Sunday, September 27, 2020

PLAAF vs IAF: Which Air Force Would Prevail?

 

IAF, PLAAF airbases

Introduction

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force (PLAAF) is a large, well trained and technologically air force. Arguably, more technologically advanced than the Indian Air Force (IAF)! Importantly, almost all PLAAF platforms and weapon systems are locally developed and manufactured. 

The PLAAF's size and technological edge notwithstanding, the well trained, motivated and technologically advanced IAF enjoys a significant advantage over the PLAAF in terms of the number of air bases it can operate from to - support Indian Army (IA) operations, interdict PLA supply lines and undertake counter-air operations against PLAAF bases. In the context of the current face-off along with the Ladakh - Tibet disputed border,  if the balloon does go up, would the IAF be able to support Indian troops fighting a grim battle perched on high mountains supplied through a tenuous road infrastructure? What if the conflict spreads all along the LAC? What if the conflict escalates into an all-out war?

In the following paragraphs, I will attempt an objective analysis of PLAAF capabilities to assess the extent of the threat it poses to IA operations. The analysis will dwell on PLAAF platforms, training, and likely tactics to assess the threat faced by the IAF. 

PLAAF Overview

In the following paragraphs, we will dwell on PLAAF platforms, training, and likely tactics in the context of a border war between India and China.

The PLA is likely to employ its following frontline fighters to challenge IAF operations. (Inventory holding obtained from Wikipedia is given in parentheses and includes assets deployed by the PLAAF and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN))

  1. Su-35 Multi-role strike fighter (24)
  2. J-20 Stealth fighter and penetrating sensor (50 of which 25 are likely operationally configured)
  3. J-16 Multi-role strike fighter (128)
  4. Su-30MKK (76)
  5. J-11 Multi-role strike fighter (346)
  6. J-10C Multi-role interceptor (435)
Non-frontline fighters in PLAAF inventory, such as J-7, J-8, and JH-7 are unlikely to play a significant role in a war with India because of the limited number of PLAAF air bases in the theater as well as payload and range limitations of the fighters when operating from high altitude airfields.

Unlike the IAF, the PLA has a bomber force comprising 126 Xian H-6 bombers customized for varying roles such as nuclear weapon delivery, EW (Electronic Warfare), low-level penetration, cruise missile carriage, ballistic missile (Dongfeng-21D) carriage, WZ-8 high-speed UAV carriage, aerial refueling, etc.

The latest H-6 variants feature D-30KP turbofan engines of 12,000 kg thrust replacing the original Chinese turbojets. Other modifications include larger air intakes, a redesigned flight deck with smaller/fewer transparencies, and large dielectric nose radome. Upgraded H-6 have longer range, air-to-air refueling capability,  and the capability to deploy weapons such as the ones listed above.

PLAAF force multipliers include aerial refueling tankers (3 IL-78 and 10 HY-6U converted Xian H-6 bombers) and around 50 AEW&CS, AWACS aircraft.

Additionally, the PLAAF deploys around twenty EW aircraft and five Canadian Challenger 850 SIGINT aircraft. The PLAAF also has a large helicopter, transport, and UAV fleet which I will not dwell upon in this article.

PLAAF Training & Tactics

A  2016 Rand report on PLAAF fighter pilot training concluded that the PLAAF has embarked on a major reform of its pilot training program to remedy deep-seated flaws in fighter pilot competency. The report was based on a study of articles published in the PLAAF's official newspaper, Kongjun Bao (Air Force News) on fighter pilot training at operational units over a time frame of five years.

The study established that the PLAAF is training to fight and win battles against near-peer military adversaries, like the United States and is acutely aware of its present shortcomings. The PLAAF has progressed well beyond ground-controlled scripted air combat scenarios to more combat realistic exercises that train for the battlefield, not for the test. 

PLAAF conducts multi-day, multi-branch exercises spanning units equipped with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), and radars. During such "Red force vs Blue force" exercises, adversary forces enjoy autonomy in choosing targets, timings, and tactics. (In PLAAF exercises, Blue force represents the adversary unlike the conventions in the USAF where the Red Force represents the adversary). PLAAF exercises include force multipliers like tankers and AWACS/AEW&CS as well as EW equipment and aircraft. 

The PLAAF lacks an analog to the USAF Weapons School (AWS) for developing and disseminating combat skills and tactics across units. As a result, the PLAAF's ability to maintain broad uniformity in tactical practices remains limited. Unit commanders and other senior cadre exercise autonomy in the content and scope of certain training.
The PLAAF has participated in Aviadarts since the second edition of the Russian hosted exercise in 2014. PLAAF pilots who performed well during Aviadarts are honored and counted alongside the finest Chinese pilots as well as Chinese astronauts. 

PLAAF Tactics

The PLAAF's fighter combat capability would likely pivot around four fighter jets, namely;
  1. J-20 Stealth Strike & Penetrating Sensor Fighter
  2. Su-35 Multi-role strike fighter
  3. J-16 Multi-role Strike fighter
  4. J-10C Multi-role Interceptor
Considering the large number of AEW&CS/AWACS aircraft available in PLAAF inventory, it is likely they would be facilitating EMCON (Emission Control) by PLAAF fighters to reduce chances of their passive detection by IAF fighters. In other words, operating with an AEW&CS/AWACS platform, PLAAF fighters would not have to switch on their radars and risk revealing their presence.  

For air dominance and air superiority missions, PLAAF would use a combination of J-20 and J-16 fighters. The J-16s would sweep the airspace with their powerful Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar while forward deployed and data linked LO (Low observable) J-20s would engage any adversary aircraft breaking EMCON to engage the radiating J-16s. (A fighter aircraft that switches on its radar to engage a target can be passively detected, tracked and engaged by an adversary fighter!) Both the J-20 as well as the J-16 are capable of carrying the PL-15 missile, a Meteor missile analog, with a range of around 150-km. 

At the start of hostilities, PLAAF would use J-20 fighters to degrade adversary air defenses. The stealth fighter would be used to take out adversary high-value aerial assets such as AWACS, AEW&CS, and Aerial tankers using PL-15 missiles. Operating as a forward sensor, a J-20 would be able to freely penetrate heavily defended adversary airspace to obtain accurate coordinates of strategic targets such as missile batteries and radar stations. The coordinates would be relayed in real-time over data links to J-16 fighters and J-6H bombers operating outside contested airspace and armed with precision-guided long-range cruise missiles. 

After the J-20s have softened adversary air defenses, the PLAAF would rely on J-16 fighters to strike enemy ground forces including mobile radar stations, and the J-10C to provide local air superiority for the striking fighters.

J-20 Stealth Fighter Threat

The J-20 is a well-designed stealth aircraft featuring full extent frontal aspect and limited extent side aspect LO shaping. A detailed analysis of the fighter can be perused at IAF vs PLAAF: Assessing the J-20 Threat

The J-20 would be able to penetrate Indian airspace completely undetected on most occasions. On some occasions, it would be possible for the IAF to detect the J-20 using ground-based or airborne radars. However, because of the aircraft's faint radar signature, it would not be possible for the IAF to effectively engage the J-20 using air or ground-launched missiles. 

The PLAAF has a limited number of operationally deployed J-20 stealth fighters. They are based in Wuhu, Anhui Province, near the eastern coast. The J-20 is a highly specialized aircraft that likely depends on a lot of support facilities at its home base. It's RAM (Radar Absorbent Material) coating, for example, would frequently need to be tended. It's unlikely that the J-20 will be deployed for extended periods from bases in Tibet.

J-20 operations from high altitude air bases on the Tibetan plateau would be constrained by limited payload due to the rarefied air. As a result, their combat range and/or time over target would be restricted. Also, the physical displacement of PLAAF air bases from the border area would result in a longer time to target. Under the circumstances, it would not be possible for the PLAAF to effectively keep J-20 fighters on patrol along the entire 3,488 km length of the LAC. 

