Drawing conclusions from exercises is always tricky, and can never replace combat experience. Even so, in the absence of state-on-state conflicts, the expansion of multi-national training occasionally offers an interesting window into platform capabilities and national trends. With a number of air forces around the world contemplating their future fighter options, and India emphasizing the value of force multiplier/ force projection platforms in its air force, the matchups at Exercise Indra Dhanush 2007 at Waddington, UK are worth our time.
While SU-30MKIs worlds most advanced version of Su-27 and India’s frontline fighters have faced USAF F-15Cs and F-16s at COPE India 2004 and COPE India 2005, Indra Dhanush 2007 featured more advanced combatants on both sides. On one side is Britain’s Eurofighter Typhoon, whose advanced aerodynamics and intuitive controls and avionics have led to studies like the UK DERA rating it as the second-best air superiority aircraft in the world. Its supporting cast includes 1980s era Tornado F3 air defense variants, and upgraded GR9 Harriers from the Royal Navy. On the other side is India’s SU-30MKI, the most evolved variant of Sukhoi’s outstanding Flanker family, with aerodynamics that allow unique maneuvers, and full thrust vectoring besides.
India’s Ministry of Defense, had this to say about the initial RAF-IAF clashes, and adds some words of wisdom: “The operational part of the ‘Exercise Indradhanush-2007’ began with a series of 1 vs 1 air combat sorties… The RAF pilots were candid in their admission of the Su-30 MKI’s observed superior manouevring in the air, just as they had studied, prepared and anticipated. The IAF pilots on their part were also visibly impressed by the Typhoon’s agility in the air.
While it does not imply to say that the 1 vs 1 air combat sorties were meant for backslapping each other, it may be understood that in today’s aerial combat scenarios of ‘beyond visual range’ (BVR) capabilities of air platforms, it is highly unlikely that any of the modern-day fighters will ever get into a situation that warrants extreme close air combat, as in the situation simulated in the 1 vs 1 sorties. With a ‘kill’ criterion of front-gun ranges being mostly under 1000 metres and a visual tracking envelope behind the target for only up to a 60-degree cone mostly for most fighter aircraft of the world, the unlikely scenario gets more exemplified.
But the irony also lies in the fact that while there is a number of counter and counter-counter measures to make the 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. The pilots invariably begin honing their tracking and combat skills under such close combat situations.
This is true. Even in the modern missile age, most air-to-air kills have remained within visual range. As such, performance within the parameters of this initial matchup still matters.
At short missile ranges, both aircraft are equipped with canards for fast “slew and point” maneuvers, infared search amp; track systems, helmet-mounted sights, and ultra-maneuverable short-range infared missiles (ASRAAM, AA-11/R-73) with wide boresight seeker cones. This creates more forgiving parameters for a kill than the front gun range requirements; the SU-30MKI’s superior maneuverability would have to contend with UK Typhoon flight profiles enabled by ASRAAM’s longer range and lock-on after launch capability.
In longer-range combat situations, however, issues of detection and reach would also come into play. The Eurofighter is smaller, and is generally agreed to have more “shaping” than the SU-30 to reduce its radar profile (though neither aircraft is in the same class as the F-22A Raptor or even the less-stealthy F-35 Lightning II); and its Meteor ramjet BVRAAM missile is explicitly designed to kill from longer range than the Russian AA-12/R-77. Speed can compensate to some degree by reducing detection time and extending missile range, especially in “HVA busting” missions against tankers, AWACS aircraft, et. al. Unlike the American F-22A, however, the Typhoon’s supercruise capability for sustained speed above Mach 1 apparently relies on the aircraft being “clean” (no external stores), while the SU-30 currently lacks that capability until and unless plans for an uprated engine come to fruition.
Exercise Indra Dhanush 2007 came to an end on July 12/07, reaching its crescendo with a 6 vs. 6 aerial combat involving 4 Indian Su-30 MKIs, 4 British F3 Tornado air defence variants, 2 British Typhoons, and 2 of the Royal Navy’s GR9 Harriers. An Indian IL-78 MKI aerial tanker and a British E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft were also in the air. No details were released regarding the results, but we’re sure they made for very interesting debriefs.
Meanwhile, amidst the excitement of the aerial battles, the successful deployment of India’s aircraft using IAF aerial refueling and logistics personnel might go unnoticed. From India’s point of view, however, these developments may be even more important than the results of the fighter match-ups in the air. An MoD release notes that:
“When the Indian Air Force (IAF) Jaguars flew to Alaska during their first overseas joint air exercise “Cope Thunder” in July ’04, the newly inducted Ilyushin-78 MKI ‘air-to-air’ refuellers of the IAF heralded their acquired strategic reach capability. This year, the six Su-30 MKIs that flew from Pune airbase in India to Royal Air Force (RAF) airbase at Waddington (UK), were also accompanied by two IL-78 MKIs of the ‘Valorous MARS’ (No. 78 Mid-Air-Refuelling Squadron) from Agra through their long ferry route. Despite the din and the excitement of the first-ever arrival of the formidable Su-30 MKIs at UK, the significant aspect of IAF’s continued enhanced strategic reach capability, did not however go unnoticed.
“The IL-78 MKIs [DID: a variant of Russia’s IL-76 heavy transport have been employed in five overseas assignment so far. These include Alaska, South Africa, France, Singapore and now UK,” informed Group Captain K Raghavendra, Commanding Officer of the MARS. “We would have loved the experience of tanking RAF fighters during the exercise that would have made inter-operability possible. We look forward to such an experience in the future,” he added on RAF Tornadoes not having tanked with them during the exercise.
The six IAF Su-30 MKI fighters will have flown nearly 19,000 kms each, tanked
eight times and transferred nearly 225 tonnes of fuel mid-air in all, spread over 28 flying hours with stopovers enroute at Doha (Qatar) and Tanagra (Greece), both ways.”
Once India receives its IL-76 derivative Russian-Israeli Phalcon AWACS aircraft, its ability to project power abroad will grow significantly; and the INS Vikramaditya carrier project will provide a further boost. Exercises like Indra Dhanush 2007 are valuable for the insights they provide – but they are also valuable for the trends they presage. The logistics and interoperability lessons learned by the IAF during this exercise are and indicator of, and a contributor to, some trends worth watching.