Why The PAK-FA May Win The Stealth Dogfight

by Rakesh Krishnan Simha - Feb 28, 2016 05:08 PM +05:30 IST


Why The PAK-FA May Win The Stealth DogfightThe PAK FA Fighter Aircraft.
Snapshot
  • The US and Russian fighter jet design philosophy diverge vastly when it comes to stealth.

    The Russians believe stealth cannot help win an air-battle, whereas the US have over-emphasised stealth.

    The Indian Air Force is better off with the Russian philosophy: non-stealth aircrafts are affordable and easy to maintain.

Stealth is the elemental difference between 4th and 5th generation fighter aircraft. But believing that it is the cloak of invisibility is living in a false reality.

The Americans claim their stealth aircraft have “first look/first shot/first kill” air dominance capability. The aim is to see the enemy first while avoiding detection. To be sure, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent have paid off in reducing the radar cross sections of the F-22 and F-35. In comparison, the Russian PAK-FA has a larger profile on radar.

But the stealth advantage of the US aircraft doesn’t seem to worry the Russians. For, the PAK-FA embraces an entirely different combat philosophy where super maneuverability – first mastered by Sukhoi engineers – is considered a vital weapon.

The PAK-FA patent document published by Russia’s Federal Service for Intellectual Property shows the aircraft’s design is heavily influenced by low radar visibility requirements. At the same time, the Russians are prepared to sacrifice some stealth in their quest for super maneuverability and excellent flight characteristics.

The Sukhoi T-50 (PAK FA) at a Russian Air Show.
The Sukhoi T-50 (PAK FA) at a Russian Air Show.

The aim is to provide an aircraft having low radar visibility, super maneuverability at high angles of attack, and simultaneously preserving high aerodynamic efficiency at subsonic speeds.

Creating an aircraft that is capable of performing tasks in a wide range of altitudes and flight speeds and also has a low radar signature is a technical challenge, the Russians admit. “All these requirements are contradictory, and the creation of an airplane that meets these requirements represents a compromise.”

The Russian view is that it never hurts to have dogfighting abilities. At some point stealth aircraft will have to close in for the kill and that’s when a knife fight is inevitable. That’s also when super maneuverability comes into play. Slow, ponderous and poorly armed stealth aircraft such as the F-35 are likely to be clubbed to death in a fight with the PAK-FA.

Sweetman writes in Aviation Week that the Russians have envisaged a “kick the door down” mission for their stealth fighter. Referring to two of the PAK-FA’s weapons – an anti-radiation missile (ARM, that targets radars) and an air-to-air missile (AAM) – he writes: “This is all interesting to say the least, because since Day One of stealth in the US, a guiding principle has been that stealth gets you close enough to use precise, short-range, low-cost weapons. And here come the Russians, equipping their first stealth fighter – already fast and high-flying – with a 1400 pound ARM that can run out to 245 km at up to Mach 4, and a 1125 pound, 200 km range AAM.”

Instead of playing hide and seek like the Americans, a Russian pilot would rather be the wolf of the sky. The hundreds of sorties being carried out by the Russian Air Force against terrorists in Syria is an indicator of how intensely their pilots have internalised this view.

Going for the kill

The PAK-FA patent document is an unusually candid assessment – by the normally secretive Russians –of the challenges of creating a stealth aircraft. In contrast, US aircraft manufacturers and their partners in the military have lied to their public and lawmakers.

According to the new philosophy of air combat that is being defined by US Air Force (USAF) and Lockheed-Martin careerists, the one-size-fits-all F-35 will replace all other fighters as well as ground support aircraft.

In their view, American pilots would toy with enemy aircraft and shoot them down as if playing a video game. They would be able to detect enemy aircraft up to 1000 km away and take them out with beyond visual range (BVR) missiles. These science fiction scenarios got many US allies excited and they signed up for the $1 trillion dollar F-35.

In practice, air combat is like a knife fight. According to Defense Industry Daily (DID), the F-35 is very likely to wind up facing many more “up close and personal” opponents than its proponents suggest, while dealing with effective BVR infrared-guided missiles as an added complication.

India’s Ministry of Defence summed it up perfectly after an air combat exercise between IAF and British air force pilots in Waddington, in 2007: According to the MoD, because there are plenty of counter and counter-counter measures available to make “modern missiles with claims of inescapable parameters redundant by using ‘chaff’ and other active/passive measures, a ‘gun kill’ is invariably a most certain kill”.

