Pentagon confirmed last month that the US sent some of its High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) to Ukraine to help combat the ongoing war against the Russian Invasion. Since then, the HARM has played a significant role in the Ukrainian offensive in the south and recently in the east in Kharkiv province. Coupled with HIMARS, or the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, and other powerful weapons from the West, the war continues to favor Ukraine. Yet, at the same time, the missile poses a serious threat to Russia.
AGM-88 HARM Plays A Potent Role
HARM, commonly launched in an F-16C Fighting Falcon or F/A-18 Hornet, can home in on and destroy air-defense radar, making it one of the most effective missiles on the modern battlefield. It evolved into what it is today due to a new radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) technology that appeared in the late 1940s and was capable of bringing down jet bombers. Bomber pilots had to maneuver low and under the radar or find a way to somehow intercept the incoming trajectory, else kaboom. Before long, the US built Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) tactics that became a game-changer during the Vietnam War. Aircraft equipped with anti-radiation missiles, also known as “Wild Weasel” aircraft, will scout ahead of a coordinated air attack and eliminate SAMs.
However, adversaries learned they could just evade the Wild Weasel by turning off their radars, so this has raised a new problem. Years of re-engineering resulted in the AGM-88 HARM, which can locate and strike radar systems even after they have been turned off. It exceeded its main purpose that instead of suppressing, HARM is capable of destroying enemy air defenses (aka DEAD). The intelligent anti-radiation missile was proven and tested in wars in Libya, Iraq, former Yugoslavia, and today—Ukraine. Nonetheless, its presence in the war was unexpected given that most of the Ukrainian Air Forces’ aircraft were Russian-made and thus incompatible with US or NATO weapons.
The Economist explained that the Ukrainian Air Force may have used “jury-rigged adapters” in attaching the anti-radiation missile to its aircraft. Meanwhile, photos and videos of an initially incompatible MiG-29 firing the AGM-88 HARM and later seen latched onto supermaneuverable Su-27S jets began circulating online last week. These two aircraft served as the Ukrainian Wild Weasel for its anti-radiation missiles.
— Paolo Mauri (@PaoloMauri78) August 30, 2022
#Ukraine: So far, we have only seen AGM-88 HARM in use with Ukrainian MiG-29 jets.
However, evidence has now emerged showing the powerful Su-27S (Notably in an older colour scheme) apparently carrying two HARM missiles; another boost to UkAF SEAD capability. pic.twitter.com/hEmwRO75DG
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) September 9, 2022
During a national broadcast last week, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said that its forces were able to cut through the Russian air defenses using the US-provided HARM, allowing its “Air Force’s strike planes, including the Su-25 attack aircraft and Su-24M bombers, to blitz Russian forces,” Newsweek reported. These successful bombardments boosted Ukrainian ground troops’ capability to advance freely and liberate lands more effectively and efficiently without worrying about Russian air strikes.
Ukraine’s “Wild Weasel”
As mentioned, the Ukrainian Air Force’s aircraft used to launch its AGM-88s aren’t supposed to be compatible. With a little DIY, as you may, they made it possible and even effectively took down Russian radar stations.
Thrust into full production in the early 1980s, the AGM-88 is a 14-foot, 800-pound missile capable of reaching up to 30 miles and a top speed of Mach 2. Its predecessor is the AGM-45 Shrike which was used in the Vietnam war, but compared to it, the AGM-88 is much better, more capable, and more effective. Spearheaded by the US Navy, the potent missiles were first deployed aboard platforms A-6E Intruder, A-7 Corsair II, and F/A-18A/B Hornet before being equipped onto the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler dedicated electronic attack aircraft. The US Air Force, on the other hand, attached AGM-88 missiles to its own Wild Weasel aircraft: the F-4G Phantom II, and later, the specialized F-16C Fighting Falcon outfitted with the HARM Targeting System (HTS).
It’s to note, though, that the missile system relies heavily on its digital display to be fired, and knowing the system’s incompatibility with the Russian-made platforms, the question arises to many: how does it work? Are the pilots firing them blind?
And apparently, yes.
But Ukrainian pilots apparently are firing the HARMs blind, using a mode that requires no new hardware in the single-seat, supersonic MiG’s cramped cockpit.
As seen in the video mentioned above, the Ukrainian pilot was operating the HARMs blind using the “prebriefed” mode, which requires no new hardware and allows quicker and easier integration between the US-made missiles and the Soviet-made jets. It may not have the best accuracy, but it remains capable of SEAD/DEAD, as well as terrifying enough for the Russian crews operating radars and radar-equipped surface-to-air missile vehicles to scram for their lives.
In a press briefing last August, the US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy reported the success of the AGM-88 in helping Ukrainian forces eliminate Russian radar systems. “The Ukrainians in recent weeks have been using the HARM missiles to great effect to take out Russian radar systems,” said Colin Kahl.
Nevertheless, much can still go wrong, particularly if the pilot fails to nail the launch position, direction, and speed. The HARM may not be able to detect and home in on the target. But there isn’t much of an option, isn’t it?
While Ukraine has yet to persuade its foreign allies to provide them with modern Western jets, the Pentagon has stated that it prefers to improve rather than replace Ukraine’s existing warplanes, weeks after confirming that the US is supplying HARMs to Ukraine.
It is less expensive and faster and only involves the risk of grounding aircraft for a few days, as opposed to transitioning to new aircraft, which requires training pilots, new processes, and new support equipment—which may take longer.