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The R-73, which NATO has dubbed as AA-11 Archer, is a short-range infrared guided missile system employed by the MIG-29 and the SU-27. Its advanced control surfaces and thrust vectoring, coupled with excellent off-boresight capability and the pilot's helmet-mounted sight may give it unparalleled performance in the close-in, visual dogfight. In general, the flight performance significantly exceeded the specified ones, but at the same time the mass of the rocket was more than one and a half times higher than the initially accepted value.

In terms of the level of the main tactical and technical characteristics that determine the effectiveness of missiles in close air combat (maximum overload of targets, target designation angles, angular speeds of auto-tracking of targets with a homing head, minimum launch ranges for maneuvering targets), the R-73 missile equals or surpasses the best foreign analogues.

As the Soviet Union fell behind the West in the fields of electronics and computational power, their ability to field advanced radar systems declined. As a result, the Soviets increasingly relied on more reliable, easier to design, computationally simpler, and tougher-to-jam IR systems, which surprised Western intelligence agencies. For example, when the MiG-29 Fulcrum aircraft was fielded in the 1980s, its radar system and associated missile were impressive by Soviet standards but at least a generation behind Western systems. However, it also had a bump on the nose, which was not an electronic warfare antenna as first suspected, but an Infrared Search and Track System (IRST), which was the first to be fielded in an operational fighter.

The missile is used for engaging modern and future fighters, attack aircraft, bombers, helicopters, drones and cruise missiles, including those executing a maneuver with a g-force up to 12. It permits the platform to intercept a target from any direction, under any weather conditions, day or night, in the presence of natural interference and deliberate jamming. It realizes the "fire and forget" principle.

Once merged with a laser range finder, the IR system could detect aircraft and provide targeting data at longer ranges without alerting the target aircraft that it had been detected. Even if a target aircraft suspected it was being tracked, there is no practical way to “jam” this IR system. The MiG-29’s IR system was integrated with the improved IR missile, known as the AA-11 Archer, which not only had the all-aspect feature of the latest Sidewinders, but it also had “off-boresight” capability – meaning that the missile could “look” to its left and right to “see” target aircraft.

Thus, the pilot could fire a missile without pointing the aircraft nose at the target aircraft, as Sidewinder equipped pilots must do. This expands the firing envelope for the missile, saves precious seconds in a dogfight, and compliments the maneuverability of a fighter because it is much easier to maneuver the fighter into a firing position. In addition, Russian pilots had a helmet-mounted thermal sight which permitted them to aim the missile merely by looking at the targeted aircraft, in effect giving them an IR “heads-up display” wherever they looked, not just on the front of the instrument panel, as in Western cockpits. The details of this system did not fully emerge until the East German MiG-29’s became part of the unified Germany’s Luftwaffe. Once they did, it was clear that an IR-equipped MiG-29, flown by a skilled pilot, had an advantage, and the AA-11 Archer missile seriously challenges the technological primacy of the Sidewinder.

The R-73 missiles in combination with the Shchel helmet-mounted sighting devices make it possible to achieve sustainable superiority in close combat, which is confirmed, in particular, by the experience of joint training of pilots of the former Warsaw Pact countries (including the GDR) with pilots flying the best Western fighters. Air forces of countries traditionally included in NATO.

Currently the R-73 is the best Russian short range air-to-air missile. Apart from an exceptional maneverability, this missile is also directly connected to the pilot's helmet, which allows engagement of targets lateral to the aircraft, which cannot be engaged by missiles with a traditional system of targeting and guidance. The R-73A, an earlier variant of this missile, has a 30 km range, while the most recent R-73M can hit targets at a distance of 40 km.

The R-73 short-range, close-combat standardized missile was developed in the Vympel Machine Building Design Bureau, and became operational in 1984. The R-73 is included in the weapon complex of MiG-23MLD, MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters and their modifications and also of Mi-24, Mi-28 and Ka-50 helicopters. It also can be employed in flying craft which do not have sophisticated aiming systems.

At present, the R-73 missile is the most effective melee weapon, practically having no foreign analogues. Unlike other missiles developed for the MiG-29 and Su-27, it can also be used from aircraft of the previous generation without significant modifications to their onboard electronics. In practice, this was implemented on the latest versions of the MiG-23, the pre-armed R-73 with placement on the PU-72, as well as on the experimental MiG-21-93 - a modernized version of the MiG-21 with the Kopye radar.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 17:23:36 ZULU