Air Weapons: Known But Not Seen In Use

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September 8, 2016: When Russia sent its most modern warplanes into Syria in August 2015 the West was able to observe these aircraft, missiles and electronic system operate in combat for the first time. The results were interesting and a year later it was clear that a lot of the new Russian stuff looked better on paper than in reality. Turns out that most of this new stuff developed during the 1990s didn’t start reaching Russian troops until much later. Initially the new stuff was mainly for the export market. Customers who were unlikely to use these weapons in combat were preferred because any failure by a new weapon hurts future sales, even if you can convincingly point to user error as the problem. Thus Russia was careful in how and where it used these new weapons and equipment in Syria.

At first most attention was on Russian missiles and guided bombs. Two things were noted. First was that not all Russian warplanes in Syria used Russian smart bombs and air-to-ground missiles and even those that did more frequently used unguided (“dumb”) bombs. A year later it was noted that Russian fighters equipped for air-to-air combat usually didn’t carry the latest air-to-air missiles. Rather they carried older models using tech and capabilities similar to American missiles in the 1970s.

After some investigation it turned out that Russia never bought a lot of the most advanced weapons for their own forces and, especially after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, exported most of the newest weapons they had on hand and nearly all the ones still being manufactured in the 1990s. It wasn’t just smart bomb, it was also air-to-air missiles and new electronics. It wasn’t until after 2000 that Russia was able to begin buying these advanced systems for their own forces and then not very many of them. Another problem, which was not really unknown, was that a lot of the most modern Russian weapons performed poorly. The U.S. had already learned this from the new Russian missiles and smart bombs (and electronics and so on) they were able to buy in the 1990s, when many former Soviet allies (or parts of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine) were willing to sell these “wonder weapons” to anyone who could pay. The U.S. could pay, bought lots of them, actually used them under realistic conditions and found these weapons less reliable and effective than their American counterparts. The U.S. later found out from India (a long-time customer for these Russian weapons) had the same experience in combat. What remained unknown until 2015 and 2016 in Syria was how few of the most modern weapons the Russian troops themselves had and how inexperienced they were in the use of this stuff.

Even before 1991 considered these special weapons that were only to be used on rare special occasions. It turned out this policy extended to the most modern Russian air-to-air weapons as well as the latest electronics. This was in sharp contrast to American practice. Since the 1990s the United States has increasingly used smart (laser or GPS) guided bombs and now over 99 percent of American air strikes use such weapons. Other Western nations also adopted smart bombs in much the same way. Russia was known to have had such weapons since the 1970s, many of them based on American smart bombs (or fragments) captured in Vietnam but there were few verifiable reports of them actually being used.

It wasn’t until the 1991 Gulf war that the full impact of these weapons was noted. In the 1991 war only 16 percent of the 250,000 bombs dropped were guided. But analysis of the battlefield later revealed that the guided bombs had done 75 percent of the actual damage. This pattern kept repeating itself and by the late 1990s the U.S. was on its way to using nothing but smart bombs. Not so Russia. While new smart bombs were developed in Russia very few were built and Russia kept quiet about. Moreover few Russian warplanes were equipped to use smart bombs and few pilots had any experience with these weapons. So it should be no surprise that Russia is using few smart bombs in Syria. The simple fact is that Russia has few of these weapons and even fewer aircraft and pilots able to handle them. Apparently this also applies to their new air-to-air missiles.

Meanwhile China is building a lot more smart bombs and equipping more (than Russia) of its aircraft to use them. Since the 1990s China could afford to do so while Russia could not. China is still learning from Russian experience developing guided bombs and missiles. . In 2010 China introduced a new laser guided bomb; the LT-2. This weapon looked very similar to the Russian KAB-500L 1100 pound laser guided bomb. The KAB-500L in turn is very similar to the American Paveway series of laser guided bombs. That is, a dumb bomb has a guidance kit attached. In 1994 China introduced a laser guided bomb that appeared to be reverse engineered U.S. Paveway. These apparently did not perform very well, so China apparently used Russian smart bombs as a model.

Laser guided bombs have been around since the late 1960s, when the U.S. developed the first weapons of this type. American bombers used laser guided bombs successfully in the final years of the Vietnam War. The technology required was not particularly difficult, although there are a lot of little things you needed, from trial and error, to make the weapons reliable. Until GPS guided bombs appeared in the early 1990s the major problem with smart bombs was cost (over $100,000 each). GPS guided bombs cut costs by over 70 percent and after the 1990s smaller, cheaper and more reliable electronics brought down the cost of laser guided bombs as well.

Meanwhile Russia was known to have developed high-tech air-to-air weapons because they have been offering them for export since the late 1990s. For example the AA-12 (or RVV-AE, or R-77) radar guided missiles was developed for use on MiG-29s and Su-27/30s. The AA-12 is the Russian counterpart to the American AMRAAM. The AA-12 is similar in size and weight, weighing 175 kg (385 pounds) versus 152.2 kg (335 pounds) for AMRAAM. AA-12 is 3.8 meters (11.9 feet) long compared to 3.6 meters (11.2 feet), and 200mm in diameter versus 178mm. The AA-12 has a max range of 90 kilometers (compared to 70 for AMRAAM).

The AA-12 has yet to be used in combat. Russian missiles, historically, have been less reliable and effective than their Western counterparts. The Russian missiles are not worthless, they are just less likely to knock down aircraft they are aimed at. The Chinese saw flaws in the AA-12 and wanted to improve that design so that it is more competitive with AMRAAM. The Chinese were eager to create an effective competitor for AMRAAM that they could export. Their PL-12 has, so far, not demonstrated any extraordinary abilities.

 


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