Warplanes: Nimble Versus Surprise

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June 28, 2021: In June China revealed that a second squadron had been equipped with its J-20 stealth fighter and that they were satisfied with the performance of the Chinese made WS-10A engines, which replaced Russian AL-31F M2 engines used in J-20 development aircraft. China also revealed that it would soon equip its J-20s with a Chinese made engine that can enable more maneuverability with thrust vectoring engines. Currently only the American F-22 has that capability. Russia has engines with thrust vectoring for its most recent non-stealth fighters but has not been able to perfect a more powerful engine with that feature for the stealthy Su-57. If China gets there first with its new WS-15 engine it will definitely be ahead of Russia, but still behind the United States in terms of stealth fighters.

When it comes to fifth-generation (stealthy) fighters Russia was always behind the United States and now is very much in third place behind the United States and China. There is an element of the aspirational even with that third-place status. The U.S. and China already have fifth-generation aircraft in service. Well at least the Americans do and the Chinese J-20 is a lot more operational than the Su-57 by equipping two squadrons using J-20s with less efficient WS-10 engines. WS-10A was successful at replacing AL-31F M2 used for development aircraft. China could have put J-20 into service powered by AL-31F M2, but decided to delay putting J-20 into service until it had a locally made engine available. That happened in 2020 when the first J-20 equipped squadron was announced

One reason for all the optimism over the Su-57 becoming operational is that Russia needs export customers for their stealth aircraft to survive, while the Chinese don’t. Finding Su-57 export customers has been difficult because the Su-57, as described on the spec sheet, won’t be available until the mid-2020s at the earliest. The spec sheet Su-57 is a stealthy, single-seat, twin-engine multirole fifth-generation fighter aircraft developed for air superiority and attack operations. This is the first Russian aircraft in military service to use stealth technology. The Su-57 also has supercruise (going supersonic without the afterburner) capability and advanced avionics capable of dealing with older warplane electronics as well as ground and naval air defense systems. To achieve this performance the current Su-57 requires a more powerful and reliable engine. So far, the AL-41F1 is used in prototype aircraft and that engine it performed as designed, but was not reliable enough for regular use. China claims its equivalent of the AL-41F1, the WS-15 is closer to entering regular service and they are probably right. For several decades China has been playing catchup with Russian military tech and now China is moving ahead of Russia.

Russia developed the Su-57 as a successor to its Cold War era MiG-29 and Su-27/30 fighters. Stealth was seen as essential but the Su-57 is so expensive, and the Russian Air Force budget so small, and shrinking, that Russia cannot afford many of these stealth fighters. Moreover, it is essential to obtain export sales to make mass production possible at all, not to mention profitable. The recent Russian claim that the manufacturer cut the price 20 percent is also aspirational because a growing number of Russian defense firms are sliding towards bankruptcy. Orders for new equipment have been scaled back since 2014 because of a contracting economy. Russia likes to describe its economic growth as stalled, but the reality is that entire categories of proposed (before 2014) new weapons purchases are being slowly eliminated. Efforts to hide all this, especially the continued decline of the Russian ability to develop and manufacture new weapons, has become less successful as the missed production and “in service” goals increase.

The Su-57 is a prime example of how a system of constantly shifting goals and missed deadlines works. The Su-57 began development in 2002 and the first of ten flyable prototypes flew in 2010. Four non-flying prototypes were also built for ground tests and such. From the beginning, there were problems perfecting the high-performance engines. For example, the first two flight prototypes had to use a less capable variant of the AL-31 engine that was already used by the Su-27 aircraft. The other flyable prototypes used a more powerful AL-41F-1S engine, which was also used in the Su-35, the most advanced (so far) Su-27 variant. Flight testing soon made it clear that even the AL-41F-1S was not powerful enough for the spec sheet Su-57. This meant that the Izdeliye 30 variant of the Al-F41, originally designed for the Su-57, had to be perfected before the Su-57 could enter production as an exportable aircraft. The Izdeliye 30 possessed increased thrust and fuel efficiency as well as 3D thrust vectoring nozzles. At the end of 2017, the tenth flight prototype was equipped with Izdeliye 30 engines and demonstrated its superior performance, including supercruise. However, the Izdeliye 30 was still not reliable enough for sustained use, so mass production of this essential Su-57 engine was delayed. Russia proposed shipping production models of the Su-57 with an Al-F41 variant that enables the aircraft to get the most out of its stealth and high-performance electronics but without the promised supercruise and thrust vectoring maneuverability features. Potential customers, including the Russian Air Force, were not interested in purchasing a “developmental aircraft” because that’s what the Su-57 was without the fully functional Izdeliye 30 engines.

China has been copying and improving Russia weapons since the 1990s. The most difficult Russian technology to copy, much less improve on, was high-performance jet engines. The Chinese had more resources than post-1991 Russia and slowly caught up with Russian fighter-engine tech and is now poised to surpass it.

While F-22 was designed to use a thrust-vectoring engine, the later F-35 does not and, in theory, would have problems in a dogfight with some aircraft, notably the Su-27/30/35/37 series. The F-35 was designed to spot the enemy first, get the first shot in, and stay out of range of an old-fashioned dogfight. The F-22 also had this “long-range first shot” capability but the F-35 is much better at it because it was designed to be.

The F-35 was designed to rely on BVR (Beyond Visual Range) weapons and tactics at the expense of traditional close range air combat. BVR tactics are untried in large scale combat, while traditional close range “dogfight” has been around since 1914. But everyone agrees that BVR, using superior sensors and long-range missiles, tactics are the future. Not everyone agrees that the future is here yet. The 27-ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs). The F-35 can also carry four external smart bombs and two missiles but this degrades stealth. All sensors are carried internally, and max weapon load is 6.8 tons.

