Imagine this. It is the year 2020 and a coup by a radical political movement has taken over a southeast Asian government. The new administration has seized power in a state that has some of the latest weaponry available. The neighboring city state of Singapore is now locked in a tense standoff with the new regime that puts them on the verge of war.
Singapore’s military leaders are not unduly worried. In the event of hostilities, their air force, which is now equipped with new Boeing F-15Ts and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, is counting on the stealth design of the F-35 and the active electronically scanning array (AESA) radars of both fighters to tip the balance in the air war.
These latest innovations can counterbalance its adversary’s air force, which is flying some of the latest model upgrades of the Russian Sukhoi Su-30. These Su-30MKMs have recently been upgraded with a new radar set provided by the NIIP design bureau.
One evening a group of F-15 and F-35 aircraft from the Republic of Singapore Air Force are on a routine patrol mission close to Malaysian airspace when one of each type of aircraft are suddenly blown out of the sky. One hundred miles away from the group of fighters an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft acting as a forward air control platform also turns into a fireball and explodes.
The cause of all three losses is a mystery at the time. No radar warning receivers or other alarms ever sounded on their control panels to indicate that they were being tracked by enemy fighters or fired on. Neither can any traces can be found of a launch by a surface-to-air missile battery.
Only later does the reason become known. The two fighter aircraft have been hit by a Russian Vympel R-27P (AA-10) passive antiradiation air-to-air missile (AAM) and the AEW&C aircraft taken out by a long-range “AWACS killer” ramjet powered long-range R-77 (AA-12) that was also fitted with an antiradiation seeker.
This invented scenario may not be too far from reality given what Russian firms have been showing on the airshow circuit over the last two years and what their missile designers have been discussing in terms of their new projects. These capabilities sound like science fiction, but they actually reflect Russian firms’ potential to advance the development of certain technologies for which they have a competitive advantage in order to use them in applications that would negate the technological advantages of U.S. and European aircraft over MiG-29 and Su-27/30 models.
Lack of Financing
In the last 20 years Russian industry has not had the financial wherewithal to match U.S. expenditures in stealth technology research, development of systems to suppress infrared signatures, advanced radar designs and airborne battle management platforms. These are all significant battlefield multipliers and some would argue that they make the Cold War-era Russian Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighters almost incapable of surviving in modern-day air combat.
Russia’s military aerospace design bureaus have given up for the time trying to build a better, faster, bigger more powerful fighter to counteract these U.S. and European systems–as was attempted with the Mikoyan MFI Project 1.42 and S-37/Su-47 programs during the last days of the Cold War. Instead they have tried to marginalize specific, individual operational characteristics of Western fighters to degrade or neutralize almost every technological advantage possible.
What has really made the above hypothetical scenario possible has been the decision to improve upon–and then make available for export–the antiradiation weapons that were developed for the Russian arsenal in the past and had been kept under wraps for a number of years. Even to this day, some of the inner workings of these systems have not been shown to the outside world, only shapes and radomes of the seeker heads for these weapons have been exhibited.
R-27P Levels Field
The weapon that promises to even the playing field for Russian fighters more than any other is the R-27P antiradiation AAM’s 9B-1032 seeker produced by the Avtomatika design bureau in Omsk, Russia. Vympel, which makes the R-27 missile and is the systems integrator for combining any seeker with one of their missiles, has said not only is it ready to sell this missile to export clients, but it has completed all licensing procedures and authorizations necessary to begin series production of these missiles for export clients.
There are a number of advantages to an antiradiation weapon. One is that, unlike a radar homing missile that emits a signal that alerts an enemy to one’s presence, an antiradiation missile is a silent killer. Homing in on the radar emissions of an enemy aircraft, it gives almost no warning of its approach.
A second advantage is that the range of such a weapon is far in excess of that of most active radar homing AAMs. A Russian designer who knows this seeker well told Aviation International News that “the battery power required for a radar homing missile makes the seeker the limiting factor.” He explained that when it runs out of battery power the missile goes ballistic and is now unguided, but at this point there is still plenty of flight time and kinetic energy left in the missile. “The 9B-1032 seeker creates no such limitations,” he continued. “Its battery power requirements are much lower and it will keep working long after the rocket motor has run out of fuel or the missile begins to loose speed and altitude.”
This missile, once thought of as being designed primarily to attack battle management assets such as the Boeing E-3 AWACS, is really made to take out an opposing fighter aircraft. According to Russian specialists the seeker homes-in on radars emitting signals in the three-centimeter bandwidth–the same as most U.S. fighter radars.
U.S. radar designers insist that the latest AESA radar models are all frequency-hopping and therefore they do not emit a signal long enough at a specific point on the bandwidth for such a seeker to lock on to them. But Russian specialists reply that the threat model used by the U.S. to develop these radars relies on older versions of the 9B-1032 seeker. The new version for export, they claim, employs a number of new-generation components that are more sensitive and process signals faster.
If Vympel’s new weapon is purchased by a number of export customers, U.S. and European war planners may have to rethink how they would employ their aircraft in wartime operations. Potentially, antiradiation weapons open up a new chapter in the history of air-to-air missile warfare. If the technology to produce this type of a seeker proliferates, the advantages that Western fighter makers enjoy may not be as long-lived as originally planned.