That is, even the best jet fighter equipped with long range missiles may have to rely on its cannons to ensure a kill.

Planespotting

Stealth is not really an invisibility cloak. The Americans believe since their stealth aircraft are able to deflect engine emissions upwards, they can remain undetected longer.

But there is no such thing as one radar in war. “There are lots of radars,” points out aerospace engineer Pierre Sprey in an interview to Dutch television. “And you can’t be nose-on or dead-level to every radar in the theatre. There are always going to be radars that are going to be shining up (from below) or looking from above – they can all see you.”

Also, as long as aircraft have engines, and engines produce heat, aircraft can be detected. Airframes also get heated considerably during flight and their heat signatures can be registered. Russian aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-30 have infrared radar that can detect engine emissions from hundreds of miles away, without giving any indication to the enemy to their presence.

An F-35 jet releases a GBU-12 Paveway II bomb during a test flight. Photo: CoveyHill
An F-35 jet releases a GBU-12 Paveway II bomb during a test flight. Photo: CoveyHill

Says DID: “Meanwhile, key radar advances are already deployed in the most advanced Russian surface-to-air missile systems, and existing IRST (infrared scan and track) systems deployed on advanced Russian and European fighters are extending enemy detection ranges against radar-stealthy aircraft. Fighter radar pick-up capability of up to (46 km) by 2020 is proposed against even ultra-stealthy aircraft like the F-22, coupled with IRST ability to identify advanced medium-range air-to-air missile firings and less infrared-stealthy aircraft at (92 km) or more.”

At any rate, the 1999 downing of the American F-117 stealth fighter by a highly motivated and well-trained Serbian anti-aircraft battery was a huge slap in the face of the American stealth industry. The Serbians used a 1960s vintage Russian S-125 surface to air missile conjointly with a metre band radar.

The plucky Serbians were able to bring down the F-117 within 18 seconds of detection – a stark example of the vulnerability of stealth aircraft. The bat shaped – and highly un-aerodynamic – aircraft was quietly retired by the USAF after that shoot down.

Interestingly, the western media liked to point out that the USAF always flew the F-117 at night in order to keep it a secret from the Russians. But considering the KGB had infiltrated American defence and security establishments during the Cold War, that argument sounds rather lame.

According to Sweetman, the F-117 was painted black because when it was introduced, a senior USAF commander did not believe it could survive in daylight, and consequently ordered the jets to be painted black to make sure nobody flew it during the day. The most visible colour in daylight is black.

So basically the USAF did not believe that its then stealth fighter could defeat enemy aircraft of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Stealth or dare

‘Stealth’ comes with a price. On stealth aircraft most of the maintenance is on the radar absorbent coating. For each hour of flying, these American aircraft spend several hours in the maintenance hangar. “It is a ludicrous impediment to combat,” Sprey says. “You are sitting on the ground for 50 hours fiddling on the aircraft trying to make it stealthy when it’s not stealthy anyhow.”

And this is during normal peacetime flying. In war, aircraft may have to fly more aggressively, which will wear out the stealth coatings to a larger degree, leading to more maintenance hours. Not a comforting situation if you have waves of PAK-FA’s coming at you.

Plus, 100 per cent fleet availability is a logistical impossibility. The USAF averages around 75 per cent – which is pretty decent – but when it comes to stealth aircraft the figures nosedive. The USAF’s B-2 Spirit stealth bomber – which costs an incredible $2 billion each – has an availability rate of just 46.7 per cent. And America’s most expensive fighter, the F-22, despite its $350 million price tag has a fleet availability rate of only 69 per cent.

So let’s say you are the Royal Australian Air Force. At any given time just 48 of your planned fleet of 70 F-35s will be battle ready. Your chances against the Chinese who have 400 Sukhois are smaller than small. For all their macho posturing, you can bet the Aussies won’t be joining the knife fight unless escorted by big brother USA.

An over-emphasis on stealth can have unintended consequences. Sprey observes: “Because of stealth they had to make the F-35 very bulbous, very big as they had to carry the weapons inside because as soon as you carry the weapons outside they reflect radar. So this is a huge penalty to the performance of the aircraft which is now big and lumbering like a bomber.”

