Earlier today, The Washington Free Beacon suggested that Russia (and China) could “soon outmatch” the US in combat aviation. The sole basis for this claim was Russia’s announcement that the nation would soon put the R-37M (AA-13 “Arrow”) missile into service:
If reports of its operational performance are accurate, it will threaten the survivability of every U.S. combat aircraft currently in service—particularly the newest U.S. fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35.
The Free Beacon is hardly any stranger to fake news – in 2016, the outlet originally contracted Fusion GPS – the same firm behind the “Steele Dossier” – to do “opposition research” on then-candidate Trump:
The Washington Free Beacon on Friday confirmed it originally retained the political research firm Fusion GPS to scour then-candidate Trump’s background for negative information, a common practice known as “opposition research” in politics. Leaders from the Free Beacon, which is funded largely by Republican billionaire Paul Singer, insisted none of the early material it collected appeared in the dossier released later in the year detailing explosive allegations, many uncorroborated, about Trump compiled by a former British spy.
But it seems this time, the Paul Singer-funded Beacon has eschewed paying for opposition research in favor of purely click-bait headlines. While I’m anything but a fan of the F-35, even a cursory glance at Wikipedia would demonstrate that this missile isn’t designed to engage the F-35… or any other fighter:
Russia’s development of the AA-13 is an expansion of a capability it already had in the AA-9 “Amos” missile the AA-13 was developed from – to target slow and lumbering support aircraft. The increased range of the “M” variant appears to be an acknowledgement that the Chinese strategy of targeting US Air Force support assets instead of fighters is a viable one:
The F-23 design that the J-20 more closely mimics is a much better fit for China’s strategy, as Tyler Rogoway has been saying since 2011:
So what China did was they built an aircraft that could swarm or evade a thin line of thirsty F-22, destroy any non stealth platforms such as the F-15C and the F/A-18E/Fs if it had to, in effect breaking through to US support assets, mainly the vulnerable tankers and AWACS. It is much easier to shoot down the F-22s tankers and AWACS than the F-22s themselves. If you break America’s netcentric information flow you confuse and blind the fighter force to a degree. If you take out our tankers, you in effect shoot down the whole thirsty fighter force on station at the time. In other words the J-20’s genius is not in its stealth or maneuverability, its in its range and persistence, able to loiter for long periods of time and poke holes in the US’s tanker dependent defense.
Note my emphasis in the quotation above. Not only are fighter jets like the F-22 difficult to detect, all fighter jets have enough speed and maneuverability to make long-range missiles extremely ineffective against them. By comparison, tankers and AWACS platforms that are developed from Boeing commercial airliners are sitting ducks – slow-moving, slow turning, and easily detected.
While Russia’s Air Force has deployed this capability (via the AA-9) for decades, the nation has viewed beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles with scorn since the Soviet era…
The Russian paradigm of BVR combat has its origins in the Cold War period, when Soviet operational analysis indicated that the low kill probability of missile seekers and airframes, especially if degraded by countermeasures, would be a major impediment to success. By the 1970s the standard Soviet technique in a BVR missile launch was to salvo two rounds, a semi-active radar homing weapon and a heatseeking weapon. To this effect some Soviet fighters even included a weapons select mode which automatically sequenced the launch of two rounds for optimal separation.
…and the US retired its own comparable missile to the AA-9, the AIM-54C, over a decade ago, as its capability became redundant with the newer AIM-120:
- The end of the Cold War. The Phoenix was designed for naval fleet air defense against masses of Soviet bombers and missiles at long range. Unlike other weapon systems, it could track 24 targets and fire at six of them, simultaneously. The need for the missile was greatly reduced after the Cold War ended.
- The Phoenix was replaced by the AIM-120. While that missile does not have the long range of the Phoenix, it uses more advanced technology and is more capable as an air-to-air missile.
Though the Free Beacon’s claim that the AA-13 has an advantage over the newest AIM-120 missiles could technically be true, it remains to be seen if the missile will actually be deployed. Of note, Russia has had a difficult time successfully deploying any new weapons systems in recent years:
India has reportedly stopped working with Russia on the long-troubled Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft program, or FGFA, a shared effort that was supposed to produce an improved variant of the equally vexing Su-57 stealth fighter. Though hardly surprising, with years of reports that the Indian government has become increasingly disappointed in the project’s progress and the aircraft’s capabilities, the decision could have significant ramifications for both countries.
Stealth was hardly the Su-57’s only issue, though. There have long been concerns about whether the Saturn AL-41F turbofans, or even an advanced derivative thereof, would be sufficient enough to power the Su-57. On top of that, there are just questions about the reliability and quality control of Saturn’s production in general.
So, what is the purpose of the Free Beacon’s article, beyond using click-bait headlines to boost their numbers? It appears they’re using the claims in an attempt to promote more military-industrial complex spending on yet another unnecessary project:
The announcement has elicited nervous reactions from defense ministries and air staff commands from Poland to America’s allies in Asia. The only missile in the western arsenal that comes close to matching the Russian R-37M in speed and range is the ramjet motor-powered Meteor produced by the European consortium MBDA, which is not deployed on any U.S. aircraft.
There are also no missiles currently in the U.S. arsenal that match this Russian weapon’s performance. This has several nations asking if they should look at a purchase of the Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighter, which has Meteor already integrated into its fire control system.
At least the Russian plan to expand their BVR missile platform has merit – they see the viability of targeting vulnerable US support assets, in the same way that China does. However, given the US stealth capability via the F-22 (and even the F-35), which give US aircraft a means to achieve the necessary range to target enemy support assets, wasting money on a longer range missile to target a small number of enemy support assets at a slightly longer range hardly seems like money well spent.