India has decided to replace some of its Russian R77 long-range radar-guided missiles with the Israeli I-Derby ER. The Israeli missile is the latest example of these BVRM (beyond visual range missile) weapons and since Derby became available in 2015 it has achieved a reputation for reliability as well as being easy to adapt to new aircraft and easier to maintain. Moreover, Derby costs less than the V77 and American AMRAAM. Most importantly, it comes from India’s major source of high-tech weapons. India is the largest customer for Israeli weapons, especially missile systems and Indian users all confirm that the Israeli tech is more reliable and usually cheaper than the competition, especially Russian gear, which India has been using since the 1960s.
Russia can try to enforce the Su-30 purchase agreement, which stipulates Russia must approve the use of any non-Russian equipment on the Russian designed Su-30. India has the economic clout (as a major Russian customer who has a lot of quality and service complaints) to defy the Russians and has increasingly done so. Russia has not been able to improve the quality of their weapons and the level of service that Western manufacturers (like Israel) provide. For example, adapting the Su-30 fire control system to handle Derby is not easy but it is technically possible and the Israelis have a track record of success in dealing with situations like this. This is especially true if they are doing it for a major customer. At the same time, Israel and Russia are on good terms and the Russians would be able to get a good look at how the Israelis carried out this modification and learn something from it. That is preferable to getting into a nasty disagreement with India, which is leaning towards buying more Western warplanes and dropping Russia altogether. Russia and Russian weapons still have a lot of fans among Indian officials, in part because of nostalgia and in part because the Russians had no problems with bribes and corruption. Even as India seeks to buy the Derby missile it is ordering more Russian air-to-air missiles. On the plus side, because of sanctions, Pakistan will probably not be able to buy any more AMRAAM missiles for its F-16s. It was the performance of AMRAAM in February against Indian warplanes that caused India to consider the Derby.
Meanwhile, India considers Israel a much better supplier than Russia. If the Derby BVRM does not perform it brings into question the capabilities of all recent missile purchases from Israel. The Israelis understand this and point out that they are at risk in other ways because the Derby is a key weapon for their own air force and based on combat-proven tech (like the missile used in the Iron Dome system). The Derby ER is an improved version of the earlier Derby BVRM missile design which in turn was based on the Python 5, a long-range heat-seeking missile that has lots of combat experience and a reputation for reliability. Derby has proved to be very competitive with AMRAAM in large part because the Israelis use these weapons against the aerial threats it has been facing continuously for decades. “Combat Proven” is a major factor in selling weapons and Israeli gear has a lot of that.
India is already a user of the Israeli Python version in the form of a ground-based model that is used as an air-defense weapon in the Spyder system. The Indian stockpile of R77 missiles will last until 2021-22 and by then the Derby could begin appearing on Indian Su-30 aircraft. In 2018 Derby was installed and tested on the Indian made Tejas light fighter. Thus the Indians are confident adapting Derby to their Su-30s will not be a problem.
The gold standard in BVRM is the American AIM-120 AMRAAM radar guided missiles, which cost about $1.5 million each and are exported to 25 nations. This missile entered service in 1992, more than 30 years after the first radar-guided air-to-air missile (the AIM-7 Sparrow). Vietnam provided ample evidence that AIM-7 wasn't really ready for prime time. Too many things could go wrong. Several versions later, the AIM-7 got another combat test during the 1991 Gulf War. While 88 AIM 7s were launched, with only 28 percent scored a hit. The AIM 9 Sidewinder did worse, with 97 fired and only 12.6 percent making contact. That said, most of these hits could not have been obtained with cannon, especially when the AIM 7 was used against a target that was trying to get away. AMRAAM was designed to fix all the reliability and ease-of-use problems that cursed the AIM-7. But AMRAAM has only had a few opportunities to be used in combat, and through the 2003 Iraq war over half of those launched have hit something. Nevertheless, AMRAAM was considered the most effective radar-guided missile and proved its capabilities quickly, shooting down Iraqi Russian made jets in 1992 and 1993 (for violating the no-fly zone). The latest AMRAAM victim was an Indian MiG-21, shot down by an AMRAAM launched by a Pakistani F-16. So far AMRAAM has downed ten enemy aircraft.
AMRAAM weighs 152 kg (335 pounds), is 3.7 meters (12 feet) long and 178mm in diameter. The first AMRAAM had a max range of 70 kilometers while the latest version can hit targets 160 kilometers away. The R77 is a bit larger and heavier than AMRAAM while the Derby ER is a bit smaller and lighter, with a max range of 100 kilometers.
Since the late 1990s the AMRAAM manufacturer has made a major effort to improve reliability and because so many (over 4,000 so far) AMRAAMs were fired during training and testing it was possible to measure and steadily increase reliability. This became a major factor in gaining export sales. For India, the lower cost of the Derby was also a factor as well as their experience with Israeli missile tech.
The R77 is known to be a poor choice for a BVRM. A decade ago China realized that the Russian R77 was unreliable. As of 2008, they had only bought about a thousand R77s, although a less capable clone (PL12) was produced locally. Past experience with missiles like this is that several (up to ten for some models) are fired for each aircraft hit. A prolonged air battle over Taiwan, and the Taiwan Straits would cause losses of ten percent or more a day, depending on how forcefully China pressed its attack, and how quickly the U.S., or even Japanese, reinforcements arrived. One reason China has a based a force of over 1,200 ballistic missiles on the coast opposite Taiwan, in an effort to try and destroy most of Taiwan's air force in the first hours of such a war. If the Chinese do not take Taiwan within a week, they are on the slippery slope to disaster. China continued development on the PL12 and as China was developing superior and more reliable electronics, and gaining access to a lot of data on AMRAAM technology and capabilities, realized that the R77, despite Russian efforts to improve it, was an inferior long-range missile. China developed its PL12 with Russian help and licensed the technology, so they knew of the Russian problems with developing reliable and capable missile tech. China has since put an improved BVRM missile, the PL-15 into service. Although the Chinese models look good on paper, they have not been used in combat or as much as AMRAAM in training and test firings. For that reason, AMRAAM and Derby have a lead, with Israel offering a less expensive missile and one that is more likely to be used by Israeli pilots to defend the people who designed and build the missile.