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Flying & fighting in the Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’: A pilot interview

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Photos: Gp Capt Sharma

Described as a ‘royal merciless game-changer’, the Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’ is a monster: a long-ranged, well armed, unbeatably manoeuvrable fighter uniquely equipped with 3D thrust-vectoring control (TVC) enabling it to perform seemingly impossible aerobatics in the sky. We spoke to  IAF Gp Capt Anurag Sharma to learn more about flying and fighting in the Russian superfighter. 

What were your first impressions of the Su-30?
“I was awestruck at the size of this monster! I caught a glimpse of it at Bangalore Airshow in 1997 (I was part of the inaugural day fly past in a Jaguar formation). There it stood in the lineup….. majestic, mighty and muscular! Head and shoulders above the crowd! Even the Air Display by the Russian Test Pilot was a show stopper. The M2000, F-16 etc were just no match for this beauty.”

“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30…against three F-16… End score one F-16 claimed without loss.”

What’s the difference between a K and MKI and which is better?
“Su-30K was basically the Su-27 UB (trainer version) modified to be a two-seater fighter and the Su-30 MKI is a two seater upgraded version of Su-30K. While the two maybe classified into the same family and have few physical differences (canards, nosewheel, thrust vectoring and glass cockpit); the operational philosophy of the two aircraft is vastly different because of the much-upgraded operational capability of the MKI.

The Su-30 K was basically an air defence fighter of the 3.5 Gen that could drop dumb bombs (albeit in large quantities). But the MKI is a multirole fighter in the real sense of the word. The enhanced avionics package, weapons, near AESA airborne interception radar that permits simultaneous Air-to-air and air-to-ground targeting puts the MKI in a league of its own. The fly-by-wire system of the MKI allows carefree handling viz-a-viz Su-30K. The Su-30 K was handling with care especially in the low speed regime whereas the MKI is carefree handling all the way!

Personally, my heart is with the Su-30K! perhaps because I grew up on it. Attempting to master the Su-30K was a challenge in itself because you had to develop “seat of the pants feeling” in an aircraft that was not carefree handling (as you would expect a FBW aircraft to be). The avionics package, information presentation was rudimentary and presented great challenges as an operator. I think that is what made it special. The skill of the pilot counted more on that type.

But given a choice, I would pick the MKI for a combat fight. The total package of the MKI is a force multiplier in combat!!! Hands down!!

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Which three words best describe it?
“Royal, merciless, game-changer.”

5. What is the best thing about it?
Ans. As a fighter pilot, you look to emerge victorious in every battle; the Su-30 gives you that confidence. Rest is up to you!

And the worst thing?
“Haven’t found one yet!”

How you rate the Su-30 in the following categories?

“A. Instantaneous turn– at high speeds, a shade slow, but once you get her to 650-709 Kmph- as goos as any. With thrust vectoring- unparalleled!

B. Sustained turn– depends upon the load and altitude. At medium altitudes with AA loads only very good and matches any other 4/5 gen fighter ac.

C. High alpha- Exceptional! Requires skill but once you know what to do- she’s a beauty!

D. Acceleration. The Su-30K was faster because it was lighter but the MKI is good when it comes to low speed combat against F-16/F-18/ Mirage 2000 class of aircraft. Acceleration also depends upon the load carried.”

Interview with IAF MiG-25 pilot here

Climb rate

The Su-30K had a greater reserve of power; even in the MKI, ROC is very good for its huge size. You can feel the acceleration when she climbs!

What was your most memorable mission? 

“Well there have been many over the years but a few that stand out are as follows: –

(a) DACT with F-16 Block 60*of  Republic of Singapore Air Force.

(*Ed: think these are actually Block 52)

The strongest adversary that we could possibly face in our life as a fighter pilot was the F-16 of PAF (for obvious reasons). So the excitement of facing an F-16, even in a mock combat was unbelievable. The weight of the mission was overbearing! Perhaps that’s what makes it special. As the combat commenced, we manoeuvred for our lives and in very little time the situation was in our favour! The desperate calls from the F-16, “Flare, Flare, Flare!” are very distinctly audible in my ears even today! From that day, the anxiety that prevailed over facing an F-16 in combat was gone forever…. Vanished! It was clear what the outcome would be!”

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“Another mission that stand out is a group combat mission that was pitching a Su-30 & one MiG-21 BISON against three F-16 . As luck would have it, the BISON did not get airborne and now the game was one Su-30 vs three F-16 in a BVR scenario. Again, we pushed the envelope, manoeuvred between 3000 ft to 32000 ft, pulling up to 8 g, turning, tumbling, firing and escaping missiles in a simulated engagement. The crew co-ord between us in the cockpit and the fighter controller on the ground was the best that I have ever seen! The results in a mock combat are always contentious but with ACMI, they are more reliable. End score one F-16 claimed without loss. When we got out of the cockpit we were thoroughly drenched in sweat and tired from the continuous high G manoeuvring but all smiles for the ecstasy that we had just experienced.”

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Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?
“In the Su-30 I have flown DACT with RSAF (Royal Singapore Air Force) F-16, M-2000 H /5[ FAF], MiG -29 amongst the ASFs. I think the most challenging was the M2000 in France. The carefree manoeuvrability of the Mirage its nose profile and avionics package perhaps gave it an edge over the others. The F-16 beyond the initial turn loses steam, the MiG -29 is very powerful but conventional controls maybe …. . A good Mirage guy can manoeuvre more carefree.”

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Typhoon pilots say they ‘trounced’ the Su-30 in DACT exercises, yet Su-30 say the reverse? What is the truth?
“Well I wasn’t part of that exercise but some close friends were. The story goes both ways especially when you are engaged in friendly exercises with fixed rules of engagements! I think it’s an even fight and the man behind the machine would make the difference! Such a contest gets any fighter jock drooling!”

How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?  
“Basic flying is not very difficult including exercises such as AA refueling. But it’s a Herculean task to reach a level where you can exploit it to its fullest especially in large Force Engagements (LFE) The capability of the aircraft outruns you by miles. In fact, at times even 7 Multi-Function Displays (MFD) and two aircrew are insufficient to achieve what she can do for you!”

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Is TVC useful in air combat? If so, how should it be used?
“Most people think that it’s not! My suspicion is that’s because it requires skill to put it to good use. Once two beasts of this kind engage in combat, it goes down to the wire and in the low speed regime the TVC allows you just the edge you’ve been looking for. Just 300m is enough to get to the right angle and Boom!”

How would you rate the cockpit?
The cockpit is Russian! hey don’t build the aircraft around the pilot like the western manufacturers do! So the ergonomics leave a lot to be desired. The HOTAS could be designed much better. But ask anyone who hasn’t flown other types and he’s okay with this!
Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like? 
Yes,! AA missiles, LGB,  and Runway denial weapons. Weapon delivery is really exciting! The adrenaline rush, the cold sweat that trickles down your temples when you press the trigger are a different feeling altogether. They are really expensive and hence the opportunity comes rarely. The thing that worries you most is that you don’t want to be the dumbass when it comes to firing Smart Weapons

I think the AA missile is the best! When the weapon leaves your wing, the plume, noise and shear power of the accelerating missile is breathtaking.

How confident would a Su-30 pilot feel going against a modern USAF F-15C
“As far as the platform is concerned, he’s got a better baby in his hands. No doubt!”
What is the greatest myth about the Su-30?
“That it’s too big to manoeuvre!”

How combat effective is the Su-30?
“A game changer!”
 How reliable and easy to maintain is it?
“Reliable – yes!  Maintenance- extensive!

What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the Su-30?
“It’s like a Tapasya (Sanskrit word meaning total selfless commitment. Dedication, commitment and patient hard work will reveal the true pleasures of flying to you! Early days are tough, just hang in there, get over the hump and you will experience heavenly pleasure that only fighter pilots have been blessed with.

How much post-stall manoeuvring can the average squadron pilot do? Is this a rare skill?
“Independent manoeuvres – they do it from day one (it’s that easy!). Relative manoeuvring in relation to an adversary in the sky requires extensive training and skill development! The manoeuvres can be counter productive in not done correctly.”

What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a Su-30? 
“A downward combat manoeuvre with TVC at low levels against a manoeuvring target.”

As a personal opinion: What should the Indian Air Force procure and what should it get rid of? 

“Well, the Old Gen’ aircraft are already being phased out and The IAF is in the process of procuring the Rafale (a great choice!) The LCA development and large-scale induction into the IAF is no-brainer! It must be done but the platform should be a qualitative addition as well! Just adding numbers is not the right answer. Self-dependency is critical for India’s growth and rise as a major power on the World stage. There is a huge prospect of joint development with other major manufactures around the world such as BAE that have been traditional defence suppliers for IAF.”

