Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Building a Case for the F-35 by Trashing the Su-57?

Twitter image posted by @BuddyPixy

A recent report in the ToI titled 'Fifth Generation Fighter deal. Can India cancel it?' suggests that the IAF has serious reservations about going ahead with the FGFA deal.

The report quotes unnamed serving IAF officers as saying that the RCS of the Su-57, on which the FGFA would be based, does not have an RCS comparable with the F-35, the Su-57 engine is not modular, and the cost of operating Russian aircraft is exorbitant.

(Note: Serving IAF officers are not authorized to speak to the press, which justifies the anonymity of the sources quoted by the report. However, anonymity also raises the possibility of fabrication.)

All the three points raised by the anonymous IAF sources are dubious.

RCS Comparison

The RCS comparison in the report is simplistic. RCS varies with the aspect of the aircraft (front, side, rear) and the frequency of the RF energy used by adversary radar. According to open source, western figures Su-57 RCS varies from 1.0 sqm to 0.5 sqm while the RCS for the F-35 is very impressively in the range of 0.0001 sqm to 0.0015 sqm! (The report wrongly quotes the F-35 RCS as being 0.2m.)

What the report does not mention is that the Su-57 features  2 L-band radars in the leading edge root extension (LEX) of its wings.

L-Band radars are more effective against Low Observable (LO) targets than X-Band radars typically fitted on fighters including the F-35. However, because of their longer wavelengths. L-Band radars feature reduced resolution. The combination of L-Band and X-Band, supported by good algorithms to fuse the target returns, can significantly reduce the effectiveness of LO shaping. In other words, the Su-57 could conceivably detect an F-35 as easily as an F-35 can detect a Su-57, their vastly differing RCS notwithstanding.

In clear weather, the effectiveness of the X and L band radar combine would be further increased by the fusing of Su-57 IRST readouts. (Russian IRSTs are known to be very capable.)

Survivability in Contested Airspace

Another important factor to keep in mind is that LO shaping is a means not a goal. The goal is survivability in contested airspace. Air Forces want a fighter that can operate in heavily defended adversary airspace without being easily shot down.

Contested airspace survivability comes from a combination of LO, Electronic Warfare (EW), and Self Protection Suit.

LO shaping makes it difficult for airborne and ground radars to continuously 'see' the adversary, EW spoofs (generates false returns) and blinds airborne and ground radars making it difficult for them to guide surface-to-air missiles, and a Self Protection Suit blinds or confuses the IR or RF seekers fitted on air-to-air and surface-to-air missile

Russian EW capabilities are good. The Su-57 will extensively use them to spoof adversary radar.

Boeing F/A-18E/F

As part of the service life extension program for the F/A-18E/F, Boeing is introducing modifications that will make the aircraft more stealthy. 

Boeing F/A-18 and EA-18 program manager Dan Gillian says the aim of the F/A-18E/F modifications is to make the aircraft "stealthy enough in a balanced survivable way to be effective." 

“The F-35 is a stealthier airplane, but we have a balanced approach to survivability, including electronic warfare and self-protection."

Like the proposed F/A-18E/F, the Su-57 takes a more balanced approach to survivability.

FGFA Engine

The Su-57 currently features the AL-41F1 engine, The production variant of the aircraft would be fitted with the Product 30 engine which is 30% lighter, features improved thrust (19,000 kgf vs. 15,000 kgf), has better fuel efficiency and fewer moving parts resulting in improved reliability and 30% lower life-cycle cost.

The extent of modularity of the Product 30 engine is not known. However, like LO, modularity is a means not a goal. The engine has less moving parts and is hence more reliable. 

The Product 30 engine is still on the test bench. Any comments on the extent of its modularity would be highly speculative.

Operating Costs

Russia chose to make the Su-57 less stealthy than its western analogs because it wanted to reduce operating costs! Any suggestion that operating costs of the Su-57 would be higher than those of the F-35 would not just stretch the truth, but also the imagination!


What I have stated above was part of my response to a request for comments on the ToI report from an online publication. The publication quoted just my comments on the FGFA engine (after introducing a grammatical error.) The comment was picked up by other news outlets including The Drive. Indeed, The Drive Warzone goes on to build a case for the IAF to drop the FGFA and opt for the F-35 instead! Which makes me wonder? Was that the original intent of the ToI article? 

I believe that having appointed an expert committee led by  Air Marshal S Varthaman (Retd.) the government should accept its recommendations.

I also believe that neither Russia nor the US is going to part with its frontline stealth technology and any F-35 purchase is going to come with more strings than the babus in MoD or the Air Marshals in Vayu Bhavan could count in the days preceding their retirement.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Dhruv Flight Safety Record

One IAF and one IA Dhruvs have been involved in accidents since March 18, 2016.