Likely J-20 Employment by the PLAAF

The J-20 would likely be employed for specialized roles. For example, shooting down high-value IAF assets such as AWACS & aerial tankers. Considering the limited number of aerial tankers and AEW&CS/AWACS assets in its inventory, the IAF would be greatly disadvantaged by any losses.

The PLAAF could also use its J-20 as a penetrating sensor, leveraging its ability to penetrate Indian airspace undetected. As a penetrating sensor, the J-20 would obtain target coordinates for cruise or ballistic missile attacks by other PLA assets. In case of an uncontrolled escalation, the J-20 could be used to obtain coordinates of mobile strategic missile launchers detected through surveillance satellites. 

Xian H-6 Bombers

In total, the Chinese military has 270 H-6 strategic bombers. Most of them are located on the eastern coast of the country.

Since the H-6s carry cruise missiles on board, their deployment in the border zone could provide the PLA with a significant advantage over the Indian army in the event of armed conflict.

The latest H-6 variants are armed with the relatively new CJ-20 cruise missiles featuring half ton warhead and  2,000 kilometers range. Additionally, China has the lighter YJ-63 cruise missiles, which although cover distances ten times less than the CJ-20, can be taken on board in larger quantities.

PLA's Cruise Missile Advantage

The PLA is better armed than the IAF in terms of the range and number of air-launched Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM) in its inventory. 

Air-Launched LACM

The following PLAAF LACMs are worth noting. 

KD-63

KD-63 LACM on an Xian H-6 bomber via Twitter



The H-6 is capable of carrying the 500-km range KD-63 and the 1,500-km range CJ-10 LACMs.

The  KD-63 LACM is the latest upgrade of the YJ-63 aka C-603 series cruise missiles that entered service in 2004 - 2005. The KD-63 features a solid nose cone instead of a glass window, suggesting that it uses radar for terminal guidance instead of TV. The missile is powered by the  XW-41, turbojet engine, and has a range of 500-km.

CJ-20

CJ-20 missile via Twitter



The CJ-10 LACM, based on the Russian Kh-55 LACM, is a subsonic missile with a 500-kg warhead and a range over 1,500 km. The missile uses a combination of INS/GPS/TCM (Terrain Contour Matching) for navigation and possibly DSMAC  (Digital Scene-Mapping Area Correlator) for terminal guidance. The H-6 can reportedly carry four missiles externally. 

HN-3

The HN-3 is a subsonic, turbofan-powered missile weighing approximately 2.5 tons with a range of between 1,200km and 3,000km. The missile uses INS/TERCOM for navigation and  TV/IIR for terminal homing. 

China's PGM / UAV Advantage

The PLA has numerous types of armed UAV's and weapons developed for use by the UAVs. PLA's armed UAVs include LO UAVs that could penetrate Indian airspace undetected and loiter for hours performing ISR operations and obtaining coordinates for cruise and tactical ballistic missile targets. PLA LO UAVs also have an attack capability. 
The IAF doesn't have any armed UAVs.

A full analysis of the PLA's UAV capabilities can be read here. Based on the analysis, we can categorically conclude that the PLA enjoys a very significant advantage when it comes to UAVs

China's Air Defense Capability

The PLA has various types of very short range, short-range, and medium-range tactical air defense systems (ADS) for VA/VP (Vital A/Vital point) defense. The IAF tactical ADS match,  and in some cases exceed PLA systems capabilities. 

However, the PLA scores over the IAF in medium-range ADS and IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems). IADS are complex, multilayered defense systems incorporating a range of ground-based and aerial sensors, as well as multiple surface-to-air missile (SAM) types. Modern IADS like the S-400 feature long-range missiles that restrict freedom of maneuver well outside their land borders. IAF medium-range ADS like MRSAM are likely superior to the PLA's HQ-16(Buk) medium-range ADS, however, the PLA has many more HQ-16 systems deployed.

PLA IADS comprises S-300 and S-400 systems. Additionally, the PLA has HQ-16 (Buk) air medium-range and HQ-9 long-range ADS currently in service. 

The Chinese armed forces were the first export customer of the Russian-made S-300PMU2 IADS capable of destroying aircraft, cruise missiles, and theater ballistic missiles in intense clutter and jamming environments. They were also the first export customer of the S-400 system!

The S-300PMU2 can engage aerial targets with a range from 3km to 200km, at altitudes between 10m to 27,000m. The S-300PMU2 also has the ability to detect and destroy anti-ballistic missiles with a range between 5km to 40km and altitudes between 2,000m to 25,000m. The system can engage up to six targets simultaneously, while guiding up to twelve missiles - two missiles per target ensuring target kill. Additionally, highly automated detection and acquisition procedures provide outstanding performance over previous SAM systems.

The S-400 system can engage aerodynamic targets at ranges varying from 3km to 380 km and ballistic targets at ranges varying from 6km to 50 km. It can simultaneously track up to 300 targets, and simultaneously engage 80 targets guiding 160 missiles (two per target) at the same time.

The S-400 comprises four types of interceptor missiles, covering different segments of the airspace protected by the unit. 

The HQ-9 is a two-stage, solid-propellant rocket motor powered missile with a max 300 km range capable of engaging aerodynamic and ballistic targets at up to 41km altitude. The missile features INS guidance and active radar homing. The HQ-9 missile system is roughly analogous to the Patriot/S-300

S-400 System Deployment

In September 2020, press reports suggested that the PLA had moved a regiment of S-400 opposite the Chumar sector and is in the process of moving another regiment opposite the Depsang sector.

PLAAF IADS limitations

Luckily for the IAF, terrain shielding will prevent PLA IADS from threatening IAF aircraft flying within Indian airspace. Also, IAF strikes into Tibet could reduce the lethality of PLA IADS by flying low. Considering the 4,500 m average elevation of the Tibet plateau, flying low over it wouldn't pose a significant range or payload penalty on IAF fighters.
Low flying is a stealth technique that the IAF is very comfortable with. IAF strike fighters like the Jaguar, Mirage 2000, and Rafale are honed for low-level flying. 

Chinese Fighter Bases

The following is an over view of Chinese fighter bases that would launch fighter operations against the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. 

Chinese Fighter Bases Near Ladakh


The following are the PLAAF fighter bases relevant to the Ladakh sector.

via Twitter



Hotan Airbase

Elev: 4,672 ft
Len: 10,499 ft

This airbase has a standard length runway which would constraint fighter operations by limiting their payload.

The airbase reportedly hosts around 35-40 J-11, J-8, and other fighters, along with a few AEW&C

In September 2020, a report based on satellite imagery revealed that China is constructing a new R/W in Hotan. The existing runway may be constrained by terrain from further lengthening. Building a new longer length runway would allow their fighters to take off with a full load. It's also possible that the new runway would be utilized for fighter-sized drone operations, including GJ-11 Sharp Sword and J-8 drones.

Kashgar Airbase

Elev: 4, 529 ft
Len: 10,499

The airbase reportedly hosts J-11, JH-7, UAVs and H-6K?

Ngari Gunsa Airbase

Elev: 14,022 ft
Len: 14,764 ft

Ngari Gunsa is a dual-use military and civil airport which serves the town of Shiquanhe in the Ngari prefecture.

PLAAF Air Bases Near Arunachal Pradesh

Shigatse Airbase

Elev: 12,408 ft
Len: 16,404 ft

The Shigatse airport has recently been converted into an airbase. Construction of an additional airstrip is in progress on the western side of the main airstrip, likely to be used for UAV operations.

There are nine new aprons and eight new helipads recently constructed on the airbase, one of the satellite images suggests. The support buildings are used for the accommodations of the staff.

Qamdo Bamda Airport

Elevation: 14,436 ft
Length: 14,764 ft

The Bamda airport was upgraded with a longer runway in 2019. After the Doklam stand-off, another airstrip has been added to its eastern side. The additional airstrip would give this airport capability to take off and land aircraft in tandem.

