On January 9, the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) said in an assessment that Russia is “almost certainly” deploying its most powerful warplane, the Su-57 Felon, in operations against Ukraine in a way that minimizes the risks to the aircraft.
According to the UK MoD, the Su-57s were probably restricted to flying over Russian territory and firing long-range air-to-surface or air-to-air missiles into Ukraine to avoid getting detected and shot down by Ukrainian air defense systems.
While Russian media reports have been claiming the use of Su-57s in the ongoing Ukraine war since May 2022, and the latest assessment from the UK MoD corroborates a report by the Russian state-owned TASS news agency, which said that the Su-57s have been operating “outside the zone of active destruction by enemy air defense systems.”
Among the long-range weaponry of the Felon, the long-range R-37M air-to-air missile is of particular concern to the Ukrainian pilots, according to an American media outlet, which cited a Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot describing it as “f*****g dangerous.”
R-37M Long-Range Air-To-Air Missile (AAM)
The R-37M is a long-range air-to-air missile (AAM) capable of hitting high-speed air targets from more than 300 kilometers.
It is also known as the AA-13 in the West or the RVV-BD, a designation used for Russian-developed variants of the R-series that were earlier manufactured in Ukraine. The RVV series is said to be more advanced and consists of Russian components only.
The missile is the product of the famed Russian research and production company Vympel, responsible for all Russian AAM families. It is derived from the Soviet Union’s R-37 AAM, built in the 1980s for the MiG-31M Foxhound. The development of the missile began in the late 2000s.
The R-37M was initially intended to be carried by MiG-31. It was later decided to upgrade the weapon to make it more compatible with the Russian fourth-generation Su-30, Su-35, and fifth-generation Su-57 fighter jets. Experts believe the missile has the potential to improve fighter aviation performance significantly.
A dual-pulse solid propellant rocket motor powers the missile. It is guided toward its target by an onboard dual-band active radar seeker, while an inertial navigation system receives mid-course updates from the launch aircraft.
According to the manufacturer’s claims, during the terminal phase of the missile’s engagement, the seeker onboard can lock on to a target with a 54-square-foot radar cross-section at around 40 kilometers or more.
Similar to the R-37, the R-37M can reportedly carry a nuclear warhead for destroying larger formations of aircraft or missiles.
The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) began using the R-37M against Ukraine last summer. Since then, the Ukrainian fighter pilots have been concerned, as the long-range missiles threaten Ukrainian aircraft even when fired from inside Russian airspace.
While the Ukrainian Air Force has developed tactics to minimize the threat posed by the R-37M, those tactics have only restricted the ability of the Ukrainian fighter pilots to conduct their missions.
“Because we understood their tactics during the engagement of this missile (R-37M), we created our techniques to help to avoid that. But still, it is limiting our capabilities to conduct our missions. Of course, if you’re maneuvering, we cannot provide an airstrike or something else, so the game is still very, very, very tough in the air and very risky. If you’re not aware of the missile launch, you’re dead,” a Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot with the call sign ‘Juice’ told The Drive.
In combination with a Su-57 which has stealth features, this missile becomes even more deadly. Western experts believe the missile is tailored to defeat airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and other high-value assets.
The AWACS in Poland and Romania operating in 24/7 mode allegedly failed to detect the Russian fifth-generation aircraft, according to a EurAsian Times report in October which resulted in a Ukrainian Su-27 fighter being shot down by an R-37M missile fired from a Su-57, marking the first air-to-air kill by a Felon.
Nevertheless, reports of Su-57s operating from the safety of Russian airspace suggest a minimal role for Russia’s first stealth aircraft and the only fifth-generation fighter jet that Russia touts as an airplane that surpasses the F-22 and F-35.
Experts commented that if the Su-57 is as stealthy as its American peers, the aircraft can be expected to fly undetected inside the Ukrainian airspace to suppress enemy air defenses.
“Su-57 is not survivable in a high threat SAM (surface-to-air missile) environment at this point in its development, so would not be deployed within range of any Ukrainian SAMs,” Billie Flynn, a former F-35 Lightning II Senior Experimental Test Pilot, previously told EurAsian Times.
A loss of even a single Su-57 to a Ukrainian SAM would provide Ukraine with a huge PR gain and raise doubts about the stealth characteristics of the Felon.