AIM-7S have been manufactured by the Raytheon Company, and (since 1977) General Dynamics Corp. Production of the AIM-7M was superseded by the AIM-7P in 1990.
The AIM-7P is 11.83 feet long and has a launch weight of about 510 pounds. The missile carries a 85-pound Mk 71 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. A single Hercules Mk 58 or Aerojet General Mk 65 boost-sustained solid-fuel rocket motor provides Mach 4+ speeds and a maximum range of approximately 34.5 miles.
Combat experience in Vietnam demonstrated the limitation of the AIM-7E and prompted the development of the AIM-7E2 and AIM-7F versions. Even in the more recent versions, the maximum range of the missile appears to far exceed its useful range. Moreover, it has not been a good dogfighting missile, being much more effective in non-maneuvering interceptions.
The Sparrow’s performance in Desert Storm was difficult to fault, with 23 Iraqi aircraft claimed during the seven-week war, 69% of the total. Moreover, reports suggested that the missile operated reliably, due in part to better pilot training and solid-state electronics. Another factor was the overall air supremacy of coalition forces that sapped Iraqi Air Force morale and allowed their effectively invulnerable airborne early warning system to direct coalition pilots to the attack.