Nyingchi Mainling

Elevation: 9,675 ft
Length: 9,843

Lhasa Gonggar Airport

Elevation: 11,713 ft
Length: 13,123

After the Doklam stand-off, at least two KJ-500 AEW aircraft have been observed permanently deployed here. Satellite images of October 2017 showed 20 J-11s, eight J-10s, eight Mi-171V, and two KJ-500 AEW aircraft at the airport, making it more of a military airbase.

IAF Air Base Location Advantage

The following annotated Google Earth map illustrates the advantage that the IAF enjoys in terms of the number and location of airbases. 

China's AWACS Advantage

Data linked with and under control of an AWACS the J-20 would pose a formidable challenge to all IAF fighters including Rafale. With the AWACS providing situational awareness and target tracking information, there would be no need for the J-20 to switch on its powerful AESA radar and risk revealing its position. It's conceivable that the J-20 can relay tracking information obtained from the AWACS to a PL-15 missile that the J-20 has launched till the PL-15 picks up the target on its little AESA active homing terminal tracker. 

PLAAF AWACS

The following is a brief roundup of PLAAF AWACS platforms.

KJ-2000

KJ-2000 via Twitter


The KJ-2000 is  based on IL-76. The 14-m diameter non rotating rotodome houses 3 phased array radar antennas.


KJ-200

KJ-200 via Twitter


The KJ-200 is based on  Shaanxi Y-8 (An-12 ripoff)

KJ-500

KJ-500 via Twitter

The Shaanxi KJ-500 is based based on the Y-9 airframe

The KJ-500 has a fixed dorsal rotodome containing three radar arrays each containing active electronically scanned array or AESA radars arranged in a triangular configuration to give full 360° coverage. The new radar design supplants the “balance beam” design used on the earlier Shaanxi KJ-200 AEW&C.

In September 2020 an upgraded variant of the KJ-500, equipped with a refueling probe was spotted in images published on the internet. 

PLAAF has deployed KJ-500s to Lhasa-Gonggar Airport in Tibet.

KJ-3000

A new variant with a claimed fixed next generation radar was spotted in 2013


Cyber Attacks

In a limited conflict or all-out war, China is likely to use its cyber and electronic attack capabilities to the hilt. Retired Chinese general Wang Hongguang, a former deputy commander of China’s Nanjing Military Region, reportedly claimed that China could seize air supremacy over Ladakh and simultaneously capture electronic control systems, destroying India’s command network, air defense network (radar network), and air command network. The PLAAF could target India’s key infrastructures, artillery positions, armored clusters, logistics storage warehouses, oil depots, etc. It would then occupy key strategic heights, dividing and trapping the Indian deployments by cutting off the Depsang Plain and the Siachen Glacier, and finally, occupying National Highway 1 from Srinagar to Leh and thereby cutting off the connection between Ladakh and the outside world.

That's a lot of wishful thinking, but it does give an insight into the PLA's intent to use cyber warfare.

The IAF trains to operate in a dense electronic warfare environment and is aware of Chinese cyberattack capabilities. 

Conclusion

The capability gap between the IAF and the PLAAF is significant and must not be overlooked. 

In addition to what has been discussed in this article, PLA tactical missiles and weapon systems such as the Type PCL191 MRLS (Guardian-2) with precision strike capability could pose a significant threat to IAF bases and radar units. The mobile PCL 191 modular rocket system can carry eight 370 mm (14½ inch) rockets — each with a range of 350 km (220 miles) — or two 750 mm Fire Dragon 480 tactical ballistic missiles — each capable of flying up to 500 km.

The combination of the S-400 AD system, AWACS, J-20 fighters, and Su-35 / J-16 fighters represents offensive and defensive capabilities that the IAF cannot match.  
The IAF does enjoy an edge over the PLAAF in terms of the number of air bases that it can operate from, and their lower elevation. 

In a limited conflict, both the IAF and the PLAAF would likely rely on their outstanding pilots and platforms to conduct operations. In which case, the two air forces are likely to be evenly matched. However, if the conflict escalates and lengthens, drawing average squadron pilots into the conflict, the IAF would likely enjoy an advantage on account of better training and motivation. 

Overall, in a short or limited scope conflict, the IAF would be in a position to stand up to the PLAAF. But with passage of time or increase in the scope of the conflict, the PLAAF's numbers, technological superiority, better supply chain on account of local manufacture, and greater national power will start to prevail. In any prolonged conflict, the PLAAF is likely to dominate the airspace over the border area and steadily erode the IAF's warfighting capability.

To remedy the imbalance in the short term, the IAF's best bet would be to procure cruise missiles in large numbers from Russia for its Su-30MKI and MiG-29K fleet, procure ground based EW equipment to neutralize the PLA's advantage in UAV's and PGMS, and step up production of Brahmos-A / upgrade of Su-30MKI for Brahmos-A carriage. Additionally, the IAF needs to augment its Air Defense capability by procuring MRSAM (Barak-8) missile systems directly from Israel.



Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Su-30SM2 Upgrade - Likely Base for HAL's Su-30MKI Upgrade

 

Su-30SM at MAKS 2019

Introduction

The Sukhoi Experimental Design Bureau in partnership with Irkut Corporation is developing a new modernized version of the Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker-H that features upgraded engine, improved Radar and avionics and modern weapons. Designated as the Su-30SM2 (Earlier referred to as Su-30SMD), the aircraft leverages the operational lessons that Russia has learned during its operations over Syria. It is powered by the AL-41F-C1 engine. 

The Su-30SM2 is an attempt to converge to the maximum extent possible the Su-30 family with the Su-35 series to minimize logistics and maintenance overheads. 

Besides a new more powerful (AL-41F-S1) engine, the new Su-30SM2 variant will feature improved radar (IRBIS N035), avionics and OLS. In addition, it will be able to carry new air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons developed for the Su-57 fighter.  

Development History

Since 2015, development work has been underway to increase combat capabilities and import substitution of foreign components on the base Su-30SM, under a project designated "Adaptation-Su". 

Initially, the scope of the upgrade was restricted to making the aircraft compatible with newly developed weapons by fitting an improved avionics suite. The limited scope upgrade was designated Su-30SM1. In 2018, the Russian President Vladimir Putin sought maximum possible convergence of the Su-30SM and Su-35S platforms. Consequently, it was decided to power the upgrade with AL-41F-1S engines and replace the Bars radar with the much more powerful Irbis radar. The upgrade was named Su-30SM2.

AL-41F-S1

AL-41F-1S at MAKS 2019

The AL-41F-1S ( product 117S ) engine was developed by the Lyulka Design Bureau (part of the United Engine Corporation, UEC ). It is a twin-shaft variable bypass turbofan engine of modular design with thrust vector control and a digital integrated regulator. The engine powers the Su-35S platform.

Improved engine performance (lower SFC, higher thrust) is achieved through the use of a new low-pressure compressor with increased air flow and efficiency, as well as a new turbine with a more efficient blade cooling system.

Compared with the Su-30SM's AL-31FP engine, the product 117S engine features 16% increase in max thrust (14,500 kgf) and twice the service life (4000 hrs) while retaining the same weight and dimensions.

The more powerful Product 117S facilitates increased electrical power generation allowing more powerful radar and EW systems to be fitted on the fighter. The higher powered Irbis radar of the Su-30SM2 increases detection range of air and ground targets.

Work on the integration the Product 117S with the Su-30SM2 was jointly carried out by the Sukhoi company, the Irkut aircraft building corporation and the UEC-UMPO engine building association.

According to the developer, the new engine will not only increase the vehicle's capabilities in battle. The unification will simplify and reduce the cost of servicing the entire large fleet of aircraft and extend the service life of the Su-30SM already purchased by Russia and its allies.

IRBIS-E / N035 Radar

The Su-30SMD will feature the same IRBIS - N035 radar that is currently fitted on the Su-35. 

