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R-3 series

Short-range air-to-air missile

R-3 missile

Reverse-engineered from the US AIM-9 Sidewinder, the K-13 was the most important early Soviet air-to-air missile

Country of origin R-3S R-3R R-13M1
Country of origin Soviet Union
Entered service 1961 1966 1976
Missile length 2.83 m 3.42 m 2.88 m
Missile diameter 0.13 m 0.13 m 0.13 m
Fin span 0.53 m 0.53 m 0.65 m
Missile weight 75.3 kg 83.5 kg 90.6 kg
Warhead weight 11.3 kg 11.3 kg 11.3 kg
Effective range of fire 2 km ? 3 km
Maximum range of fire 7 km 8 km 17 km
Guidance Infrared homing Semi-active radar homing Infrared homing


   The Vympel R-3 was one of the earliest Soviet air-to-air missiles to see operational service. It is also referred as the K-13. This missile has been used by the armed forces of many nations, and probably still sees some use in the Developing World. The K-13 is derived from the US-made AIM-9B Sidewinder. It should be noted that the R-3 designation applies to a family of missiles, but not to each model specifically. Western reporting name for these missiles is AA-2, or Atoll.

   The origins of the R-3 are not rooted in a state requirement for a new air-to-air missile, but rather in a chance occurrence that seems almost like a work of fiction.

   On September 24th 1958, Republic of China Air Force and People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft fought a series of battles in which the ubiquitous AIM-9 Sidewinder was first launched in anger. Following one of these battles, a PLAAF MiG-17 returned to base with battle damage after being hit by an AIM-9B. Upon examination after landing, the ground crew discovered that the missile had failed to explode, and was lodged almost undamaged in the fuselage. This missile was soon collected by Soviet engineers, and shipped to the Soviet Union, where it was gradually reverse-engineered.

   However, the missiles captured by China wasn't the only point of reference used to reverse-engineer the Sidewinder. According to Ron Westrum, author of the book Sidewinder, a spy in the Swedish Air Force (Sweden being a country producing the Sidewinder under license at the time) was a major player in the R-3's development. Colonel Stig Wennerström supplied the Soviet Union with over 20 000 pages of Swedish state secrets, which included detailed technical information on the Sidewinder. Soviet engineers built Sidewinder replicas based on this information so precisely, that even the serial numbers were duplicated. A more outlandish story holds that a turncoat West German officer and a group of Soviet intelligence officers simply drove a truck into a NATO airbase, threw a Sidewinder into a truck, and drove it back across the Iron Curtain (though needless to say, this claim is widely disputed).

   For those who still haven't met their daily quote of factual absurdity, a July 26th 2017 article in The National Interest by Tom Cooper makes an even bolder claim. According to Cooper, a West German KGB agent named Manfred Ramminger and his Polish driver Josef Linowski stole a later-model Sidewinder (probably an AIM-9D) right out of the Neuburg air base, on October 22nd 1967. They carted it all the way down the runway to his car in a wheelbarrow, concealed its nature by simply draping it in a carpet, marked the protruding nose with a red ribbon (to comply with West German cargo transportation laws), and drove the purloined missile directly to Ramminger's house. He gave the fuse to another KGB operative to transport back to the Soviet Union, but Ramminger himself disassembled the missile and sent the rest of it —- by mail, directly to Moscow. Declaring the contents to be “low-grade export”, Ramminger shipped the package of missile parts directly to Moscow at a cost of $79.25, and it arrived 10 days later. Though a year later, Ramminger was found-out and arrested, which is how this story came to be known to the public.

   Whatever the case, the Soviet Union managed to acquire one or more complete Sidewinder missiles, and set about duplicating them. This task was assigned to the Turopov OKB-134 design bureau, in which the missile was initially designated Object 310. Vympel engineer Gennadiy Sokolovskiy, who was later chief engineer of the design bureau, said that "...the Sidewinder missile was to us a university offering a course in missile construction technology which has upgraded our engineering education and updated our approach to production of future missiles".

   Work was apparently completed very quickly, as the gap between the arrival of the captured Sidewinder and the introduction into service of the first Soviet copies was only 2 years. Though as the first production R-3S missiles became operational, work was already beginning on a radar-guided version; this apparently proved more problematic, as the resulting R-3R wasn't declared operational until 1966. Further work on the R-3S eventually resulted in the more advanced R-13M, although this missile didn't enter service until 1974, by which time the entire R-3 series was already being superseded by another Vympel missile, the R-60 (code-named AA-8 or Aphid by the West). The R-3S was itself copied by China in later years, resulting in the PL-2, which officially became operational in 1967.

   The R-3 series of missiles look almost exactly like the AIM-9B Sidewinder (see the page on that weapon for further details), all the way down to the trademark rolleron tabs on the tips of the aft fins. The R-3R however has a slightly longer fuselage, and a much longer nose, giving it an appearance distinct from any other Sidewinder derivative. The later R-13M is virtually indistinguishable in appearance from the AIM-9E, while the later R-13M1 looks more like the AIM-9J series of missiles, due to its small "cranked delta" forward fins with squared-off tips.

