RuAF embraces Su-30SMs armed with R-77-1 AAMs for enhanced missions

A new video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense indicates that the Russian Aerospace Forces [VKS or RuAF] are progressively relying on the R-77-1 Vympel air-to-air missile. Recently,  similar footage exhibited a modernized Su-30SM Flanker-C fighter equipped with two such missiles beneath its wings. 

R-77 Vympel missile
Photo credit: Wikipedia

This type of footage is uncommon; the last recorded instance of a Russian fighter jet photographed with this missile was in October of the previous year. Both then and now, the footage originates from the same air base – Yeysk. Located in southwestern Russia near the namesake city of Yeysk in the Krasnodar Territory, this base sits on the coast of the Sea of Azov and is home to a portion of the strike aviation of the VKS. 

The R-77-1 Vympel is not a novel design. Known by its NATO designation as the AA-12 Adder, its development started in the 1980s and it was inducted into service in the 1990s. The reappearance of this missile on a Russian jet draws interest as, during the inception of its production, a sizable part of the components were sourced from Ukraine. After the 2014 conflict ensuing from Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian army implemented an embargo on Russia, severing supply chains. However, it seems that the production was rejuvenated after its second appearance as an armament on a Russian jet.

RuAF embraces Su-30SMs armed with R-77-1 AAMs for enhanced missions
Photo credit: Twitter

The unusual in the R-77-1 Vympel

A large number of Russian air-to-air missiles deploy their warheads on a direct hit to the target. What’s unusual about the R-77-1 Vympel is that its warhead can be discharged in proximity to an aerial target, without requiring a direct hit. This is facilitated by the built-in detonation mechanism of the laser fuse present in the missile. 

A laser sight operates by directing a laser beam at a target. The beam is reflected back to the missile by the target or environment. The fuse then quantifies the time needed for the beam to return, facilitating it to calculate the target’s distance. As soon as the target is within a set range, the fuse activates the detonation of the missile’s warhead. 

Compared to contact fuzes, which necessitate a direct hit on the target, laser fuzes provide a substantial advantage. They enable the missile to inflict damage even if it doesn’t hit the target directly. This proves particularly useful against fast-moving or evasive aircraft, increasing the possibility of inflicting damage or destroying the target. Furthermore, the laser fuse is less prone to countermeasures than other types of fuzes. It’s difficult to jam or mislead, solidifying it as a reliable choice for modern air-to-air missiles.

It was used in Syria

Unlike some Russian air-to-air ordnance, the R-77-1 Vympel does not have a rich history. There are no outstanding facts from open sources regarding its use in the war in Ukraine. 

There is only one operational history of the R-77-1 in the public domain, but there is no evidence that the missile has ever been used. In early February of 2016, four Su-35S were dispatched to Syria as part of the Russian Air Force Expeditionary Force in the country. Tasked with air-to-air duty, numerous images document that the Su-35S were armed with an assortment of R-77 missiles, positioned between the R-27T for infrared firing under the inner pylons and the R-73 under the outer pylons. 

When discussing the Su-35S, it’s noteworthy to consider which fighters can accommodate this missile. In addition to the previously mentioned Su-30SM and Su-35C, the MiG-21UPG, MiG-29, Su-27, Sukhoi Su-34, and Sukhoi Su-57 platforms can also carry it. The R-77-1 is a truly universal air-to-air missile. Interestingly, this missile is also found under the wings of Ukrainian fighter jets. As part of the supply chain, Ukraine possesses quantities of this missile. However, the exact quantity available to the Ukrainian Air Force remains unknown, according to publicly available sources.

The lost R-77-1

There may be limited insights into how Russia employs the R-77-1 in actual combat. However, it’s worth noting that this missile is regularly showcased under the wings of Russian combat aircraft. As strange as it may seem, one of the earliest confirmed usages of this missile actually relates to a malfunction, not a successful deployment. According to Voenniy Osvedimitel’s social media posts, a Russian fighter jet inadvertently dropped the “classified” air-to-air missile during operations in northern Ukraine in June 2022. 

RuAF embraces Su-30SMs armed with R-77-1 AAMs for enhanced missions
Photo credit: Defence-Blog

Interestingly enough, the Ukrainian emergency services were able to locate and secure fragments of the Russian-produced R-77-1 medium-range air-to-air missile, also known as Product 170-1, in the Zhytomyr region. It appears that one of Russia’s most advanced missiles was lost amidst the conflict in northern Ukraine due to a mechanical issue.

The choice is not random

As we approach summer 2024 and venture into the second half of the year, it is clear that Russia attentively anticipates the arrival of the first American-manufactured F-16 fighter jets. This comes after several European nations, including the Netherlands and Denmark, announced their plans to have the first Ukrainian F-16s soaring over Ukraine during this time. 

RuAF embraces Su-30SMs armed with R-77-1 AAMs for enhanced missions
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Primarily for patrol or security duties, Russia deploys Su-30SMs along with Su-27 or Su-35S units. They play an essential role in safeguarding Su-34 or MiG-31 missiles and bomb launchers. Frequently, they also serve as decoys against Ukrainian air defenses, effectively diverting attention away from the bombers. 

As per reports from Ukrainian pilots, the Russian Su-30 and Su-35 are deemed more advanced than the Ukrainian MiG-29 or Su-27. While it is believed that an air-to-air missile with a contact fuse could neutralize them, the effectiveness of these strategies against the upcoming F-16s remains uncertain. The anticipated arrival of the F-16s has probably spurred the Russian VKS to prioritize the development of a laser fuse, which could potentially guarantee them enhanced effectiveness.

R-77-1 Vympel

The R-77-1 Vympel, also known as the RVV-SD, is a medium-range air-to-air missile developed by the Russian Federation. It is often compared to the US AIM-120 AMRAAM due to its similar operational role. The R-77-1 is actually the Russian version of the original R-77. The difference is that it is designed with a streamlined nose, active radar head 9B-1248 [Izdelie-50-1], and new fins. 

RuAF embraces Su-30SMs armed with R-77-1 AAMs for enhanced missions
Photo credit: Defence-Blog

The R-77-1 Vympel [Pennant] missile is characterized by its active radar homing system, which allows it to maintain target engagement even when the launching aircraft maneuvers or disengages. In terms of dimensions, the R-77-1 Vympel missile is approximately 3.6 meters long, with a diameter of about 200 millimeters. The rocket’s wingspan is around 350 millimeters, and its weight is approximately 175 kilograms. 

The operational range of the R-77-1 Vympel missile is another notable feature. It is capable of hitting targets at a distance of up to 110 kilometers, depending on the altitude and speed of the launching aircraft.

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