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Air Power Australia
Air Power Australia


“Sukhois versus Baby Seals”

8th January 2009

Supercruising Su-35BM/Su-35-1 vs. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (defpro)

By Dr Carlo Kopp, Air Power Australia think tank

08:46 GMT, January 8, 2009 Recent public debate surrounding the air combat capabilities of the Joint Strike Fighter has completely omitted one very important factor for a fighter intended to enter service later in the coming decade. That factor is the well documented evolution in Sukhoi Flanker capabilities, weapons and sensors, considered against the well known and documented design limitations of the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35, JSF).

A recent analytical study, produced by Air Power Australia, shows very clearly that the idea of using a low performance single seat interdictor aircraft such as the Joint Strike Fighter as an air superiority fighter is simply not viable. Critical analysis of known Russian technological capabilities, tactics and doctrine indicates that the Joint Strike Fighter would suffer heavy losses in combat if used as substitute for the F-22A Raptor in air combat against more recent variants of the Flanker, in a real world “many vs many” air combat environment.

Claims that the Joint Strike Fighter can compete effectively against “Sukhois” need to be carefully qualified. The variants of the Flanker which the Joint Strike Fighter will have to confront in operational service, and known Russian doctrine and supporting capabilities must be factored into any comparative assessment.

The only manner in which the Joint Strike Fighter can compete against the Flanker is if it is pitted against legacy Flanker variants with 1980s generation analogue radars, missiles, warning systems, defensive jammers, and engagements are biased toward Beyond Visual Range rather than real air combat, where opponents inevitably end up in close combat. To achieve a favourable exchange rate in combat, a 2015 Joint Strike Fighter with its supporting systems must be pitted against a 1980s threat without its supporting systems.

The reality is that the “threat environment” the Joint Strike Fighter will confront in the Asia-Pacific, or Central Asia, is very different to that envisaged when the Joint Strike Fighter was conceived during the early 1990s.

Sensors have evolved considerably since then. Two metre band digital “counter stealth” radars, such as the 1L119 Nebo SVU, Vostok E, Rezonans NE and JY-27 are now in the market. The Vostok E is credited with a detection range of ~40 nautical miles against the F-117A stealth fighter in a jammed environment, and 190 nautical miles in an unjammed environment. Networked passive emitter locating systems, such as the 85V6 Orion/Vega, Kolchuga and YLC-20, can locate aircraft like the JSF from their network terminal and radar emissions. Many of these sensors are accurate enough to provide midcourse guidance for S-300PMU2 and S-400 SAM systems – and experiments integrating such sensors and SAMs have been performed by the Russians and Chinese.

Fighter sensors have also evolved. Russian now has its initial quantum well imaging photodetector capability, which will soon see much more sensitive and longer ranging imaging infrared search and track systems on fighters, and new infrared seekers for close combat and BVR missiles. Last year Russia’s first Active Electronically Steered Array radar, the Zhuk-AE was unveiled. Phazotron’s scaled up Zhuk-ASE, and Tikhomirov’s Irbis-E, will produce power aperture ratings competitive against the best US APG-77 and APG-63(V)3 AESAs. As a result a 0.01 square metre X-band target will be detected and tracked at 50 nautical miles.

The Russians are planning a DRFM jammer package for the new Su-35-1/35BM. Towed decoys like the KEDR/Lobushka are now on offer. Robotically applied stealth coatings are also in the technology pipeline. The Su-35-1/35BM with supercruise capable -117S engines and thrust vectoring will sustain much higher G at higher speeds than any previous Flanker. The AIM-120 AMRAAM will be challenged to say the least – scoring 85% on the test range is not the same as combat against very uncooperative targets.

With the 400 km range R-100/R-172 “counter-AWACS” missile carried by the Flanker, the Joint Strike Fighter will have to rely on its own radar, degrading its stealth.

Flanker tactics are now centred in networked many vs many engagements, firing mixed salvos of BVR missiles with active radar, infrared and passive anti-radiation homing seekers. Asian Flanker operators will have many choices in Russian and Chinese countermeasures resistant digital BVR missiles.

After the merge, Flankers will exploit their superior agility, helmet mounted sights, infra-red trackers and agile missiles to an advantage. The digital R-74, a new generation Russian dogfight missile, and a new Chinese thrust vectoring close-in missile will be used.

Flankers can carry a mix of up to twelve missiles plus wingtip jammer pods. The Joint Strike Fighter will be challenged to carry more than four internal missiles, with large and cumbersome bomb bay doors a hindrance in close combat.

It is now abundantly clear that the Joint Strike Fighter is not going to be viable in Beyond Visual Range air combat, just as it was clear that it would never be a serious player in Within Visual Range air combat.

Technological evolution has rendered the concept of the Joint Strike Fighter obsolete before it has even completed Flight Test or entered full rate production. This is a clear case of failed technological strategy, based on the assumption that the threat would not evolve significantly over time.

Improvements in the capability and number of internally carried missiles will not fix this problem.

For all intents and purposes the Joint Strike Fighter is shaping up to be little more than a very expensive high tech equivalent to the long gone F-105D, A-7D/E Corsair or Blackburn Buccaneer, with all of the limitations that entails. The notion that it will be able to compete in air combat against fighters like the supercruising Su-35BM/Su-35-1 is simply wishful thinking.

The Joint Strike Fighter is now the principal vulnerability in the current US force structure plan. Unless it is cancelled and the money spent on many more F-22 Raptors, and a new generation of air combat missiles, the US will lose its ability to win air superiority over the latest generation of Russian and Chinese systems.

The entire analysis can be found here: http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2008-08.phpl

Dr Carlo Kopp is head of capability analysis with the Air Power Australia think tank, and a research fellow in regional military strategy at the Monash Asia Institute in Melbourne, Australia. He is a leading authority on Russian and Chinese weapons technology and has previously published in Janes Missiles and Rockets.

Dr Carlo Kopp, MIEEE, SMAIAA, PEng
Defence Analyst and Consulting Engineer
Editor: Air Power Australia @ http://www.ausairpower.net