Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Russian long-range air-to-air R-37M missile associated with Su-35s more effective than expected in Ukraine

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Developed in the 1980s on the basis of the R-33 (AA-9 Amos) heavy missile, the R-37 (AA-13 Axehead) heavy air-to-air missile, originally the R-37M missile, was designed to give aircraft that do not have the very powerful radar of the MIG-31 the possibility of engaging long-range aerial targets.

For this, the semi-active radar seeker of the R-33 was replaced by an active radar seeker coupled with inertial navigation, as was the case for the American AIM-54 Phoenix missile which then equipped the F-14 Tomcat of the US Navy, which should make it possible to equip the missile with a range of 200 km aboard air superiority fighters such as the Su-27 or the Su-30.

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However, the economic difficulties encountered by the Soviet Union led the authorities to considerably slow down work on this program in 1988, without it ever being put into service. In 2006, relying on the effort and the new credits made available by the Kremlin since the arrival of Vladimir Putin, the Russian missile specialist Vympel MKB undertook to exhume the program, with a view to modernizing it and above all to to be able to equip the new Russian Su-30SM, Su-35s and Su-57 fighters.

The Russian air forces wanted, in fact, to equip themselves with a missile capable of constituting a threat to support aircraft such as early air warning aircraft (Awacs E-3 Sentry, E-7 Wedgetail, E-2 Hawkeye, etc.). ), tanker aircraft such as the KC-135, the A330 MRTT or the KC-130, as well as electronic intelligence devices such as the Rivet Joint or the Compass Call.

For the Russian general staff, it was a question of neutralizing the effectiveness of this air support fleet constituting a considerable force multiplier for NATO. Initially designed to replace the R-33 as part of the modernization of the Mig-31BM, the R-37M missile (for “modernized”) entered service in 2018 aboard this aircraft.

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the R-37M missile is given to have a range of 400 km and a speed greater than mach4
the R-37M missile is given to have a range of 400 km and a speed greater than mach 5

Very quickly, Russian engineers undertook to adapt the R-37M aboard the Su-35s , the ultimate air superiority fighter of the Flanker family, notably equipped with the very efficient Irbis-E passive electronic antenna (PESA) radar. Barely two years later, at the end of 2020, the Su-35s/R-37M pair was declared operational within the Russian Air Force.

Capable of engaging an aircraft at 200 km in direct fire, and up to 400 km in gliding fire at high altitude, the R-37M reaches a terminal speed greater than Mach 5, making it particularly difficult to avoid by maneuver for The target aircraft, which only has a very short period of time to attempt to escape the missile's interception envelope.

In addition, since the missile was developed only in Russia, even in the 1980s, and never exported, little information about it was able to filter through, allowing defensive jamming systems to be effectively configured to counter this threat. , within NATO as well as the Ukrainian air forces.

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Above all, while the general perception tended to qualify the R-37M as a missile specialized in the interception of imposing and poorly maneuverable targets of the support fleet, it now appears that it is also very effective against combat aircraft of fighter or fighter-bomber type maneuvering and evolving, moreover, at very low altitude.

And in fact, to date, the Su-35s/R-37M pair represents, according to the Ukrainian air forces, the greatest threat to its combat aircraft operating close to the line of engagement, including at low altitude and high speed.

Indeed, if Ukrainian pilots are perfectly familiar with the performance and position of Russian surface-to-air systems, as well as the performance of traditional air-to-air missiles such as the short-range R-73 or the medium-range R-77, they are today often helpless in the face of a Su-35s capable of detecting them at more than 200 km with its Irbis-E radar, then engaging them using the R-37M at this distance.

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