The Buzz

Russia's Lethal Su-35 Was Just Spotted Armed with a New Missile NATO Should Fear

Video footage shot by a U.S. Navy F/A-18C Hornet squadron over Syria shows a pair of Russian Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E fighters armed with a pair of older R-27 air-to-air missiles but what appears to be a single R-77-1 RVV-SD active radar-guided missile.

The R-77-1 is the latest and most capable medium range air-to-air missile it in the Kremlin’s inventory, but the Russian Air Force has only a limited stock of the weapons. Russians are actively working on saving airframe life on their newest missiles while using as many of their older weapons as possible because they believe the chances of an air-to-air confrontation with allied airpower to be fairly remote.

“They're probably flying with R-77-1 to show us they have them, but realistically don't expect to be doing air to air combat with Western forces,” Michael Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at the CNA Corporation told me.

Russian analysts also agree that the R-77-1 is being used primarily for show.

“In the Syria RVV-SD missiles are used on Russian AF planes, but again, due to resource savings, not always. Rather, they are hung to show others—the USA and Turkey—that they have them,” Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief, which is published by the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) told me last year. “Why do they not hang them permanently? The Russian AF obviously does not believe in the possibility of confrontation with the United States in the air. So why waste resources on bogus threats?”

While the Russian air force possesses active-radar homing missile technology, it only has a small number of those weapons in service. “The RVV-SD missiles are just beginning to reach de facto initial operational capability in the Russian Air Force - it is necessary to provide training, etc,” Barabanov said. “As with all aircraft missiles, the RVV-SD is a limited resource in terms of the number of takeoffs and landings onboard an airplane. At the end of this limited resource, it is necessary to send a missile to be repaired for life extension. Therefore, during peacetime, flying airplanes with expensive new missile does not make sense.”

Because Russia does not have vast stocks of RVV-SD missiles in service and its perception of the threat, Moscow is making use of the vast arsenal of R-27 missiles it inherited from the Soviet Union. “The Russian Air Force has vast numbers of old R-27 family missiles in warehouses—a resource which also expires. Therefore, they do not regret using those and actively fly with them in peacetime,” Barabanov said.

During the, 1990s—when Russia was suffering from an economic and social meltdown during the post-Soviet Yeltsin-era—production of the original Soviet R-77 came to a halt. While a version of the R-77 called the RVV-AE was built for export during the 1990s, it wasn’t until the 2000s that Russia resumed production of a new version of the weapon for its own requirements.

“For the Russian Air Force, since 2000, Vympel—now KTRV Corporation—developed a new version of the R-77 missile under the designation RVV-SD (Izdelie 170-1),” Barabanov said. “The first contract for their purchase was signed by the Ministry of Defense of Russia in 2009—along with the first contract for the Su-35S fighters.”

It was not until 2011 that the Russian air force received its first RVV-SD missiles—and the service does not yet have enough of the new weapons in its inventory. “Deliveries started around since 2011,” Barabanov said.  “Since then, there were two major contracts for the RVV-SD missiles—in 2012 and in 2015—with the last being worth 13.175 billion rubles with delivery expected in 2016-2017. With that purchase, there is now a sufficiently large number of RVV-SD missiles.”

But just because the Russians have the RVV-SD in their inventory, that doesn’t mean they want to wear them out that quickly.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.