Sprey’s verdict: “It’s a turkey.” Few people are as qualified to speak about fighter aircraft as Sprey. He is the co-designer of the F-16 Falcon jet and the A-10 Warthog tank buster, two of the most successful aircraft in the US Air Force (USAF).

Winslow T. Wheeler, Director of the US’ Straus Military Reform Project, Centre for Defense information, agrees. “The F-35 is too heavy and sluggish to be successful as a fighter,” he says. “If we ever face an enemy with a serious air force we will be in deep trouble.”

In this backdrop, the Russian insistence on having a traditional shape – at the expense of some stealth – for the PAK-FA seems to be the right decision. “Most great airplanes are beautiful because you are trying to reduce drag,” Sprey says.

Tactics matter more than aircraft

The Russian view has always been that the best aircraft is the aircraft you have, not the aircraft you want. Their World War II catchphrase was “quantity has a quality all its own”. The more tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces you are able to throw at the enemy, the better your chances of victory. In World War II, the Russian emphasis on devising improved combat tactics gave them the edge over the Germans.

For instance, in response to sophisticated new aircraft being introduced by the Luftwaffe, Russian commanders changed the attack priorities of their pilots. Instead of engaging German escort fighters first, they were directed to attack the slower bombers. This had a dramatic impact on the battle. The sight of their prized bombers going down in flames over enemy territory tended to demoralise the German escort fighters. The Germans were then more likely to make rash moves, which would quickly end in a rout.

Similarly, IAF pilots flying 1960s technology MiG-21s defeated the USAF’s latest F-15s in mock air combat on multiple occasions. At the Cope India exercise held at the Gwalior air force range on February 15-27, 2004, Indian pilots notched up an astounding 9:1 kill ratio against the all-powerful USAF, sending shock waves through the American defence establishment.

Colonel Mike Snodgrass told Aviation Week & Space Technology’s David A. Fulghum the reason for the USAF’s defeat: “The outcome of the exercise boils down to (the fact that) they ran tactics that were more advanced than we expected....”

Endgame

Is the PAK-FA having developmental problems? You bet it is. That’s what weapons development entails – manufacturers encounter problems and they iron out the snags and glitches.

The IAF is currently too far committed to the project to back out. It has no alternatives either as India’s fifth generation fighter is still on the drawing boards. India needs to complete the project in order to gain experience in manufacturing a fifth generation aircraft.

As a professional fighting force, the IAF is keeping a close watch on the Chinese J-20 and J-31 stealth aircraft programmes. The two Chinese aircraft have an uncanny resemblance to the F-22 and F-35. This is because Chinese intelligence managed to steal the technology and blueprints relating to both aircraft.

The IAF’s worry is the Chinese aircraft could end up being better than the PAK-FA. When – not if – Beijing sells these fighters to Pakistan, the IAF will end up facing superior stealth aircraft on both the western and Himalayan borders.

The IAF’s fears are understandable. The arrival of the MiG-29 and the Sukhoi-30 MKI in the 1990s gave it a fearsome edge over the Pakistan Air Force. For the first time since the 1960s – when the PAF acquired the F-104 Starfighters and F-86 Sabres from the Americans – the IAF inducted aircraft that were a generation and a half ahead of the PAF. Ceding that advantage would be undoubtedly painful for the IAF.

Pakistani generals will want to acquire Chinese stealth jets in order to reassure their subjects that they can keep in step with India. But these aircraft are not cheap. Considering that wealthy Australia is only going for 70 jets, Pakistan won’t be able to acquire even half that number. In fact, the more stealth jets the PAF acquires, the less money it’ll have for spending in other areas. Add in maintenance costs and stealth technology could become the white elephant that demoralises the Pakistani military. So the IAF can stop worrying on that account.

DID has an excellent take on the Russia-India project. “Russia wants a 5th generation fighter that keeps it competitive with American offerings, and builds on previous aerial and industrial success. India wants to maintain technical superiority over its rivals, and grow its aerospace industry’s capabilities. They hope to work together, and succeed. Will they?”

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and writes on defence and foreign affairs for Russia Beyond the Headlines, a global media project of Moscow-based Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He is on the advisory board of Europe-based Modern Diplomacy.


Rakesh’s articles on defence and foreign have been quoted extensively by a number of leading think tanks, universities and publications worldwide. He has been cited in books on counter terrorism and society in the global south.

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