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The Su-57 is Only as Dangerous as its Best Missile; Why the K-77 Will be a Game Changer for the Russian Air Force

May 26th - 2018

The Russian Air Force has as of 2018 began to induct its fifth generation air superiority fighter, the Su-57, into active service. Fighters saw deployment to an active warzone in February when deployed to Russia's Hmeymim airbase in Syria's Latakia province, and are set to replace the Su-35 as the country's most capable platform for air to air combat. The fighters are, according to their producers, more capable than the United States' F-22 Raptor and are likely the most sophisticated air superiority fighters yet to enter service anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, one critical factor to determining a fighter's effectiveness particularly in an air superiority role is its ability to deploy sophisticated air to air missiles. Pakistan's JF-17 light fighter for example, while somewhat unremarkable in its combat capabilities, can deploy some of the world's most sophisticated long range air to air missile platforms such as the Chinese PL-12 and has the radar systems to support such a deployment. This could potentially give it an advantage over far more sophisticated platforms such as the Indian MiG-29 in beyond visual range combat should the Indian Air Force fail to equip its own platform with similarly capable missiles. Another key example was the Iraqi Air Force, which despite fielding capable combat aircraft failed to equip them with modern missiles for air to air combat and as a result suffered heavy losses against both the Iranian and U.S. Air Forces - neither of which made the same mistake. For the Su-57 too, the fighter's ability to contend with the most potent enemy air superiority platforms will depend heavily on its ability to deploy capable air to air missiles.

A new highly specialised long range air to air missile has been developed for the Su-57, which is set to give it an advantage over rival platforms. The K-77, with a range of 193km, is not the longest range air to air missile Russian has developed. It is however in many ways the most sophisticated, and is the longest ranged platform ever developed for an air superiority fighter - with longer ranged platforms such as the 300km range R-33 and 400km range R-37 being developed for Russia's MiG-31 interceptors only. While longer ranged platforms are made to target enemy AWACS, aerial tankers and other large and unmanoeuvrable targets at range, the K-77 combines both a long range with the manoeuvrability and accuracy accuracy to target even small and agile targets at extreme ranges. A sophisticated radar system in the missile's nose , the active phased array antenna (APAA), is key to facilitating its accuracy and denying enemy fighters the ability to evade it by establishing an effective lock and thereby overcoming the radar's radar’s “field of view” problem. Previously, manoeuvrable fighters such as the F-15 were able to evade missiles by swinging out of the range of a tailing guided missile when in close proximity, thus escaping the narrow the scope of the radar’s view. The K-77's APAA system effectively addresses this issue, making it very likely the most capable air to air missile in the world against enemy fighters.

Russia's state owned media outlet RT explained the APAA technology used by the K-77 as follows: “An active phased array antenna consists of a large number of cone-shaped cells installed under a transparent-to-radio-waves cap on the nose of the missile. Each cell receives only a part of the signal, but once digitally processed, the information from all cells is summarized into a ‘full picture,’ enabling the K-77M missile to immediately respond to sharp turns of the target, making interception practically inevitable.”

What makes the capabilities of the K-77 particularly significant is the fact that while the platform will be in service by the end of 2018, no rival powers have shown any sign of developing similar technologies for their own missiles. The U.S. AIM-120D currently under development, while impressive in its capabilities and fielding a 180km range, retains the same weaknesses of older missiles and lacks the accuracy that APAA technologies provide the K-77. China's PL-15 meanwhile, though it has a substantial range likely set to surpass those of both U.S. and Russian equivalents and combining these with record speeds, also lacks the new Russia platform's lethal precision. European producers and Israel meanwhile have failed to develop any long range air to air missiles capable of striking adversaries over 100km away whatsoever. As a result, the K-77 could well be key to guaranteeing a significant advantage for the Su-57 in beyond visual range combat against any and all potential adversaries. Whether other Russian fighters such as the MIG-35, a light platform also set to enter service in 2018, will deploy the K-77 to enhance their own beyond visual range combat capabilities remains to be seen.

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