Interview with an IAF MiG-27 pilot here

Tell me something I don’t know about the Su-30?

“The Su-30 MKI  has perhaps as many players as the Typhoon! The Russians provide most of the hardware; Indian , French, Israeli industries provide software, avionics and weapons! The Russians won’t give their knowhow to Israelis and the French won’t give it to Russians. So it’s is a great achievement to get these components talking to each other! The Heart of the avionics system that communicates with all these various systems is Indian.

What should I have asked you about the Su-30?

“A fighter pilot has a unique relation with his aircraft. A unique bonding; much like the Avatar with his Ikran*!  . Sharing that feeling with another occupant in the cockpit is not easy! Especially when your WSO is not fixed.

Loosing that privacy or rather intimacy is not easy! While you learnt to live with it, I personally consider a huge loss as a fighter pilot. But alas there is no way out! With such competent platforms; perhaps two crew are indispensable!”

*the dragon in the Avatar film

The R-73 is an old missile- What do you think about the idea of adding ASRAAM to the Su-30?

“The Su-30 is getting upgrades continuously and plans are in place to enhance the weapon inventory. So it’s a cat and mouse game with the adversary being payed all the time.”

How good is the helmet mounted sight – is it used much in air-to-air training?

“Very good! It allows off bore targeting and that coupled with TVC gives a good angular advantage to the Su-30 in combat!”

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_E1R5400 (1).JPGThis interview would not have been possible without the kind help of Angad Singh 

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F-15 versus Flanker: An Eagle pilot’s view

Su27.png Undoubtedly the two most formidable fighter aircraft of the Cold War were the US’ F-15C Eagle and the Soviet Su-27, code-named ‘Flanker’. Which would have had the upper hand in air combat? We ask former USAF F-15 pilot Paul Woodford “The Su-27 Flanker, as a threat the USAF F-15 community needed to take seriously, emerged in the late 1980s as significant numbers of the aircraft began to be fielded. During my first two F-15 tours (Soesterberg AB NL from 1978-1982, Elmendorf AFB AK from 1982-1985), the air-to-air threats we trained against were the MiG-21 and -23. By the time I finished a joint staff tour and returned to flying Eagles in 1989, MiG-29s and Su-27s were the primary threats, and we trained seriously against them. DHJT61JUAAAtbzE.jpg If you look at publicly released figures on the F-15, the Su-27, and their weapons, you see right away the Flanker and the Eagle were evenly matched in terms of aircraft performance and weapons capability. Nevertheless, we—Eagle drivers—felt confident we would prevail in combat. This was based on our knowledge of the training hours Flanker pilots got in comparison with ours. When I started flying F-15s again, at Kadena AB on Okinawa, Japan, we trained almost exclusively against forward-firing beyond visual range threats; i.e., Su-27 Flankers and MiG-29 Fulcrums, even though their numbers, at least in our area of operations, were small. If we could defeat aircraft similar in capability to our own, we figured, we could beat anybody. We didn’t know how good the Su-27’s radar was. Ours was damn good, and we had to assume theirs was too. Our air-to-air weapons, the AIM-7M Sparrow and AIM-9M Sidewinder, were on paper evenly matched against the Su-27’s AA-10 Alamo and AA-11 Archer. An advantage the Su-27 had over us was its long-range infrared search and track (IRST) system.
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Russian_SU-27_Flanker_MOD_45157731.jpg Now no one would have bet the bank on any of what I’m about to share with you. We had to assume the aircraft and its missiles were at least as good as ours, and that’s how we trained. But there were a few things most of us felt, though we rarely shared those thoughts. Russian_Federation_Air_Force_Su-27_aircraft_intercept_a_simulated_hijacked_aircraft_entering_Russian_airspace_Aug._27_2013_during_Exercise_Vigilant_Eagle_13_130827-F-XT249-354.jpg Published performance specs and numbers are always best-case, radar target acquisition and missile engagement ranges in particular. The probability of kill for our Sparrows was somewhere around 50%. Pk for the Alamo was probably similar. Short-range heat-seekers were different: the AIM-9M’s Pk was nearly 100%, and we had no reason to think the Archer was any worse. We knew the actual performance capabilities of our own aircraft and missiles were somewhat less than advertised and so, likely, were theirs. But whatever the numbers, we were probably still evenly matched. The big difference was training. We flew, on average, three times a week, training hard against a threat as good as we were. At the time, based on intel, we knew Russian pilots were flying and training far less. Tacticians at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB in Nevada were working hard on how to beat BVR threats as capable as our own, specifically ways the F-15 and its missiles could defeat the Su-27 and its missiles. They developed what at the time was a classified technique called the f-pole manoeuvre. Basically, we’d enter the fight high, fast, and as head-on to the threat as possible (giving our AIM-7s the longest possible ranges), launch at max optimum range, and immediately crank into hard turns away, right to radar gimbal limits. Our Sparrows were in the air, flying straight at their targets along the shortest possible distance. Their missiles, had they launched at the same range, had to fly farther to get to us. The f-pole manoeuvre, properly executed, might even give their IRST systems a harder problem finding and tracking us, but I can’t attest to that. We had a lot of confidence in this technique and practiced it religiously, and believed it would make the crucial difference in combat. sukhoisu30mkiindianairf.jpg In other words, we thought we were ready for them. We were better trained. We were just starting to field the AIM-120 AMRAAM when I left Kadena for another staff job, and I never flew with it. I’m guessing it gave us a tremendous advantage for a year or so, until the bad guys caught up. Ditto the AIM-9X and today’s enemy equivalent. And of course today everyone knows about the f-pole manoeuvre and we can assume foreign air forces train their fighter pilots in the technique. I don’t get to talk to current USAF fighter pilots much these days, but I bet their level of confidence in being able to defeat enemy threats is no different than ours was.” — Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford Read – Cold War Eagle Driver: F-15 pilot reveals all here Follow Paul’s aviation adventures on his blog here jajdja1911.jpg

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An Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers

 

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Dear Hush-Kit, 

I am generally a happy man, but there is one thing in life that leaves me confused and angry: I can’t get my head around all the different Chinese Flankers (I refuse to put that word in inverted commas). Please please could you explain the differences, without drowning me in details? 

Yours hopefully, 

Jeffrey Bainbridge, Luton 

OK Jeffrey, no problem. I will do my best. Where I fail, better informed readers will gently correct me in the comments section.

So, first of all we have the Shenyang J-11.

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The J-11 was just a Russian Su-27SK provided as a kit and assembled in China (China also got a batch of Russian-built Su-27SKs). The J-11B is a Chinese-made version with indigenous engines, avionics and a lighter composite airframe. Importantly, the J-11B can deliver smart bombs.

So pretty good then? 

Yes, probably is. It also added a glass cockpit. It has some good weapons too, the PL-12 is analogous to the AMRAAM- and the US Navy, for one, is terrified of it. The Chinese WS-10 engines were initially shit though- and the aircraft had to be refitted with Russian AL-31Fs, but they’ve since sorted the ’10 and they’ve gone back to it.

Think crap Su-35.

Wait, so early Flankers didn’t have glass cockpits?

I know, pretty lame right? The Russians lagged behind the West with glass cockpits. The original Su-27 cockpit was jokes.

Is the J-11 a ‘pirate’ copy?

It’s complicated. The Russian did give them a licence to build some on the condition that they had Russian-built engines and avionics, but the J-11B broke that agreement and is a pirate (it’s 90% Chinese so doesn’t benefit Russia much). Initially Russian aircraft manufacturers were vocally pissed off, but now (realising they can’t do anything about it) they say it’s all fine, though they do have a vested interest in selling them more stuff. Intellectual property rights have only been around in China since 1979, and the attitude of both Communism and China to the protection of ideas/things is a different one to the West (to be fair Russia is also pretty laissez-faire on this matter). The Chinese aren’t allowed to export J-11s, an agreement they have honoured.

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Good radar? 

The Chinese thought the early Su-27SK and J-11 radar (the N001) was pretty rubbish. There was a big argument about upgrading (the Russians dragged there heels) and eventually it was upgraded to N001VE (for the J-11A) standard (kinda like an early F-15 radar). The J-11B got the Chinese Type 1474 set which is far better, and is now being tested with an AESA.

J-11B prototype 524 - 06 Chinese J-11B Flanker Fighter Jet Spotted With Grey Radome modifed radardome active radar scanned, AESA In Play (5)

My head is starting to hurt. What else is in the J-11B family? 

Before we get to that you must know that they also bought a combat capable two-seater called the Su-27UBK.

