Strength of Russian missiles lies in their modular designs
Many of the air-launched weapons in Russia’s arsenal have been around for more than 15 years. Consequently, they all need to be upgraded to comply with the performance requirements of the newer model Mikoyan MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35 fighters. Both the missile and seeker design bureaus in Russia have risen to the task and have taken on the challenge of coming up with developments that will complement the advanced capabilities of these new fighter aircraft.
Their solutions demonstrate two of the chief strengths of Russian aerospace design philosophy: First, leave room for growth in the design of any major weapon system so it will be viable and capable of being upgraded for many years. And, second, modularity makes modification of weapons systems a comparatively simple process.
The improvements that these Russian missile designers have been able to make fall into several different categories:
• Replacement of previously analog components with all-digital design configurations;
• Using new-generation optics and more advanced seeker head elements;
• Improving battery power and endurance of seeker head operation;
• Enlarging the firing envelope of these missiles to enhance engagement scenarios;
• Miniaturization of components; and
• Improving performance against jamming or other countermeasures.
One of the more difficult design feats is Moscow Research Institute AGAT’s development of a small-diameter active radar homing seeker. Designated the 9B-1103M-150 (the 150 indicating it has a diameter of 150 mm), it is designed to be fitted to the Vympel R-73 (AA-11) missile body in place of that missile’s normal infrared (IR) seeker.
The missile was developed after a number of studies by both Russian industry and the air force showed the need for a missile with the shorter range of an IR type, but guided by a radar-homing seeker. This makes it less susceptible to jamming and also easier to lock-on in some scenarios.
AGAT’s general director and general designer, Dr. Josef Akopyan, explained to Aviation International News that cutting this seeker down to the size of the R-73 missile and modifying it to perform this shorter-range mission is not as easy as one might think.
“To make this seeker work we had to solve three basic technical problems,” he explained. “First, we had to develop and use some smaller components to reduce the dimensions of the seeker compartment. Second, we had to make sure that battery power and other elements of the seeker would work long enough so the range of the missile would not be less than that fitted with an IR seeker. Third, we needed to design the seeker so it would have a quick response and warm-up time so it could be locked on and launched as quickly as an IR missile.”
AGAT has been able to accomplish all of these objectives, making it possible to soon arm Russian aircraft with a short-range missile that has either an IR or a radar homing seeker head.
Another similar improvement is the MM-2000 IR seeker produced by Ukrainian firm Arsenal to be fitted to a new iteration of the R-73 missile. This seeker is an all-digital design and is capable of locking onto targets that are up to 75 degrees off-boresight, compared to just a 60-degree envelope for the previous-generation seeker. However, Arsenal representatives have admitted that at this time there are no concrete plans to begin large-scale production of this seeker, meaning that no launch date has been set for these new missiles.
New Air-to-Air Missiles
But beyond these improvements, Russian missile designers are supposedly working on an entire new generation of air-to-air missile designs that would be part of the weapon system complement for the PAK-FA next-generation fighter concept that a collection of Russian design bureaus, including Sukhoi, are currently designing. Parallel to the path to develop a next-generation IR missile will be an effort to design a follow-on to the RVV-AE weapon.
The other major area of interest for Russian missile designers has been the improvement of the country’s inventory of air-to-surface weaponry. One of the most talked-about of these is the Zvezda-Strela Kh-31, which is a supersonic, air-launched air-to-surface weapon that can be used against both land-based and sea targets.
Previously, the Kh-31 was built with a variety of seeker heads (like many other Russian missiles), including both active homing and a series of three different passive-homing, anti-radiation seekers. A new version of this missile, designated Kh-31PMK, is a longer, extended-range design that employs a multiband anti-radiation seeker that replaces the previous three separate models. It is believed to also incorporate improved digital technology which, when combined with the missile’s extended range, makes it a much more formidable weapon.
However, unlike the improvements in Russia’s air-to-air missiles which are geared toward new Russian fighter developments, this enhanced Kh-31 is reportedly intended for the People’s Republic of China’s PLA Air Force program to upgrade its fleets of Su-27 and Su-30MKK fighters. It also appears to be farther along in development (because Chinese funding has already been made available) than the air-to-air missile projects mentioned above.
What is certain is that when combined with improvements in radars and electronic warfare systems that are also in the works, Russian fighters are going to have a longer reach when competing with U.S. or other NATO systems. How quickly these improvements move forward will depend–as it always does–on how much money is made available to support them.