Could Russia's R-77 Missile Crush the U.S. Air Force in a War?
The R-77 air-to-air missile, which will be the primary air-to-air armament of the upcoming Su-57, has had a troubled development compared to its American counterpart, the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Starting life in the 1980s as a Soviet developmental program aside the AMRAAM, its testing and development dragged on due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was only adopted in 1994, two years after the AIM-120’s first operational kill during Operation Southern Watch. However recently it has seen a revival, arming some Russian fighters operating over Syria. It also has seen considerable export success. Its manufacturer, JSC “Tactical Missiles Corporation” is now working on an upgraded version that is to arm the Su-57 that includes a new AESA seeker, a technology that has not been included on the AMRAAM (although the Japanese AAM-4B has one).
Technologically, the R-77 is an active-radar homing missile, meaning that the seeker itself has a small radar that sends out radar pulses to detect the target and then uses that information to home in on the target. The current R-77 and R-77-1 use mechanically directed doppler radar without AESA, while rumored future variants will use AESA, in which the radar beam can be electronically directed with greater precision and speed (the use of AESA does not preclude the use of mechanical direction; modern Russian radars have been seen with both). The missiles also possess inertial guidance. Aerodynamically, the R-77 is distinctive among air-to-air missiles in that it uses grid (lattice) fins, an innovation that greatly increases the surface area versus traditional fins. This allows the R-77 to maneuver at higher angles of attack. These fins are also foldable allowing the R-77 to be placed on internal missile bays of some aircraft. The R-77 also uses a laser proximity fuze, in contrast to the AIM-120, which uses a radar proximity fuze. The laser fuze is immune to ECM by design principle; however, the AIM-120’s fuze is said to be designed to be resistant to ECM as well.
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So why have we seen the R-77 deployed operationally only recently, despite its adoption in 1994? One of the primary reasons for this is the lack of integration onto the Russian Air Force’s primary fighter, the Su-27. At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the primary air-superiority fighter of the Russian Air Force, the Su-27S, could not use the R-77. In the tactical-fighter realm, only the MiG-29S (9.13) could use it, and this aircraft was far more limited in radar capability relative to the Su-27S, limiting its utility in air-to-air combat. (While interceptors like the MiG-31M have been seen with the R-77, these are unlikely to be used in a dogfight.) Only in 2004 did the Russian air force start modernizing its Su-27S fleet to the Su-27SM standard, which could carry R-77s. The fighters seen carrying R-77s recently in Syria are Su-35S, which only began deliveries in 2013. Overall, this points to a lack of urgency in fielding R-77 capable aircraft until recently. Presumably, this is because of the lack of real air-to-air confrontations that the Russian Air Force saw to be in its future in the 1990s and 2000s. Most of the conflicts that Russia was involved in were primarily counterinsurgency wars, or against weaker powers like Georgia with limited air forces. Only recently has Russia been using its air force in a position which puts them in possible contention with countries with air forces with peer capability. In comparison, the USAF saw a lot of air-to-air action during the AMRAAM’s initial fielding period in the Middle East and Balkans.