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Two-seats and square-tipped fins identify this as a Su-30MK. Inserted in the wrong part of this article to confuse you.

OK, that I can deal with. So now can we go back to the other J-11 variants?

No, because we need to know about the Russian-built, Russian-equipped Su-35.

So what’s that? 

A Russian-made top of the range ‘Super Flanker’. Chinese has bought 24, probably just so they can filch the technology.

Super eh? So that’s the best Flanker of all?

In some ways. But it has a PESA radar. AESA is what everyone wants, and the Chinese already have it on their J-11Ds (more on this later). So in terms of radar technology it’s not the best. In most other respects – notably its fly-by-wire system, integrated avionics and use of composite materials- it probably is.

Can you stop teasing me about the J-11 family now? 

OK. We have:

  • J-11BS – A twin-seat version of the J-11B.
  • J-11BH – Naval (but not carrier compatible) version of the J-11B.
  • J-11BSH – Naval version of the J-11BS.

Hey, are you just stealing this bit from Wikipedia? 

I’ve got a friend coming ’round soon and I’m getting bored of your questions.

Alright, tell me quickly what the other ones are…

J-15

China’s first carrier-borne J15 fighter jets were displayed for public to see Wednesday in Xi’an of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province (2).jpg

The J-15 has canard foreplanes and naval markings.

Carrier-based version based on the J-11B, that also has some bits nicked from the Su-33 design. Mercifully easy to identify as it has canard foreplanes and lives on carriers. 

Wait, why haven’t you mentioned the Su-30s yet? 

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The most formidable fighter-bombers in PLA service are the Su-30MKKs.

Jeez, be patient, I was going to explain. The Su-30 is a two-seat fighter-bomber. It’s heavier than an old Flanker and more versatile. It can carry a whole bunch of horribly effective air-to-ground weapons. China has the Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2. They have the longest range radar of any Chinese Flankers- the Zhuk-MS. As you can expect the Chinese ripped off this design to produce a variant they called the J-16 (though some claim it is based on the J-11BS)

Did you mention a J-11D? Yes I did. This is the probably the most badass of all. It has AESA, reduced conspicuity to radar, and new electronic warfare systems, but it isn’t yet in frontline service.

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The J-11D has a funny looking nose.

You failed, my head still hurts. 

OK, try this:

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A handy chart, though it does lack the Su-35K and J-15D.

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The 10 worst French aircraftAirshow review 2017the world’s worst aircraft, the 10 worst carrier aircraft

Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

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What happened at Saki air base? The likely cause of the Russian air base explosions in Crimea

Huge explosions rocked a Russian airfield in occupied Ukraine on August 9, in Moscow’s biggest loss of military aircraft in a single day since World War II, but what caused them?

Saki air base, is currently the Crimean home to the 43rd Russian Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment (43 OMShAP). Su-24 bombers and Su-30 Flankers operate from the base and around 10 were destroyed during the explosions. What is currently unknown is what caused the explosions, with no official comment yet released from the Ukrainian MoD. We asked Justin Bronk Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Military Technology at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for his opinion on the likely cause: “Well, what I’m pretty confident about at this stage is that the three large fireball explosions that people are fixating on were not warhead impacts (which have a very different blast shape if you know what to look for), but instead were secondary explosions caused by stored Russian bombs and rockets detonating. The big blasts happen in the middle of what was clearly an already well-established fire – probably aviation fuel. That fire may well have been triggered by Ukrainian special forces using demo charges or munitions dropped from small UAVs, or loitering munitions. Either way, the initial fire spread and caused a chain reaction due to sloppy Russian ammunition storage practice – they were clearly keeping piles of bombs and rockets close to the aircraft as previously observed in Syria.”

Top 10 aircraft of the Ukrainian military

The bravery and ferocity of the Ukrainian resistance to a brutal Russian invasion has stirred the world. Ukrainian air power consists of veteran Soviet types fortified with modern unmanned aircraft. Against the odds their air force still flies and still fights. These are 10 types operated by the Ukrainian armed forces in 2022. 

10. Leleka-100

The Leleka-100 is a small multi-role UAV operated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces since 2015, largely in the battlefield reconnaissance role. Its inertial navigation system is vital for reliable operations in GPS-denied environments. It can carry the usual electro-optical and infra-red gimballed sensors. It is one of the most used drones of its class in the Ukrainian Army and has the most flight hours of any Ukrainian UAV. 

9. Antonov An-30

A Beriev-led development of the An-24, the Antonov An-30 was produced in Kyiv. The type has proved useful for longer-ranged reconnaissance missions. 

8. Sukhoi Su-24

Whereas the F-111 and (non-German) Tornado have all but gone, the Soviet equivalent, the Su-24 lingers on. Fast, long-ranged and with a large bombload it remains a credible attack aircraft.

7. Tupolev Tu-141/143

Photo: Joe Coles

A fighter-sized Soviet drone rocket-launched from a ramp, the Tu-141 and 143 are jet-propelled reconnaissance aircraft bought back into service following the 2014 invasion. Originally, they parachute-landed whereupon recorded intelligence footage was harvested from tapes, but they have been locally upgraded by university students to provide real-time video. Last week a rogue Tu-141 crashed in Croatia, reports that it may have had an attached bomb may be correct or may just be misidentified boost rocket launcher fuel residue and structural elements of the booster itself. 

Photo: Joe Coles

6. UA Dynamics Punisher/Spectre

Working in a hunter/killer relationship, the Spectre/Punisher drones are compact yet able to reach a relatively long distance to deliver a disproportionate effect against invading forces and their supply line. As in much modern warfare, unmanned aircraft have provided a flexible form of harassment attack at little cost in money and little risk of human loss to its operators. 

5. Mil Mi-24

The Mi-24 suffered heavier losses than any other Ukrainian type in the 2014 Russian invasion. Since 2014, the type’s survivability and night-fighting capabilities have been improved. 

4. Sukhoi Su-25

The stalwart of both sides in the Ukraino-Russian War, the Su-25 is a tough battlefield support aircraft born of the Soviet era. Ukraine held on to over 90 Su-25s following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Ukrainian Su-25 development has gone its own way since around 2003, with MiGremont in Zaporizhzhia (at the time of writing Zaporizhzhia was under attack from Russia; earlier Russian attacks had caused a fire at the nuclear power plant). MiGremont upgraded and refurbished Su-25s, the resultant Su-25M1K and -UM1Ks featured enhanced navigation and weapon aiming aids as well as new defensive countermeasures. Following the high loss rate of Ukrainian Su-25s in the Russian 2014 invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, countermeasures were further enhanced with the addition of new chaff and flare dispensers scabbed onto the top of the rear engine nacelles. 

Photo: Joe Coles

3. Sukhoi Su-27

The most capable air superiority platform in Ukrainian service is the Su-27. Its larger range and weapon load than the MiG-29 grants the ‘Flanker’ significantly more combat persistence. Ukraine had almost 70 ‘Flanker’s at the nation’s birth. The current variant, the Su-27P1M and Su-27UB1M contains some equipment unique to Ukrainian ‘Flankers’. In the air-to-air role aircraft it is armed with a 30-mm cannon, as well as up to ten R-27 and R-73 missiles. 

2. Baykar Bayraktar TB2

The Bayrakter TB2 armed drone was the inspiration for the song of the same name, a patriotic pop song that celebrates the success of the Turkish-built aircraft and mocks the Russian invaders. Ukraine has between 12-25 TB-2s and it has proved extremely effective against armoured vechicles.

  1. Mikoyan MiG-29

A survivor of the Soviet era, much of the MiG-29‘s use is the exact type of mission it was designed for (if not with the intended opponent) – the short-range defensive tactical fighter role. In this role in 2022 it has gained a semi-mythical status as ‘The Ghost of Kyiv‘, a MiG-29 said to have shot down multiple Russian aircraft.

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The Misjudged B-26 Marauder

Credit: USAAF

There cannot be many aircraft that have had the misfortune to be lumbered with such unflattering nicknames as The Flying Coffin, Widow-Maker, B-Dash-Crash, Winged Coffin, Marter Murderer, The Flying Prostitute* and, last but not least, The Baltimore Whore.  The last two because it had no visible means of support and  ‘Baltimore’ because that was where the Glen L. Martin Company made the B-26. But did the Marauder deserve the abuse?

Despite these highly derogatory views, the Marauder deserves better. Not only did it meet, and exceed, the original specification, as laid down by the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) in January 1939, for a high-speed medium bomber, but its service record is probably second to none. Certainly, the pilots who flew it operationally hold it in very high regard. 

