Air to air combat

Establishing air supremacy is the primary mission of any air force hence the air to air combat is often dubbed as the cat and mouse game in the skies.

The ability to detect the enemy aircraft before being detected and immediate release of on board air to air missile will provide a critical edge to the air warriors. Air forces world over have been upgrading their air combat capability with more and more advanced platforms equipped with longer range and accurate hit capable air to air missiles.  

The air combat radius therefore has been expanding over the years and the dog fight in the skies can now cover an area of more than 200 kms whereas till eighties the combat radius was within hundred kms zone.

The American, Russian,  Israelis and the French have definitely taken a lead in expanding the  combat radius of the  air warfare by producing longer range and more accurate hitting missiles, but air combat in itself has become a rare phenomenon. Air forces are stockpiling more and more air to air missiles in case they have to tackle the air offensive.

To take the case of the US Air Force, they acquired more than 16,000 Hughes and Raytheon built AIM-120 advanced medium range air to air missiles over the last two decades but the pilots could only use a dozen of them in the air warfare. On the other hand the US Air Force used more than 3500 air to ground weapons in Afghanistan during last one decade of war. This may be the case because of US adversary being less resourceful but in case of rivals  like India- China or India-Pakistan, they will have to show their prowess in  the air before allowing the enemy aircraft to enter own territory.

Since the air combat capabilities are going to be vastly improved with the acquisition and development plans of the fifth generation fighter planes by the US, Russian and the Chinese air forces, the Indian Air Force has also now entered the fray by planning a joint effort with the Russians.

Fifth generation missile

Thus on a platform like the FGFA the air forces are certainly going to deploy fifth generation air to air missiles, with a 100 percent hit capability. These latest versions of air to air missiles are joining the fray with a vastly improved seeker technology, with features like the resistance to infrared countermeasures, increased off-bore sighting capabilities and high in flight agility along with much better electro-optical imaging technologies and advanced digital processing of data. The fifth generation beyond visual range air to air missiles now possesses the capabilities to distinguish between the enemy aircraft and any flare counter measures that might be released by the enemy aircraft.

Among the Fifth Generation air to air missiles based on Infrared/Imaging Guided  technology, currently in service worldwide are the American AIM-9X (range 10 km), British  ASRAAM (range 20 km), the German IRIS-T, Israeli Python-5(range 32 km), Russian R-73 (range 40 km), South African A-Darter (range 20 km) and the Chinese PL-10/PL-ASR (range 20 km). The developments to fifth generation missiles in fact began in early eighties but have now been perfected to the extent that they can truly be called fire and forget missiles.

India is also trying hard to catch up with its own indigenous development program called ASTRA. The Defence Research and Development Laboratory of the DRDO has developed this missile under the Integrated Guided Missile Development program. ASTRA is meant to be deployed on Sukhoi-30MKI, the Indian developed LCA Tejas, Sea Harriers and Mirage-2000.

This missile has been under development from the beginning of the last decade. Two versions ASTRA- Mark-1 and ASTRA Mark-2 are under development. Mark-1 will have a range of 44 km whereas the Mark-2 will have over 100 km range. Astra can evade radar and intercept and engage the Supersonic targets by maneuvering its speed according to the requirement.

This missile incorporates the Electronic Counter Counter Measures which makes it immune from being followed, intercepted and targeted. The missile is 3.8 metre long and solid fuelled missile. When finally integrated with the fighters of the IAF, India will join the select League of Nations capable of indigenously producing the air to air missiles. With its mach-4 speed it can certainly engage any supersonic target flying in its operational radius. The Indian Air Force hopes to induct them from 2015.

Advanced development

Among the most advanced of the current generation air to air missiles are the MBDA produced Meteor missile which has roughly three to six times the kinematic performance of similar category of air to air missiles. This has been made possible by its unique solid fuel, variable flow, and ducted ramjet propulsion system. The Eurofighter Typhoon will carry the Meteor and the manufacturers claim that it can also be integrated on the Dassault Rafale, which Indian Air Force is currently negotiating.

The Meteor claim a 100 km range with 4 mach and a no escape zone three times that of early American developed AIM-120 AAMs. The Russians are also reported to have developed very long range air to air missile program called the Novator K-100 or K-172 with a reported range of 200 km to 400 km.

The US had Hughes made very long range AIM-54C Phoenix with a range of 150 km and has now retired from US navy service. The US air force is now using the Raytheon made AIM-120C having a range of 50-80 kms and AIM 120-D (range 75-110 km ). The Raytheon has now developed the AIM-130 NCADE with a range of 200 km and anti-missile mission.

Interestingly the Chinese Air Force are also reported to be acquiring the Ramjet powered air to air missiles developed indigenously nicknamed the PL-21. The USAF had till now the AIM-9X air to air missiles but the Chinese and the Europeans seem to have overtaken or matching the Americans in the air to air missile development.

Chinese fifth generation air to air missile capability is believed to have baffled the military experts, who believe that the fast progress they have made is primarily based on the Russian R-73 missile they have acquired in  hundreds and later they purchased the South African Denel A- Darter AAM. The PL-ASR or the PL-10 closely resembles the Darter AAM and another Chinese missile also bears similarity to the South African Denel R-Darter which South Africa has developed with Israeli cooperation.

These missiles are compatible to the Helmet Mounted Displays which enables the pilots to “look to kill their target”. Western media reports speculate that Chinese have achieved good success in ramjet powered Luoyang PL-12 active radar guided AAM, called the PL-13. This will equip the Chinese PLA with an AAM which could more than match the American AIM-120. This will give the PLA air force a decisive edge over its rival forces in the neighborhood and definitely challenge the US and Western forces. The Chinese air force air combat capabilities should definitely be a cause of concern for the Indian Air Force.

The Israelis have developed the most sought after Python-5 fifth generation air to air missile which is the latest in the Python class. The Python-5 enables the pilot to engage an enemy aircraft with a revolutionary full sphere launch capability. This can be used against a target from a very short range to Beyond Visual Range with greater probability to kill because of excellent resistance to countermeasures. The Python-5 can be locked on to the target before and after the launch.

Rafael has also developed the Derby which is a fully developed BVR air to air missile which is equipped with active radar seeker, look down/shoot down capability, lock on before launch and mode for flight dogfights accompanied by advanced programmable ECCM.

The Russians have developed the K-37M long range air to air missile specially developed for the MiG-31 BM interceptor. This was displayed during the Russian MAKS-2011 air show. Russians had earlier developed the fourth generation R-73 AAMs which is in service with the Indian and Chinese Air Force, which gave the Russians an edge over the American and European missiles. The missile has been described as advanced tactical air to air missile which will vastly improve the operational effectiveness of the air forces equipped with the K-37M missiles.