This article was drafted and submitted to the U.S. Defense Department for Security Review on 4 Nov., a week before Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson. Given that withdrawal, the premise of this article resonates even greater.
In mid-October, Asia Times published an article stating Russia was seeking Iranian missiles to replenish their ballistic ground-to-ground missile stocks. This isn’t surprising given the massive number of missiles employed to date since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Extrapolating Russia’s need for increased ground-to-ground missile stocks, however, presents an interesting question. What about their air-to-air missile inventory? Recent press out of Russia suggests a problem… a far greater problem.
Prior to the war, Western intelligence had long assessed Russia’s Air Force to be formattable, with numerous air-to-air missiles for their array of fighter aircraft. Interestingly, Asian Times on 2 Nov. touted Russia’s first use of the R37 (NATO designated AA-13 Axehead) missile in the war and claiming a kill on a Ukrainian fighter. The article’s narrative would lead a reader to believe Russia was rolling out even more modern weaponry, placing Ukraine in even greater peril. Worth noting, there was no convincing evidence of this kill, merely file footage of the missile and an interview with a pilot who said he used a “long range missile” (he did not specify what missile he’d used). Other media jumped on the report and Twitter was set ablaze as an echo chamber for the news.
To a trained eye, and with measured analysis of Russia’s use of R37s in combat, however, highlights something far more concerning than the potential peril of Ukraine. Russia is in trouble.
Here is a closer look at the modern R37. In accordance with Russia’s own reporting, the R37 is a long-range missile intended to target a potential adversary’s large airframe assets that fly a significant distance from the fight, providing high value assistance. In the U.S. inventory, that would include the E-3 AWACS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, EC-130H Compass Call, E-8 JSTARS, Airborne Tankers and others. The R37’s physical characteristics support what Russia claim(ed) as the missile’s intended role. It’s fat, resembling a tuna can more than a traditional missile, and the maneuvering surfaces are small relative to the size of the missiles. It’s clearly a limited maneuvering missile, but the girth provides potential for a massive warhead – exactly what engineers would design to destroy large aircraft.
Here’s the rub though… Russia’s recent public relations blitz via the Asian Times says the R37 shot down a Ukrainian fighter, not a large, massive C2ISR platform. Is that possible? Sure. If the Ukrainian pilots fly their fighters straight and level with little effort to defeat inbound missiles. I don’t know too many fighter pilots with such a death wish, though.
Worth noting, the Russian missile arsenal has far more capable missiles specifically designed to target adversary fighters with greater probability of kill. In addition to the R37, Russia also has the following beyond visual range air-to-air missiles. The R27 (NATO designated AA-10 Alamo), the R77 (NATO designated AA-12 Adder). Both missiles are long, sleek and have maneuvering surfaces that clearly suggest they’re intended for highly maneuverable enemy aircraft (fighters, for example). From a pilot perspective, these missiles are likely the “go to” choices for Russian aviators to arm their aircraft for air combat. There are others as well. The R37 arguably isn’t in the top three. So why use the R37?
One theory spread on Twitter is that the missile’s use was a “messaging campaign” from Moscow. Russian pilots are carrying the R37 as a “show of force” to remind the West (owners of these large C2ISR aircraft) to stay out of the fight. Really? In this war, Moscow has done some crazy stuff so one can’t dismiss the theory outright, but as a former combat aviator, I certainly would rather have missiles I could immediately employ in a contested battle rather than dedicate a missile rail for strategic messaging. If Russia had air superiority in this war, then perhaps there is an argument to carry the R37, but that’s far from the current situation.
Taking all this into context though, and circling back to the original question about weapons stocks, specifically air-to-air missiles, after eight months of conflict in a hard-fought air war, how many R27s and R77s remain?
Something tells me, not many. A good argument could be made that Russia is now employing the R37s in a less than desirable employment scenario due to low quantities of their R27s and R77s… and that’s a far more dire situation for Russia than low stocks of surface-to-surface missiles. With respect to the latter, a surface-to-surface missile launch platform is either cheaper than, or cost comparable to the missile. Acquiring new missiles on differing launch systems is possible, just requiring training on use.
In the air domain, the air vehicle (launch platform) is far more expensive than the missile. Hence, buying a new launch platform (a new aircraft) with the missile is cost prohibitive – not to mention the exorbitant cost of training. Additionally, one cannot just “add” a different missile to an aircraft’s capability. An airframe’s operational flight program (OFP) is written and designed to only interface with certain missiles. Rewriting this in order to add different missiles to the aircraft’s arsenal would be a massive undertaking and take months of research and then certification.
This leaves Russia a few options. First, they can build more R27 and R77 missiles, but given the few peeks the West has seen into the Russian Military Industrial Complex from the current war, this ability is questionable. Second, Russia can ask the handful of countries it sold R27s and R77s to for a chance to buy them back. A few problems here. Arms transfers are extremely hard to keep secret and it’s not realistic to think India, Egypt, Malaysia, or others desire to highlight themselves as Russia supporters in the current war (Belarusian missiles were likely already sent and already expended). Second, those nations don’t have massive numbers of missiles (India with 500 is the max). In a time of global uncertainty, even if India was diplomatically willing to sell the missiles to Russia, they’d likely refrain, placing their security concerns over Russia’s. Lastly, all these nations likely hold export versions of these missiles which are less capable than the ones Russia built for her own use (and possibly not matched to the OFP).
While something is better than nothing, not sure how Russian pilots will feel about having a less capable missile than the one they learned and trained with.
The outlier? China. China is the only nation which also uses R27s and R77 (or similar enough variants) in numbers great enough to provide support to Russia. Also, given their proximity and a land bridge masked to the West, China could discretely transfer such arms. Of course, the OFP would have to interface with the Chinese missile, which at this point is unknown. Eventually, however, should China send missiles to Russia and should they be employed, one of them would sooner or later be discovered on the ground in Ukraine and via some rudimentary forensics, China’s involvement will be exposed. At present, given China’s diplomatic stances on this war, that’s an unlikely scenario.
Those are Russia’s options and none of them seem feasible. Rogue nations like Iran might be able to help the ground-to-ground ballistic missile supply, but the dirty secret in Moscow currently is likely how to get more air-to-air ability. If they can’t, soon their fighters will be capable of just shooting short range infrared missiles and guns, making the skies over Ukraine a potential turkey shoot for Ukrainian fighter pilots.
Colonel (Retired) Jeffrey H. Fischer (@JeffFisch), U.S. Air Force, is a 30-year Military Aviator, Electronic Warfare Officer with seven combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans. He flew both the Air Force’s EC-130H Compass Call and the EA-6B Prowler while on a joint exchange with the U.S. Navy, seeing considerable combat time in both airframes. Additionally, Jeff served as a Defense Official at the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo. Jeff holds a master’s degree from the National Defense University and is the author of LIVE RANGE and BALKAN REPRISAL, both available globally on Amazon.
“The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.”
“The public release clearance of this publication by the Department of Defense does not imply Department of Defense endorsement or factual accuracy of the material.”
“Approved on 9 Nov 2022 from U.S. Department of Defense, Office of Prepublication and Security Review.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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