  1. One IA ALH crashed in eastern Ladakh on September 5, 2017, afternoon shortly after take-off. According to ToI sources, the pilots reported "loss of the right rudder (which controls the tail rotor)" soon after getting airborne.
  2. One IAF ALH based at Tezpur went missing on July 4, 2017, while carrying out an HADR mission near Itanagar.
According to the ToI, the IA alone has recorded at least 20 Dhruve accidents since 2002.

As on March 18, 2016, since 2002, 14 military and 2 civil Dhruv helicopters have been involved in accidents, out of which 11 occurred in India and 5 abroad. Out of 16 accidents, 12 occurred due to human error & environmental factors and the remaining 4 occurred due to technical reasons. [via PIB]

The entire fleet has been grounded a few times due to technical snags in the past, which included being found unsuitable for multi-role requirements due to excess weight and limited engine power.

According to MoD (July 2015), since the induction of the helicopter in AFs in the year 2001, 08 (Eight) major accidents have taken place, all of which, have been investigated by a Court of Inquiry as per extant instructions. Necessary modifications/upgradations have been carried out, on the basis of past experience, to cater to Defense Forces’ requirements. [via PIB]

The following is an incomplete listing of Dhruv crashes.
  1. One IAF ALH crashed near Sitapur of Lucknow area at about 1657 hrs on July 25, 2014. The Helicopter was airborne from Bareilly at 1553 hrs and was on a mission to Allahabad. The Pilot gave a 'mayday' call and soon after that, there was a loss of contact on radar and on the radio. A total of seven air warriors including two pilots were on board. There were no survivors.
  2. In February 2014, an ALH Dhruv chopper exported to Ecuador crashed in Ecuador killing three people on board.
  3. A Dhruv crash-landed in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer district on February 28, 2010 while rehearsing for ‘Vayu Shakti’ air power exercise. The helicopter was part of the Sarang helicopter display team of the IAF; the team was rehearsing for a display on the opening day of the exercise. The two pilots escaped unhurt after making an emergency landing.
  4. A Dhruv crashed during a military parade in Ecuador in October 2009 injuring its two Ecuadorian pilots. The Dhruv was one of the five helicopters sold to Ecuador in March 2009. The accident took place at Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport during formation flying along with two other helicopters. The crew, who were trained in India, managed to get out of the crashed helicopter on their own and were taken to a hospital.
  5. A Dhruv ALH of the Sarang display team crashed at Air Force Station Yelahanka in February 2007 killing one of its pilots and badly injuring the other.
  6. In November 2005, an ALH being ferried to Jharkhand crashed near Hyderabad after the tail rotor sheared off. Following the crash, the Indian Armed Forces grounded the Dhruv fleet; the crash was eventually attributed to the use of date expired resin in the composite tail rotor.
  7. In November 2004 an ALH delivered to the Royal Nepal Army experienced a hard landing damaging its undercarriage and landing gear. 

Ecuadorian Air Force Crashes

In October 2016 it was reported that the Ecuadorian Air Force has moved to sell the three remaining Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Dhruv utility helicopters out of the seven it purchased between 2009 and 2012. T

Ecuador's Defence Minister Ricardo Patino announced the decision on October 20, 2016, IHS Jane's Defense Weekly reported.

Four out of the 7 Dhruvs delivered to the Ecuadorian Air Force were involved in crashes. Two of the crashes (enumerated above) resulted in the helicopter being written off. Of the four crashes, 2 were attributed to pilot error and 2 to mechanical failure. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

IAF Heron TP-XP: A Strategic Platform, Not Just an Armed Drone

Heron TP-XP at Aero India 2017

IAI (Israel Aircraft Industries) introduced the Heron TP-XP, a special export variant of Heron TP, at Aero India 2017 in Bengaluru, India. (The 'special' probably refers to a customized IAF variant.)

The Indian MSM's  (Main Stream Media's) stress on the Heron TP-XP's attack capability is rather misleading. The acquisition has a strategic dimension that is much more important.

The IAI website states that "Heron TP-XP, the latest derivative of the Heron family, is an advanced long range, long endurance (MALE) UAS, designed to perform a variety of strategic missions with a high level of reliability."

An IAI press release before Aero India 2017 stated that the "Heron TP-XP constitutes a multitasking, multi-payload strategic air superiority aircraft, integrating the most advanced of IAI technologies." 

Notice that the word strategic features in both statements describing the Heron TP-XP.  The word armed features in neither.