   Remarkably, the construction of the R-3 missiles is identical to the Sidewinder, all the way down to their wiring and circuitry, which was confirmed in later years when the US government managed to covertly acquire some of them. Department of Defense and Raytheon engineers opened-up the "Atolls", and found that everything inside the R-3S was so accurately copied from the AIM-9B, that the two missiles had a 100% interchangeability of parts. The metallurgy and chemical composition of the R-3 missiles does not appear to have been published, but it is presumably the same as that of the Sidewinder.

   The flight profile of the R-3 series is the same as that of the Sidewinder. Upon ignition, the rocket motor launches the missile to speeds in excess of Mach 2 (2 469 km/h) within a few seconds, by which time the short-lived fuel supply of the motor is already expended. The missile then travels to the target via glide and inertia, giving it increasingly less speed and maneuverability over distance. As the last traces of fuel burn-out, the missile self-destructs in mid-air.

   With the exception of the R-3R, all R-3s are infrared-guided, employing an uncooled lead sulfide seeker head. These missiles lack an all-aspect capability, relegating them to being used in "tail chase" engagements behind the target, in which they have an almost direct line of sight on the target's exhaust. They also share the same flaws as the AIM-9A/B Sidewinder as well, including a tendency to lock-onto decoy flares, ambient heat sources on the ground, and sun glare.

   The R-3R instead employs Semi-Active Radar Homing (SARH) guidance, not unlike the AIM-9C Sidewinder. The use of radar guidance allows aircraft using the R-3R to engage targets from any side, including head-on attacks, and also allows for engagements at longer ranges than possible with the R-3S' infrared seeker.

   The R-13 is also infrared guided, but employs an improved guidance system with a cooled seeker element. This gives the R-13 greater homing intelligence and resistance to countermeasures and interference, though it still requires a "tail chase" engagement. However, the Achilles heel of this new seeker is the amount of time it requires to achieve a lock, averaging 22 seconds, compared to only 11 for the R-3S. By contrast, the AIM-9D Sidewinder requires 5 seconds to attain a lock, and the AIM-7E Sparrow requires 15 seconds; an attribute the Sparrow has been much-maligned for.

   All R-3 variants are powered by the DWP-80A, a single-stage, solid fuel rocket motor. Given how faithfully the guidance system of the R-3S was copied from the AIM-9B, it is probable that the DWP-80A is a direct copy of the Thiokol Mk.17, with the same performance figures (see the AIM-9 page for further details). The R-13 series, however, use the much more powerful DWP-240; another single-stage, solid fuel rocket motor, this system produces much more thrust, and has a longer burn time, giving the R-13s much better flight performance. As with the Sidewinder, all R-3s are rail-launched only.

   All versions of the R-3 appear to employ the SB03 warhead, an 11.3 kg High Explosive Fragmentation (HE-FRAG) munition. This contains 5.3kg of TGAF-5, an explosive compound consisting of 40% TNT, 40% RDX, and 20% Aluminum Oxide powder; the remainder of the SB03's weight is almost all pre-formed steel fragments. As has been demonstrated on many occasions --- both by the R-3 and by early-model Sidewinders (which have an equivalent warhead) --- this munition is more than adequate to destroy or seriously damage any aircraft with a single direct hit.

   The R-3 has been used in countless conflicts since the mid-1960s, as it was the default weapon for almost all variants of the MiG-21 fighters, and was also back-fitted to many other aircraft as well.

   The first combat launch of a R-3 occurred during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, on September 1st. Flying a MiG-21F, Squadron Leader M.S.D. Wollen of the Indian Air Force attempted to engage a Pakistani F-86 Sabre over the deck with two missiles, but both munitions flew into the ground. It was not an auspicious beginning.

   The R-3 achieved much greater success and notoriety from its use by Vietnamese MiG-21s in the Vietnam War. Its performance proved lesser than the Sidewinder (with a pK Ratio of about 10%, versus 15% for the Sidewinder), though the Vietnamese tactic of firing multiple missiles simultaneously in each attack partially mitigated this shortcoming. The first kill by an R-3 missile (an F-4B Phantom II) was achieved on October 9th 1966, and many more would follow. Against F-4s alone, Vietnamese MiG-21s achieved 103 confirmed kills, most of them via R-3s. In particular, North Vietnamese ace Nguyễn Nhật Chiêu scored 4 of his 6 kills with R-13s.

   Indian MiG-21s fared better in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, achieving eight confirmed kills, though it's unclear how many were achieved with the R-3 series missiles. For example, the most famous MiG-21 victory in that war (a Pakistani F-104A Starfighter shot-down by B.B. Soni) was achieved with gunfire.

   Libyan Su-22 fighter-bombers carried R-3s during the First Gulf of Sidra Incident, as did Libyan MiG-23s in the Second Gulf of Sidra Incident. Though against the AIM-9L Sidewinders used by the US Navy's F-14A Tomcats, the R-3 was again a bust; notably, one of the Su-22s in the first battle made the futile gesture of attempting a head-on attack (the missile was an R-3S, not a radar-guided R-3R).

