Russia’s armed forces have reportedly begun the final stage of testing for a revolutionary new air to air missile, the R-37M, which will set a world record by a considerable margin for the longest ranged platform of its kind. The missile was developed from the R-33, a platform currently deployed by Russian MiG-31 interceptors which retain a 300km engagement range and are relied on to protect Russian airspace from all manner of enemy aircraft, and has a new and more specialised role. The original R-37 was developed specifically to target large enemy support aircraft such as tankers, command centres and AWACS platforms, and had a considerably extended range over the R-33 allowing it to engage enemy jets at up to 398km away. The missile is heavily specialised for such a role, and lacks the accuracy to target lighter and more manoeuvrable targets such as fighter jets. The R-37 is deployed by the MiG-31 interceptors alongside the R-33, and is key to denying hostile powers the use of force multiplying support platforms such as AWACS systems when conducting air attacks. With these heavy support platforms usually relying on fighter support and maintaining a considerable distance from enemy aircraft to enhance their survivability, Russia’s development of these ‘AWACS hunting’ missiles capable of striking at such extreme ranges seriously undermines their viability.
Based on the R-37, the Russian military has long sought to develop a modified variant capable of being deployed by heavy fighter jets rather than by interceptors exclusively. Alongside a number of new specialised munitions developed for Russia’s next generation of fighters, including the K-77 for engaging enemy fighters at long ranges, up to 197km, the Drel bomb for strike missions and the Kh-38M and Kh-36 for attacking enemy ground targets at standoff ranges, the R-37 has thus been developed as a specialised variant of the ‘AWACS hunter’ for use by Russian fighters - namely the Su-57. It may also be deployed by advanced '4++ generation' variants of the Su-27 heavy fighter. The missile variant developed for use by fighters is known as the R-37M, and due to the requirement for a considerably lower weight due to fighters’ lower carriage relative to interceptors they have been considerably more difficult to develop. The ability to deploy these missiles from next generation fighters has a number of advantages, including taking advantage of the aircraft’s cutting edge capabilities such as stealth and AESA radars which the MiG-31 interceptor notably lacks. With the MiG-31 almost exclusively relegated to defending the Russian mainland, the deployment of R-37 missiles by fighter jets will allow them to effectively perform an AWACS hunting role when deployed away from Russian territory to theatres such as Syria - where support from interceptors will not be available. With well over twice the engagement range of the most sophisticated Western made missiles, such as the European Meteor at approximately 100km and the U.S. AIM-120D at 180km, they will allow Russian fighters to inflict considerable losses on key enemy air assets well beyond retaliation range. Whether the Western Bloc will respond by reducing their reliance on tankers, AWACS platforms, airborne command centres and other heavy assets made vulnerable by the new platform remains to be seen.