Russia's Su-34s in Syria Brandish Their Air to Air Missiles

Film released by Russian Ministry of Defence shows SU34 equipped with R73 short range and R27 long range missiles.

Wed, Dec 2, 2015
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R27 missile as shown on SU34 in Syria

The Russian Defence Ministry has released an interesting film of some of the weaponry Russian SU34 fighter bombers in Syria are now carrying.

The SU34 is not only a very powerful bomber. 

It is also a highly effective fighter, inheriting some of the manoeuvrability of the SU27 on which it is based, and adding a powerful passive array electronically scanned radar with a long range air to air capability.

Until the Turks shot the SU24 down the Russians claim their SU34s in Syria were not carrying air to air weapons. 

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The film confirms that they now are. This has already provoked a complaint from the Pentagon.

The film shows ground technicians at the base in Latakia equipping an SU34 with two types of air to air missile.

On the outer pylons under each wing the SU34 is shown carrying the short range R73 dogfight missile.

By common consent the R73 is one of the most effective dogfight missiles in the world.  

When it first appeared in the 1980s it was the most advanced such missile around, with a host of new features that gave dogfight missiles an entirely new level of capability.

It has a highly sensitive cryogenically cooled seeker head, which enables it to home in on targets from “all aspects” ie. from the front and sides as well as the “hot” area of the engines at the rear.

Depending on the model, it can also “see” targets with its heat seeking infrared seeker between 45 and 75 degrees off its centre line, and can be targeted by a helmet mounted sight which allows pilots to designate targets simply by looking at them.

Its most innovative feature is a mechanically simple but effective system for thrust-vectoring - the first time this was used in an operational air to air missile.

With a minimum engagement range of 300 metres, and a maximum engagement range of 30 km at altitude, the R73 reprsented a revolution in dogfight missile design.  In NATO exercises carried out in the early 1990s in Germany using examples left over from the East German air force it proved superior to all Western dogfight missiles of the era. 

Today there are other dogfight missiles such as the US AIM-9X Sidewinder that are at least as effective, but the R73 remains a potent missile, more advanced than any missile the Turks are likely to have.

The second type of missile shown in the film, carried by the SU34 on the middle pylons under the aircraft wings, is the longer range R27. It can be easily recognised by its sharp point and the four fins that project mid point along its centre body. It is the missile shown in the photo that illustrates this article.

This is a missile which - depending on the variant - has a range of up to 130 km, and which is therefore capable of long range (“beyond visual range”) air to air engagements.

Properly speaking, the R27 is a family of air to air missiles. They too first appeared in the 1980s and come in many forms, with different guidance systems and with different rocket motors giving subtypes of the missile different ranges.

The reason for this variety of different sub types of the same basic missile lies in the Russian philosophy of long range air to air missile engagements.

Studies in the 1960s and 1970s, and US experience with long range missiles in the Vietnam war, appeared to show that individual long range (“beyond visual range”) air to air missiles had a very low probability of hitting a manoeuvring aerial target, especially in an electronic countermeasures environment.

Latest studies and evidence of the actual performance in combat of more recent long range missiles such as the US AIM-120 AMRAAM shows that this remains the case.

The Russian response has been to develop the R27 family of missiles with a variety of different ranges and guidance methods, including semi-active radar (where the missile homes in on radar reflections of the target aircraft created by the host aircraft’s radar), active radar (where the missile uses its own radar), anti-radar (where the missile homes in on emissions of the target aircraft’s radar) and infrared homing (where the missile homes in on the target aircraft’s heat signature).

The idea is that the enemy aircraft, instead of being able to take evasive action and use countermeasures against one missile using one type of guidance system, has to face a simultaneous attack by a host of different missiles using a bewildering variety of different types of guidance system, making it impossible for it to take countermeasures against all of them.  

Indeed some countermeasures, such as using emissions from the aircraft’s radar to try to jam missiles using active radar homing, simply make the aircraft a better target for other missiles using - in that case - anti-radar homing guidance.

This philosophy is primarily intended for use against sophisticated US aircraft like the F15, F22 and the F35 (when it appears). It explains why Russian fighter aircraft of the SU27 family carry as many as 12 air to air missiles.

Against the Turks with their less sophisticated F16s use of such an operational philosophy would be overkill, which is why the SU34s shown in the film only carry two long range (“beyond visual range”) R27 missiles alongside their two short range R73 dogfight missiles.  

It is not clear what types of guidance the R27 missiles shown in the film use, save that the pointed nose shows they are one of the sub types that use a form of radar guidance. Most probably they use semi-active radar guidance.

There has been some debate about why the Russians are using the R27 missile as opposed to the more modern R77 missile, which will eventually replace it.  

The US air force in similar situations still however uses the analogous AIM-7P Sparrow missile, which has similar guidance, even though it too is being replaced by the more modern AIM-120 AMRAAM. The basic R27 missile is a more modern - and bigger and more powerful - missile than the original AIM-7 Sparrow.  

Alongside the R27s, on the inner pylon of each aircraft wing, the SU34 is shown carrying two precision guided 500 kg KAB-500 television guided bombs. These are the thick, tubular, grey objects with the large glass windows one of which the ground technician is shown wiping.

There are also two unguided 250 kg FAB-250 bombs carried on hard points under the fuselage.

The SU34's long range means that the aircraft carries no extra fuel tanks (“drop tanks”).

The fact the aircraft is carrying bombs as well as air to air missiles shows that aerial interception is not its mission. The air to air missiles are there to provide self-defence for the aircraft itself, not to provide air defence (“top cover”) for other aircraft.

The fact the SU34 is carrying air to air missiles shows it is preparing to carry out a strike on a ground target in an area where hostile fighter aircraft might be present, but where these are not expected to be sophisticated aircraft such as the US and Israelis use. If the SU34 were entering a zone where it might encounter sophisticated fighters it would be provided with its own fighter escort in the form of an accompanying SU30 fighter.

This points to the target of this particular SU34 being in an area close to the Turkish border.

Installing air to air missiles on SU34s in Syria does have one disadvantage.  

It reduces the number of bombs the aircraft can carry. Obviously if space is being used to carry air to air missiles then it cannot be used to carry bombs.

There is no sign so far of the Russians deploying more fighters to Syria. The additional SU27SMs and SU34s that joined the strikes a week ago are doing so from bases in Russia.

The Russians have accepted the trade-off of having their SU34s in Syria carry fewer bombs in return for better protection. With heavy bombers now carrying out combat missions across Syria, the Russians presumably feel they can afford to let their SU34s in Syria carry fewer bombs.

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