Designed by the Tikhomirov Scientific Research Institute (NIIP) in Zhukovsky, the Irbis-E is a direct evolution of the BARS design, but significantly more powerful. While the hybrid phased array antenna is retained, the noise figure is slightly worse at 3.5 dB, but the receiver has four rather than three discrete channels. The biggest change is in the EGSP-27 transmitter, where the single 7-kilowatt peak power rated Chelnok TWT is replaced with a pair of 10-kilowatt peak power rated Chelnok tubes, ganged to provide a total peak power rating of 20 kilowatts. The radar is cited at an average power rating of 5 kilowatts, with 2 kilowatts CW rating for illumination. NIIP claim twice the bandwidth and improved frequency agility over the BARS, and better ECCM capability. The Irbis-E has new Solo-35.01 digital signal processor hardware and Solo-35.02 data processor, but retains receiver hardware, the master oscillator and exciter of the BARS. 

IRBIS-E Operational Capabilities

New Weapons

The Su-30SMD would be able use the entire spectrum of modern and under development high-precision air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons including KAB-250 glide bombs as well as X-59MK2 air-to-surface missiles.

Orders

During a visit to the Irkutsk Aviation Plant in August 2020, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that by the end of the year RuMoD plans to sign a contract for the construction of 21 Su-30SM2 fighters and 25 Yak-130 trainer aircraft. The total cost of the order will be more than RUB 100 billion.

Progress

On September 8, 2020, Izvestia reported that the Su-30SM fitted with a Product 117S engine would fly by the end of the year. 

Approval has been received for the first flight of the Su-30SM2 prototype with the AL-41F-1C engine "product 117S", sources in the Ministry of Defense and the military-industrial complex told Izvestia. According to the approved work schedule, which was reviewed by the publication, at the present time aircraft manufacturers have signed a contract to check the readiness of the newest aircraft for the first flight. The Super-Sukhoi is expected to take off before the end of the year.

***

It was earlier reported that Test flights of the Su-30SMD with the new engine should take place in 2020. The Russian military's official website announced in August 2019 that the first batch of Su-30MSD fighters equipped with the AL-41F-1C engines would be inducted in 2021. Eventually, the entire VKS Su-30SM fleet would be upgraded to Su-30SMD standard.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

IAF vs PLAAF: Assessing the J-20 Threat

 

Dual seat variant of the J-20 via Twitter

Introduction


The J-20 is a large and heavy all aspect stealth fighter, sometimes referred to as a light bomber. Based on the geometry of its shape, it likely has a very low front aspect RCS and reasonably low side aspect RCS. However, rear aspect RCS reduction is minimal. 

The J-20 was developed to penetrate undetected airspace in the vicinity of a US Navy Carrier Battle Group to a depth required to track the warships for guiding ballistic missiles such as the DF-26 or to directly attack the ships using anti-shipping cruise missiles in its internal bomb bay.

Suppression of Enemy Air Defense Systems


The size of the J-20 and the lack of rear aspect stealth compromise its overall RCS to a value that is likely significantly more than 0.0015 dBsm RCS of the F-35. However, there can be little doubt that the J-20 would be able to penetrate Indian airspace completely undetected for suppressing our air defense systems including command and control centres, radars and missile sites.

A statement by the former IAF CAS Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa (Retd.) that IAF Su-30MKI have been able to detect the J-20 must be taken in the right context. The J-20's lower side aspect stealth would allow such detection at ranges or around 40-50 kms using the Su-30MKI's powerful BARS radar, but the radar would not be able to obtain a weapon grade track. Also, it is likely that PLAAF J-20 fighters flying in close proximity to the LAC would use RF reflectors or lenses to spoof RCS assessment.

Operating undetected in Indian airspace, the J-20 would be able to strike radar and missile sites with its internally carried precision guided LACMs to degrade IAF air defenses. The stealth fighter would also be able to act as a forward penetrating sensor of massive cruise missile attacks launched by PLAAF H-6 bombers. (The PLAAF's cruise missile threat would be covered in a subsequent post.)

Air Dominance


The stealth advantage of the J-20 would give it a first see, first shoot advantage in BVR combat over all IAF fighters except the Rafale and the Su-30MKI. The Rafale would stand a fighting chance against the J-20 with its low RCS, Spectra self protection suite with RF cloaking and Meteor 150-km BVR missile, My earlier Thumkar post J-20 vs Rafale delves into the relative strengths of the two fighters in greater detail.

The Su-30MKI would stand a survival chance against the J-20 with its powerful BARS that could alert it's pilot  to the presence of a J-20, if not provide a weapon grade track. Also, the Su-30MKI with its super maneuverability could outmaneuver a J-20 launched JL-15 air-to-air missile during its end game maneuvering.

Exploiting the J-20's Sensor Fusion Weakness


Recent reports of a dual seat J-20 variant sighting, in the context of China's earlier claim that a dual seat variant is under development, confirms that the J-20's sensor fusion is subpar - otherwise there's no operational reason to put a second seat on a stealth fighter! (Ironically, the dual-seat variant of the J-20 corroborates the assessment that the J-20 stealth shaping is good. Adding a second seat will increase the RCS and the fact that China is doing so suggests that the RCS is low enough to absorb a compromise.) 

Without excellent sensor fusion and cockpit displays interpreting readouts from multiple sensors can easily overwhelm the sharpest of pilots leading to paralysis by analysis of incorrect decisions. The IAF could exploit this weakness of the J-20 to its advantage. For example, by putting multiple threats in the J-20 's vicinity to bait it into WVR combat. 

Basing


The PLAAF has a limited number of operationally deployed J-20 stealth fighters. They are based in Wuhu,  Anhui Province, near the eastern coast. The J-20 is a highly specialized aircraft which likely depends on a lot of support facilities at its home base. It's RAM coating for example would need to be frequently tended. 

It's unlikely that the J-20 can be deployed for extended periods at bases in Tibet.

Also, operating from high altitude air bases on the Tibetan plateau, J-20 fighters would not be able to carry their full weapon / fuel payload. As a result, their combat range or potential would be constrained. Also,The physical displacement of PLAAF air bases from the LAC would result in longer time to target, and restricted fuel load would mean shorter time on target.

It's unlikely that the J-20 could operate from Hotan (4,672 ft) or Kashghar (4, 529 ft) for operationally significant time. (Ngari (14,022 ft) is likely unsuitable for J-20 operations. Of course, the J-20 could operate from Wuhu and tank up in the air en-route to Ladakh. But then its role would hardly be operationally significant. 

IAF Options

For the IAF, one way of mitigating the J-20 threat would be to acquire a reliable detection capability. We have the time and we have the sources to acquire radars that can obtain non weapon grade tracks on the J-20. 

Deployment of such radars would allow the IAF to detect the presence of J-20s in proximity to the LAC and send a package to exploit the sensor fusion weakness of the aircraft. If not that, detection would allow IAF fighters operating in the vicinity to evade the J-20s

Also, the IAF would be able to use gaps between J-20 patrols for its interdiction and close support missions along the LAC.

Conclusion


In the context of an IAF vs PLAAF faceoff in Ladakh, the J-20s could play a limited but operationally significant role.

Because of their limited number and operational deployment challenges, it's unlikely that the PLAAF would use the aircraft extensively. However, sensational deep penetration of Indian airspace followed by painful strikes would be good publicity for Chinese technology. It's likely that the PLAAF would carry out such strikes with their best trained pilots using the best of their weapons.

The J-20 threat is real and cannot be wished away by loud shouting on television debates. The IAF must move quickly to augment its stealth fighter detection capability to mitigate the threat.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

IAF vs PLAAF - The PLA's UAV Threat

 

Wing Loong 1 at MAKS 2019

Introduction

This is the second article of series that I am writing analyzing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the IAF and the PLAAF in the context of the face-off between the IA and the PLA along the LAC in Ladakh. The first article of the series was Rafale vs J-20.

The threat posed by PLA reconnaissance and armed UAVs to Indian Army (IA) operations along the LAC is mostly ignored by our main stream media and, going by the total absence of attack drones in the IA and Indian Air Force (IAF) inventory, by our military, civilian and political leadership. 