*No offence to sex workers

The design pushed the aerodynamic state of the art, at that time, to its limits. Not only that, the construction and manufacturing methods were also leading edge. Many of the production techniques proved on the Marauder went on to become the de facto standard for the building of post-war jet airliners.  So, in many ways, it was a genuine pioneering design.

The perfect aircraft has yet to be built and the Marauder suffered failings, just like any other piece of complex machinery. But it can be strongly argued that they were not as fundamental as the critics at the time would have you believe.

To understand many of the main issues behind this outstanding aircraft, one has to go back to the original specification, Circular Proposal 39-640, issued on March 11 1939, when storm clouds were already rapidly brewing over Europe. 

This called for a new class of medium bomber, which could carry a 3000lb bomb load (same as a B-17) but could fly straight and level at 323 mph.  It would have less range (1000 miles at 265mph) and service ceiling (23,000 ft) than a B-17, but it should be remembered that even the latest fighters were not going much faster than 300 mph, so it was quite a design challenge. Over 40 US companies were sent the design brief by the USAAC and 5 eventually submitted proposals.

The Martin Company put forward the Model 179 on which it had already started work on. It also recruited, at this time, the delightfully named, Peyton Marshall Magruder, aged 28, to co-ordinate all the work as Chief Designer on the project. He was a pilot and graduate of the USN Academy at Annapolis, as well as having an aeronautical degree. He had already designed the B-10 bomber. He was clearly an exceptional individual, as he went to become an industrialist, playwright and novelist.

The first thing the team did, was go to the USAAC for clarification on what was exactly required. The answer was quite unambiguous. They wanted bomb load and high speed above all else. This was being driven, to a large degree, by Charles Lindbergh’s recommendations following his review of the Luftwaffe.

Model 179 Original General Arrangement. Note twin tail and multi-paned “greenhouse” nose.

Magruder noticed that proposal did not specify a maximum landing speed, and, as you don’t get anything for nothing in aeronautics, this was clearly an area where the design team had considerable leeway in terms of trade-off with other aspects of the design. There would have been tactic acceptance of this fact within the USAAC but probably without understanding the implications. This apparent minor oversight, in what we now call the human factor element, was to have a profound and far-reaching impact on the whole project. 

More surprisingly, neither was a stalling speed specified and Magruder ended up using this to his advantage with a 97 mph with full flaps stall speed being quoted, because it sounded less intimidating and frightening than 100mph – a neat psychological trick.

However, if USAAC wanted speed and bomb load, they would get speed and bomb load. Accordingly, the Model 179 design was developed very much along those lines. The proposal submitted had 15 variants and initially was a twin tail design, something that was very much the fashion at the time, and a bomb load capability of 4000lbs.

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Mysterious delta aircraft at Area 51: what is it?

Former British technical advisor Jim Smith considers what it may be

Speculative shapes based on Google satellite imagery discussed below

A recent article by Tyler Rogoway of the drive.com reported the possible discovery of a mysterious delta aircraft shape in satellite imagery of Area 51, the remote base in Nevada used by the US to flight test secret prototype aircraft, and to evaluate foreign materiel. The imagery is somewhat hard to interpret, as the aircraft outline is confused by shadows, and by what appears to be a framework erected over it – perhaps intended to support a pergola or tent-like structure intended to provide concealment.

The principal USAF programme which might generate a prototype of this general appearance is the Global Air Dominance program, which has appeared to be directed at producing a very low signature air superiority system. This programme, from the Drive article, is now identified as Next Generation Air Dominance, Global Air Dominance perhaps being too provocative a title.

I have previously written a little about the Global Air Dominance system (GAD) for @Hush_Kit at the following link, which examined future aerospace technologies:

This contained some speculation about the Global Air Dominance System:

“Our system-of-systems approach has, as one of its objectives, reducing the risk to human operators. It does this by essentially postulating three forms of vehicle – un-crewed, autonomous, survivable, and persistent platforms, like our intelligence, sensor and command and control platform; un-crewed, autonomous and ‘attritable’ platforms that the operators are prepared to lose if necessary when attacking strongly defended targets; and crewed, survivable platforms, used only where a human in-the-loop and on-the-spot is critical.

We can examine what is reported about current projects and programs and see this thinking in action. Alongside crewed aircraft concepts and programs such as the B-21, Global Air Dominance System and F-35, we can see the Unmanned Wingman, the XQ-58A Valkyrie un-crewed strike platform, Neuron, Taranis, as un-crewed and potentially ‘attritable’ platforms. We have the US Navy experimenting with autonomous air-to-air refuelling using the X-47B and no doubt un-crewed electronic warfare, jammer, and decoy projects already in hand. We have at least early attempts in high-flying, difficult to detect autonomous sensor and communication systems like the RQ-170 Sentinel and speculation about the RQ-180. Autonomous manoeuvring air combat is perhaps a little further away, although some might argue that Surface-to-Air Missiles and Cruise Missiles are simply ‘fully-attritable’ un-crewed autonomous air combat and strike systems.

The detailed roles and implementation of the US Global Air Dominance System (GADS) remains an area for speculation. This is expected to be a manned, stealthy platform, with long endurance, and is likely to feature sensors, command and control and battle management systems. Given the developments in autonomous adjuncts, it is possible that the weapons capability of the GADS may be limited, although there have been recent suggestions that it may employ directed energy weapons.”

More specific speculation about progress towards a demonstrator for this system is contained in:

This suggested that a near delta configuration was likely, with no, or minimal fins, to minimise signature while providing a platform with the ability to loiter in contested airspace; to deliver command and control capability, possibly over unmanned systems; and to deliver a variety of air-to-air and strike weapons.

Where does the newly-sighted aircraft at Area 51 fit in?

Clearly this is a question which cannot be answered accurately from outside the program, and could not be answered publicly by anyone inside the program. I will start with an assumption that the aircraft imaged was a demonstrator for part of the GAD system.

If this is the case, a number of interesting questions arise, the most obvious being what is being demonstrated? Here there are a range of possible answers, and, indeed a menu of options, somewhat depending on whether this is a technology, an operations, or a systems integration demonstrator.

A technology demonstrator could, for example, be examining novel control systems, and their impact on manoeuvrability, on signature, on stability and control, or on performance. An operations demonstrator could be used to examine the operational functionality of a mixed manned and unmanned system, or, perhaps, the robustness of an operating concept to cyber or electronic warfare threats. A systems integration demonstrator could be looking at how and where decision making should lie in a complex system, the communications, command and control and intelligence requirements, and so on.

The potential complexity of possible GAD systems is such that issues of this nature could be quite prevalent, and that early demonstration to gain confidence in the system architecture is likely to be essential.

There is a significant problem with this approach, and that is that validating the system architecture before demonstrating elements of the system has not been a strong point of the US, where it appears much easier to fund the demonstration of separate system elements, rather than the arguably more difficult task of making sure the demonstrated elements will work as a system.

From the outside, it seems far from clear just what the role of manned elements of the GAD system will be. Possible roles include a stealthy and networked air superiority capability; a similarly stealthy and networked persistent strike capability; or a command and control node authorising and controlling autonomous and semi-autonomous intelligence, communications, strike and air combat systems. It is also not clear whether the vehicle seen in the imagery is manned, remotely operated, or autonomous.

Configuration aspects

The air vehicle shown in the images has a double-delta planform, with highly swept inner wing leading edge, and a less swept outer wing, which may carry some upward canted fins at the wing tip. The drive.com article draws similarities between this planform and that of Concorde, which used a blended ogival platform.

Development of a multidisciplinary design optimization framework for an efficient  supersonic air vehicle | Semantic Scholar

The planform also resembles the ‘Arrow-wing’ double-delta planform examined by NASA in the US as part of American efforts to produce a supersonic civil transport aircraft. Unsurprisingly, there are also similarities with planforms examined by Northrop as part of an Efficient Supersonic Air Vehicle programme.

Aerodynamic Modeling Techniques for Efficient Supersonic Air Vehicle  Multidisciplinary Design Optimization

All of this suggests a strong interest in supersonic capabilities for a GAD aircraft, and if this is the case, a design Mach number of about 2.2 would appear sensible, both from a materials perspective and from the geometry of the design.

However, one might argue that the key characteristics required by the future manned element of a GAD system would be undetectability and persistence, and one might question how useful a supersonic capability would be in this context.

Multidisciplinary Analysis and Design Optimization of an Efficient  Supersonic Air Vehicle | Semantic Scholar

Again, this is difficult to address from outside the programme, and goes to the heart of whether the aircraft in the images is intended to be a stealthy platform with modest performance, whether it is intended primarily as a stealthy strike platform, or whether it is a stealthy, supersonic, fighter.