   Iraq is also notable for their use of the R-3 missiles in combat, though the extent of their victories with this missile during the Iran-Iraq War are unknown. However, one Iraqi F-7A managed to shoot down a US F-18C Hornet (#163502, flown by Lt. Mogillo, KIA) on January 17th 1991 during the Persian Gulf War; one of only two Iraqi aerial victories in that war.

   The combat record of the R-3 since the Gulf War is less clear, though several nations still operating it had been involved in aerial warfare at the time.

   The R-3 series missiles are reportedly still stocked by Algeria, Angola, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Vietnam, and Yemen, though its status in the arsenals of most of these countries is unclear. Former users include Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Egypt, Finland, Germany (inherited from East Germany), Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Romania, Russia (inherited from the Soviet Union), the Soviet Union, Serbia, and Somalia. The list would be even longer if it would include nations operating the PL-2 (which, admittedly, is a direct Chinese copy of the R-3S).

   It is notable that some nations favored the R-3 so heavily that they adapted their aircraft to use them instead of the later R-60 short-range air-to-air missile. One notable example is Libya, whose MiG-23s were custom-built to carry R-3s and R-13s (the R-60 having originally been developed especially for the MiG-23).

   The aforementioned interchangeability with the AIM-9 Sidewinder has also resulted in several nations eventually replacing their R-3s with later evolutions of their American progenitor. Notably, Pakistani F-6s and F-7s gradually had their PL-2 missiles replaced with later-model Sidewinders. Raytheon and several US government officials directly assisted the Pakistani Air Force with this effort, and one of the participants of this mission was none other than (retired) General Charles A. "Chuck" Yeager.

   One of the most numerous air-to-air missiles ever produced, the R-3's production was in the tens-of-thousands, and it was at one time one of the most commonplace missiles in service. Its ubiquity was such that from the 1960s onwards, the term "Atoll" was almost universal Western brevity for an offending air-to-air missile, even if it wasn't actually an R-3 (in a similar manner that NATO brevity for the warning of an approaching anti-ship missile was the word "Vampire").

   Production ended at an unknown date (probably in the early 1980s, as Vympel began producing the more advanced R-73 (Western reporting name AA-11 or Archer), and construction of new R-13s is no longer possible. The unit cost of the R-3 has never been published, though due to the obsolescence and advanced age of all surviving examples, they would probably be worth little more than their scrap value. As none have been produced for over 30 years, any remaining R-3s will also be beyond their expiration dates; these missiles may fail to launch, guide, explode, or any combination of the above.

   Combined with the widespread availability of much newer and more capable missiles, the future of the R-3 appears bleak, and they will almost certainty no longer be usable anymore by 2025 at the latest, regardless of what some users might claim.




   R-3S: Original production model, and a duplicate of the AIM-9B Sidewinder. Western reporting name AA-2 or Atoll-A. It is an infrared-guided missile, employing an uncooled lead sulfide seeker head. The R-3S lacks an all-aspect capability and is intended for "tail chase" engagements when the missile is launched behind the targe. The R-3S missiles also share the same flaws as the early AIM-9A/B Sidewinder missiles, including a tendency to lock-onto decoy flares, ambient heat sources on the ground, and sun glare.

   R-3U: Unidentified missile. Its Western reporting name is AA-2 or Atoll-B.

   R-3M: Unidentified missile. Its Western reporting name is AA-2 or Atoll-D.

   R-3R: Radar-guided version of the R-3. The use of radar guidance allowed aircraft using the R-3R to engage targets from any side, including head-on attacks, and also allowed for engagements at longer ranges than possible with the R-3S' infrared seeker. Its Western reporting name is AA-2 or Atoll-C.

   R-3U: Captive air training missile based on the R-3S. It has the same seeker head as the R-3S, but no warhead or motor.

   R-3P: Training version of the R-3S, with no warhead.

   RM-3V: Aerial target converted from surplus R-3s.

   R-13M: Second-generation missile with improved infrared guidance system with a cooled seeker. This gives the missile greater homing intelligence and resistance to countermeasures and interference, though it still requires a "tail chase" engagement. However, the Achilles heel of this new seeker is the amount of time it requires to achieve a lock, averaging 22 seconds, compared to only 11 for the R-3S. This missile uses a much more powerful motor, which produces more trust, and has a longer burn time, giving the R-13s much better flight performance. The missile also has new fins. This missile is virtually indistinguishable in appearance from the AIM-9E. It entered service in 1974.

   R-13M1: Incremental improvement of the R-13M. It looks more like the AIM-9J series of missiles, due to its small "cranked delta" forward fins with squared-off tips. It entered service in 1976.

   A-91: Romanian license-produced version.

   PL-2: Chinese copy of the R-3S. China introduced some indigenous variants of this missile.


Similar weapons


   AIM-9B Sidewinder: The AIM-9B Sidewinder was the weapon the "Atoll" was developed from. The R-3S is virtually identical to the AIM-9B.

   AIM-9C Sidewinder: The only operational radar-guided Sidewinder, the AIM-9C is the equivalent of the R-3R, but has a very different layout and configuration.

   AIM-9D Sidewinder: An improved AIM-9B developed for the US Navy, this missile is comparable to the R-13M1.



   Article by BLACKTAIL

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