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It's become an oft-used trope in air/space combat scenes where an evading craft has been target-locked by a pair of missiles with some sort of seeking technology. In order to avoid destruction by the missiles, the craft executes a rolling/spinning maneuver. This results in the two missiles following the spinning behavior of the craft by twisting around each other, closer and closer, until they finally collide with each other and explode "safely" behind the craft.

I'm curious how feasible of an evasion tactic this actually would be. It seems to me that the tracking/seeking technology used by the missiles would have to be extremely sensitive in order for a craft spinning to alter their path so dramatically. It would have to be sensitive enough to track a specific point or small region on the targetted craft - like a particular engine on a two-engine craft, or a particular wing/control surface.

I'm certainly no weapons or military expert, but this seems a bit too sophisticated for existing technology. I know that heat-seeking technology is available, but that doesn't seem like it would be precise enough to cause the exhibited behavior. Heat-seeking would simply follow the heat source, which, in the case of a single air combat craft (again, using existing technology) would be the engine(s) at the rear of the vehicle. The amount of heat produced by the engine(s) would most likely look like a single, hot "blob" to any detection technology at any distance over a couple of feet.

Current technology also allows for laser-guidance systems, which might provide such tracking precision, but I'm not sure whether or not that technology would be able to affect the flight path of the missile as quickly and dramatically as it does in the trope. Additionally, while I assume that many air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles are designed with flight control surfaces, I don't know if they provide more than "rudimentary" control of the missile, or if they are precise enough to react and change the direction as quickly and often as would be implied by the trope.

Not to mention that, as the trope implies, it seems that such precise tracking could actually be considered a design flaw in these circumstances. If the missiles do not have some sort of "awareness" of the position and proximity of other nearby missiles - especially those fired from the same launching mechanism - it becomes much more likely that they could collide with each other even without the target pilot executing any "fancy flying". To me, that means that the missiles would have to be launched within a somewhat close range to the target to prevent such accidental detonations.

Of course, if we're talking about fictitious or future technology, I suppose it may be possible that the missiles' tracking, propulsion, and flight systems' could be fine-tuned to provide the level of precision required to exhibit the twisting behavior when following a target, but again we're left with the design flaw of two missiles not being able to communicate with each other to determine the proximity of another missile versus the actual target.

Additionally, I would think - and it seems from the scenes in which this evasion method is used - that such a maneuver would put a great deal of stress on the targetted pilot. Based on all of this, I am simply wondering if this trope has any basis in reality, or if it was just something "cool" some storyboard artist came up with one day to throw into an action film so everyone would "ooh" and "aah".

Here's a YouTube video of a clip from the beginning of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD season 1 episode 17 with an example of the type of maneuver to which I'm referring. The missile launch takes place at approximately 0:50, and the spin maneuver/missile collision takes place about 10 seconds later.

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It's not viable at all

First of all, there is no reason for two missiles even being that close to each other. One missile will do the job just fine.

Secondly, most (if not all) anti-aircraft missiles are not even designed to actually hit the aircraft. Instead, they use a proximity fuze which explodes them when they are within a predetermined range from the aircraft. Two missiles hitting each other directly behind an aircraft would damage the plane as much as it would if the missiles would detonate when planned.

Also, as you point out in the question, the missile guidance systems are not precise enough to make the missiles do such detailed maneuvers, nor is there any need for that because the missiles are not designed to directly hit the aircraft anyway. (And even if they were, the center of the aircraft doesn't change its position when spinning, so it would only make a difference if the missiles for some bizarre reason targeted the tips of the wings of the airplane. Well, they might be targeting the engines at the wings, but in that case a direct hit would be somewhat improbable even without any evasive maneuvers.)

  • Thank you for that. I was not aware of the proximity fuse, which could definitely render a multiple-missile scenario pretty pointless (regardless of any "overkill" desire of the person launching the missile), depending on the sensitivity and/or specific implementation of the technology. It sounds to me like, if two missiles using proximity fuses were too close to each other, they'd detonate each other anyway. Just out of curiosity, do you have any personal, experiential knowledge of such armaments? – G_Hosa_Phat Jan 3 '18 at 5:02
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    @G_Hosa_Phat No, I have know experience with such armaments, just have done some research on the Internet out of curiosity. – Steadybox Jan 3 '18 at 5:06

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