Gold-Plated Weapons

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Sidewinder vs. Sparrow. Both missiles have been carried by U.S. fighter planes since the 1960s. The Sidewinder is designed to down enemy planes within visual range, roughly eleven miles. A heat-seeking missile, it speeds toward its target at twice the speed of sound, and homes in on the tailpipe. Its current version costs $59,000. The Sparrow is bigger (500 Ibs. to 190 lbs.), nearly twice as fast, and is guided by radar so that it can be fired at targets as far as 31 miles away. It costs $169,000.

Which has proved deadlier in combat? The Sidewinder, easily. During the Viet Nam War, Sidewinders shot down their target 24% of the time, Sparrows only 8%. Improvements to both missiles do not seem to have changed their batting averages. Israeli officials have told Americans that Sidewinders killed far more of the 80-odd Arab jets downed over Lebanon last year than Sparrows did. One reason: most aerial duels are fought at less than the Sparrow's minimum effective range (which is secret). In a close-range dogfight, the Sparrow's great speed often causes it to zip right past an enemy plane taking evasive action before the missile's radar can zero in on the target.

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