Murphy's Law: The Russian Myth Maker Missile

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November 22, 2016: One of the little-discussed casualties of the Syrian war is the Russian claims about the quality and reliability of some of their latest high-tech weapons. Case in point is one of their high-tech air-to-air weapons that they have been offering for export since the late 1990s but have not obtained for their own air force. This is the R-77 (or RVV-AE, or AA-12) radar guided missile. This project began development in 1982 and was not completed until 1994. It has been sold to several other countries (Algeria, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sudan, Syria, Uganda and Venezuela) but Russia has never announced they have bought any.

A Russian fighter was first seen carrying R-77s in early 2016. This was in Syria on a Su-35 and it was believed related to the feud Russia was having with Turkey over a November 2015 incident in which a Turkish F-16 used an American Sidewinder heat seeking missile to shoot down a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber. In the wake of that incident Russia talked tough and postured a lot. That included mounting R-77s on at least two Russian fighters in Syria. Never before had an R-77 been seen on any of the Russian MiG-29s and Su-27/30s the missile was designed for. The appearance of several R-77s on one or two Su-35s was seen as a threat to Turkey rather than proof that Russia had actually bought R-77s for their air force. Meanwhile China says they have “improved” on the R-77 but neither China nor India (the other major export customer) have ever used it in combat.

The R-77 is the Russian counterpart to the American AMRAAM. The R-77 is similar in size and weight, weighing 175 kg (385 pounds) versus 152.2 kg (335 pounds) for AMRAAM. R-77 is 3.8 meters (11.9 feet) long compared to 3.6 meters (11.2 feet), and 200mm in diameter versus 178mm. The R-77 has a max range of 90 kilometers (compared to 70 for AMRAAM).

That the R-77 has not yet been used in combat is important because Russian missiles, historically, have been less reliable and effective than their Western counterparts. That was often not admitted until the Russian weapons got some combat exposure and their performance was witnessed. The R-77 is not worthless, they are just less likely to knock down aircraft they are aimed at. The Chinese saw flaws in the R-77 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. The Chinese PL-12 has, so far, not demonstrated any extraordinary abilities but the Chinese have more confidence in it than the R-77 it was based on.

 


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