Missile war

The air-to-air missile is the final act in an air dominance/air superiority pageant in modern warfare. Almost simultaneously with the very successful joint venture project with the Russians of the Brahmos cruise missile that fulfils the wish list of all the three Indian military Services, Defence Research and Development Organisation laboratories are working to bring to fruition another joint venture with Russia for a long range air-to-air missile generically described as an ‘AWACS killer’.

An indigenous variant the Astra that is intended to deal with a dogfight situation as well as have a substantial ‘beyond visual range’ capability is in the process of final tests before moving into the serial production stage.      

The Indian Air Force currently has in its inventory the Russian R- 77RVV-AE (NATO  designation AA-12 Adder)  and the French Matra 530D which came along with the Mirage-2000 when India bought the aircraft off the drawing board in the 80s to fill a perceived gap in deep penetration capabilities within the Indian Air Force. The indigenous Tejas is equipped with fifth generation air-to-air missile R-73 Russian missile for the dogfight role.

Astra missile

It is the long-awaited Astra air-to-air missile which is outstanding in that it is the fastest at more than 4.5 times the speed of sound than any projectile produced by global arms manufacturers. Its pre-fragmented warhead is pointed at the target to ensure that the maximum numbers of shrapnel reduce it to smithereens. Both the Astra I and a longer ranged Astra II are being developed simultaneously and the first version is currently being integrated to the Sukhoi-30MKI fighter-bomber for self defence.  The Astra warhead weighs only 15 kg compared to the 18kg and 23 kg of other modern air-to-air missiles and hence the stress on directionality even as its scanners have a wide-angle view in its search configuration.

Of very special interest is the Russian Novator product, the K-100 created specifically for the anti-AWACS (airborne warning and command systems) role. Its range has been put variously at 200 km and between 300 and 400km, the intention being to disable and disrupt enemy network centricity based on an airborne platform. It thus reduces the battlefield ambiance to individual, uncoordinated actions, easier to pick off by aircraft that have achieved fifth generation status by the sophistication of its onboard sensors and kill capacity.

Much the same logic applies to the removal from the scene of airborne refuellers that have a force multiplier effect by extending the range of both fighters and bombers by providing replenishments well outside the forward edge of battle. This kind of replenishment reduces the need for fighters and bombers to land and take off again thereby saving time as well as fuel. The midair refueling enhances the range by at least one-third.

The very successful outcome of the joint development project for the Brahmos multi-purpose missile encouraged India to prepare to fund the development program for the long-range Novator project and things began moving in that direction by the turn of the millennium. While no date has been announced for the induction into active service, since much of the fundamental work had already been executed by the design bureau it should not take too long to bring the missile to operational status. It could become available from 2018-2020.  

With the Sukhois and the Tejas fighter aircraft India has moved into the fourth plus generation of military aviation. With the proposed induction of the fifth generation fighter aircraft currently being jointly developed by Russia and India (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd being the lead Indian partner in the project) crucial issues about the future of manned aircraft vis-à-vis drones and whether the new generation aircraft is capable of dealing autonomously with the electronic counter measures it will be required to contend with.

Hitherto the fourth generation plus western fighters were usually accompanied by a specialized aircraft equipped with signals and electronic intelligence gathering and jamming systems that ensured that the enemy could not interfere with the mission as was done during the initial air invasion of Iraq. The disruption of electricity supply in Iraqi cities was achieved by dropping conducting wire onto the transmission lines leading out of power stations and substations enroute to cause short circuits.

Air supremacy

The debate underway is whether the fifth generation fighters are autonomous enough to be able to deal with the enemy jamming with their own onboard counter-measure systems or require another aircraft to help in their penetration mission irrespective of their intrinsic ‘low observable’ configuration. It is held that because of the use of stealth technology the radar cross section of the fifth generation fighter aircraft is reduced to the size of an elusive bird and the intrinsic speed helps it to penetrate deep into enemy territory before counter-measures can be set in motion.

The frontal profile of the penetrating would be too small to record on the returning radar blip but the side view too is largely obscured by the manufacturers by shaping the fuselage and with paint and other materials technology to either disperse the radar ‘ping’ or absorb it thereby preventing the radar operator to pinpoint the location of the intruding aircraft. Hence, it is argued that there is no need for an accompanying jammer aircraft.

Since, jamming equipment is both bulky and complex requiring a great deal of electrical energy to operate them most jamming aircraft are wide bodied ones borrowed from the civil aviation market. The measures to make them “low observable” is largely cosmetic given the capabilities of ground based radars of the present time (better ones are in the pipeline). Having such an aircraft in the vicinity of an operational area even with its jamming equipment would be a dead giveaway of the presence of ‘low observable’ aircraft and also it would invite retribution at the hands of enemy surface-to-air batteries. In dealing with the low observable aircraft the enemy, it is argued, would require a great deal of calculations before a semblance of credible positioning is obtained for the anti-aircraft batteries to acquire a lock-on and set the killing process in motion. It is also stated that apart from its low observable characteristics the fighter has its own array of jammers, sensors and decoys to negate any enemy action.

A parallel debate is underway over the manned versus the unmanned strike aircraft. Drones are here to stay and they have proven to be extremely accurate in the delivery of their munitions notwithstanding the hullabaloo over collateral damage to ‘civilians’ within the strike zone.

In almost every strike the drones have managed to get their target and have been able to decimate many nests of terrorists even as they were planning new terrorist strike operations. The one major exception has been the current leader of the Al Qaeda Ayman al Zawahiri (he took over after Osama bin Laden was killed in his Abbottabad hideout in Pakistan)  who managed to leave his hideout in the tribal areas of Khybar Pakhtunkhwa  a few minutes before the drone struck. He may not be so lucky the next time. Drones have proved themselves in the strike role but they have not as yet been fielded in the air supremacy role. Whether they will still remain a cost-effective platform for aerial combat remains to be seen.