The inexplicable and shocking absence of armed drones in the Indian inventory is likely attributable to the very flawed IAF doctrine that relies exclusively on multi-role aircraft and PGMs to provide close air support (CAS), and a mindset that believes armed drones are useful only for anti-terrorists operations. 

In the following paragraphs I will provide an overview of the PLA's UAV capability. Having understood the PLA drones capability, we will dwell on how the PLA would likely leverage the capability to maul the IA in the valleys along the LAC and on the flat high ground of Depsang, BMP-2 ICVs and T-90 MBTs et al! Finally, we will discuss some options available to the IA to mitigate the PLA drone threat, through emergency procurement or relatively inexpensive material. Do note, I say 'mitigate the drone threat' not 'eliminate the drone threat!'

PLA UAVs

The PLA has numerous types of   

  • Slow speed piston/turboprop powered reconnaissance and attack UAV's ranging from portable, small and MALE. 
  • High speed, turbojet/turbofan powered reconnaissance and attack MALE and HALE UAVs with varying degrees of stealth, ranging from front aspect stealth to flying wing all aspect stealth. 
  • Specialized UAVs equipped including 
    • A high altitude UAV featuring a AESA radar that can detect and track LO fighters 
    • An air launched low hypersonic speed drone to obtain targeting information for missiles

Most PLA MALE and HALE drones can operate beyond line of sight (LOS) and in the past, the PLAAF has demonstrated the ability of its armed MALE UAVs to carry out precision strikes at long ranges using satellite data links.

The number of Chinese institutions working on design and development of UAVs is impressive, their repertoire of UAVs even more impressive, and most impressive of all is the spectrum of precision strike weapons and supporting E/O targeting systems that China has developed for its armed UAVs. As we will see later in the text, the small size and weight of the air-to-ground missiles and bombs carried on the UAVs vouches for their precision strike capability. Most importantly perhaps, China has developed the PGMs keeping costs in mind. Chinese PGMs are much more affordable than their western counterparts they will be used extensively

In the past, the PLAAF has demonstrated the ability of its armed MALE UAVs to carry out precision strikes at long ranges using satellite data links.

Many of the UAVs developed by China represent work in progress. Some, like the air launched low hypersonic speed WZ-8 drone and the AESA equipped Divine Eagle HALE drone developed for tracking stealth fighters, are not relevant to the PLAAF vs IAF scenario. In the following paragraphs we will look at PLA UAVs that are most likely to confront Indian forces and the weapons that they are known to carry.

A comprehensive write up on PLA UAVs can be perused at this link on my paid access website IDP Sentinel  

PLA UAVs

BZK-005


The BZK-005 is a MALE reconnaissance drone which is believed to be in service with units of the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) as well as with a special group subordinate to the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission. The drone is similar in appearance and capability to the Israeli Searcher drone in service with the IAF. 

The BZK-005 features a satellite based data link allowing it to operate well beyond LoS. 

The UAV reportedly has a speed of 150-180 kph, a service ceiling of 8,000 m and an endurance of 40-hr. It can carry a 50-kg payload.

A variant of the BZK-005 features a system mounted under the UAV's nose that could be electronic support measures (ESM), a radar, or a communication relay.

CH - 4 / Wing Loong - 1

(Photograph on top)

The CH-4 is a MALE drone that appears uncannily similar to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, with one visual difference being that the ventral fin below the V-tail on MQ-9 is absent on CH-4.

There are two variants. The CH-4A, a reconnaissance drone with 3500–5000 km range and 30- to 40-hour endurance, and the CH-4B, which bundles attack and reconnaissance capabilities with provisions for 6 weapons and a payload of up to 250 to 345 kg.


Specs

  • Length: 9.05 m (29 ft 8 in)
  • Wingspan: 14 m (45 ft 11 in)
  • Height: 2.77 m (9 ft 1 in)
  • Gross weight: 1,100 kg (2,425 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Rotax 914 turboprop, 75 kW (100 shp)
  • Propellers: 3-bladed

Performance

  • Maximum speed: 280 km/h (170 mph, 150 kn)
  • Range: 4,000 km (2,500 mi, 2,200 nmi)
  • Endurance: 20 hours
  • Service ceiling: 5,000 m (16,000 ft)

The PLAAF designation for the armed variant CH-4B is GJ-1 (Gongji 1 or Attack 1). It features a chin mounted reconnaissance/targeting pod as well as hardpoints to carry weapons such as.

  • BA-7 air-to-ground missile
  • YZ-212 laser-guided bomb
  • YZ-102A anti-personnel bomb
  • LS-6 50-kG miniature guided bomb.

In May 2016, China demonstrated the CH-4s ability to strike targets with high precision using SATCOM data link and E/O target acquisition and targeting system. 

The CH-4B UCAV has been exported to Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Iraq

CH - 5 / Wing Loong - 2


The CH-5 is similar in design but larger than the Chengdu CH-4. The PLAAF designation for the armed variant of the CH-5 is GJ-2.

China claims Wing Loong - 2 is better than the American MQ-9 Reaper "because it surpasses the latter's flight duration and operational efficiency". 

UAV has a wingspan: 21 m, max take-off weight: 3.3 ton, max suspension weight: 1 ton, Endurance: 40 hours, Max range: 6,500-km.

The CH-5 can carry between 16 and 24 air-to-surface missiles. An upgrade would extend its range to 10,000 km.

Standard payloads include an electro-optical turret that has infrared, laser rangefinder and designator capabilities as well as a separate synthetic aperture radar. Electronic intelligence, communications intelligence and electronic warfare payloads are also available

The CH-5 has been exported to Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, UAE, Uzbekistan

FL-1 MALE USAV

via Twitter

The FL-1 bears a strong physical resemblance to the 3,300 kg-class CH-5.

Both UAVs feature ventral EO/IR turret. The FL-1 appears visually distinct from the CH-5 because of its pronounced wing root fairings.

The UAV is powered by a rear-mounted heavy fuel engine of an undisclosed type with a dorsal intake. This engine drives a three-bladed pusher propeller, which enables the vehicle to cruise at speeds of up to 240 km/h at altitudes of 16,404–19,685 ft and attain an operating ceiling of 26,246 ft.

It's likely that the operational capability and endurance of the FL-1 exceed those of the CH-5.

GJ-11 Sharp Sword Stealth UCAV

The GJ-11 long-range stealth attack drone is designed to penetrate deep into contested airspace without being detected to strike strategic targets or ferret out targets and relay targeting information for air or ground launched missiles. The drone is likely armed with internally carried missiles and laser-guided bombs.

TB001 Armed Reconnaissance UAV

via Twitter

The operational status of the TB001 is not known.

The MALE class drone performed its maiden flight in March 20, 2020. 

Known locally as the "Twin-tailed Scorpion," the TB001 reportedly has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 2,800 kg, an overall wingspan of 20 m, a length of 10 m, and a height of 3.3 m. 

TYW-1 Armed Reconnaissance UAV

Source: Via YOUUAV.com


The operational status of the UAV is not known. It is similar but slightly heavier than the BZK-005

The 9.85 m-long and 2.5 m-high TYW-1 reportedly has a maximum take-off weight of 1,500 kg compared with the 1,250 kg of the BZK-005.

According to Chinese media reports, the TYW-1 can carry a 370 kg payload, features four underwing pylons, has a ceiling of 7.5 km, an endurance of 40 hours, and can reach a top speed of 200 km/h.

The UAV is equipped with an electro-optical system that can reportedly read a license plate 50 km away from an altitude of 5,000 m. It also features both line-of-sight and satellite navigation and control systems.

Wing Loong - 10 / Wind Shadow / Cloud Shadow UAV


The Wing Loong 10 (Wind Shadow) is a single turbofan powered RF LO MALE/HALE UAV. An armed, export oriented variant of the Wind Shadow, referred to as Cloud Shadow, is powered by the WP-11C turbojet engine, instead of a turbofan.

