By combining two existing technologies, Russian engineers have devised what could be the world’s deadliest air-to-air missile. And the U.S. military doesn’t have anything like it … or adequate defenses.

Designers at the Detal bureau, part of the state-owned Tactical Missile Munitions Corporation, added an active electronically-scanned array radar—a so-called “AESA”—to the nose of a long-range R-77 missile to produce the K-77M model. Thanks to its new guidance sensors, the K-77M is way more accurate than other missiles.

How accurate? Flying 40 miles or more, the K-77M should be able “to maintain lock on even the most agile maneuvering target,” according to one scientist and defense specialist in the Pacific region whose country’s laws prohibit him from speaking on the record about weaponry. In light of the scientist’s expertise, War is Boring agreed not to publish his name.

With enough funding, the K-77M could enter service as early as 2015, in time to be fitted to the first combat-ready versions of Russia’s new stealth fighter, the powerful T-50. The combination of T-50 and K-77M could match or even best America’s own F-22 stealth fighter, which is fast and hard to detect but lacks an advanced air-to-air missile.

And the T-50 with its new munition is sure to vastly outclass the U.S. F-35, a smaller, less capable stealth fighter meant to comprise the bulk of the American warplane fleet in coming decades.

An older-model R-77 missile being launched. Via Air Power Australia

Smarter missile

Traditional air-to-air missiles include a small mechanical radar antenna in the nose. These mechanical radar missiles have a major weakness that occurs in the final seconds before the munition reaches its target.

“The angular motion—and specifically the angle rate of antenna movement as the missile closes on the target—can be so high that the seeker cannot keep up and the target slips out of the antenna beam, causing missile lock to be broken,” the scientist explains.

In other words, if a pilot turns quickly in any direction right before a missile hits his plane, he stands a good chance of slipping outside the field of view of the missile’s radar, causing it to fly harmlessly away. The inability of most munitions to cope with violent maneuvers helps explain why radar-guided air-to-air missiles typically have very low hit rates.

But the K-77M could change all that. Gone is the mechanical array. In its place, Detal’s engineers have added what Russia Today describes as “a large number”—possibly hundreds—of individual digital array cells, each pointing its own radar beam essentially at the speed of light.

“Each cell receives only a part of the signal,” RT reports, “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.”

That’s not hyperbole, according to the scientist. “Because an AESA or phased array is steered electronically, the antenna beam can be adjusted in direction several thousand times per second and is not limited in angle rate, thus allowing an AESA-equipped missile to maintain lock.”

Considering the huge advantage an active-array missile has over older munitions, it’s perhaps surprising that Russia is the only country developing one. Amid budget reductions, the U.S. and Europe have essentially stopped investing in new seekers for air-to-air missiles. Almost all of America’s aerospace capital is being poured into fixing problems with the F-35 as well as developing a new stealth bomber.

But Russia typically exports its missile technology to China—and the K-77M should be no exception. “We should not be surprised to see the AESA seeker sold to China for use in Chinese-built PL-12 [missile] in 2015 or 2016,” the scientist warns.

To survive a dogfight with a foe armed with K-77Ms, an American plane needs to be stealthier or employ better radar jamming, the scientist advises. Considering the F-35's many design compromises, U.S. stealth technology probably reached its pinnacle with the F-22, which ended its production run two years ago.

And as for jamming … the Pentagon for years has struggled to develop new electronic countermeasures, with the Air Force in particular having all but abandoned electronic warfare in favor of spending more money on stealth.

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