At this point, one must be open-minded. To attain Air Dominance, one needs to defeat defensive air threats, and deter or defeat offensive threats. It seems unlikely that this could be done with a subsonic aircraft relying on undetectability and capable AAM to achieve air superiority. But, to retain air superiority, persistence is required, and it seems unlikely that this can be achieved in the suggested Flanker-sized platform, unless significant numbers were available.

B-21 Raider - Northrop Grumman

Perhaps this is a supersonic demonstrator validating control systems for an extremely stealthy replacement for the F-22, or even the SR-71. Perhaps it’s a mini B-21, providing a (possibly autonomous) stealthy strike capability. Perhaps it is demonstrating a manned command and control system. At this point, it is difficult to do more than speculate.

I leave the last words to Queen:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality
Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see …

I took the Typhoon to war: Interview with RAF Wing Commander Mike Sutton

Fourship ingress to attack an IED factory

The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 is the workhorse of the Royal Air Force’s air combat fleet, excelling in both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Starting life in 2003 as a dedicated interceptor, the fighter has matured into a well-equipped multi-role combat aircraft. We spoke to Wing Commander Mike Sutton about the Typhoon and his experiences of taking the aircraft to war.

What is the best and the worst thing about the Typhoon? 

The Typhoon has very few vices. I was a tactics instructor on the Jaguar previously, and even though everyone loved flying it, if you weren’t careful it had a very nasty bite. Of the two hundred Jags the RAF procured, sixty-nine were lost in accidents. The Typhoon is a generational leap. The thrust alone is insane. At 500 knots at low level it will accelerate while sustaining 9g. It’s a genuine multi-role platform. I’ve done the most challenging air-to-air sorties during RED FLAG, operational close air support, live quick reaction alert scrambles and air combat against modern fighters. It excels across the board. The four-nation programme is a blessing and a curse. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the jet is the time it takes to get agreement from all the nations for development. But when everyone is on the same page, the combined expertise, industrial resource and multi-nation investment make it a powerful combination.

What was your role in developing new tactics and operating procedures for multi-role aircraft? What have you learnt about this? 

I was lucky enough to be a weapons instructor on the first multi-role Typhoon Squadron as it formed. It was a hugely exciting time. There were experienced pilots from the Tornado F3, GR4, Harrier, Jags, Mirage 2000, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 on the brand-new Force who all had extensive tactical experience. I needed an open mind as much as diplomacy and a thick skin, as a small team of us took the best ideas from everyone around and tried to forge a new way of operating. Out with the old and in with the new. Starting afresh also enabled us to throw away outdated ways of working and attitudes that had become entrenched over the years. We looked at it holistically – from how to brief and debrief, use of the simulators, best ways to teach and record tactical lessons, as well as how to fight the aircraft. It was an evolving process and as the months and years progressed we refined the tactics. New pilots had fresh ideas. You never stand still on a fighter squadron. As soon as you stop progressing, and you get complacent, you are in for a shock.

Royal Air Force Typhoon

Is Typhoon’s mechanically scanning radar an issue when compared with more modern radars? 

The CAPTOR has done a decent job, but the new AESA <due in service in the mid-20s> will be far better. Taking Beyond Visual Range missile shots is about far more than being able to see targets at long range on the radar. It’s about combat identification using all of the aircraft sensors – and fusing that data – as well as electronic warfare, datalinks, integration with other fighters, jamming, secure radios and missile performance. So it’s a system where all the components need to be operating seamlessly. The AESA will also bring enhanced capabilities with electronic attack and SAR, coordinate generation and surface target combat ID.

Is the voice control still used – and if so – is it useful? 

I didn’t use the pilot voice control that much. I can generally only do one thing at a time and found it easier to just use the HOTAS. But other pilots used it quite a lot for controlling the radar modes, and like everything on the Typhoon the integration improves with software upgrades. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was used extensively in the years ahead.

Is a non-stealthy aircraft still survivable in your opinion?

A country can’t just build a modern fighter and then relax for thirty years under the umbrella of its protection. It’s a constant process of threat evolution, countermeasure development, and counter-counter measure. The very idea of stealth itself is probably a misnomer too. Low observable jets are undoubtedly harder to target, but still vulnerable to passive detection, low-band radars and heat-seeking sensors. They are also much more costly to build and maintain, and often may make design compromises as they are honed for a particular role, and are limited to internal stores when exploiting their stealth. To use a car analogy, low observable is a little like a Formula One car. Very fast around a racetrack, but a rally car is better off-road. 

If you look at the USAF, USN carriers, Israeli and Australian Air Forces and the RAF, they all have a blend of low-observable and conventional platforms. The USAF is about to procure the F15EX. With a mix of conventional and low-observable you can generate mass and saturation, to enhance the low-observable platforms ability to get through to their targets. 

How does the Typhoon perform in BFM/DACT exercises against the F-22? Is one superior in WVR combat in your opinion – and why?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/F-22_Raptor%2C_Eurofighter_Typhoon_and_Dassault_Rafale_fly_in_formation_-_151207-F-KB808-347.jpg

The F-22 is the best air dominance fighter in the world (but it doesn’t have much of a strike capability). At slow speed in a turning fight, its thrust vectoring provides exceptional manoeuvrability, which means it can outperform any other fighter on the planet, including the Typhoon. During the initial merge, if both aircraft were fast, then they would turn fairly equally. If the fight was fleeting, the Typhoon would benefit from the Helmet Mounted Sight, which surprisingly the F-22 does not have in its inventory. But perhaps the key point here is that the RAF will never have to fight in anger against a USAF F-22. Their time together is much better spent integrating and developing joint tactics where you learn to exploit the combined firepower of both platforms to lethal effect. We practised this routinely during exercises. 

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Combat pilots are far more interested in the capabilities of potential adversaries, so the real question is how does Typhoon perform against modern fighter threats? It is too early to make a judgement about the Su-57 as it is barely out of development. Regarding Flanker, that is precisely what the new AESA, the existing Defensive Aids System and PIRATE IR sensor are for. International training exercises against Indian or Malaysian Flankers were extremely useful, and fully tested the skills of the pilots using the helmet-mounted sight and ASRAAM heat-seeking missile.

Flanker versus Typhoon?

(MoD crown image)

The jets are both very capable. I would say that, flown well, the Typhoon has an edge, but when you have two fighters that are similar in capability the outcome of air combat is more nuanced. 

In reality, a simple top-trumps answer doesn’t cut it. It depends on so many different factors, such as radar tenacity, performance of the jet at different speeds (E-M diagrams), sensor integration with the helmet, the sensitivity of the missile seekers, the IR background, pilot training and currency, aircraft fit, environmentals, merge altitude, radar clutter, aircraft jammers, IR countermeasures, disposition pre-merge. There are probably more! That’s why the role of the Qualified Weapons Instructors is so crucial in shaping the tactical advice to their Squadrons, and it’s so important that pilots get to practise their core skills with live flying. 

A Rafale pilot I interviewed said ‘Typhoon was a joke’ – what is your response to his view? 

Typhoon versus Rafale: The final word | Hush-Kit

There’s nothing like the confidence of a French fighter pilot! The Rafale and Typhoon are from a similar era, but backed by four nations and with five export customers the Typhoon has better growth potential. As the Boss of 1 Squadron we always had a French Rafale pilot on exchange, so I had a real insight into both platforms. For the air-to-air missions, an AESA equipped Typhoon with METEOR, AMRAAM-D and ASRAAM packs a powerful punch with the Helmet Mounted Sight and IRST (called PIRATE).

The Typhoon Force has also received upgraded Paveway 4 (penetrating warhead and moving target capability), which is a great weapon for Close Air Support in combination with Brimstone, which can also be used against fast inshore attack craft. For longer-range strikes, Storm Shadow and SPEAR 3 (the small, long-range, cruise missile) offer significant stand-off, precision, low collateral damage and electronic warfare capabilities. The Litening 5 targeting pods will offer high-definition imagery and a reconnaissance capability. And of course, there is the 27-mm cannon that I have fired in anger. With that weapon load-out you can take on any mission set. So my response to the French pilot, is that given the choice I would take the Typhoon every time.

SPEAR 3 is due to become operational in 2025.

Would you rather have ASRAAM, IRIS-T or AIM-9X under your wing – and why? 

The ASRAAM heatseeking missile. IMAGE: MBDA

The ASRAAM is a far more capable missile. It is extremely fast off the rail and has a much longer range. It also has a huge off-boresight capability and can lock-on after launch, as well as having advanced counter-counter measures. When paired with the helmet mounted sight in a close fight it is very effective, and at longer range it offers a great crossover with AMRAAM. You can get an ASRAAM to its target before the other aircraft can even launch their IR missile back at you.

