How The Soviets Stole And Copied The American Sidewinder Missile

Jun 24, 2024 0 comments

After the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, which saw the establishment of the People's Republic of China and the banishment of the Nationalist government to the island of Taiwan (also called the Republic of China), there has been intense enmity between the two republics. In 1958, just three years after the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, the PRC once again made an attempt to seize control of Taiwan from the Chinese Nationalist Party.

In August 1958, the communist forces of PRC tried to land on Dongding Island. When that failed, they began shelling the islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and the Matsu Islands. In response, the United States dispatched several Super Sabres, Voodoos, Starfighters, and Canberras to Taiwan to demonstrate support for the island nation. Among those dispatched were several modified F-86 Sabre fighters equipped with newly developed and still secret AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

An F-15 Eagle aircraft armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives

Named after a poisonous rattlesnake found in the Mojave Desert, the Sidewinder missile detects targets using infrared thermal radiation, similar to the way the snake hunts. According to legend, the missile's name also refers to the distinctive tracks left by the Sidewinder snake in the desert sand, which resemble the corkscrewing motions of the missile in flight. Later designated AIM-9B, the missile had a range of three miles, far exceeding that of existing guns, and carried a ten-pound fragmentation warhead with an effective blast radius of 30 feet.

On 24 September 1958, about a dozen F-86 Sabre flown by Taiwanese pilots clashed with as many Chinese MiG-17s over the Taiwan Strait. The MiGs were superior machines in all regards that could fly faster and higher than the aging Sabres, making them difficult to intercept. However, the AIM-9B missiles made up for all the Sabres’s shortcomings. These missiles allowed Taiwanese pilots to launch their missiles at higher-flying enemy fighters from ranges beyond the reach of traditional guns and cannons, and then turn away. On that day, as many as six out of twelve MiGs were downed by the Sidewinders.

The surviving Chinese pilots returned to the base, baffled at the unexpected outcome of the dogfight. Just then they noticed that one of the jets had a Sidewinder missile still embedded in its fuselage. The missile had failed to detonate. The Chinese carefully dismantled it and attempted to reverse-engineer its technology. When the Soviets learned about the Sidewinder, they persuaded the Chinese to send them the captured missile.

AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles on the wing pylon of an F/A-18A Hornet aircraft. Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives

Up until then, the Soviet air-to-air missile program had only produced the Vympel K-5, a short-range beam-riding missile that required the launching aircraft to maintain its orientation toward the target for the entire duration of the missile’s flight. This limitation made it suitable for engaging slow-moving targets like bombers but rendered it ineffective for fighter-on-fighter air combat.

The captured Sidewinder proved to be a godsend. The missile had several valuable features, notably its modular construction, which facilitated ease of production and operation. The simplicity of the AIM-9 stood in stark contrast to the complexity of contemporary Soviet missiles. The Sidewinder's infrared-guided homing head contained a free-running gyroscope and was much smaller than Soviet counterparts, and its steering and in-flight stabilization system were equally superior. One engineer at the Vympel team, Gennadiy Sokolovskiy, remarked that "the Sidewinder missile was to us a university offering a course in missile construction technology which has upgraded our engineering education and updated our approach to production of future missiles."

The Sidewinder was quickly reverse-engineered as the K-13 and entered limited service only two years later, in 1960. It became the main short-range missile among the Soviet and Warsaw Pact Air Forces, including those of China, Cuba, Vietnam, India, and Pakistan.

The Soviet K-13, a copy of the U.S. Sidewinder, at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A few years later, when an improved version of the AIM-9B entered service, the Soviets became desperate to acquire this new missile. They hired German architect Manfred Ramminger, offering to save his construction company from financial ruin in return for missile equipment, which he promised he could obtain.

One night in the autumn of 1967, under the cover of heavy fog, Ramminger and his two partners—Josef Linowski, a Polish engineer, and Wolf-Diethardt Knoppe, a Luftwaffe pilot—broke into Neuberg Air Base and brazenly walked away with a Sidewinder missile. They rolled the missile down the runway in a wheelbarrow to Ramminger’s Mercedes sedan parked outside the base. The nine-foot missile didn’t fit in the car, so the thieves broke the rear window to poke it through. To avoid attracting attention, they covered the missile with a blanket.

Upon reaching his home in Krefeld, Ramminger dismantled the missile and packed it into a crate. He then took the crate to the nearest post office, declared the missile pieces as vehicle spare parts, and shipped them via air mail directly to Moscow. The shipment cost him $483.88.

The daring raid could have ended badly when the wooden box was mistakenly sent to the wrong destination. Ramminger’s parcel first traveled from Frankfurt via Paris to Copenhagen, then back to Düsseldorf, before finally reaching Moscow, 10 days late. For his efforts, Ramminger was paid $81,000.

A West German court later arrested and convicted Ramminger and his associates of treason, espionage, and grand larceny. The three were sentenced to between three and four years in prison.

It was not the first time the Soviets had stolen technology from the United States. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union acquired three B-29 Superfortress bombers, which they reverse-engineered to create an identical aircraft, the Tupolev Tu-4. The Soviets were also accused of stealing technical data related to the Anglo-French Concorde supersonic airliner to develop their own version, the Tupolev Tu-144. Although the Tu-144 had significant differences and issues, the similarities suggested that espionage played a role.

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union made extensive efforts to obtain Western semiconductor technology. This included reverse engineering various computer chips and other electronic components, such as the IBM 360, which were critical for both civilian and military applications. The acquisition of such technology was crucial for the Soviet Union to keep pace with the rapid advancements being made in the West.

The acquisition of Western technology through espionage not only bolstered the Soviet Union's technological capabilities but also highlighted the intense competition and mistrust between the superpowers during the Cold War. Both sides engaged in a constant struggle to outmaneuver each other, using every means at their disposal, including espionage, to gain an edge.

The legacy of Cold War espionage continues to influence modern international relations and technological development. The stories of daring heists and covert operations serve as reminders of the lengths to which nations will go to protect their interests and advance their technological prowess. As technology continues to evolve at an unprecedented pace, the importance of safeguarding intellectual property and maintaining robust security measures remains as critical as ever.

# The volunteer super-spy: How a German businessman stole the newest US missile for Moscow, RT
# FACT: The KGB Shipped a Sidewinder Missile by Mail to Moscow, The National Interest
# America’s Groundbreaking Sidewinder Was Poised to Rule the Skies. Then, the Soviet Union Stole It., Popular Mechanics


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