Russian Airborne Guided Weapons. Current State and the Future

For the years that passed since the commencement of a large-scale military reform initiated in 2008, the Russian Aerospace Forces (RAF) have incredibly changed. They have received many new aircraft.



Four wings of the Su-35S fighters, almost seven wings of the Su-30SM and Su-30M2 fighters, three wings of the MiG-29SMT fighters, a wing of the Su-27SM3 fighters, and five wings of the Su-34 frontline bombers – this is only an incomplete list of the newest aircraft received by the RAF under the State Arms Program to be implemented by 2020. A larger number of aircraft have passed modernization. Army air force units have received over 200 new attack helicopters such as the Mi-28N, Ka-52, and Mi-35M, including a larger number of transport helicopters. Moreover, by 2020 the RAF will totally receive almost 600 new aircraft of various types, plus about 1,000 various helicopters.

New airborne weapons are concurrently being developed, because such weapons define the actual efficiency of combat airplanes and helicopters to a great extent.

This is crucial for fighter aviation, because as far back as in 1990s most of fighters operated by air forces in NATO countries were basically provided with the next-gen AIM-120C “air-to-air” missiles equipped with active target-seeking devices (TSD).

Missiles with semi-active TSD are guided to their targets using the target’s radar echo and, therefore, the target should be “illuminated” by the carrier aircraft onboard radar until the very moment of target hit. This substantially limits aircraft maneuvering during air fights. But missiles with active TSD require only radar correction by means of commands from the carrier aircraft onboard radar while passing the initial leg of the trajectory, and then they are able to lock on target without guidance. Actually, an active TSD is designed as a mini-radar installed in the nose part of a missile, able to detect and lock on a target that belongs to the fighter-class targets (without stealth application) at a distance of 10–15 km. With respect to effective range of 25–30 kilometers for medium-range “air-to-air” missiles, this already gives a great advantage in air fighting. Besides, immediately after launching a missile with the active TDS, an aircraft may perform any maneuvers while a missile may fly through the initial flight leg, using the inertial autopilot; however, in this case the probability of kill will be dramatically decreased. When launching a missile equipped with the semi-active target-seeking device, an abrupt maneuver (for example, a 90-degree turn) will lead to failed lock-on and a missile will miss the target. Therefore, missiles equipped with active TSD give a great advantage in long-range air combat, irrespective of aircraft flight performance.

Russian “Air-to-Air” Missiles Are Competitive with Western Equivalents

In the late 1980s, the USSR developed the R-77 missile equipped with the active target seeker. Like the US AIM-120C missile being developed at that time, this missile was intended to be installed inside internal weapon bays onboard not only the existing 4th generation fighters, but also then prospective 5th generation fighters. Only 200 R-77 missiles were produced by 1992. In the late 1990s, Design Bureau Vympel (the developer of the R-77 missile) developed an export version of this missile designated RVV-АЕ. A large number of these missiles were exported to India and China, as well as to other countries operating Russian 4+ generation fighters. In the late 2000s, an improved modification of the R-77 missile – the RVV-SD missile – was developed. It featured better performance and was practically identical to the modern modifications of the US AIM-120C missile in terms of combat capabilities. Tactical Missiles Corporation (TMC is the main developer of high-precision weapons in Russia) entered a contract for large-scale production of the RVV-SD missiles to be supplied in 2016–2017. As early as late 2016, a large amount of these missiles are really expected to be supplied to regular units of the Russian RAF.

In addition to the RVV-SD missile, the new all-aspect short-range RVV-MD missile based on the R-73 missile has been developed along with the new long-range RVV-BD missile. The first works on developing a new long-range missile were started as far back as the 1980s. The missile designated R-37 was intended to replace the R-33 missile used as the “major caliber” of the MiG-31 interceptor. The RVV-BD missile passed the tests and was officially put into service in 2014. This missile is used to equip modified MiG-31BM fighter interceptors and is expected to be installed on other aircraft (including the 5th generation T-50 PAK FA fighter). Accurate data on its performance is unclear, but its maximum range is estimated to reach up to 300 kilometers. It is evident that the effective range of these missiles when firing at a fighter-class target is substantially lower, but anyway it is far longer than the effective range of the existing medium-range missiles.

