A curious tale from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, dating to May of last year, has recently come to light.
While the incident, which involved fighter jets of the Russian and Italian Air Force, has neither been confirmed nor denied by any official agency, it has much relevance to India’s defence planning, and therefore merits examination in depth.
According to a Bulgarian website which covers military matters extensively, a Sukhoi-30SM fighter plane of the Russian Air Force conducted a surprise interception of an Italian Air Force F-35 jet over the Baltic Sea.
The Italian F-35 was based in Estonia, and was part of a formation which was tasked with conducting ‘Air policing’ sorties soon after the conflict broke out.
Readers may remember this was a time when the European airspace was closed to Russian planes, and ‘Air policing’ was a euphemism for some eyeball-to-eyeball posturing by the West to keep a little pressure on the Russians.
Unfortunately, the Italian F-35 got too close to a Russian military transport plane, and that is when it was startled by the Russian Su-30. The Bulgarian report says that the Italian pilot’s sensors showed no warning until the Su-30 was on him, and buzzing him.
“He came almost out of nowhere. I was very confused because I did not expect to see it so close,” the Italian pilot reportedly said.
What was worse, the F-35’s radars kept losing track of the Su-30 as the Russian jet jinked in and out of the F-35’s flight path. This bewildering episode even forced the Italian pilot to reboot his sensor systems (to reconfirm that they were functioning), and the humiliation continued until the Russian jet, having made its point without ambiguity, disengaged and flew away.
If true, then this is startling news for multiple reasons.
One, the F-35 is touted to be the latest, deadliest, most advanced fighter plane the world has ever seen, with sensors that can supposedly detect threats far in advance, and designed with stealth features which make it nigh-invisible to the enemy.
And yet, not only was the F-35 located by the Su-30, but more disconcertingly, the F-35 was unable to detect the Su-30 until it was too late. If this had been real combat, the F-35’s wreckage would have been littering the bottom of the Baltic Sea before anyone could say ‘Ciao!’.
Two, the Su-30 is a generation older than the F-35 in design and manufacture, having been conceptualised as an air superiority fighter without stealth features in the 1980s, and entering service a full two decades before the F-35 did.
So, how on earth did a Russian Su-30 blindside a far more advanced F-35 in such a devastating manner?
The answer lies in two pods which the Su-30 carries on its wing-tips.
These are the Khibiny electronic countermeasure pods (ECM, circled in red in image above) which make a decidedly un-stealthy fighter plane like the Su-30 quite stealthy — and stealthy enough, in fact, to creep up and pounce on an opponent like the F-35, which bristles with the latest stealth features and sensors.
An ECM pod emits specific signals which delays aircraft detection by interfering with, and jamming, the sensors of another plane.
It can also confuse the opposing plane’s instrumentation by projecting misleading locations, which in turn make it difficult for the opposing pilot to get a fix. And if a pilot can’t get a clear fix on a target, then he or she cannot launch a missile.
It is these potent tools of electronic warfare which the Russian Su-30 pilot so skillfully employed to first mask his approach to the F-35, and then to harass the hapless Italian pilot until the intended message was ruthlessly driven home in style.
Now, that begs a serious question: Does the Indian Air Force have similar capabilities?
We must ask this because the Chinese have finally fielded the Chengdu J-20, a fifth-generation, twin-engine air superiority fighter with all-weather stealth features. They have already built over 200 of these planes, and are, in fact, in the process of replacing their own Su-30MKKs with these J-20s.
The answer is, yes, we do.
India has procured a number of Khibiny ECM pods for the 272 Su-30MKI jets we operate (built under license in India). We also have the larger SAP-14 advanced jamming pods, which our Su-30s can carry on their undercarriages.
In addition, we have dedicated pods for some of the other classes of fighter planes we operate, like the Mirage-2000, the upgraded Jaguars, and the Mig-21s (which formed our first electronic warfare squadron some decades ago).
The French Rafales carry their own advanced integrated suite, called SPECTRA.
While all of that may sound reassuring, nothing is black-and-white in the arcane world of electronic warfare, and nothing is static either. So, we must also ask if there are any lacunae, or whether more improvements are in the pipeline.
There have been mutterings within the Air Force, that these Khibiny ECM pods restrict the aerodynamics of our Su-30MKIs; that the plane’s legendary super-manoeuvrability is slightly affected, especially when pulling sharp turns on a full load, because the pods are bulky.
The Russians haven’t voiced any such serious concerns about their Su-30s, but we must understand that the Indian Air Force, which pushes air combat beyond normal limits (they really are among the best fighter pilots in the world), obviously has moves up its sleeve which others don’t know about, and which might be affected by the pods.
That is where India’s Defence Research Development Organization (DRDO) comes in, bringing the future with it.
First, as reported by Swarajya last year, the Su-30MKI, and the Tejas variants, will be fitted with our home-grown Uttam radar, which is significantly more sophisticated and powerful than what these jets currently possess.
Second, a new radar-warning-receiver called Dhruti is being developed specifically for the Su-30MKI by a DRDO lab in Bengaluru. This is a key component of the electronic warfare domain, because the more powerful a receiver, the farther, faster, and more accurately, it can detect a threat.
Third, our Su-30MKIs will receive new, desi, Advanced Self Protection Jammer pods (ASPJ). These new ASPJs will replace the Khibiny pods, increase the lethality of the Su-30MKIs, and being of smaller dimensions, may possibly mute our online mutter as well.
Fourth, DRDO are also developing an advanced electronic warfare suite for the Tejas Mk1A. These ASPJ pods are currently being evaluated on a Tejas Mk1 plane which is already in service (the Mk1A is still in the prototype phase). Once ready, it will make the Tejas Mk1A one heck of a weapon.
So, while the encounter over the Baltic Sea, albeit unverified, may be fresh news to us civilians, we see that the Indian Air Force too, possesses similar electronic warfare capabilities; and, that the redoubtable DRDO is aggressively developing new systems which will raise our kill-skills in this domain to higher, more potent levels.
This is vital to our defence planning and the future conduct of combat operations for a number of reasons.
For starters, the more advanced our electronic warfare systems, the higher the Indian Air Force’s chance of success, especially when the numbers are against us.
Further, with these pods fitted on our Su-30MKIs, experts concur that the Chinese J-20s would lose first-shot advantage, and thereby even possibly give our fighter jets some superiority over, or at least parity with, the bulk of the Chinese air combat fleet.
From a policy standpoint, this means that the Indian government would need to pursue the development of such advanced pods for not just the Su-30MKIs, but for all classes of aircraft in our fighter fleet.
This upgrade is the need of the hour, and one which could dramatically change the manner in which the Indian Air Force ensures the defence of our realm.
And that raises an intriguing question in closing: if a Su-30 carrying a Khibiny ECM suite could startle an F-35, then imagine what a Su-30MKI carrying DRDO pods might do?
(With technical inputs from @Firezstarter1)
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.