Russia, China Could Soon Outmatch U.S. in Combat Aviation

New Russian air-to-air missile has advantage in speed and reach

R-37M / Photo by Reuben F. Johnson
July 9, 2018

KIEV, UkraineRussia's Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced that a new weapon is very near completion of its test validation trials and will soon be placed into service.

If reports of its operational performance are accurate, it will threaten the survivability of every U.S. combat aircraft currently in service—particularly the newest U.S. fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35.

The weapon is the Vympel R-37M air-to-air missile. Launched from a fighter aircraft, it is designed to hit targets at ranges of up to 188 miles, its warhead section contains 132 lbs of explosive material, and it is reported to be capable of speeds of up to Mach 6.

This missile gives Russian aircraft an advantage over U.S. combat aircraft in both speed and reach. The most advanced versions of the US-made Raytheon AIM-120 air-to-air missile top out at about Mach 4 and have a range of only about 110 miles.

Defense planners are alarmed at the number of fighters Russia plans to fit with this weapon.

The missiles that preceded the R-37M had been exclusive to the weapons fit for the Mikoyan MiG-31 aircraft. The MiG-31 mission was almost entirely dedicated to shooting down U.S. strategic bombers and other large aircraft that might pose a threat to Russian air space, so these missiles were typically not often seen outside of Russian territory.

However, according to MoD sources, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKO) are planning for Sukhoi model aircraft Su-30, Su-35, and Su-57 to all operate with the R-37M, in addition to the MiG-31. The missile will therefore be capable of being fired at almost any U.S. military aircraft in numerous theaters of operation worldwide and not just within Moscow's territorial airspace.

The announcement has elicited nervous reactions from defense ministries and air staff commands from Poland to America's allies in Asia. The only missile in the western arsenal that comes close to matching the Russian R-37M in speed and range is the ramjet motor-powered Meteor produced by the European consortium MBDA, which is not deployed on any U.S. aircraft.

There are also no missiles currently in the U.S. arsenal that match this Russian weapon's performance. This has several nations asking if they should look at a purchase of the Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighter, which has Meteor already integrated into its fire control system.

Su-30SM and Su-35 model aircraft are operated by Russia's military along the borders with NATO. Su-30 aircraft have buzzed U.S. warships and aircraft in both the Black Sea and in the Baltics, both aircraft were sold and are operated by the People's Liberation Army Air Force in China, and the VKO have also based them at the Russian military aerodrome in Latakia, Syria—where they are frequently in close proximity to U.S. forces. There have been rumors for years of an impending sale of either Su-30SM or Su-35 or both to Iran in large numbers.

Defense experts are concerned about how soon the R-37M will be in service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force. Chinese Su-35 aircraft have been seen recently transiting Novosibirsk while flying back to Russian flight test facilities further to the West. Speculation is that some of the aircraft are returning to evaluate having this new weapon added to their Su-35s.

Russian sources describe the guidance system on the R-37Ms as being equipped with a high technology "brain" that is "immune to jamming from electronic warfare systems."

The F-35 is one of the aircraft most vulnerable to this new weapon, an air combat specialist told the Washington Free Beacon. "The aircraft does not supercruise and does not have the 'acceleration to escape speed' that other aircraft are capable of. The F-35's stealth characteristics have also been designed to contend with an increasingly older generation of threats, which means the aircraft is more detectable to newer sensors and weapon systems."

This is a serious concern for the future of America's allies. Japan and South Korea are both F-35 customers and both have to contend with China's PLAAF on a regular basis. The F-35 is also being marketed to nations directly threatened by Russia such as Finland and Poland.

A former MBDA official told the Free Beacon that plans are in the works to try to even the score by integrating the Meteor missile on the F-35, but not until 2024 or later.

Published under: China , Military , Russia