Another excellent parameter is the estimated lock-on range of the missile active TDS to reach 40 kilometers for targets with the effective reflective area equal to 5 sq. meters. The RVV-BD missile is basically designed to hit the enemy’s cruise missiles within a long range, as well as their carriers. The application of such missiles may at least disorganize the enemy, disturb its flight formations and have the most severe shock effect on the enemy. The RVV-BD missile will allow to substantially widen combat capabilities of Russian MiG-31BM and successfully destroy the enemy’s cruise missiles at a substantially longer distance and even hit long-range radar detection (LRRD) aircraft and airborne command centers. Note that no country in the world has equivalents to this missile. Moreover, an available option to install the RVV-BD missile on the Т-50 PAK FA and its Russian-Indian modification FGFA makes this aircraft more attractive for the world arms market players.

Guided “Air-to-Surface” Airborne Weapons

Basically, the term “high-precision weapon” (HPW) means various types of “air-to-surface” class guided munitions. Since their appearance on the scene in the early 1970s, these munitions allowed to reach a several-fold, even a ten-fold increase in efficiency of attack aircraft. A single aircraft became able to deliver surgical strikes on hard-to-reach targets, the termination of which with conventional munitions often required tens of sorties and hundreds of dumb bombs.

Despite some gap in development of high-precision munitions in comparison to NATO, the Soviet Union had managed to produce huge arsenals of various types of such weapons. Aircraft operated by tens of attack, bomber and fighter-bomber aircraft wings were armed with the widest number of various types of guided weapons.

During wars in Chechnya and South Ossetia, high-precision munitions made a small part of the total amount of applied air weapons. Nonetheless, the application of guided air-delivered munitions during the above-mentioned conflicts provided wide experience in combat tests under real conditions. For example, during the war in South Ossetia, the Kh-31P anti-radar missiles and the KAB-500S satellite-guided bombs were successfully tested.

Let’s make a short digression concerning the high-precision weapon application concept used for Russian armed forces. Russian military authorities take a reasonable approach to use high-precision weapons to hit only the most important and hard-to-reach targets, i.e. enemy’s military infrastructure facilities such as bridges, storage facilities, bunching troops, command posts, air defense systems, etc. This approach compensates its high costs. For instance, the cost of a single guided air bomb is practically equivalent to the cost of the amount of conventional “dumb” bombs required for a sortie of the whole wing. In NATO, the application of high-precision weapons is worshipped while the most extensive use of such weapons often gives controversial results, plus an enormous rise in the cost of a military operation. For example, the costs of NATO’s air operations against Yugoslavia nearly exceeded damage inflicted on the enemy. During the air operations in Libya in 2011, the extensive use of high-precision weapons by French and British air forces actually depleted arsenals in these countries for two months. Moreover, such extensive use of high-precision weapons did not help to drastically reduce civilian casualties.

Nonetheless, arsenals with a large amount of high-precision weapons should be available in case of war against a tough enemy. By the commencement of a large-scale military reform in 2008, the high-precision weapon arsenal for Russian attack aircraft was based on the Kh-25L, Kh-29L and Kh-29Т missiles with laser and television target-seeking devices, Kh-58 and Kh-25МR antiradar missiles, as well as the KАK-500L and KАB-1500L guided bombs with laser TSD. Russian air-derived high-precision munitions were basically inferior to Western equivalents; certain types of these weapons were not available for Russian military aviation, such as flying bombs (for example, the US flying bombs JSOW) and tactical air-delivered cruise missiles (CM), such as the US tactical cruise missile AGM-158 JASSM and European Storm Shadow.

In the 2000s, Russia launched the production of the Kh-31P antiradar missiles and KАB-500S guided bombs equipped with a satellite target-seeking system. For the period that passed since the commencement of the military reform, TMC has managed to make the best use of the design of Soviet missiles and develop advanced modifications of the Kh-25 missiles equipped with a television and active radar TSD and substantially enhance performance of the Kh-29 missiles. The Russian RAF have already received the Kh-59МK and Kh-59МK2 long-range tactical cruise missiles, which, unlike their predecessor – the Kh-59 missile – are equipped with an inertial guidance system together with an active TSD instead of a television-command system.

