An IDC Analysis

(with inputs from Sayan Majumdar)


New Delhi, 06 January 2004

With India’s economy on the move and all round improvements in political and military matters India was truly shining into the New Year. We had recently highlighted the Navy and Army achievements and challenges (Seea twenty-first century navyandmodernisation-challenges for indian army); and now it is the turn of the Air Force to receive our attention.

We believe that the IAF has the “finest flying men and machines“ and aver that the IAF will come of age in 2004, with nuclear capability in place under the Strategic Nuclear Command. This year will also see the IAF control accidents as the MiG 21’s problem is being licked and HAL is being brought in line. The UAVs, aerostats, midair refuellers and the SU 30 MKI aircraft will see operational improvements with systems and new EW and Radar equipment that will be in place. The IAF has also decided to pitch for the Mirage 2000 N as its next demand as the LCA has still a long way to go, and 10 more Mirage 2000s are being refurbished for delivery by Dassault. This will be the year of the IAF, which in the last two years has worked hard to iron out its problems, especially accidents. Their exposure to foreign air forces has given them greater confidence and soon they will have the world’s leading fighters over Indian skies and their order book in place. The SU 30 MKI AL 31PFV engines have short overhaul and inspection regimes and variable nozzles, which problems are also being licked.

Exercises With USAF

Once again within a couple of months Gwalior will be the center of attention and attraction for the IAF (Indian Air Force) community as both IAF and USAF (United States Air Force) gears up for their first ever combat exercises on Indian soil. While the USAF is projected to field their top-of-the-line F-15C air-superiority fighters the IAF has probably settled for Mirage 2000H which during February 2003 took part in Exercise Garuda with the French Armee de l'Air Mirage 2000s at the same venue and carried out around 200 sorties with BVR (Beyond Visual Range) and WVR (Within Visual Range) missiles and refining of tactics. The IAF was quick enough to absorb the French BVR tactics while performing superbly in the WVR arena. This was a great learning experience and Indian pilots shone.

Having performed well against French in Exercise Garuda, it is natural to hope that the IAF will secure an edge over the USAF too in the forthcoming exercise provided IAF commits its best air superiority fighter. However if the Mirage 2000 is committed it remains at a distinct disadvantage to the USAF F-15Cs in terms of sensors and weaponry. Moreover the USAF fighters will be protected with a formidable EW (Electronic Warfare) suite. We will wait and watch and the IAF cannot hope to match the USAF in technology but it can learn lessons. This is the message of our analysis.

The predominant factor that decides the outcome of present day air combat remains the element of surprise and had been repeatedly confirmed in air combats over the skies of Middle East, Vietnam, Iraq and Kosovo in the past five decades. More than 50 percent of shot-down and survived pilots stated that they were unaware of being tracked down prior to attack. Thus the concept of “first look” by superior radar is of great significance. In this context the AN/APG-63 or AN/APG-70 X-band pulsed-Doppler radars of F-15Cs are significantly superior to the RDM radars of the Mirage 2000H. Thus the in a BVR combat scenario the IAF Mirages will be tracked earlier and “executed” by the highly reliable American AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile). AMRAAM is active radar homing so that it can be launched in “fire-and-forget” mode. Even a tactical approach may not be able to alter the technical edge the F-15Cs enjoy and in any case the USAF has vast experience of actual wartime BVR combat tactics over the skies of Iraq and Kosovo. Moreover the Super 530D missiles of the Mirage 2000 are semi-active radar homing and make the launching fighter’s movements predictable between missile launch and “execution”.

In WVR combat the IAF Mirage 2000 does have certain advantages, as it is highly maneuverable with an awesome instantaneous turn rate of 13.5 degrees per second in an emergency and it is visually “small”. Our Mirage pilots are very competent and they love the plane even more than the SU 30s, according to many. In sharp contrast the F-15s are visually prominent and “inviting” especially during turn. But the USAF WVR combat missile, Raytheon developed AIM-9X Sidewinder that has arrived with a revolutionary ‘staring focal plane array technology’, and has inherently better IRCCM (Infra-Red Counter Counter Measures) and is readily programmable for new IRCCM techniques in future may turn out to be the great equalizer. This particular staring focal plane array technology, provides greater ability to reject flares and other countermeasures. AIM-9X thus may offset certain disadvantages of the F-15Cs against the Mirage 2000 in the WVR combat arena.

The situation is set to alter significantly if the IAF decides to challenge the USAF F-15Cs with its Sukhoi-30MKIs. Then the advantage of technology will be on the Indian side. For air-superiority missions Sukhoi-30MKI is equipped with the formidable NIIP N-011M "Bars" (Snow Leopard) multi-mode radar with a passive phased-array antenna. "Bars" can track several targets while continuing to scan for more. It can simultaneously track ten targets and shoot at four with the numbers slated to increase with new software releases. During flight-testing aboard Sukhoi-30MK and Sukhoi-35, "Bars" detected air targets at 330 kilometres and that is likely to increase through an enhanced signal amplifier and increased power transmitter. Even smaller targets of 2 metre square RCS (Radar Cross Section) can be detected in excess of 120 kilometres. Thus the element of surprise now rests in favour of IAF. With the Russians having started work on AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Arrays) radar systems, in future preferably an AESA variant should equip our Sukhoi-30MKIs.

Additionally the Sukhoi-30MKI can function as a "mini-AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System)" platform and can act as a fighter director or airborne command post by transferring target co-ordinates to at least four other aircraft. This special feature was first demonstrated by S-800 Zaslon "Flash Dance" airborne radar mounted on MiG-31 "Foxhound". Thus tactics refinement in a “multi-bogey” environment can be made and the system will be severely tested against the powerful USAF electronic-warfare environment.

Sukhoi-30MKIs BVR and WVR missile combination of active-radar homing R-77-RVV-AE (AA-12 Adder) and all-aspect R-73RDM2 (AA-11 Archer) compares favourably with the USAF combination of AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder with no side enjoying a distinct edge. In both cases the maximum range of the WVR missiles overlap the minimum range of the BVR missiles creating a “no escape” envelope. However the Sukhoi-30 enjoys no angle of attack limitation and in combination of thrust vectoring engines may escape below the "clutter notch" of enemy aircraft to make them invisible to enemy radar at critical moments thus creating problems for the F-15Cs. Modern pulse-Doppler radar after all, filters out static and semi-static objects at lower level to "gather" moving targets.

Another important area of the joint exercise is projected to be protection of vital airborne platforms like AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) and IFR (In-Flight Refueling) tanker platforms. Here vast USAF experience will be helpful for the IAF as it is in the process of inducting Phalcon AWACS platforms and Illyushin-78 tankers. Whether destruction of enemy vital airborne platforms will be on the training agenda is not certain. After-all the Russians have meanwhile resurrected their ultra-long-range AAM (Air-to-Air Missile) project of Novator Ks-172 designed to destroy enemy AWACS platforms and IFR tankers without first having to negotiate with their fighter escorts and can be launched from Sukhoi-30 fighters.

The discretion of the Indian fighter aircraft type to take part in the Indo–United States Air Exercise certainly rests on the IAF top brass. The enthusiasts however would like to see the formidable Sukhoi-30MKI take part from IAF side and score a “victory”. However what is certain is that tactics and notes will be exchanged and will be beneficial to both IAF and USAF. Indo–United States strategic partnership will be strengthened. 

We therefore salute the IAF and wish them greater success.

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