The F-35 is based on the changes in air-to-air combat over the last few decades. The classic aerial dogfight has been on the way out and most journalists haven't really noticed. For the first half century of air-to-air combat, chasing enemy fighters, maneuvering to get a good shot with machine-guns or cannon was the most effective form of combat. This was the classic style of air warfare. But starting in the 1960s, missiles entered the picture. At first, most of the missiles were used much like the earlier weapons; get on the enemy's tail and put a missile up his butt. The first, and most successful, of these "tail chasing" missiles was the U.S. Sidewinder. After half a century of upgrades, the Sidewinder is still one of the most widely used and successful dogfight missiles. The modern Sidewinder is far more capable and is now capable of being very effective without the classic dogfight tactics.

The missile of the future, the AIM-9 Sparrow appeared at the same time as the AIM-7 Sidewinder. The Sparrow was a longer-range missile that was radar controlled. The pilot picked up a target on his radar and fired the Sparrow in the general direction of the target, guiding it most of the way. When within a few thousand meters of the target, a sensor in the Sparrow took over, closing in for the kill. One shortcoming of this was the need for the attacking aircraft to keep the enemy aircraft on his radar screen until the Sparrow finally connected with the target. The Sparrow worked, but not as well nor as often as expected, at least initially. The first aircraft brought down by the Sparrow was over Vietnam in 1965. For the next two decades, long range missiles were unable to overcome its one major problem; pilots didn't trust their ability to identify an enemy aircraft at BVR distances. Fear of hitting a friendly aircraft caused pilots to prefer going in close, confirming the identity of the target and using autocannon or Sidewinders to attack.

Pilot fears were finally addressed in the 1980s with the introduction of the AWACS aircraft. The large, four engine AWACS carried a radar that could keep an eye on all aircraft for several hundred kilometers around. While not perfect, it added enough clarity to the situation to make pilots confident that their BVR attacks were not going to bring down friendly aircraft. At this point Sparrow was much improved and there was a new generation of BVR missiles appearing.

During the 1991 Gulf War the change was clearly underway. There were 39 U.S. air-to-air kills. The Sidewinder got 25 of them, the Sparrow 11. The traditional air-to-air weapon, machine-gun or autocannon, got none. The A-10 ground attack aircraft nailed two helicopters with its 30mm anti-tank cannon, and one Iraqi aircraft was maneuvered into the ground, not an unusual method over the history of air warfare. While only 12.6 percent of the Sidewinders fired scored a hit, 28 percent of the Sparrows did.

After the Gulf War, the Sparrow was replaced by the AMRAAM, a missile that was essentially "fire and forget" as in during the final few kilometers the attacking aircraft did not have to keep a radar lock on the target. A new generation of pilots were flying who fully expected to do most of the air combat at BVR. This was becoming the U.S. Air Force doctrine. Despite that, the dogfight wasn't dead yet. Most modern fighters, including the new F-22 and F-35, still carry autocannon and Sidewinders. This is not the result of excessive caution, but knowledge of how hairy air combat can get. The Wild Blue Yonder is a big place and no radar is perfect. Enemy aircraft can sneak in from behind mountains, hills, forests or radar jamming. The chance of finding yourself within visual (and Sidewinder) range of enemy aircraft is still a very likely possibility. Moreover, short range missiles like the Sidewinder have acquired new abilities. Until the 1980s, you had to be in a narrow arc behind an enemy aircraft before the heat sensing seeker on the Sidewinder spotted the hot exhaust of the target aircraft. But that arc has gotten wider and wider as better heat sensors were developed. Now you can be flying past an enemy aircraft and your missile will pick up not just the jet exhaust, but the warmed-up surfaces on the aircraft. Launch your missile and it will do a 180 and take off after the target. New fire control equipment includes a helmet mounted sight that will let the missile know what you are looking at. Hit the fire button and your Sidewinder-on-Steroids goes wherever you were looking and chases after the target.

Naturally, it's not as simple as that. As missiles became smarter and more capable, devices were developed to give the target a better chance of survival. For the short-range heat seekers, flares have been a popular, and often effective, antidote. If you are being chased by a Sidewinder, pop a few flares and the missile will go after the hotter heat source (the flare.) Some missiles now have microcomputers in them and a library of various heat sources. This will cause the missile to ignore most flares and continue after the aircraft. This, in turn, has produced more types of flares. Bottom line is that there is no perfect weapon, there are always countermeasures. Even without flares, pilots can sometimes outmaneuver a heat seeker. Electronic countermeasures are effective against BVR missiles, as is violent maneuvering. As with the heat seekers, there's a constant tug of war between the seeker technology and countermeasures.

Victory will still go to the better trained, not the better armed pilots. Even BVR missiles require a pilot who knows how to best use his radar and get into a position to fire the most effective shot. This is even more the case with close range heat seekers. But well trained and well-equipped pilots have a tremendous edge. While not all air forces agree with the USAF on the dominance of BVR missiles, it takes skilled and lucky pilots to get close enough to American aircraft to dogfight. And the better trained American pilots still have an edge in that department. They simply spend more time in the air practicing, and this is an edge that can only be matched by equally diligent training.

Dogfighting isn't quite dead yet and it probably never will be. But more and more, victory goes to the side that can reach out BVR and touch the enemy first with an AMRAAM. The F-35 was optimized for BVR combat because that has been the future of air-to-air warfare for some time now. The Russians and Chinese disagree and the less stealthy Su-57 is now described as a superior dogfighting aircraft with some stealth.

 


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