An RAF Typhoon recently had its first a2a ‘kill’ – what are your thoughts on this?  (I understand RSAF Typhoons have been doing this for a while)

Finding a small drone in a fighter and shooting it down using a heat-seeking missile is pretty impressive. It shows how the jet can roll quickly from supporting the troops one minute to engaging a tricky air-to-air target moments later. More broadly, the use of explosive drones is becoming more prevalent so from a control of the air point of view,  I think more thought needs to go into countering these en-masse from western air forces.

How good is Meteor, and why? 

I’ve personally never flown with Meteor, but talking to colleagues on the frontline they are very impressed. The layered capability with AMRAAM-D and ASRAAM offer lots of very robust all-weather targeting options and it is a great mixed load to carry. 

Tell me something I don’t know about Typhoon

When you are landing the aircraft without engineering support there are often no staging or steps available to climb out of the cockpit. There is a puny little ladder that you can deploy which pops out from under the cockpit. So you can climb down. But there is no retract function, which is a pain in the ass when you want to get back in and take off again.

Operations 

What was the hardest aspect psychologically? 

Keeping a clear head when dealing with constant, changing pressures. In the book I’ve placed the reader in the cockpit so they are immersed in the action and experience the adrenalin. At one point was I was locked-up by a Russian SAM. A couple of weeks later in the dead of night, I almost had a mid-air collision over a city held by enemy troops. There was also the constant threat of hand-held surface to air missiles. I felt the most pressure when friendly troops called in urgent support from fast jets because their lives were in danger. We needed to act swiftly and accurately, and avoid any risk to civilians. Sometimes we would roll from one task to the next, heading to the air-to-air refuelling tanker, and striking targets until we had dropped all eight weapons. On one occasion during a particularly vicious firefight I had to conduct a strafe attack too.

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How well suited is Typhoon to taskings in the Middle East? What improvements would you like to see? 

Within forty-eight hours of leaving our base in the UK we were conducting around-the-clock close air support missions. The jets held up superbly, and over the five months we conducted well over three hundred strikes. All were direct hits and there were no civilian casualties. I was immensely proud of the team performance. We focus a lot on the aircraft, but it is the people on the Squadron that make it happen. Everyone has a key role to play. Often the most junior, newest members of the squadron have the best ideas. Creating an environment where the engineers, pilots, intelligence, operations and support staff could all communicate effectively and work in harmony was extremely important. At the time we had the Litening 3 targeting pod, which was good, but there were other systems available that could provide clearer imagery. The Force is about to get the Litening 5 pod, which will be a fantastic upgrade and provide much better optics.

Typhoon and Litening, very very frightening.

What advice would you give to pilots coming to the Close Air Support mission? 

One of the most challenging aspects was not knowing what the mission would involve until you were immersed in it. Often I would sit at the end of the runway on a moonless night, with the jet being rocked from side to side by the gusty wind from nearby thunderstorms and the red strobe light flashing against the glistening runway, pondering what the night ahead had in store. Reconnaissance in Syria? Rushing to a troops-in-contact near Mosul? Looking for snipers in Ramadi? Could I remember the Escape & Evasion plan? Would the tanker be in the right place? What if I was low on fuel and the refuelling probe failed? For all fast jet operations, much like sport, the foundations for success lay in the preparations. Striving for tactical excellence and holding yourselves to account during training. Communicating as a team and encouraging a culture of ruthless self-awareness. Always looking for the marginal gains. And creating a bond and strength as a unit so you can carry yourselves through the tough situations.

How do you feel about the current state of the nations you have been to war in? 

Afghanistan is a very difficult situation, and my thoughts are with the families who have lost loved ones or seen family members suffer life-changing physical or psychological injuries. In Iraq, my thoughts are a little more positive. Towards the end of the operation, after months of fighting, I saw families return to their homes. Houses that had been abandoned breathed a new life, and this was incredibly heart-warming. It’s important to remember that we live in a liberal democracy, and it’s the politicians, not the pilots, that make the decisions about when to deploy and withdraw from conflicts. In the book I’ve explained what it is like to enact those decisions. To prepare to a level of high readiness, and then to receive the call to respond during a global crisis. 

Human aspect 

Something I found very interesting in your book was the reference to pilots liking certainty: care to expand on that? 

Click on image or here to order

Unpredictability as a pilot is not a great characteristic. A bold, flamboyant approach to flying is not encouraged as it is such a demanding and dangerous occupation. Much like brain surgery I suppose, you need dedication and discipline to learn the procedures. There is room for innovation and novelty – in fact it is essential to developing tactics – but in a controlled way. Finding the balance between the two mindsets isn’t always easy. Defining the best qualities for a fighter pilot is tricky. You need an almost obsessive drive and determination in the first place, the ability to learn fast, have good situational awareness, and to remain calm in the most dynamic situations where your life could be literally on the line. But there is an almost indefinable quality in the best pilots too. A quiet confidence, that learns from criticism and doesn’t take things personally, but strives to be the best; for yourself and your fellow pilots.

How well-supported are RAF veterans dealing with mental health issues in your opinion? 

This is a question for Defence, not just the RAF. Things have improved since Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, where the support was initially woeful. Charities like Help for Heroes and Combat Stress filled a void. Prince Harry once said leaving the military is like being on a bus with all of your mates, which pulls up at a deserted stop. You step off, the doors close and it drives away. You’re on your own. It’s a neat analogy. When you leave the military, you are thrown into the NHS system with support from your GP, who may know very little about operational stress. Particularly for veterans with limited social support and structures, I think significantly more could be done to support those suffering mental health challenges.

You had some very interesting points on the emotional impact of warfare on remote operators of unmanned aircraft, care to share your thoughts on this with our readers? 

UAV pilots don’t live in conflict zones and the acute pressures of their work can therefore be overlooked. They could be conducting strikes for months or years on end, with the effect of their actions being played out on high-definition screens right before their eyes. The physical risk is much diminished, but perhaps less so the psychological impact. As the nature and methods of conducting warfare continue to evolve, we need fresh approaches to understanding where the mental pressure points may emerge.

What personality types struggle the most in war in your opinion? 

I’m not a psychologist so will probably answer this imperfectly! I found that the trivia of military life was most irritating when it clashed with the pressures of high tempo operations. After landing from an eight-hour flight I often had to face what I considered to be fairly unimportant paperwork, such as overly complicated documents for squadron hire cars, or an overflowing inbox full of banal tasks that were fairly inconsequential yet demanded immediate attention. If the RAF could better prioritise the important from the irrelevant during operations that would be very welcome.

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What should I have asked you – and what do you get asked the most? 

When you come back from an operation people often ask ‘what was it like?’ My book is an insight into that hidden world. Not just what happened, but what goes through your mind before a strike and just after. A pilot’s concerns, fears and priorities. The conversations that happened on the ground as we were preparing to walk to an aircraft. The complexity of developing tactics and briefing hugely demanding sorties. The struggles to relate easily to domestic life at home with families and friends. And hopefully some analysis along the way!

– Mike Sutton is the author of Typhoon

Pentagon requests new advanced fighter aircraft for Russia

Image: BAE Systems

THE PENTAGON — The Pentagon released a report today requesting Congressional authorization for the allocation of funds to develop a new air superiority fighter for the Russian Federation. Parlor Banjo reports.

The aircraft project known as Military Air Counterable Grade Unassailable Foreign Fighter Increasement Node (MACGUFFIN) would see an initial $102 billion spent on developing a mass-produced fighter aircraft with greater capability than the ‘Flanker’, ‘Felon’ and nascent ‘Fleabag’ combat aircraft. According to USAF Colonel Tilch Willdergande, “We would like fighter aircraft and funding for future fighter projects, but this will require a credible air-to-air threat. China is at least twenty years behind us and Russia is broke. In the face of such a paucity of threatening air-to-air platforms we propose that we develop a new Russian fighter aircraft with US levels of stealth and situational awareness. In the absence of this project we would be forced to export F-35s to Russia, and possibly China, which would be a huge breach of export protocol and would threaten our global security. For this reason alone, MACGUFFIN is vital for regional dominance.

The Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Figniya released a counter statement on Wednesday, “We are offering to build a new fighter aircraft for the United States in order to leverage funding for a larger Su-57 and Su-75 force. The current mess of prehistoric F-15 and F-16s is a greater throwback to the 70s than Russian Gay rights. The F-22 and F-35 were designed to give IT guys maintenance work uninterrupted by flying hours. We’ve spent lots on really good surface-to-air missiles and the Government won’t give us Rubles for planes, which is annoying as planes are cooler.”

