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How Russia and China Could Strike the U.S. Air Forces Achilles Heel

A U.S. Air Force AWACS plane. U.S. Air Forcephoto

How Russia and China Could Strike the U.S. Air Forces Achilles Heel

Fast jets with long-range missiles could snipe tankers and commandplanes


A new generation of Russian and Chinese-built long-range air-to-air missiles could threaten the critical nodes that enable U.S. air operations. Those nodes include the AWACS, various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, aerial refueling tankers and electronic attack aircraft.

While often overlooked in favor of advanced anti-ship and surface-to-air missile systems when examining Russian and Chinese anti-access/area denial capabilities, such long-range air intercept weaponscoupled with the right fightercould cut the sinews that allow the United States to conduct sustained air operations in both the Asia-Pacific and the European theaters.

Essentially, Russians and/or Chinese forces could pair long-range air-to-air missiles with aircraft such as the MiG-31 Foxhound, T-50 PAK-FA and the J-20 stealth fighter to attack American AWACS, JTARS and aerial refueling tankers including the Boeing KC-135 or forthcoming KC-46 Pegasus.

A KC-135 Stratotanker. U.S. Air Forcephoto

Especially over the vast reaches of the Pacific where airfields are few and far between, lumbering aerial refueling tankers could be an Achilles Heel that Beijing could chose to exploit.

There are three long-range air-to-air missile programs that bear watchingthe Russian Vympel R-37M RVV-BD, the Novator KS-172 (aka K-100) and the Chinese PL-15.

Russias new R-37M RVV-BD long-range air-to-air missile is already at the initial operational capability stage onboard the MiG-31BM Foxhound. It will also eventually be integrated with the Su-35S Flanker-E and the T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter.

The RVV-BDalso called the AA-13 Arrow by NATOcan apparently successfully intercepted targets at ranges greater than 160 nautical miles.

The improved R-37M (RVV-BD, Izdelie 610M) missile is in serial production since 2014, and now, apparently, it is in an IOC stage in squadrons of MiG-31BM upgraded interceptors, said researcher Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief. The RVV-BD missile is also planned for use on the T-50 fighters.

The original R-37 was originally developed by the Soviet Union to attack high-value NATO air assets such as the E-3 Sentry AWACS, E-8 JSTARS and RC-135V/W Rivet Joint.

The idea was to use a high-speed fighter such as the MiG-31which can sustain speeds of Mach 2.35 over a radius of 390 nautical miles while carrying a significant air-to-air payloadwith the new missile to eliminate those NATO air assets.

An aircraft like the MiG-31or a stealthy supersonically-cruising airframe such as the PAK-FAis ideal for such a mission because they are difficult to intercept due to their sheer speed and altitude.

The R-37 was a dedicated missile for wiping out ISR assets that was developed and tested in the 1990s, said Mike Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at CNA Corporation. It was not meant for just the MiG-31. There is also a follow-on missile thats one of Novators projectsthe KS-172 or now often called K-100.

After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian defense industry continued work on the R-37 project but progress came slowly. The 1990s was an especially difficult time for the Russian defense industry as funding slowed to a trickle. Indeed, the original Soviet-era R-37 was cancelled before being restarted as the current RVV-BD variant.

The pure R-37 (Izdelie 610) missile terminated development in 1997, Barabanov said.

The R-37M is likely to use a combination of inertial guidance with course corrections from the launch aircraft, and active radar guidance for the terminal phase.

During combat operations, aircraft like the MiG-31 would make a high-speed dash towards its target and launch a salvo of R-37Ms. The Foxhound would likely track the target with its enormous Zaslon-M phased array radar and feed data to the missile until the weapons own radar went active.

It might also have a home-on-jam feature similar to the one found onboard the U.S.-made AIM-120D AMRAAM to counter airborne electronic attack aircraft such as the Boeing EA-18G Growler.

