By David Crane
defrev (at) gmail (dot) com
March 11, 2011
DefenseReview (DR) readers may remember a story we published back in February 2010 on the Russian PAK FA Sukhoi T-50 low-observable stealth fighter aircraft that’s essentially Russia’s developmental version of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Well, the program has developed since then into the more fleshed-out Sukhoi/HAL FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft) under the Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF) project. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) of India as signed a contract for Preliminary Design with Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi. The Gen-2 PAK FA Sukhoi T-50/FGFA will reportedly enjoy all the advantages of 5th-Generation fighter aircraft, including low observability (i.e., stealth), supercruise, ultra-maneuverability, internal weapons carriage, enhanced situational awareness, a highly-integrated avionics suite, and network centric warfare capabilities.
defenceWeb reports that “Mikhail Pogosyan, director of Sukhoi, estimates a market for a thousand PAK FA aircraft over the next four decades. Two hundred will be produced for India, two hundred for Russia and the rest will be for export.” They also state that “Russia will buy the first ten aircraft after 2012 and will induct the type into service around 2015, making it the first all-new warplane to enter Russian Air Force service since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
You may remember that the Indian Air Force (IAF) supposedly kicked the tar out of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in 2004 AND 2008 in mock dogfights using the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, the last one being a Red Flag mock dogfight. The made-for-export Russian/Indian “Version 5” Su-30MKI used in the 2008 Red Flag exercise incorporated both thrust vectoring (vectored thrust) AND canards (so they were pretty maneuverable!), and integrated the Russian R-77 (RVV-AE) Missile (NATO reporting name: AA-12 Adder) “AMRAAMsky” active radar missile and R-27/AA-10 (“10 Delta”) mod Alamo IR (infrared) missile with 30-mile range.
In certain circumstances, the Su-30 can use its maneuverability, enhanced by thrust-vectoring nozzles, and speed to fool the F-15’s radar, fire two missiles and escape before the U.S. fighter can adequately respond. This is according to Air Force officials who have seen the results of extensive studies of multi-aircraft engagements conducted in a complex of 360-deg. simulation domes at Boeing’s St. Louis facilities.
“The Su-30 tactic and the success of its escape maneuver permit the second, close-in shot, in case the BVR [beyond-visual-range] shot missed,” an Air Force official said. Air Force analysts believe U.S. electronic warfare techniques are adequate to spoof the missile’s radar. “That [second shot] is what causes concern to the F-15 community,” he said. “Now, the Su-30 pilot is assured two shots plus an effective escape, which greatly increases the total engagement [kill percentage].”
THE SCENARIO in which the Su-30 “always” beats the F-15 involves the Sukhoi taking a shot with a BVR missile (like the AA-12 Adder) and then “turning into the clutter notch of the F-15’s radar,” the Air Force official said. Getting into the clutter notch where the Doppler radar is ineffective involves making a descending, right-angle turn to drop below the approaching F-15 while reducing the Su-30’s relative forward speed close to zero. This is a 20-year-old air combat tactic, but the Russian fighter’s maneuverability, ability to dump speed quickly and then rapidly regain acceleration allow it to execute the tactic with great effectiveness, observers said.
If the maneuver is flown correctly, the Su-30 is invisible to the F-15’s Doppler radar–which depends on movement of its targets–until the U.S. fighter gets to within range of the AA-11 Archer infrared missile. The AA-11 has a high-off-boresight capability and is used in combination with a helmet-mounted sight and a modern high-speed processor that rapidly spits out the target solution.
Positioned below the F-15, the Su-30 then uses its passive infrared sensor to frame the U.S. fighter against the sky with no background clutter. The Russian fighter then takes its second shot, this time with the IR missile, and accelerates out of danger.
“It works in the simulator every time,” the Air Force official said. However, he did point out that U.S. pilots are flying both aircraft in the tests. Few countries maintain a pilot corps with the air-to-air combat skills needed to fly these scenarios, said an aerospace industry official involved in stealth fighter programs.
Of course, the Russian and Indian air forces both do maintain pilot corps with these air-to-air combat skills. The same article noted that skeptics contend the simulation results were engineered to justify development and fielding of the F-22 Raptor, AIM-9X high-off-boresight, short-range air-to-air missile, Joint Helmet Mounting Cueing System (JHMCS), and possibly also the development a new long-range air-to-air missile that can match the F-22 radar’s ability to identify targets out to 120 miles.
Skeptics of the Red Flag exercises have made the same argument: that the USAF essentially lost on purpose to justify Raptor procurement. The Raptor, of course, more than compensates for the Su-30MKI’s superiority over the F-15.
Enter the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA stealth fighter aircraft, which will probably bridge at least most of the gap between the Su-30 fighter series and F-22. When you add the Russian radar and IR targeting and missiles (along with their own helmet mounted cueing system) to the package, you’ve got, well, a pretty formidable package.
The F-22 isn’t necessarily invincible under all circumstances. Let’s not forget that an F-22 got shot down during an air-to-air combat simulation at the hands of some F-16 Falcons from from 64th Aggressor Squadron. Here’s what War is Boring had to say about it:
I totally agree: failure is the best way to improve. And if losing one simulated dogfight against other Americans flying F-16s was such a profound experience for our Raptor jockies, imagine what they might take away from a no-holds-barred match with experienced foreign pilots flying a genuinely dissimilar aircraft, say Indian aces in Su-30s or veteran Russian pilots in Su-27s – or even top British aviators in the Royal Air Force’s new Typhoons. So far the Air Force has kept its Raptors on a short leash, letting them play in only the most controlled circumstances. Maybe it’s time to cut them loose for some real education. Just think how prepared they’ll be after 50 mock shoot-downs.
How about our Raptors flying towards a swarm of Chinese Chengdu J-20 fighter aircraft? The J-20 might not be anywhere close to a match for the F-22 on a one-to-one basis, but what happens if the Chinese produce enough J-20s to make it a 20-1 ratio, or 30-1 for that matter, in their favor?
Let’s just hope that the Chinese don’t handle unpaid debts like the Mob. That would be unpleasant.