How Russia and China Could Strike the US Air Force’s 'Achilles Heel'
A new generation of Russian and Chinese-built long-range air-to-air missiles could threaten the critical nodes that enable U.S. air operations. Those nodes include the AWACS, various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, aerial refueling tankers and electronic attack aircraft.
While often overlooked in favor of advanced anti-ship and surface-to-air missile systems when examining Russian and Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, such long-range air intercept weapons—coupled with the right fighter—could cut the sinews that allow the United States to conduct sustained air operations in both the Asia-Pacific and the European theatres. Essentially, Russians and/or Chinese forces could pair long-range air-to-air missiles with aircraft like the Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound, Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA and the Chengdu J-20 to attack American AWACS, JTARS and aerial refueling tankers like the Boeing KC-135 or forthcoming KC-46 Pegasus. Especially over the vast reaches of the Pacific where airfields are few and far between, lumbering aerial refueling tankers could be an Achilles’ Heel that Beijing could chose to exploit. There are three long-range air-to-air missile programs that bear watching—the Russian Vympel R-37M RVV-BD, the Novator KS-172 (aka K-100) and the Chinese PL-15.
Russia’s new R-37M RVV-BD long-range air-to-air missile is already at the initial operational capability (IOC) stage onboard the Mikoyan MiG-31BM Foxhound. It will also eventually be integrated onboard the Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E and the T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter. The RVV-BD—also called the AA-13 Arrow by NATO—is claimed to have successfully intercepted targets at ranges greater than 160 nautical miles.
“The improved R-37M (RVV-BD, Izdelie 610M) missile is in serial production since 2014, and now, apparently, it is in an IOC stage in squadrons of MiG-31BM upgraded interceptors,” said researcher Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief, which is published by the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow. “The RVV-BD missile is also planned for use on the T-50 fighters.”
The original R-37 was originally developed by the Soviet Union to attack high-value NATO air assets such as the E-3 Sentry AWACS, E-8 JSTARS and RC-135V/W Rivet Joint. The idea was to use a high-speed fighter such as the MiG-31—which can sustain speeds of Mach 2.35 over a radius of 390 nautical miles while carrying a significant air-to-air payload—with the new missile to eliminate those NATO air assets. An aircraft like the MiG-31—or a stealthy supersonically cruising airframe such as the PAK-FA—is ideal for such a mission because they are difficult to intercept due to their sheer speed and altitude.
“The R-37 was a dedicated missile for wiping out ISR assets that was developed and tested in the 1990s,” said Mike Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at CNA Corporation. “It was not meant for just the Mig-31. There is also a follow-on missile that's one of Novator's projects—the KS-172 or now often called K-100.”
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian defense industry continued work on the R-37 project but progress came slowly. The 1990s was an especially difficult time for the Russian defense industry as funding slowed to a trickle. Indeed, the original Soviet-era R-37 was cancelled before being restarted as the current RVV-BD variant. “The pure R-37 (Izdelie 610) missile terminated development in 1997,” Barabanov said.
The R-37M is likely to utilize a combination of inertial guidance with course corrections from the launch aircraft and active radar guidance for the terminal phase. During combat operations, aircraft like the MiG-31 would make a high-speed dash towards its target and launch a salvo of R-37Ms. The Foxhound would likely track the target with its enormous Zaslon-M phased array radar and feed data to the missile until the weapons’ own radar went active. It might also have a home-on-jam feature similar to the one found onboard the U.S.-made AIM-120D AMRAAM to counter airborne electronic attack aircraft such as the Boeing EA-18G Growler.
The Soviet Union was well aware that one of NATO and the United States Air Force’s primary advantages was their ability to run a coordinated air campaign using assets such as the AWACS. The Soviet Union explored a variety of methods to counter aircraft such as the AWACS—including passive-homing long-range air-to-air weapons. “As I understand, the theme of air-to-air missiles with passive radar homing was popular in the Soviet Union in the 1980s (see also R-27P), but is now recognized as unpromising,” Barabanov said.