The Soviet Union was well aware that one of the U.S. Air Forces primary advantages was its ability to run a coordinated air campaign using assets such as the AWACS. The Kremlin explored a variety of methods to counter aircraft such as the AWACSincluding passive-homing long-range air-to-air weapons.

As I understand, the theme of air-to-air missiles with passive radar homing was popular in the Soviet Union in the 1980s (see also R-27P), but is now recognized as unpromising, Barabanov said.

While the RVV-BD is a fearsome weapon, Moscow might be developing an even more capable missile called the Novator KS-172which is sometimes also called the K-100. While the RVV-BD is thought to have a maximum range of less than 200 nautical miles, the Novator-designed weapon might be able to engage targets as far away as 250 nautical miles.

Two hundred-plus nautical miles is too steep for the R-37M, Kofman said. It is only Novator that makes something for targets at those ranges. That would be something like the KS-172 that was designed to try and hit beyond 200 miles.

However, it is unclear when or even if the KS-172/K-100 missile will ever complete development and enter production. There are indications that the K-100 is likely a long-dormant project that might never see the light of day.

With the K-100 they were looking for Indian money to finish development, Kofman said. Nice missile from Novator, but I doubt it will see operational statusno need for that kind of a long poke to fit on any fifth-gen aircraft.

Indeed, Barabanov said that the K-100 has likely been terminated. As for the K-100 missile, I have my doubts that this an active program, Barabanov said. I think that the work on it stopped a long time ago.

Chinas J-20 stealth fighter. V587wiki photo via Wikimedia

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China is developing the ramjet-powered PL-15 that could have a range as great as 120 miles.

The PL-15 weapon has caused consternation within the top-ranks of the U.S. Air Force, with Air Combat Commands Gen. Herbert Hawk Carlisle citing the Chinese weapon as one of the pressing reasons for the United States to develop a next-generation replacement for the decades-old AIM-120 AMRAAM.

How do we counter that and what are we going to do to continue to meet that threat? Carlisle asked during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last year.

Later, during an interview with Flightglobal, Carlisle said that countering the new Chinese missile was an exceedingly high priority for the U.S. Air Force. The PL-15 and the range of that missile, weve got to be able to out-stick that missile, Carlisle said.

Indeed, the problem is not just that the PL-15 would out-range the AMRAAM. When coupled with the J-20 stealth fighter, the Chinese could attack the tankers and ISR aircraft that would be the key enablers during any air campaign over the Pacific.

A 2008 RAND briefing suggested that in order to sustain F-22 operations over Taiwan from Guam, the U.S. Air Force would need to launch three to four tanker sorties per hour to deliver 2.6 million gallons of fuel. Thats a fact that has not likely escaped Beijings notice.

While there is not much concrete data available about the J-20, the aircraft appears to have been optimized to high-speeds, long-range, stealth and a heavy internal payload.

With a combination of reduced radar cross-section and high supersonic speedarmed with internally carried PL-15 missilesit is possible that the J-20 could be used to threaten U.S. Air Force tankers and ISR assets in the Pacific theatre.

As pointed out in the 2008 RAND studyChinese derivatives of the Su-27 Flanker all but annihilated U.S. tanker, ISR, maritime patrol and command and control aircraft during a simulation using long-range air-to-air missiles.

The U.S. Air Force has looked at dispersed basing and developing robust logistical trains to counter Chinas long-range weapons in the Pacific.

However, the Air Force does not appear to have fully developed a plan to protect its tanker, ISR and command and control assets from enemy air attacks.

The only answer the service has to the problem is that those aircraft will have to be pulled back to safety outside the effective range of the Chinese threat.

But that would also limit the effective range of the Pentagons short-range tactical fightersreducing their ability to strike deep inside Chinese territory.

Thus, with the information available, it is likely that Russian and Chinese deployment of long-range air-to-air missilesand the fifth-generation fighters to carry those weaponscould pose a significant problem for the Pentagon. Its a problem that certainly bears watching in the coming years.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest.

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