Take out the tankers.
The original R-37 was originally developed by the Soviet Union to attack high-value NATO air assets such as the E-3 Sentry AWACS, E-8 JSTARS and RC-135V/W Rivet Joint. The idea was to use a high-speed fighter such as the MiG-31—which can sustain speeds of Mach 2.35 over a radius of 390 nautical miles while carrying a significant air-to-air payload—with the new missile to eliminate those NATO air assets. An aircraft like the MiG-31—or a stealthy supersonically cruising airframe such as the PAK-FA—is ideal for such a mission because they are difficult to intercept due to their sheer speed and altitude.
A new generation of Russian and Chinese-built long-range air-to-air missiles could threaten the critical nodes that enable U.S. air operations. Those nodes include the AWACS, various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, aerial refueling tankers and electronic attack aircraft.
While often overlooked in favor of advanced anti-ship and surface-to-air missile systems when examining Russian and Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, such long-range air intercept weapons—coupled with the right fighter—could cut the sinews that allow the United States to conduct sustained air operations in both the Asia-Pacific and the European theatres. Essentially, Russians and/or Chinese forces could pair long-range air-to-air missiles with aircraft like the Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound, Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA and the Chengdu J-20 to attack American AWACS, JTARS and aerial refueling tankers like the Boeing KC-135 or forthcoming KC-46 Pegasus. Especially over the vast reaches of the Pacific where airfields are few and far between, lumbering aerial refueling tankers could be an Achilles’ Heel that Beijing could chose to exploit. There are three long-range air-to-air missile programs that bear watching—the Russian Vympel R-37M RVV-BD, the Novator KS-172 (aka K-100) and the Chinese PL-15.