New Russian “Air-to-Surface” Missiles – a Smart Reply to NATO Products

In recent years, a significant progress has been achieved in development of high-precision munitions. In late 2012, RAF received a newly developed Kh-38 missile intended to replace the obsolescent Kh-29 missiles. The Kh-38 missile is available in different versions equipped with any target-seeking devices – laser, television, satellite, and active radar TSD. At MAKS-2015 Air Show, TMC exhibited a wide range of new air-delivered guided munitions, including the “Grom-1” tactical CM and the “Grom-2” guided smart bomb based on the Kh-38 missile. The modified version of the Kh-59MK2 missile was represented as well. By the way, this modification is actually a new missile featuring a different exterior shape and content in comparison to the basic version of the Kh-59 missile. In fact, it is a full-featured air-delivered CM and a smart reply to foreign-made JASSM and Storm Shadow cruise missiles. These missiles are intended to enlarge the weapon list for modern Russian aircraft such as the Su-34, Su-35S, Su-30SМ, MiG-29K, etc.

 “Gefest”: Dumb Weapons for High-Precision Strikes

Strike accuracy of dumb bombs has substantially increased as they are still used by attack aircraft to deliver most of strikes during modern warfare. To improve strike accuracy of dumb bombs, the USA largely equips them with special JDAM systems. These systems are designed as a set of control surfaces combined with a self-guidance system (laser or satellite) to turn flying bombs into high-precision munitions (although, strike accuracy of such bombs is many times lower than accuracy of full-features smart bombs).

Russia has already developed the SVP-24 “Gefest” special computing subsystems and started to install them on a large number of aircraft. The “Gefest” systems are able to compute the point to be hit by air bombs with the highest accuracy, using all physical parameters such as aircraft speed and attitude, air temperature and density. As a result, this allowed to achieve incredible strike accuracy of air bombs. A dumb bomb launched by an aircraft equipped with this system at an altitude of 5 kilometers may hit the circle with a diameter of about 25–30 meters. This system provides strike accuracy of dumb bombs comparable to accuracy of the US JDAM systems, but installation of such a system on aircraft is much cheaper than equipping American dumb bombs with the JDAM systems. Due to this system, Russian aviation in Syria is able to deliver surgical strikes on the enemy’s facilities, launching bombs at an altitude of 5–6 kilometers being in a cruise flight mode and out of reach for terrorists’ man-portable air defence systems.

Now, the production output for air-delivered high-precision weapons is constantly increasing along with development and testing of several new models. For example, in September 2016, tests of the new flying bomb PBK-500U SPBE-K “Drel” were started. Over 10 new “air-to-surface” missiles and smart bombs are being developed to be installed inside internal weapon bays onboard the future Russian 5th generation fighter T-50 PAK FA and its export version FGFA.

Russian Aerospace Forces’ Operation in Syria Makes Russian HPW More Attractive for the Global Arms Market

Any skeptical forecasts regarding Russian high-precision weapons were disproved by Russia’s air operations in Syria launched a year ago. Starting from the first sorties, Russian aircraft largely used high-precision weapons as the territory controlled by terrorists was actually turned into a real firing ground for testing a wide arsenal of the newest models of HPW. The results of the application of high-precision munitions in Syria exceeded all expectations. Smart bombs and missiles hit different terrorist facilities, such as warehouses, militants’ camps, fortifications, and underground command centers, providing the highest accuracy in any conditions, day and night.

In the course of the military operation in Syria, Russian weapons including high-precision munitions were shown to the best advantage. This heightened interest in Russian weapons and military equipment has already increased big backlogs of orders for Russian defence industry companies. The export future for different Russian air-delivered munitions is getting better and more promising as many various customers show their interest in these products. Many countries may be interested in an upgrade package for the existing Soviet combat aircraft, including the SVP-24 “Gefest” system, as this approach allows to substantially reduce costs of high-precision munitions.

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