International air show regulars have become accustomed to seeing Russian arms house Vympel’s line of air-to-air missiles (AAM) alongside Sukhoi’s fighter aircraft. But this week’s Le Bourget event marks the last time the companies will cohabitate.
Vympel has become part of Russia’s new Joint Stock Company (JSC) Tactical Missiles Corporation. The company came into being in 2002 when the Zvezda-Strela machine-building plant and design bureau and a score of other subcontractors joined to form a single entity.
Zvezda-Strela and its industrial partners share responsibility for design and production of medium- and long-range anti-ship missiles, anti-radar missiles and short- and medium-range multirole missiles. This includes the Kh-25, Kh-31 and Kh-35 family of air-to-surface weaponry.
JSC Tactical Missiles Corporation specializes in specific technologies that characterize these air-to-surface missile designs, such as hybrid propulsion concepts that combine a ramjet booster engine with liquid and solid-propellant rocket engines, small turbojet engines, small solid-propellant rocket motors and advanced onboard guidance systems with digital interface provisions which include separate control channels for the booster and main rocket motor.
Now the company has added the entire line of Vympel’s air-to-air weaponry to its product catalog. Like other mega-mergers in the Russian defense industry, folding Vympel into this missile JSC will hopefully propel some of the air-to-air missile makers’ designs off the drawing board and into production.
Vympel might find that the new pairing will help in the development of a ramjet-powered version of the RVV-AE active radar-homing air-to-air missile. Vympel has done considerable design work in this area and had produced some prototype development models, but limited financing suffocated the program.
Lack of funding has always been a source of frustration for Vympel’s design team; for years they have seen great promise in the ramjet AAM concept, but they never had the money to take it to series production. “We have–with no small degree of regret–watched other firms take this concept further than Vympel has thus far,” one of the firm’s designers told Aviation International News. “But the most regretful part of all is that we were the first missile firm in the world to explore this type of a design and in the beginning we were in the lead. Now we are somewhat behind our competitors in the U.S. and Europe.”
New Modular Designs
The concept of modular and interchangeable designs represents another aspect of the Zvezda-Strela weaponry designers can now apply to Vympel’s latest missiles. For example, the Kh-31A and the Kh-31P use nearly identical missile bodies, propulsion systems, guidance modules and control-surface actuators. Along with some components like the radar altimeter, the major differences lie with the type of seeker head and the warhead section.
Vympel also used a modular design in the R-27 (AA-10) series, in which a common missile body could use different seekers and long- or short-burn rocket motors. Using a common aerodynamic missile body and on-board systems simplified the integration and clearance of the missile to many different platforms and accelerated the introduction of new models into the production process.
Vympel’s biggest problem perhaps now lies with the fact that its three best prospects–the R-73 (AA-11) infrared AAM, the passive anti-radiation version of the R-27 (AA-10), and the RVV-AE (AA-12) active radar homing AAM–employ three completely different missile bodies. Since in this case it cannot employ a single, common missile body that can use one type of seeker or the other, Vympel is considering doing the next best thing–switching seekers between these missile types.
“One of the first ideas we are exploring now is to adapt the Agat 9B-1348 seeker used in the RVV-AE to the R-73 missile air frame,” said a company spokesman. “When the RVV-AE was initially developed its primary function was to shoot down large targets, like bombers, so it was designed to have an 80-kilometer range. But, most of our customers want a missile that is effective against a more agile and smaller target, such as an F-16. Thus, the missile needs to be more maneuverable and its effective range needs to be only about 50 kilometers.”
In this and other scenarios, where operators can also use the RVV-AE at closer ranges, the larger RVV-AE missile body is almost too large and “gets in the way of itself.” So Vympel now hopes to integrate the 9B-1348 seeker onto the R-73 missile airframe, replacing the missile’s infrared seeker.
Along those same lines Vympel has talked about mounting either a new infrared seeker that comes from Arsenal in Kiev, Ukraine or the Omsk Avtomatika 9B-1032 anti-radiation seeker from the R-27P onto the RVV-AE airframe.
The new Ukrainian seeker represents a major improvement over the Arsenal MK-80P seeker previously used on the R-73, so much so that Vympel will rename the missile the R-74. An all-digital design, the new seeker will be more sensitive to temperature ranges and benefit from increased range, a longer working time, a more economical cooling system, and a new one-color photo element as part of its optics configuration. Modeling and simulation performed by Vympel reveal that the seeker on the RVV-AE missile body could produce what Israel’s Rafael claims it has built in its Python V infrared missile: a beyond visual range infrared AAM.
At August’s Moscow Aviation and Space Exposition (MAKS), Vympel plans to show a surface-to-air-missile version of the RVV-AE. This show will also mark the first time the company will exhibit beside its new corporate affiliates at JSC Tactical Missiles Corporation.