As an example of Israel's defence aerospace capability, one would be hard pushed to find a better candidate than Rafael's Python 4 short-range air-to-air missile (AAM).

The Python 4 was the first high-off boresight missile fielded by a Western-equipped air force. While NATO countries were outclassed by Russia's Vympel R-73 (AA-11 Archer), the Israeli air force was able to field a superior missile in the shape of the Python 4 by the early 1990s.

The Royal Air Force will be the next service to field a missile substantially superior to the R-73, when deliveries of the Matra BAe Dynamics Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile (ASRAAM) begin in 1999.

The Python 4 was designed to fulfil a raft of performance criteria established by the Israeli air force, tailored to its own emerging operational requirements. The service wanted an extremely agile missile, with a vastly expanded no escape zone in comparison to the previous generation of short-range AAMs.

Fortuitously for Rafael, the Israeli and much of the rest of the world's air forces' short-range AAM requirements have coincided, with the Python 4 poised to emulate the Python 3 as an export success. Yet to be confirmed reports suggest that Chile and Singapore are the initial export customers.

Rafael is working on a variety of upgrades for the Python 4, and has entered into an agreement with Lockheed Martin which could see the two jointly further develop the missile. Teaming with the US defence aerospace giant will also provide Rafael with additional credibility in the export arena.

One potential area of collaboration is in the development of a full imaging-infrared seeker for the Python 4. Initially developed with an infrared front end, there have been unconfirmed reports that the variant fielded by the air force already has a limited imaging capability.

Weight remains another area at which Rafael is looking. The Python 4, at 105kg, is one of the heaviest short range AAMs in service. While wingtip station carriage on the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D is possible with the Python 4, the same cannot be said for the F-16A/B. A reduced weight variant of the weapon, however, would be capable of being carried on these stations.

With several missile design houses, besides Matra BAe, now looking at tail control only, or tail control coupled with thrust vectoring, it is hardly surprising that Rafael is also exploring this avenue in looking to next generation weaponry.

Alongside short-range weapon developments, Rafael is also understood to be involved in Israel's as-yet classified active radar-guided medium range air to air missile programme.

Israel Aircraft Industries' MBT unit is thought to have developed the radar seeker for the programme. The medium-range AAM uses a Python 4 diameter fuselage but is longer at 3.5m.

Source: Flight International