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Heat‐Seeking Technology

Heat‐Seeking Technology is most commonly associated with the detection of infrared radiation. All objects with a temperature greater than absolute zero emit infrared energy, the most common characteristic of which is heat. Detection of this heat can be utilized for many purposes.

Military adaptations of infrared technology began during World War II. A device called the Sniperscope was developed by the Allies, enabling the soldiers to see and shoot at night by distinguishing the heat differentials of the terrain. In addition to the Sniperscope and other night‐vision devices, the potential of this technology for guidance purposes began to be realized. An infrared detector could be added to a missile, allowing the missile to seek out and follow the heat given off by the target. The U.S. military has since developed a number of such missiles, beginning with the Sidewinder, an antiaircraft missile successfully tested in 1953 and deployed in 1956. This new missile was quickly adapted for use by the other service branches, especially the air force. Since that time, missiles equipped with infrared seekers, including the Sidewinder and the Maverick, have been responsible for the destruction of aviation, maritime, and ground targets. Heat‐seeking missiles have been used in every major U.S. military conflict since the Vietnam War.

satellites equipped with infrared sensors use heat‐seeking technology for reconnaissance. The infrared sensors can aid in standard intelligence‐gathering purposes or to provide early warning of the launch of an attacking missile. This real‐time technology was utilized during the Persian Gulf War (1991), when satellites equipped with forward‐looking infrared sensors detected the launch of Iraqi Scud missiles.

Infrared seekers offer a number of advantages over other guidance systems (such as radar). First, infrared sensors cost less per unit; second, heat‐seeking sensors operate well by day or night, in good weather and bad. In addition, they are effective despite electronic countermeasures. Finally, infrared seekers improve the safety of the pilots whose planes bear the missiles through the use of “fire‐and‐forget” capabilities. After releasing the missile, the pilot can leave the area while the missile guides itself to the target.

These sensors do not provide a perfect system. One disadvantage is that objects that emit little heat are difficult to detect: the Tomahawk cruise missile, for example, is therefore difficult to detect with an infrared sensor. Second problem is that heat sensors are sensitive to shock and can be thrown off course during flight by a nearby explosion or disturbance. Nevertheless, heat‐seeking technology continues to play an important role in the observation and guidance systems of the U.S. military.
[See also Missiles.]


John Lester Miller , Principles of Infrared Technology, 1994.

Michelle L. Nelson

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