Cloud Shadow is the first high-altitude, high-speed fixed-wing UAV available for export by China . 

Wind Shadow is designed for long-range reconnaissance and strike missions. It's export variant was unveiled at  the 11th Zhuhai Air Show on October 31, 2016.

The UAV has a line-of-sight link radius of 290-km, cruising altitude of 14,000m and a maximum speed of 620-kph.

A variety of air-to-ground missiles and glide bombs were exhibited at the static display, including armaments such as the Blue Arrow-7 and -21, YJ-9E and AG-300M. 

The aircraft has a maximum payload of 400kg, a normal take-off weight of 3,000kg and endurance of six hours.

CH-92A

via Twitter

The CH-92A is a medium range tactical reconnaissance/attack drone with a command link effective up to 155 miles and an endurance exceeding eight hours. It can fly up to 16,400 feet (higher than certain short-range air defense systems can reach), and up to a maximum speed of 124 miles per hour.

A CH-92 battery can be deployed in the field in around an hour, and the drone’s tricycle landing gears allows it to take off from an unprepared field or highway. It can also be recovered by parachute if necessary.

The drone’s reported maximum payload of 165 pounds can encompass up to two FT-8 missiles as well as sensors carried in a turret under the nose including day/night thermal cameras (viewing range of 8-12 miles depending on time of day), laser rangefinder and targeting pod with a range of around 8 miles, and a Moving Target Indicator for tracking vehicle targets.

The CH-92 is reported to be capable of attacking moving targets using FT-8C and FT-18D air to surface laser guided missiles

The operational status of the UAV in the PLA is not known. The UAV was exported to Serbia.

UAV Weapons

Multiple Chinese companies have developed families of UCAV weapons including precision-guided land attack missiles, bombs, and air launched ATGMs.

The Wing Loong series are equipped with the LE380 sensor turret that can include a laser designator, enabling the aircraft to fire laser-guided munitions.

The Wing Loong - 2 can carry ASCMs such as the  YJ-9E. 

In the following text, we will focus on land attack weapon systems only. These can be classified as follows.


  • LS series PGMs which are modular bomb upgrade kits for gravity bombs. The kit comprises a SALH guidance module and a gliding module.
  • FT series PGMS which are modular bomb kits for gravity bombs comprising a INS/GPS guidance module and gliding module.
  • YZ series anti personnel cluster bombs
  • AKD, AR series ATGMs

The following is an incomplete list of weapons that can be carried by PLA armed drones.

AKD-10

The AKD-10 is an air launched version of the AFT-10 ground launched surface-to-surface anti-tank missile. The 50 kg (110 lb) missile uses MMW plus IIR seeker.

AR-1

The AR-1 is a 45 kg-class short range SAL anti-armour missile. A CH-5 can carry up to 8 AR-1 missiles mounted on its centreboard and outboard pylons

AR-2

The AR-2 is a short-range semi-active laser (SAL) air-to-surface missile for use in anti-terrorism operations and low-intensity conflicts.

The AR-2 missile is reportedly a lighter and less capable variant of the AR-1, but it's more cost effective and can, therefore, be expended more readily, saving the heavier missile for higher value targets.

The missile is compatible with the CH-4 and CH-5 drones.

The AR-2 can also be carried by other unmanned combat aircraft and Chinese attack helicopters after minor technical modifications..

Weighing about 20 kg and carrying a 5 kg warhead, the AR-2 has a maximum range of 8 km and a top speed of 735 km/h, the missile's designers told China Daily.

The AR-2 is reportedly effective against personnel, armored cars, houses, and bunkers.

YZ-212 

Laser-guided anti-personnel cluster bomb

YZ-102

A anti-personnel cluster bomb

CM-502

CM-502 missile (right extreme) at MAKS-2019

The CM-50X missile family is being developed and produced by China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CASIC) of China.

The precision strike missile has a 10km-40km range and is compatible with multiple launch platforms. The missile features a modular architecture facilitating use of different guidance systems and warheads. Typically, the missile features a TV/IR seeker and HE fuze-warhead. 

LS-6

The LS-6 is a 50-kg Laser guided precision bombs

TL-2

Tianlei-2 (TL-2) is an air-to-surface missile.

Blue Arrow-7 (BA-7, LJ-7)

Is a 47 kg (104 lb)  air-to-surface missile with a tandem HEAT warhead that can penetrate 1,400 mm (55 in). It has semi-active laser guidance, and an effective range of 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) to 8 km (5.0 mi). 

FT-8C

The FT-8C is a 44-lb laser-guided missile with a range of up to 5.5 miles. 

FT-9

50-kg INS/GPS guided bomb

FT-10

25-kg INS/GPS guided bomb

FT-18D

17.6-lb bomb with a range of 3 miles.

Conclusion

PLA reconnaissance drones have already made their presence felt along the LAC. They were reportedly used in the bloody Point 14 Galwan clash on June 15, 2020. Equipped with thermal imagers and operating from heights well beyond small arm fire range, PLA reconnaissance drones can track individual IA soldiers in day and night. 

Drones have unique advantages when operating in high mountain valleys. Because of their slow speeds (around 150 to 200 kph) they can comfortably fly in the valleys along the LAC. Engaging them with MANPADs featuring heat seeking missiles is a challenge because of their low thermal signature. Engaging then with QR or SR SAM systems with active seeker missiles is also a challenge because of the clutter from the surrounding high ground. 

PLA's MALE drones feature satellite data links. They would be operated from numerous airports (operational & under construction), heliports and dedicated UAV bases close to the LAC as shown in the annotated satellite imagery below posted on Twitter by @detrefsa_

All armed PLA drones would be equipped with PGMs - Anti personnel cluster bombs, semi-active laser homing glide bombs, INS/GPS guided glide bombs, air-to-surface missiles including ATGMs.

Almost the entire range of drone weapons have stand off capability with good range. 

PLA drone operations would likely be relentless - 24x7 in all weather. They would not be constrained by costs - of drone, drone operations or PGMs. 

The PLA would loose a lot of drones due to technical failures, piloting errors including CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) and IA ground fire. Considering that the drones and PGMs are manufactured by multiple agencies in China, the losses would be easy for the PLA to absorb.

Indian CAS Opertions

The Indian Army has capable MALE reconnaissance drones (Searcher, Heron) and smaller spotting and targeting drones. Our smaller drones are not known to be equipped with thermal imaging. 

IA and IAF armed helicopters (mostly armed with unguided rockets except the AH-64Es) would be tasked with CAS in the valleys. IAF fighters armed with very expensive imported stand off PGMs would have a limited role to play in valleys but a more substantial role on the Depsang plateau. 

Our helicopters would be engaged by adversary ground fire including surface to air missiles. There would be losses. Since armed helicopters are expensive assets, their losses would be difficult to sustain. Besides, they would involve aircrew losses or capture. 

IAF fighters providing CAS from medium altitudes would be engaged by adversary fighters and ground based missile defenses. CAS mission would have to be carried out by multiple variously armed (air-to-air missiles, PGMs, EW pods) fighter aircraft in a package. The missions would involve losses of fighters and losses/capture of aircrew. Considering how valuable these assets are, it would be difficult to sustain operations.

GPS/GSM Jamming

Many PLA reconnaissance drones are known to be capable of jamming GPS and GSM signal over a wide area. Such jamming would affect the accuracy of IAF PGMs using INS/GPS guidance.  

Options for Countering PLA UAV Threat

The Indian Army does have some last minute EW options to mitigate the PLA drone threat. These include
  • Deployment of GPS/GSM jammers on Searcher and Heron drones
  • Deployment of RF signal jammers with field units to disrupt the use of cluster bombs 
  • Deployment of ground based and airborne jammers to disrupt data links
The systems mentioned above are not known to be in the IAF, IA inventory, but are available with countries friendly to India.

