This Powerful Soviet Fighter Radar is Still Better Than Anything Russia Fields Today

During the 1980s the Soviet Union escalated efforts to develop fifth generation fighter aircraft with the Mikoyan, Sukhoi and Yakovlev design bureaus submitting rival proposals. Options for a next generation fighter were all built around radar evading stealth airframes, a new generation of sensors and avionics, and engines and aerodynamics advanced enough to facilitate sustained supersonic cruise without afterburners - supercruise. As part of these efforts development was initiated on a next generation radar intended to be integrated onto the the new stealth fighters, and after Mikoyan’s MiG 1.42 fighter program was selected over competitors  the new radar named N014 was set to be installed in its nose cone. The MiG 1.42 was a highly promising program intended to go head-to-head with the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter which became F-22 Raptor, and was well known for its extreme range, high manoeuvrability and use of very powerful AL-41 engines. The capabilities of the Soviet jet’s sensor suite, however, were often overlooked. Like early design concepts for the American program, the MiG 1.42 integrated a rear facing radar to complement the N014 in its nose cone, and notably had missiles designed to fire backwards such as the R-77M which would be deployed from internal weapons bays to preserve stealth. The fighter’s frontal sensors, including the N014 and an infrared search and track system, were perhaps the most notable part of its avionics suite.

The N014 was nearing completion in the 1990s, although the economic situation in Russia and rapid contraction of its economy and industrial base in the post-Soviet years meant it lacked funding to be seen through to completion. The MiG 1.42 program itself never progressed beyond the initial two flights of its first technology demonstrator aircraft which were delayed by more than five years. Despite its age however, the N014 continues to compare favourably with modern Russian and Western radars, which reflects the strong lead the USSR had gained from the 1980s in many aspects of fighter aviation technology. Although the MiG 1.42 was designed to be very capable in visual range combat, and other than modernised variants of the Su-27 Flanker was set to be the world’s first fighter with thrust vectoring engines, it placed a strong emphasis on beyond visual range combat. As such the N014 had a very long 420km detection range against larger fighter sized aircraft such as American F-15s, and could track up to 40 targets simultaneously. A powerful radar was needed as the new generation of fighters the MiG 1.42 was set to go up against were expected to have stealth designs making them difficult to lock onto at the range. 

The range of the MiG 1.42’s radar was complimented by a new generation of long range air to air missiles, namely the R-77M, which had a 160km engagement range far surpassing any other missile of its size at the time. Much like the missiles deployed by the F-22, it needed to be compact enough to fit in internal weapons bays. American stealth fighters would only begin to receive missiles with such a range from 2014 when the AIM-120D began to enter service. Comparing the N014 with Russian radars today, the Irbis-E used by the country’s Su-30SM2 and Su-35 fighters, and the Byelka radar used by the Su-57, both have a 400km detection range against large fighters. The Irbis-E, which first entered service in 2014, can track 30 targets, while the Byelka is estimated to be able to track 40. The latter is not expected to be in service in squadron level strength until at least 2025, indicating that the N014 was very much ahead of its time. The Soviet radar design, despite its age, is at least in some ways superior to any fighter radar in-service in the Russian Air Force today, which serves as an important indicator of just how capable the latest Sukhoi and MiG aircraft could have been in the present day had the USSR not collapsed 30 years ago and maintained its large research and development and industrial bases.

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