Russian Su-35’s radar ‘eats’ half of the R-37M missile full range

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The Russian R-37M hypersonic air-to-air missile is regarded as one of the most potent and impressive munitions in Russian combat aviation. According to the technical specifications released by Russia, the missile travels at a speed of Mach 6 and boasts a range of up to 400 km. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Since the onset of the war in Ukraine, analysts have speculated that the missile’s range has not been substantiated. Instead, the ambitious 400 km seems unattainable, though the R-37M met the standard for operational range before entering service in 2019. Some experts attribute this to the difference in the plane that tested the missile and the one wielding it in actual combat. 

The R-37M was designed for a different type of aircraft – the MiG-31BM Foxhound. This supersonic interceptor operates with the N007M radar. In Ukraine, Russian combat aviation actively uses the R-37M mounted on the Su-35 Flanker-E fighter, which is, however, equipped with an Irbis-E radar. It is the radars that contribute to the missile’s contradictory effectiveness on the battlefield.

Photo credit: Twitter

Radars differences

The N007M is far more potent than the Irbis-E, also referred to as Zaslon-M. Zaslon-M is a phased array radar enabling it to scan a larger area and track multiple targets simultaneously. This is a considerable advantage over the Irbis-E, a passive electronically scanned array [PESA]. radar The PESA radar can only focus on one target at a time, hindering its effectiveness in a multi-target environment. 

The Zaslon-M radar operates at a higher power level than the Irbis-E. It flaunts a peak power output of approximately 400 kW, a stark contrast to the Irbis-E’s peak power output of 20 kW. This increased power allows the Zaslon-M to detect targets from farther distances and with enhanced accuracy. It also enables the radar to penetrate electronic countermeasures more effectively, making it more resilient in a combat scenario. 

Photo credit: Military Watch Magazine

A-50U’s role

Thanks to its ability to detect and track targets at greater distances, the R-37M missile can be fired from a farther distance, increasing the missile’s effective range. Understanding these facts elucidates why Russian aviation was “forced” to frequently use not only for ground-to-air actions, but also for air-to-air strikes in their Airborne Early Warning and Control [AEW&C] aircraft, like the A- 50U.

In May of last year, Ukrainian combat aviation was more numerous than it is today. The P37M held a key role under the wings of the Su-35, helping to combat Ukrainian MiG-29s and Su-27s. Two Ukrainian pilots shared that their primary difficulty was dealing with this particular missile. Due to the Su-35 and R-37M, Ukrainian pilots were forced to fly at significantly lower altitudes than were necessary for a successful counterattack or operation. 

An Air Force report revealed that the altitude reached was so low, the tops of trees were clearly visible. When Ukrainian Su-27s and MiG-29s fly this low, they become vulnerable not only to Russian air defenses but also to man-portable surface-to-air missiles. A story from a Ukrainian pilot, code-named Koprina and operating a MiG-29, was mentioned in the report. He stated that these missions were uniquely difficult for him and his colleagues. The danger involved is twofold, according to the pilot. That’s because, if hit by a Russian missile, there’s neither ample time nor space for a safe ejection. 

Same tactic?

Photo credit: Twitter

Today, Ukraine doesn’t deploy as many aircraft as frequently. However, that won’t stand for long with the arrival of 45 F-16 fighter jets. Initially, six will be deployed, with the rest following as more Ukrainian pilots get ready. However, this prompts the question of the “continued Russian tactic” of using the Su-35 and P-37M for air combat. The arrival of the F-16 means that Russian aviation will need to utilize the full range of the R-37M. Consequently, if the role of the MiG-31M isn’t altered in the war, we could witness the resurgence of the A-50U. However, the past few months have not been particularly favorable for this aircraft.

BulgarianMilitary.com recalls that the first A-50 was hit, but not destroyed, on the ground at Machulishchy air base near Minsk, Belarus. A drone damaged the plane. This happened on February 26, and two days later, satellite images showed minor damage to the plane. Later, towards the end of 2024, claims from Ukraine began surfacing. The first was that an A-50 was shot down over the Sea of Azov on January 14. On February 23, Ukraine’s armed forces announced that a second A-50 was shot down over Krasnodar Krai. A Soviet-made S-200 anti-aircraft missile system was used to destroy the plane. In fact, the Russians confirmed the destruction of this plane, while to this day, they neither confirm nor deny the destruction of the first plane over the Sea of Azov. 

The F-16’s role

Photo credit: NATO

However, it appears that Moscow is “forced” to use the Su-35 to launch R-37M missiles. The MiG-31M will not be able to counter a possible encounter with the F-16. Therefore, we will most likely see the Su-35 in the air more frequently in the second half of 2024, as well as more A-50s to ensure an increased range of the R-37M missile. This suggests that more Russian A-50 reconnaissance aircraft may be attacked, and it is highly likely that many of them will be hit or shot down.

Herein lies a strong rationale for the Russian Federation’s unconfirmed but highly anticipated move to rebuild its Soviet fleet of A-50 aircraft. This intention was perhaps hinted at by the delivery of a fully refurbished A-50 in early March. Subsequently, reports from Russian media indicated that the A-50 had been incorporated into the country’s aviation arsenal. 

However, the full extent of Russia’s upgrade of the A-50 remains vague. Open sources reveal that Moscow retains control of at least 40 A-50 aircraft, but according to other sources, only six of these are in operational condition for combat deployment. If this information is true, then these six aircraft are foreseen to be insufficient till the second half of 2024, when the Su-35 will confront the F-16. 

Photo credit: Twitter

Irbis-E eats 200 km range

Yet, this approach appears to worsen the issue rather than resolving it. Ukrainian sources suggest that the Su-35 deploys the R-37M from a distance of 150-200 km. If these reports are accurate, does this imply that the Irbis-E radar potentially limits the missile’s range by half? 

A key revelation last year was that Ukraine would receive AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. It follows that these missiles would complement the forthcoming delivery of the F-16. The maximum range of an AIM-120 is 160 km, specifically for the AIM-120D version. With this in mind, the Su-35’s dominance is practically nullified, as it will need to compete on equal footing against the F-16.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Someone noticed something in Russia

While they continue to extol the capabilities of the R-37M in combination with the Su-35 in Russia, an unexpected admission came from the fighter’s manufacturer. Just a few weeks ago, the official spokesperson for the Su-35 manufacturer in Komsomolsk-on-Amur acknowledged that the aircraft’s performance in the hostile airspace of Ukraine did not meet expectations. 

Interestingly, no specific mention was made of the R-37M or the aircraft’s radar. The reason for this comment could lie within another aspect of the Su-35’s use in Ukraine. There’s some speculation that the Su-35’s advantage may have inadvertently become a disadvantage. In the process of establishing air superiority at high altitudes, the Su-35 was obliged to descend to low altitudes, where it became vulnerable to Ukrainian air defenses. 

Photo credit: Rosoboronexport

Our expert, Alexei Lenkov, did not provide specific details about the performance of the Su-35 and R-37M either. However, he did emphasize, “Initial design limitations of the Su-35 may be contributing factors to these varied characteristics.” Could he be referring to the Irbis-E radar? He declined to specify!

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