The problem with EW is that there is always a counter to the warfare technique being employed. 


 

Friday, July 31, 2020

J-20 vs Rafale


Introduction

Comparing the J-20 and the Rafale, to use a cliche, is like comparing oranges and apples. The two fighters were conceived and developed for completely different roles. However, the adversarial deployment of the two fighters in the context of the simmering India - China border dispute has fanned nationalist fervor and clamor for a comparison to such an extent that comparing oranges and apples seems perfectly logical.

Also, the Global Times, piqued by the claim of the former COAS that the Rafale is superior to the  J-20, has, without presenting a shred of evidence, fired a broadside trashing the Rafale as a generation behind the J-20 and claiming that the Rafale will "find it very difficult to confront a stealth-capable" J-20.

Well, it's time for fools to rush in where angels fear to tread. I may be a fool, but not a very verbose one, so I will confine this comparison to the BVR combat capability of the two fighters, because no one in their senses, not even the Global Times, will contend that the J-20 is superior to Rafale in WVR combat.

BVR combat capability is largely dependent on - the extent and capability of AWACS cover, RF signature, sensor suite, self defense suite, Man Machine Interface (MMI), and air-to-air missile range. For the comparison, we will assume a Rafale armed with Meteor and a J-20 armed with PL-15. Both feature dual pulse propulsion (A second stage ramjet in Meteor & a solid fuel rocket sustainer in PL-15) for thrusted end game maneuvering, max range of over 150-km, and an active seeker.

RF Signature


The J-20, which features full extent frontal aspect and limited extent side aspect LO shaping has a significantly lower radar signature than the Rafale which features limited extent frontal aspect LO shaping only. Both aircraft use RAM (Radar Absorption Material) and possibly some classified features to further reduce their RF signature. As far as RF signature goes, it's undoubtedly advantage J-20!

Sensor Suite


Both aircraft feature AESA radar, Optical Detection and Tracking system, and 360-deg FOV IR sensor based situational awareness.

AESA


The J-20 likely has a more powerful radar. Some estimates put the number of T/R modules on the J-20's AESA at 2000–2200. In comparison, the Rafale's RBE2 AESA features 1000 T/R modules. Assuming that the Chinese T/R modules match the efficiencies of the GaAs (Gallium Arsenide) T/R modules on the RBE2, and Chinese software algorithms driving the T/R modules on the J-20 AESA match the sophistication of the algorithms controlling the RBE2 T/R modules, the J-20 would have a much better max detection range and a more formidable EW capability. However, the two assumptions that we have made aren't trivial and are easily questionable by skeptics.

A better max detection range combined with the PL-15 air-to-air missile capable of leveraging the better range would give the J-20 a first to shoot advantage over the Rafale in BVR engagements.

However, the lack of sophistication of LPI (Low Probability of Intercept) features employed in the J-20's AESA radar could possibly negate the longer detection range  advantage. Once switched on, the higher radiating power of the J-20 AESA would be like a more powerful search light in a dark tunnel. It would see longer, but it would also be seen from longer. The Radar would be picked up by the RF sensors on the Raale completely negating the RF low observability of the J-20.

AESA radars leverage their control over individual T/R modules to scan and track while rapidly hopping frequencies over a wide spectrum making it difficult for RF sensors on adversary aircraft to track the radar. Hence the term LPI.  The question here is - how good is the LPI capability of the J-20 AESA? If it's not good enough against Rafale sensors, the longer range of the J-20 could well become a liability that is best avoided by keeping the radar switched off!

It's possible that the J-20 has the advantage with its AESA, however, we cannot be definite.

AWACS Cover


Data linked with and under control of an AWACS the J-20 would pose a formidable challenge to all IAF fighters including Rafale. With the AWACS providing situational awareness and target tracking information, there would be no need for the J-20 to switch on its powerful AESA radar and risk revealing its own position. It's conceivable, even likely, that the J-20 has the ability to relay tracking information obtained from the AWACS providing cover, to the PL-15 missile till it picks up the target on its own little AESA. 

Since J-20 has good RF stealth, IAF AWACS would not be able to obtain a weapon grade track on it to similarly advantage the Rafale. 

Under AWACS cover it would be advantage ++ for the J-20

Optical Detection & Tracking


The J-20 features EOTS-86 electro-optical targeting system and Electro-Optical Distributed Aperture System developed by Beijing A Star Science and Technology. The EOTS-89 reportedly resembles the EOTS of the Lockheed Martin F-35. It combines Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) and Infrared Search and Track (IRST) capabilities.

The optical detection and tracking system on the Rafale, referred to as OSF-IT, facilitates passive long-distance detection and target identification before engagement. Located ahead of the cockpit on the dorsal section of the front fuselage, it comprises  two sensors -  the main IR detector that serves as FLIR with upto 100-km range on the left and TV/IR sensor/Laser ranger on right which  facilitates optical identification of targets upto 40 km away. Optical identification is considered imperative to rule out friendly fire fratricide.

One of the India Specific Enhancements (ISEs) sought by the IAF on the Rafale is an IRST, an indication perhaps that the existing OSF-IT is somehow constrained by the need for optical recognition and the IAF would prefer an IRST that allows pilots to passively engage targets, including stealth targets, at long ranges. Here it is pertinent to point out that the J-20 doesn't have IR stealth and as such would be prone to easy passive detection using IR, with detection range varying with weather and altitude.

With little or no reliable information available on the capabilities of the EOTS-89 on the J-20, it's moot which aircraft enjoys an advantage over the others.

In all probabilities Rafale has the advantage, but we cannot be definite.

Defensive Suite


It's possible to negate the first shot advantage of an adversary fighter through a very capable defensive suite. The SPECTRA integrated electronic warfare and defensive suit of the Rafale is one such very capable system. It provides  a multi-spectral threat warning capability against hostile radars with long-range detection, identification and accurate localisation of infrared, electromagnetic and laser threats.

The system incorporates radar warning, laser warning and missile warning receivers for threat detection plus a phased array radar jammer and a decoy dispenser for threat countering . It also includes a dedicated management unit for data fusion and reaction decision.

Perhaps the most potent feature of the SPECTRA is its deep integration with Rafale's systems. For example, the SPECTRA can jam or confuse enemy RF emitters using the RBE2 AESA.

The ability of the SPECTRA to automatically jam or seduce an active homing PL-15 would completely negate any advantage accruing to the J-20 from its stealth and more powerful AESA.

The Rafale has other very sophisticated features. For example, its concept of a defensive bubble. Once breached, the Rafale starts its "tandav"  dance that  may include firing its Mica all aspect missile backwards, releasing chaff and flares. Not surprisingly, there is a ISE for a towed decoy system.

 The J-20 can fire a PL-15 but it cannot ensure the missile will hit the Rafale!

Finally, a long shot missile can be evaded by energetic maneuvering, claims of a missile no escape zone notwithstanding. The IAF demonstrated this capability during Operation Swift Resort on February 27, 2019, when Su-30MKIs outmaneuvered PAF F-16 launched AIM-120D AMRAAM missiles. Indeed, the maneuverability and internal EW capability of a Rafale would make it as invulnerable to a missile with a radar seeker  as a Su-30MKI with Khibiny EW wingtip pods.

Rafale easily tops the defensive suite capabilities comparison.

Human Machine Interface (HMI)


Both Rafale and J-20 are single seat fighters with a lot of sensors - active and passive. How effectively a lone pilot can leverage the sensors would depend on the extent of sensor fusion and the effectiveness with which the threat situation is conveyed to the pilot through the HMI.

The J-20 features a glass cockpit, with one primary large color touchscreen LCD with three smaller auxiliary displays, and a wide-angle holographic head-up display (HUD).

The Rafale has a more sophisticated HMI. For short-term actions, it features a wide-field-of-view holographic HUD. For medium and long-term actions, analysis of the tactical situation as a whole (the “big picture”), the Rafale features a multi-image “Head-Level Display” (HLD). The HLD picture is focused at the same distance as the HUD picture to allow for fast eye transitions between head-up and head-down displays and the external world’s view.