The reason isn't difficult to understand. With its 30-hrs plus endurance, 45000-ft operational ceiling, and all weather, day and night surveillance capability the Heron TP-XP is a veritable satellite that can be stationed above a battlefield. 

EO (Electro Optical) / IR (Infra-red) sensors under its fuselage provide real-time vision of the battlefield under all lighting conditions. A LRF (Laser Range Finder) facilitates precise distance measurement to provide real time targeting information using a satellite communication link. 

A LD (Laser Designator) allows a target to be illuminated for stand-off strike by a fighter aircraft using laser guided bombs.

For surveillance, the TP-XP can be fitted with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) or a MPR (Maritime Patrol Radar).

ELINT / ESM payloads facilitate electronic snooping and spoofing. 

If you don't find the above roles strategic enough, here comes the clincher. The Heron TP is capable of missile defense and may just be the platform to put some sense into tactical nuke brandishing adversary generals! A Heron TP would be able to detect a Nasr TEL (Transporter, Erector, Launcher) much before it comes within striking range of an advancing armor column, allowing the TEL to be targeted using  coordinates beamed by the UAV 

There would be other significant pay-offs from the Heron TP acquisition. The UAV features ATOL (Automatic Taxi-Takeoff and Landing) systems and triple redundancy for maximal safety and reliability, features that DRDO is desperately trying to incorporate in its Rustom-2 MALE UAV.

It's clear that the purchase of 10 Heron TP-XP MALE UAVs from Israel's IAI would be a landmark acquisition, but hardly for the reason that the MSM is highlighting.

The deal is reportedly worth $400 million, which would put the cost of each UAV at $40 million.

It would be possible to lightly arm the Heron TP-XP to strike terrorist targets, but that wouldn't be optimal utilization of a strategic platform valued at $40 million.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Should ADA Push LCA Navy Mk.2 Against IN Wishes, or Focus on the AMCA?

LCA Navy Mk.1 at Aero India 2017

On December 2, 2017, the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba told the press that the Indian Navy is scouting for another carrier operations compatible fighter besides the MiG-29, since LCA Navy lacks the payload required to be effective when operating from a carrier.

“The present LCA Navy does not meet the carrier capability which is required by the Navy. We will continue to support the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in their efforts to develop a carrier-based fighter aircraft. At the same time we will seek aircraft elsewhere which can operate on the aircraft carrier,” said Admiral Lanba.

On January 24, 2017 the Indian Navy went ahead and released a RFI for procurement of approximately 57 Multi role carrier borne fighters (MRCBF) for aircraft carriers of the Indian Navy (IN).

However, speaking to the press in February 2017, ADA Director Commodore C D Balaji (Retd.) said that the Navy Chief's December remark that the LCA Navy lacked adequate payload was restricted to LCA Navy Mark I.

"...We knew (it) was a heavier platform upfront and it was basically a technology demonstrator and that is how it is intended," he said.

Recalling the development testing underway since 2016, Balaji said "....we will convert this project into a product and that will happen once we do an arrested recovery (by mid of this year), the moment we do that we will carry the learning into Mark II which has already been designed."

Clearly, the IN and ADA are not on the same page on the future of LCA Navy. The Navy wants to support LCA Navy as a technology development project, but ADA wants to see LCA Navy Mk.2 operationally embarked on IN aircraft carriers.

ADA is reported to have vigorously lobbied with RM Manohar Parrikar to keep the LCA Navy Mk.2 project alive. ADA's desire is well intentioned and widely supported by defense enthusiasts who believe that in order to become a great power India must equip its forces with home made weapon systems.

However ADA's attempt to arm twist the IN through the RM to eventually accept LCA Navy Mk.2 for embarkation makes little sense because despite a more powerful engine (LCA Mk.2's F414 has 10% greater thrust than the Mk.1's F404 engine) and optimized design, LCA Navy Mk.2 will fall woefully short of IN requirements specified in its MRCBF RFI.

Scale model of LCA Navy Mk.2 armed with 4 air-to-air missiles at Aero India 2015

LCA Navy Mk.2 Limitations

ADA's aggressive plugging of LCA Navy Mk.2 suggests that the Mk.2 is as capable as the MRCBF that the navy is seeking. This is far from the truth. The extra thrust of the F414 engine would make the LCA Navy Mk.2 more maneuverable but will not significantly increase its weapon load, which the IN considers inadequate. The extra thrust would come at the cost of higher fuel consumption, particularly close to max power setting, negating some of the benefits accruing from the 700 liter extra fuel that the Mk.2 would carry.

LCA Navy Mk.2 will be a more capable air defense (AD) fighter than the Mk.1 but will continue to lack credibility as a strike aircraft. It's range and weapon load carrying capacity would be limited even when operating from 3000m runways, let alone when conducting STOBAR operations from a 200m carrier deck.

