First kill: Stand off aerial warfare

A “stand-off” capability in air warfare is like a taller boxer using his longer reach to hit his opponent at will.

India has learned the hard way the benefits of a longer reach in a different context. During the 1971 Indo-Pak war the naval warship INS Khukri was hit and sunk by a Pakistani submarine which had a longer-range sonar than did the Indian ship.

It could not detect the threat. Much the same applies to modern-day air warfare when dogfights are the exception rather than the rule of yester years. Nowadays stand-off capabilities are in greater demand for both air-to-air combat as well as for air-to-ground strikes.

This is happening because defensive capabilities of both airborne platforms as well as air defence ground environment systems (ADGES) both in radar capabilities as well as improvement in surface-to-air missile platforms.

Fire-and-forget missiles are taking the place of weapons that needed to be guided to their targets either through mid-course corrections dictated by the attacking aircraft or either radar or laser illumination of target which meant that the attacking aircraft would need to stick around till the missile reaches the target.

An idea of what stand-off capability means in the realm of current state-of-the-art weapons platform, is the descriptive in public domain about the Sukhoi-30MKI search and destroy power in the Indian Air Force fleet.

The forward-facing NIIP N011M Bars (Panther) is a powerful integrated passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar. The N011M is a digital multi-mode dual frequency band radar.

The N011M can function in air-to-air and air-to-land/sea mode simultaneously while being tied into a high-precision laser-inertial or GPS navigation system. It is equipped with a modern digital weapons control system as well as anti-jamming features.

Improving air defence

N011M has a 350 km search range and a maximum 200 km tracking range, and 60 km in the rear hemisphere. The radar can track 15 air targets and engage 4 simultaneously. These targets can even include cruise missiles and motionless helicopters.

The SU-30MKI can function as a mini-AWACS (airborne warning and command systems) as a director or command post for other aircraft. The target co-ordinates can be transferred automatically to at least four other aircraft.

The radar can detect ground targets such as tanks at 40–50 km. The Bars radar will be replaced by Zhuk-AESA in the last batch of 40 aircraft.

However, AESA stands for active electronically-scanned array which is a distinct improvement on the early PESA in that it does not alert the target with its inbuilt devices designed to sound an alert of radar/laser lock-on that it is being illuminated by either radar or laser and thus allow it to take counter-measures like evasive maneuvers. No wonder the Sukhoi is considered a superior weapons platform.

In fact that should be the benchmark for every other weapons platform in the Indian Air Force fleet given, of course, the intrinsic thrust-to-weight capabilities of each aircraft that its sensor and weapon package should be able to complement the Sukhoi in its multi-role capability.

The improvement in the air defence ground environment has dictated new ways and introduction of new techniques to deliver the traditional dumb freefall bomb more accurately on target and with less expenditure of effort in serial attacks or carpet bombing techniques.

Among the earliest “improvements” in techniques to stay out of harms way from ground-based artillery and missiles was by “toss-bombing” .In this technique of delivery an aircraft would fly full speed towards a designated target then lift its nose up, release the dumb bomb and fly back in the direction it came.

The munitions would continue their forward flight in a non-guided parabola and land on or close to the target. It was not very accurate and required several aircraft to deliver bombs in quick sequence. It was a necessity of the times but it was a wasteful method.

Laser guidance

Nowadays, the Indian Air Force is in the process of receiving add-on laser guidance attachments that will convert dumb bombs into smart munitions while allowing for the attacking aircraft to remain out of range of surface-to-air missiles.

In any case most modern aircraft be they in air-to-air combat or ground attack mode mandatory (or should) carry chaff and flare dispensers that decoy away surface-to-air missiles either by the heat of the flares or by the mistaken notion that the chaff represents the mass of an aircraft.

In fact this was a lesson learned the hard way by the IAF which should have known better after the Russian experience in Afghanistan that sending in aircraft and helicopters for bombardment missions in the Himalayas is suicidal. India lost one aircraft and one helicopter to shoulder-fired SAMs during the Kargil war before the IAF changed tack and used the Mirage-2000 to good effect.

The Sukhoi has intrinsic over-the-horizon or beyond-visual-range (BVR) capabilities in both its air-to-air missiles as well as its air-to-ground strike weaponry. A recitation of its arsenal will show the kind of ranges one talks about when referring to BVR munitions. Its air-to-air weapons include:  10 × R-77 (AA-12) active radar homing medium-range AAM (100 km).

SU-30 weapons
•    10 × Astra missile (an indigenous Indian product under development) active radar homing medium range AAM, 120 km
•    6 × R-27ER (AA-10C) semi-active radar guided, long range AAM 130 km
•    6 × R-27ET (AA-10D) Infrared homing extended range version, long range AAM 120 km
•    2 × R-27R (AA-10A) semi-active radar guided, medium range AAM, 80 km
•    2 × R-27T (AA-10B) infrared homing seeker, medium range AAM, 70 km
•    6 × R-73 (AA-11) short range AAM, 30 km
•    By far the most formidable are the three Novator KS-172 AAM-L 400 km/Russian air-to-air missiles designed as “AWACS killer”

Among the air-to-ground missiles are:  
•    3 × Kh-59ME TV guided standoff Missile, 115 km
•    3 × Kh-59MK active radar homing anti-ship missile, 285 km
•    4 × Kh-35 anti-ship missile, 130 km
•    1 × PJ-10 Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, 300 km
•    1 × Nirbhay subsonic cruise missile, 1000 km. These two missiles indicate the strides India is making in creating indigenous capabilities.
•    6 × Kh-31P/A anti-radar missile, 70 km
•    6 × Kh-29T/L laser-guided missile, 30 km

Apart from all this, it also carries a hefty load of laser-guided bombs, dumb bombs and cluster bombs. Reports suggest that the Indian Air Force has made a Request For Information to foreign missile producers is largely because there is a perception that the days of PESA are numbered.

AESA which is non-jammable does not invite retaliation by the simple process of deploying a passive listening device for radar signals to locate the source of the PESA broadcasts and set in motion a counter-attack even before the transmitting radar can identify the enemy.

Not many nations are willing to part with AESA technology. Israel is an exception. It has helped India’s AWACS project by providing the Elta EL/M-2075 radar for the Israeli Aircraft Industry produced Phalcon system and the Green Pine radar which has helped India perfect its Prithvi interceptor missiles in anti-ballistic missile (ABM) role.

BVR attack systems thus need a match-up between the target acquisition radar and a missile powerful enough to reach the edge of what is perceived and hit it before it does damage to one’s own assets. Just like the tall boxer.