In BVR combat, which works on the first to see, first to shoot paradigm, situational awareness is critical. The Rafale with its HLD probably does a better job of facilitating situational awareness.

Once the combat starts, the pilots rely on HUD and HOTAS (Hands on throttle and stick). As far as HMI goes, it's advantage Rafale.

Conclusion


The J-20's is undoubtedly the more stealthy of the two fighters.

Considering how little we know about the J-20's AESA and EOTS-86 Electro-optical Tracking System, it would be wrong to assume they are inferior to their analogs on the Rafale. However, since secrecy is usually employed to hide a weakness, not a strength, it's likely that the J-20 sensors are not at par as those on the Rafale. However, it is also likely that with the passage of time, J-20 sensors will improve.

Flying under AWACS cover, the J-20 would be a dangerous platform best avoided by the Rafale. The problem is, the J-20's front aspect stealth is good that it may not be possible for a Rafale to avoid butting heads with it. 

The Rafale almost certainly enjoys a significant advantage over the J-20 with its more advanced HMI and SPECTRA defensive suite.

Finally, Rafale's better maneuverability gives it a better chance of evading a BVR missile like the JL-15 that comes through its defensive bubble. The J-20's ability to outmaneuver a Meteor would be close to non-existent.

So, which is the better aircraft? Flying under AWACS cover, the answer could be categorical - J-20. 

What if the J-20 is not flying under AWACS cover? I would say, the one with the better pilot. 

What if the pilots are equally capable? I would say, the one with the  pilot who is better rested. 

What if the pilots were equally well rested? I would say - Rafale.

Monday, March 2, 2020

General Atomics Defender - A New Contour in Air Combat Evolution

GA-ASI Defender Concept

General Atomics ASI first tweeted the concept of its Defender drone (shown above) on February 28, 2020 saying that the drone would be capable of protecting USAF high value airborne assets (HVAA) in a contested environment.

Protecting its HVAA has become a high priority quest of the USAF with its adversaries - Russia and China - improving the range and end game maneuverability of their air-to-air missiles and acquiring targeting capabilities to effectively leverage the increased range.

The GA concept depicts a Defender concept drone launching a compact missile from its internal weapons bay. The drone is also armed with four AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) externally, two on each under-wing pylon. Another Defender is seen refueling via the boom on a KC-46A Pegasus tanker.

Aerodynamically, the Defender appears to have been designed for high endurance, aerial refueling, and cruise speed typical of HAVAAs that it will protect, such as tankers, AEW&C and strategic reconnaissance aircraft. The Defender could even serve as a loyal wingman defender for strategic bombers.

Interestingly, the Defender features a LO airframe with an internal weapon bay, yet it is shown carrying external stores! The apparent contradiction would suggest that the Defender could perform tasks other than protecting HVAAs.

Current HVAAs are not stealthy. When operating as loyal wingman for a HVAA, the Defender would trade some stealth for greater firepower by carrying BVR missiles externally. Doing so would not compromise its operational ability. At other times, the Defender could possibly operate independently in a strike role leveraging LO to take out targets deep in contested airspace.

It is likely that a Defender-like drone would be equipped with an AESA radar, electro optical sensors for 360-deg situation awareness and the ability to neutralize air-to-air missiles using DIRCM and seduction jammers. Its optimization for long endurance would seriously constrain the Defender's maneuvering ability, but then the Defender would not be engaging adversary fighters, it would be engaging BVR air-to-air missiles launched by adversary fighters, using its own air-to-air missiles!

One good reason why drones would better perform the task of protecting HVAA than manned fighters would human limitations associated with fighter operations. With a single set of crew, fighter endurance is limited to 7-8 hours at the maximum. HVAA, operating with multiple sets of crew have no such limitation. A unmanned drone would easily match, or exceed, the endurance of a HVAA.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

There is room & time for Su-57 and AMCA in IAF Inventory


    Speaking on the sidelines of the Dubai Airshow 2019 in the UAE on November 18, 2019,  Sergey Chemezov, head of  Russia's Rostec, indicated that India and the UAE "have been considering and discussing buying the Su-57 "for a long time, though no decision has been delivered yet."

“The Russian side proposed to localize the production of individual components of the export version of the Su-57 in countries [that are interested,] we are talking about India, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey”

"Localization [has been offered] ... It does not matter whether it is [the] United Arab Emirates, India or Turkey, we will rely on what they can do"

Elaborating on his statement, Chemezov explained that the extent of the localization would be dictated by the industrial capability of the buyer nation. Russia would source local components if the buyer could manufacture them, but would not assist in setting up the supply chain. In the absence of an existing supply chain, localization would not be possible.

“If there are simply no such technological capabilities in the country, then it is simply impossible to do this,” S. Chemezov noted.


During his visit to Russia in July 2019, the former Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa had stated that the IAF will have a look at the Su-57 only after it joins active service with the Russian Air Force. Russian Aerospace Force has ordered 76 Su-57 jets, the first of which is scheduled to be delivered by the end of 2019.

During the annual press conference on October 5, 2019, ahead of the Air Force Day on October 8, 2019, the current CAS, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhaduria said in response to a question from the press, “On the fifth generation (requirement), the AMCA has been given a go ahead and we have given it our whole support and are putting in our energies there. No import is planned in the foreseeable future.”

The remarks  were widely interpreted as ruling out import of any 5th gen fighter. However, they could also be interpreted as reiterating what the former CAS said - that at the appropriate time acquisition of the Su-57 could be considered.

It's likely that the IAF and the government are keeping their options open on the issue. Since Russia is unlikely to export the Su-57 before its own requirement of 76 aircraft is fulfilled there is no reason for India to commit at this stage.

AMCA Challenge

The AMCA is projected to enter operational service in 2035, if ADA and HAL stick to their timelines. Whether or not the IAF can fulfill its mandated role for the next 15 years without 5th gen fighter technology would depend on how threat perceptions play out. Here it's relevant to note that ADA / HAL have yet to demonstrate any of the critical technologies that would be required for the AMCA - LO shaping with super maneuverability, sensor fusion, super cruise, secure low probability of intercept high bandwidth data link and the ability to function as command center for other aircraft, including attack drones, when performing joint operations. As such, the ADA / HAL projected timeline looks overly optimistic.

IAF Options

Over the next 15 years, there are likely to be just two operational 5th generation fighters - Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightening 2 and Su-57. The F-35 is unlikely to find favor with the IAF because Lockheed retains control over the stealth fighter's software even when selling it to the USAF. 

The choice before the IAF is to wait for the AMCA, or to acquire some Su-57s while it waits for the AMCA! There following are some factors that the IAF would well to keep in mind while exercising its choice.


Sergey Chemezov's statements at Dubai seem to suggest that Russia has drawn a clear line as to the extent and type of localization that it will agree to. If India were to purchase the Su-57, Russia would be willing to source any Su-57 component that India is in a position to manufacture and supply. It will not transfer technology to India to help make components locally as part of the deal!

Here it is relevant to point out that unlike the F-35, which relies primarily on its radar frequency low observability (RF LO) to safely operate in contested airspace, the Su-57 uses a combination of RF LO, electronic warfare (EW), supermaneuverability, and laser blinding of missile seekers to remain safe in contested airspace. As a result, the Su-57 features a powerful defensive suite laden with sensors, jammers and laser emitters that are not well known to the West. Under the circumstances, Russia's desire to limit localization is reasonable.

The Su-57 has generated a lot of interest in the middle east with Turkey and UAE openly negotiating and Saudi Arabia a future prospect. The reason for the interest is simple to understand - the US will not sell the F-35 to these countries because of the threat such sales would pose to Israel. Russia is keen to seize the opportunity and fill the gap not just to increase its arms sales but also to increase its clout in the Middle East. Under the circumstances, it wouldn't in India's long term strategic interests to play coy for too long.