Death Star | StarWars.com

The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China representative Gǔn Dàn has also recently spoken on the subject, “I forgot to write down which combat aircraft we’re working on so I have no idea on our current air power ranking. Every Monday they email me to tell me we’re building something new. Do the US still build aeroplanes or is that just a Chinese thing now? I think we might have a stealth bomber, or a new naval stealth fighter – is the Death Star ours?”

Meanwhile, European defence planners are planning to have a plan in place by 2045. The United Kingdom, who are currently in their own continent, are actively seeking a ‘sexual unicorn’ for their dysfunctional marriage but thinks their wife is not 100% behind the idea, but maybe Sweden.

Swedish defence company Saab AB is currently collaborating with every future combat aircraft project everywhere. A spokesperson for Saab, Nils Wallerius, described the company’s current dilemma, “As the last company allegedly able to run a fighter project with some degree of fiscal responsibility, we are currently involved in 456 international combat aircraft projects, but this is one higher than the Swedish population of 455 people. My sister has had to give up her Monday badminton club to run a Brazilian UCAV program.”

Image: BAE Systems

What we know about Russia’s new ‘Fleabag’ stealth fighter: Sukhoi Checkmate Q&A with RUSI Thinktank’s Justin Bronk & update from Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith

Checkmate, new Sukhoi fifth-generation stealth fighter jet is seen during an opening ceremony of the MAKS-2021 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, July 20, 2021.  Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS

Russia reveals what is described as a prototype of a new fighter aircraft at the MAKS 21 airshow. We caught up with Justin Bronk (Research Fellow at the RUSI  think-tank and Editor of RUSI Defence Systems) to find out more 


Is the Checkmate at MAKS a mock-up or aircraft?
Without higher resolution images it is difficult to be certain. However, the lack of wiring and hydraulic lines within the visible parts of the main landing gear well, as well as the rather oversimplified external textures seen in the leaked footage pre-official the unveiling appear to suggest a mock up rather than a functioning aircraft.


What does the configuration reveal about the aircraft’s role and capabilities?
The Light Tactical Aircraft (LTA) designation and the configuration show that this is clearly a concept aimed at producing a relatively cheap and cheerful, somewhat low observable light fighter, primarily for the export market.
The relatively compact size and engine/intake placement will limit the space available for internal weapon bays. I would guess two IR dogfight missiles in the small side-mounted bays ahead of the main landing gear, and space for 2-4 R-77 class BVR missiles in a ventral bay. However, larger air-to-air and air-to-ground ordinance would likely have to be carried externally. It is also likely to have a modest range with internal fuel due to the competing demands for landing gear housing, weapons bays and avionics within a compact airframe.
As with the Su-57, the LTA features an Infra-Red Scan and Track (IRST) sensor embedded at the junction between the forward canopy and the nose, and will likely feature an active electronically scanned array (AESA) type radar in the nose. The latter, however, will be limited in size due to the narrow and aggressively tapered nose profile.  
One particularly notable feature is the lack of conventional elevators. Instead, the LTA has canted stabilisers which are more vertical than I would have expected if a ruddervator (or V-Tail) configuration was intended to provide primary pitch authority. Instead, it would appear that pitch authority will be provided by a combination of tailless delta style elevon control and at least 2D thrust-vectoring. This suggests to me that the LTA has a lessened design emphasis on supermanoeuvrability than previous Russian fighter designs.

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Image: Vasily Kuznetsov: https://flickr.com/photos/27984580@N05…


How far is Russia from an operational Checkmate?
I would suggest that this is a long way from an operational aircraft. The slick PR campaign and dramatic reveal at MAKS is obviously an attempt to convince some of the nations mentioned in the Rostek commercial to buy into a nascent development programme. The slow development pace and limited procurement scale of the Su-57 Felon (which is far more important to Russia’s own defence needs) shows the limits of UAC’s ability to develop the LTA to an operational aircraft without significant external funding. 


Will it be used domestically? How will it aid the Su-57 force and what would it replace?
The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) tend to purchase a range of different combat aircraft at a small scale to keep the various formerly Sukhoi and Mikoyan design bureaus and production lines viable. Therefore, if the LTA is developed successfully into an operational aircraft, then I’m sure that the VKS will purchase it on a limited scale. However, I suspect that they would prefer to increase the quantities and maturity of the Su-57 over committing to the LTA on a large scale.


What would be the hardest technology for the Russia’s to master if the aircraft is seen as a counter/alternative to F-35?
There are three key technologies which Russia will need to master before the LTA could be seen as a competitive stealth fighter in a practical combat environment:
Firstly, they would need to master compact AESA radars for use on fighter aircraft – something which is being worked on with the Su-57 but is still causing headaches. The key issue is that to be a viable stealth fighter, an aircraft must not only be difficult to detect on radar, but must also be able to detect and engage enemy aircraft without revealing itself through the energy emitted by its radar. This capability is referred to as low-probability of intercept/low-probability of detection (LPI/LPD), and it is a vital factor in the survivability and lethality of the F-22 and F-35 which is often missed by non-specialist commentators.
In very broad-brush terms, LPI/LPD radars work by exploiting the fact that AESA radars employ hundreds of individual beams rather than one or several large and more powerful ones in a mechanically scanned or PESA type radar. Use of specific frequency, wavelength and pulse repetition techniques for these many individual beams can enable AESA radars to avoid producing an easily identifiable signature within the electronic ‘noise’ of the modern air environment. However, the programming, threat EW intelligence granularity and signal processing capabilities required are highly complex and difficult to master. Furthermore, the goalposts are constantly moving as passive electronic warfare (think detection, classification and tracking of hostile signals) capabilities improve with technology. In other words, what was LPI/LPD against Russian or Chinese systems in the 2000s is almost certainly not LPI/LPD against (say) a USAF F-35A in 2025. Without a genuinely LPI/LPD AESA radar, an operational LTA would expose its position against modern opponents every time it used its primary sensor – rendering its low-observable shaping features far less useful.
The second key technology is achieving the necessary level of industrial quality control to produce viable low-observable aircraft in quantity. While bespoke hand finishing can potentially produce relatively low-observable results for prototypes, traditionally Russian fighter manufacturing has not been conducted to the extremely fine tolerances and quality control levels required to mass produce stealth fighters. This also carries over to the maintenance side of things – can the VKS (or potential export customers for that matter) afford to change their maintenance and operating procedures to a sufficient degree to maintain stealth properties in service for any length of time? For air forces used to operating previous generations of Mikoyan or Sukhoi products (with their famously high tolerance for rough conditions), it would be a culture and budgetary shock to say the least.
The third key technology set is in the field of advanced materials science and thermal management. One of the biggest challenges in moving from a prototype that looks a bit like a 5th generation aircraft to a genuine operational capability is incorporating all the myriad sensors, avionics, life support and fuel/engine systems. All of these components, especially the sensors and fuel/engine systems generate a great deal of heat when in use. This must be managed without adding the usual ducts, ram air intakes etc which would destroy the stealth properties of the airframe. They must also all compete with fuel and weapons for very limited space within an outer mould line which is fixed for RCS control reasons. Sensors must also be covered with fairings or airframe skin which allows their own emissions to pass unimpeded, but interacts with hostile radar in such a way as to not compromise the RCS.


How will it likely differ in concept to the F-35?
The LTA is clearly aiming for a significantly lower degree of stealth at a much lower price point compared to the F-35. It can be thought of perhaps as a somewhat low-observable spiritual successor to the MiG-21, where the F-35 is intended to be a very-low observable spiritual successor to the F-16, EA-18G and F-15E.


Does a STOVL or carrier variant seem likely?
STOVL doesn’t look compatible with the airframe, as it requires such specific design features to achieve – not least positioning the centre of vertical thrust roughly on the overall centre of gravity. I also doubt that it has the required high-alpha flight characteristics and pitch authority for CATOBAR carrier operations given the intake design and previously mentioned reliance on elevons/thrust vectoring.

Do you like how it looks?
It’s certainly refreshing! A different take to add to the increasing number of mini-F-22 or F-35 clone mock ups popping up around the world. A qualified ‘yes’ on the looks front.