It's worth noting that the ADA itself plugs LCA Navy Mk.2 as an AD fighter that would provide cover to a carrier group against fighter and cruise missile threats, not as a strike fighter. Scale models of LCA Navy Mk.2 displayed at Aero India 2015 and Aero India 2017 were shown carrying just four air to air missiles (two on each wing) with a center-line drop tank.

Ironically, the IN RFI defines operationally clean configuration (OCC) for the MRCBF to imply that it's carrying four Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles and two All Aspect Air-to-Air Missiles (A4M). A total of six missiles, two more than the LCA Navy Mk.2 would carry!

Scale model of LCA Navy Mk.2 at Aero India 2017

Understanding IN Requirement

Carrier groups are primarily strike groups, capable of delivering sustained fire power while operating at considerable distance from home shores. Typically, an aircraft carrier embarks only one fighter type to minimize logistics and maintenance overheads. The primary role of the embarked fighter is strike, so it must features good weapon load and range. Since strike missions often require escort fighters and escort jammers, embarked fighters must also be capable of undertaking these roles.

An embarked multi-role fighter allows mission planners to change the force mix - strike, escorts, jammer - based on how heavily adversary airspace is contested. The single embarked aircraft type is reconfigured for its assigned task.

The US F/A-18E/F, the French Rafale-M, and the Chinese J-11 are examples reconfigurable, multi-role carrier borne fighters with good weapon load and range.

The IN wants a MRCBF - Multi Role Carrier Borne Fighter, and the LCA Navy Mk.2's credentials as a multi-role fighter are weak.

It would not be a good idea to embark LCA Navy Mk.2 aircraft on INS Vikramaditya or INS Vikrant alongside MiG-29Ks, as ADA seems to suggest in its brochures and presentations. Having two fighter types on board, would dramatically push up maintenance and logistics infrastructure requirements. More importantly, it would constraint mission planners, deprive them of the flexibility in selecting force mix. Mission force mix would become dependent on embarked force mix! For example, when operating in uncontested airspace LCA Navy Mk.2s would have little to do.

The USN does not embark two fighter types on its super carriers capable of hosting 60 fighters. IN carriers are much smaller and embark around 20 fighters. Operating constraints will become severe. With 60% serviceability and even split of embarked types - INS Vikramaditya would be able to field just 6 MiG-29Ks and 6 LCA Navy Mk.2s at a time, hardly a credible strike force!

Other RFI Shortfalls

Besides limited range and weapon load, LCA Navy Mk.2 would fall short on many other requirements specified in the Navy RFI.

Radar and EW Suite

The RFI specifies a radar capable of engaging airborne and surface target, preferably in a interleaved mode. The aircraft should be equipped with a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) capable cuing an on-board Airborne Self Protection Jammer (ASPJ), Counter measures dispensing suite (CMDS), Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) and towed decoy for handling threats?

Interchangeability / Modularity

The Navy RFI also stipulates high degree of interchangeability / modularity - all major airframes components / parts / panels, sub-assemblies, including the canopy should be fully interchangeable between aircraft. Hot and cold engine sections should swapable. It should be possible to change the engine of an aircraft on the carrier itself.

These requirements are easily understood considering that an aircraft carrier could be operating hundreds of miles from home shores. Interchangeability allows recourse to cannibalization to keep more aircraft airworthy. To achieve interchangeability, ADA as the design agency and HAL as the production agency would need to achieve better design and production standards.


Clearly, when drafting the RFI the IN was visualizing Chinese carriers and nuclear submarines in the Indian Oceans, perhaps adversary beachheads on several Andaman and Nicobar group islands. The Navy was probably thinking Super Hornet and Rafale-M, both twin engined medium fighters. Competing against the Super Hornet, the LCA Navy Mk.2 with just one of the two engines fitted on the US Navy fighter would be clearly out of league.

LCA Navy equipped IN carriers aren't going to be enough to deter PLAN forays into the Indian Ocean, so should the IN still procure them to help India achieve self sufficiency in arms production?

Rather than pushing the LCA Navy Mk.2 as the right MRCBF for the IN, ADA would better serve the nation's interest by focusing on AMCA development. ADA certainly doesn't have the infrastructure and talent to pursue both projects simultaneously.

But ADA should continue to pursue LCA Navy as a technology demonstrator, something the Navy wants it to do. After ADA masters arrested landing, as it plans to do later this year, the agency should pursue auto-landing on deck and other relevant technologies, so that when the AMCA project gets a green light, ADA has all that it needs to develop the AMCA Naval variant.