Bold naval encounter: Ka-29 chases Ukrainian USV with Archer IR AAM

Recently, visuals of a Russian Ka-29-armed helicopter rising onto a Ukrainian USV, equipped with an R-73 infrared-guided air-to-air missile, were circulated on various social platforms. Interestingly, the R-73 [AA-11 Archer], typically seen on fighter jets, was fixed onto a static launcher on the USV. Moreover, an empty slot was also noticed. The reasoning behind mounting an air-to-air missile on a USV remains unclear, but two plausible theories have emerged. 

Bold naval encounter: Ka-29 chases Ukrainian USV with Archer IR AAM
Video screenshot / Twitter

One theory suggests that USVs could be used to ambush undetected aircraft at sea. Harking back to the Cold War era, it has been standard practice to double up on air-to-air missiles, proving to be an effective strategy for tracking and downing aircraft in wide-open waters. If indeed this is the intended purpose of the missiles, it would be a significant moment, marking the first time use of a USV in an air defense role. 

The alternative theory considers that the USVs may be equipped with R-73 missiles to torpedo small surface vessels, accomplished by tracking their heat signatures. It’s feasible to recalibrate IR-guided air-to-air missiles to pursue surface targets—as demonstrated by the U.S.-made AIM-9X Sidewinder, an equivalent to the R-73, which successfully targeted a small boat after a software adjustment.

R-73 or Archer AAM

The R-73 is a short-range, infrared-guided air-to-air missile developed by the Soviet Union. It’s known for its high maneuverability and accuracy, which renders it a formidable weapon in close combat aerial engagements. The missile has been designed with a length of 2.9 meters, a diameter of 0.17 meters, and a wingspan of 0.51 meters. It has a weight of approximately 105 kilograms, with a 7.4-kilogram warhead. Its compact size allows it to be attached to a variety of aircraft. 

The R-73 operates by using an infrared homing guidance system. This system allows the missile to track and engage targets based on their heat emissions, rendering it specifically effective against aircraft. The missile’s guidance system permits it to engage targets at high off-boresight angles, offering the pilot a noteworthy advantage in dogfights. The operation range of the R-73 missile typically falls between 300 meters and 30 kilometers. The combination of this range, its high maneuverability, and accuracy make it a potent weapon for close to medium-range aerial combat situations. 

Various models of fighter aircraft can equip themselves with the R-73 missile. These include the MiG-29, the Su-27, and their various subsequent versions. More recent Russian aircraft, such as the Su-35 and the MiG-35, also accommodate the R-73. Furthermore, it has been exported to numerous countries and is operated by their air forces.

India intends to produce the Vympel R-73E missile for MiG-29/Su-30
Photo credit: Rosoboronexport

What about the USV?

The system leverages reconfigured air-to-air missiles, resulting in a setup that’s often labeled as a ‘FrankenSAM’. The USV comes equipped with a pair of AA-11 ARCHER [R-73] air-to-air missiles. Interestingly, these seem to be installed on their aircraft pylon rails, but in an inverted manner and at a fixed elevation. This setup is refreshingly simple. 

Despite the helicopters’ successful engagement with the USV, the fundamental concept seems flawlessly conceived. This could potentially influence Russian tactical approaches. Heretofore, the USVs have been virtually defenseless against aircraft, considering Russia maintains air superiority over a significant portion of the Black Sea. 

Yet, the USVs have managed to execute a series of crucial strikes on Russian warships. The introduction of air defenses on some USVs might present new challenges for Russia in devising countermeasures.

2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

On February 21, 2022, Russia stated that its border facility was attacked by Ukrainian forces, resulting in the deaths of five Ukrainian fighters. However, Ukraine quickly dismissed these allegations, labeling them as ‘false flags’.

In a notable move on the same day, Russia announced it officially recognized the self-proclaimed areas of DPR and LPR. Interestingly, according to Russian President Putin, this recognition covered all the Ukrainian regions. Following this declaration, Putin sent a battalion of Russia’s military forces, tanks included, into these areas.

Bold naval encounter: Ka-29 chases Ukrainian USV with Archer IR AAM
Photo credit: Ukrainian MoD

Fast forward to February 24, 2022, global headlines were dominated by a significant incident. Putin commanded a forceful military assault on Ukraine. Led by Russia’s impressive Armed Forces positioned at the Ukrainian border, this assault wasn’t spontaneous but a premeditated action. Despite the circumstances resembling a war, the Russian government refrains from using this term. They’d rather refer to it as a “special military operation”.

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