How much experience does Russia have in stealth and how much does it embrace the concept?
Russia lacks any experience with true VLO stealth. However, it has made significant progress with LO airframe design features in the Su-57, and it certainly has the potential to manufacture a new generation of combat aircraft (with the Felon as the centrepiece) that get past the traditional massive signature weakness of the Flanker and Fulcrum series.
I think Russia has its own take on stealth as a concept, with a firmly realistic internal appraisal of its own industrial and financial limitations, as well as the constantly improving nature of NATO sensors which make true VLO performance in a major war ever harder as a goal for future systems. For them, I think RCS reduction features are seen as key to maintaining current levels of competitiveness in the air – whilst ever improving long range SAM systems and ground based radars form the first line of defence (or offense) against NATO airpower. For me, Russian boasts about F-22 or F-35 levels of stealth in novel air systems are simply propaganda aimed at the Russian domestic audience and prospective export customers.


What should I have asked you?
How much of the technology developed at such expense and effort for the Su-57 can be leveraged for the LTA/Checkmate?


Likely export customers or partners?
The three most obvious potential candidates would be India, the UAE and Turkey. However, India is likely to be very wary after its experiences with the PAK FA/FGFA programme and poor support for the Su-30MKI fleet post acquisition. The UAE appears to be (bafflingly from my perspective) being allowed to purchase the F-35, so is unlikely to be interested in the LTA. Turkey has its own TF-X ambitions for domestic LO fighter development and has also seen ‘behind the curtain’ on F-35 before being ejected from the programme so will have very high operational expectations for any future ‘stealth’ fighter acquisition which the LTA is unlikely to be able to meet.
Otherwise, Vietnam, Argentina and Algeria are all potential candidates, but the likely competition is from more mature and lower risk offerings from China.

Where does this leave rival fighter design bureau MiG?

MiGs models of a new design has not received as much attention as the Checkmate. MiG’s new light combat aircraft proposal

The MiG-35 is already a damp squib, very much in the shadow of the Sukhoi product line in Russian service and on the export market. After MiG’s recent absorption within UAC I think the composite firm will focus on its more successful Sukhoi products rather than new MiG-derived concepts. The MiG-35 It isn’t much cheaper than a Su-35S, does everything worse, no large orders, AESA radar wasn’t delivered as promised…

Image
MiG’s proposed new carrier fighter
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MiG’s new light combat aircraft proposal


Will it happen?
If I had to bet? No.

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Checkmate, new Sukhoi fifth-generation stealth fighter jet is seen during an opening ceremony of the MAKS-2021 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, July 20, 2021.  Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS
(Hush-Kit spoke to someone who has seen it up close who commented: “It’s real, but lacks some systems for sure”)

Jim Smith update

An image of the Checkmate aircraft (or possibly mock-up) has now appeared, and the analysis below has been updated to reflect this.

The aircraft has been reported to be Russia’s first single-engine supersonic low observable tactical fighter, and has been developed by Sukhoi, and is being presented at the MAKS show by Rostec. The stated intent is to ‘rival the US fifth-generation F-35 aircraft’. The aircraft is also described as a domestic light fighter, which will compete with the F-35 in export markets. This latter comment is backed up by a video on the Rostec website which identifies a number of countries by name including India, Argentina, and Vietnam, as well as some elements suggestive of Middle Eastern states.

The new photographs show an aircraft that loosely resemble the earlier ‘teaser’ imagery, but with significant differences in the intakes, fuselage and wing planform.

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The ‘Checkmate’ aircraft (Hush Kit reporting name ‘Fleabag’) has a novel diverterless intake under the nose, with a unique V-shaped appearance following the shape of the underside of the forward fuselage. The position of the intake is not dissimilar to the teaser image, but the aperture has a higher aspect ratio V-shaped slot appearance. It’s appearance is definitely a ‘smiley’ intake, and I feel sure this echoes Rostec’s feelings about their very successful publicity campaign leading up to the Checkmate launch.

Looking at the intake, one wonders whether a vari-cowl will be fitted, similar to that on the Su-57 and Eurofighter Typhoon, to allow greater mass flow through the engine in high thrust and low airspeed conditions.

The YF-23's Air Inlet Design Was Its Most Exotic Feature You Never Heard Of
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 The wing appears to differ from the teaser image. While retaining a highly-tapered, thin, low-aspect-ratio planform, the trailing edge has relatively little forward sweep, resulting in a relatively conventional cropped-delta planform, rather than a near-diamond planform. The planform is similar to the Tejas, the Mirage 2000 and Eurofighter Typhoon, to cite three examples from different sources.

The forward fuselage of the Checkmate aircraft features a strong chine in the plane of the wing, which grows into a highly-swept leading edge root extension, or strake. The intake is located at the start of this strake, and a large door is located in the underside of the strake. While this might be a forward weapons bay, it could also provide access to aircraft systems and equipment.

The main undercarriage legs are widely spaced, and retract forward. As a result, there is significant space under the centre fuselage, which could provide significant volume for a weapons bay, at a location which would be closer to the aircraft centre of gravity.

The rear view of the Checkmate/Fleabag aircraft appears to show a single afterburning nozzle, located between twin butterfly tails. Given Sukhoi experience in the application of thrust vectoring to its heavy fighter designs, it would be surprising if this were not also fitted to the new aircraft.

The teaser image features an Infra-red Seeker Tracker, located ahead of the cockpit, and a radar in the aircraft nose. This is a typical arrangement for a Russian fighter, and is replicated on Checkmate, although separate Rostec imagery has suggested the use of a multi-purpose targeting sensor, like the EOTS system fitted to the F-35. This system is not visible in the new image of Checkmate, but could simply be out if sight on the port side of the aircraft.

Combat Systems Fusion Engine for the F-35

The fuselage and tail design of Checkmate are somewhat reminiscent of the McDonnell MFVT (Mixed Flow Vectored Thrust) ASTOVL concept, and although that single-engine aircraft featured twin side-intakes, there is still a resemblance between it and Checkmate/Fleabag. The image shows a model held by the Newark Air Museum, who kindly provided this picture.

The MFVT design was one of the propulsion alternatives examined in early UK-US joint technology studies looking at possible ASTOVL concepts in advance of the JSF program. I am not suggesting that Fleabag is a STOVL aircraft, but rather noting that the fuselage volume taken up in the MFVT for its STOVL system results in a fuselage shape compatible with the internal weapons bays which are a feature of Checkmate/Fleabag.

McDD/Northrop/BAe ASTOVL/MRF/JAST/JSF studies | Page 2 | Secret Projects  Forum
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What can we infer about the aircraft? To me, the highly-tapered, low aspect ratio wing suggests that the design is intended to be used for BVR combat. The wing area and aspect ratio suggest that supersonic acceleration, and, with high thrust-to-weight ratio, a vectoring nozzle, and a strake ahead of the wing, instantaneous turn rate, will be strong features of the aircraft. On the other hand, sustained turn rate, required for WVR engagements, will be weaker. The configuration should result in the instantaneous turn rate being structurally, rather than aerodynamically, limited for substantial parts of the manoeuvring air combat envelope.

Whether a low signature is achieved by Checkmate will depend on a number of aspects – not just the shape, but also the materials, the manufacturing standards, and the electromagnetic properties of the surfaces and structure. The novel intake uses shaping of the lower fuselage to provide a diverterless intake, and the relatively high position of the engine will allow a sinuous intake duct to screen the front face of the engine.

There has been much uninformed commentary, suggesting that Checkmate is a copy of the American X-32 or F-35. In my view, there are sufficient original features in the design of the intake, the fuselage, the cockpit, the wing and the empennage, to indicate that is not the case. The similarities are really limited to being a design solution to what may have been similar objectives to those of the JSF program, but without the requirements for STOVL or deck landing.

What, then, is the intended objective, or role, of Checkmate? Limited, and possibly unreliable hints about its performance suggest a maximum speed in the region of Mach 2.0, and a maximum take-off weight of 18 tonnes. This suggests an aircraft in the general class of a MiG 29 replacement. However, the space available for internal stores, and the attention paid to reducing signatures, indicates that tactical strike is also an important role, suggesting that Checkmate may indeed be a Russian Strike Fighter.

From the wording used in the press release – descriptors like ‘domestic light fighter’ and ‘tactical fighter’, and the reference to exporting the aircraft, it could be that the new Sukhoi is intended to be a cheap alternative to the F-35, indicating, perhaps, that some compromises in the signature area might have been made in the interests of containing acquisition, operating and maintenance costs.

 With the marketing emphasis on the export market, perhaps the main objective is to provide an exportable multi-role combat aircraft, while retaining the option of a non-exportable version for local air defence and tactical strike. Such an aircraft would complement the Su 57, delivering air superiority, and a future MiG-31-replacement, which would provide strategic air defence.

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Could the aircraft be a Russian equivalent to the @Hush_Kit F-36 Kingsnake concept, aiming to regain the position once achieved with the widespread use of the MiG-21, by undercutting the cost of the F-35?