R37M-Russia’s Ultra-long-range Hunter
By Rohit Srivastava
One of the major enigmas of the ten-month long Russia-Ukraine conflict is why the fighter aircraft are not playing central role in it. The Russian special operations has been centered on the armour column, attack choppers, long-range artillery and rocket, and long-range air defence. Russia restricted itself from attacking the areas of Ukraine beyond the disputed regions. Russia maintained air superiority over the conflict zone. Since April last year, when the western financial and military supports begun arriving in Kiev, analysts across the globe, opined that the Western air defence would displace Russian jets from the operations.
Things appeared to follow this analysis. Both sides were very restrained in using the air assets except the unmanned aerial systems. But after a hiatus, in October Russian jets begun to hunt down Ukrainian air defence with impunity. Videos and pictures of Russian air missiles were captured in flight. One of the unique features of this conflict is visual documentation of cruise and air-to-air missiles by mobile phone cameras.
Analysts identified one new Russian air-to-air missile. The missile was later identified as R-37M (export version RVV-BD). This missile was first seen on the MiG-31 long-range interceptors. This weapon, also known as RVV-BD and "product 620", was developed by the Vympel State Machine-Building Design Bureau named after I.I. Toropov (part of Tactical Missiles Corporation JSC).
According to the manufacturer, the missile “is a long-range air-to-air guided missile with a combined guidance system (inertial control system + radio correction + active radar homing) is designed to destroy air targets (fighters, attack aircraft, bombers, transport aircraft, helicopters and cruise missiles) at any time of the day, at all angles, in the conditions of electronic warfare, against the background of the earth and water surfaces, including with multi-channel fire.”
The ‘fire-and-forget’ missile use proximity fuse and high explosive blast fragmentation warhead to intercept its targets. The R37M has been designed for MiG-31 and Su-35S fighter jets. The missile is stored, energized in carriage flight, fired or jettisoned from launch aircraft by АКУ-410-1 or АКУ-620 launcher.
The missile has a maximum interception range of 200 km. Deployment of R-37M by VKS (Russian Aerospace Forces) marks the arrival of Russia in the select league of nation with air-to-air missile with over 100 miles range.
With the arrival of long range interceptor MiG-31 Foxhound, in 1981, capable of carrying heavy payload, USSR started developing R-37 based on R-33 long-range AtoA missile. The base variant of R33 had a range of 120 km. The advanced R33E variant had 160 km range. This missile was only operational from MiG-25 and MiG-31.
The R-37 was being developed for MiG-31BM Super Foxhound. The missile had its maiden test flight in 1989. The development programme slowed down after the collapse of USSR. In 1994, during a trial, R-37 hit a target at a range of 300 km. It is claimed to have a range of roughly 400 km in cruise glide mode. The mid-body strakes of the missile provides it with enhanced lift and its folding tail allows it to be carried in conformal/semi-conformal way.
Due to the high cost of the missile, Russia discontinued its development. In 2006, the programme was restarted and completed its development in 2018.
It is known that the missile has a maximum firing range in the forward hemisphere of up to 200 kilometres. The height of target destruction is from 15 meters to 25 kilometres. The launch weight of the R-37M is about 510 kg. The high-explosive fragmentation warhead weighs 60 kilograms. The length of the rocket is 4.06 meters.
The rocket has a dual-mode solid-propellant engine and a combined guidance system: inertial with radio correction and active radar with homing in the final flight segment. This allows you to fire on the principle of "fire and forget."
The Su-35S fighter is capable of carrying up to four R-37Ms. It is also assumed that the novelty will go into service with the MiG-31BM fighters, which can accommodate six missiles.
Significance for Russia
Since 1980’s, after the arrival of the fourth-generation fighter aircraft like F-16, F/A-18, MiG-29 Fulcrum, F-15 Eagle, world witnessed a new era of fighter jets much more capable in terms of range-endurance, payload and situation awareness due to better onboard radars and data links connecting ground radars with the aircraft. The days of dog fights appeared to be over as the aircraft were armed with longer range air-to-air missiles.
This is where west was bit ahead of Russia/USSR. The beyond-visible range R-77 with 80 km range was out ranged by American AIM-120C/D with around 100 km range.
With the arrival of Meteor in 2016, with around 200 km range, NATO now could claim to have doubled its interception range. In the late 80s Russia developed a medium-range R-27 with 40 km range. Its extended range versions R-27EM claimed to have range up to 170 km. While the Russian missiles were catching up, the gap with the west remained. With the operationalisation R-37M, Russia is not at par with the West in air-to-air BVR capability.
Significance for India
During the Indo-Pak aerial conflict post Balakot strike in 2019 where India lost MiG-21Bison to Pakistan Air Force’s F-16. The same MiG-21 Bison also brought down a PAF’s F-16. One of the major realisation for India was the Indian Air Force lacked a long-range air-to-air missile which could have out ranged the PAF’s beyond-visual range AIM-120 C with over 100 km range.
Indian Su-30 MKI are armed with R-77, Russian counterpart to American AIM-120, with range of 80 was not a match in the interception range. India maintained air superiority against Pakistan during the Kargil war as Indian fighters had R-73 missiles capable of intercepting at a range of 30 km.
With the induction of AIM-120C, Pakistan flipped the situation which cost India a jet in 2019. Since then India has purchased around 1000 R-27 (ET1 and ER1 variant with around 100 km range) for Su-30MKI and MiG-29UPG aircraft for around USD700 million.
With the arrival of R-37M with 200 km range, India can look at the possibility of equipping its 272 Su-30MKI which are slated for upgradation. India’s home grown Astra missile with 100 km range still sometimes away from mass production, this would provide India with much required long-range air-to-air capability for its large Russian fighter fleet. This could be an option worth exploring.
Weight - 510 kg
Length – 4060 mm
Caliber – 380 mm
Wingspan - 720 mm
Rudders span – 1020 mm
Max range 200 km
Warhead type high-explosive fragmentation
Warhead - 60 kg
Guidance - inertial guidance system with radio correction and active radar homing in the final section of the trajectory
Maximum capture range of the GOS of a fighter-type target (in PPS), 30 km
Range of flight altitudes of targets - 0.015 to 25 (km)
Max speed - 2500 km/h
Max overload - 8 g