Sukhoi combat jets have been inducted in large numbers in the air forces of China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Source: Sukhoi.org
Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat, says about his countrymen, “They prefer to keep Asia and its peoples at a distance.”
Distance and the lack of long-range aircraft in the Southeast Asian air forces have for decades offered a sense of security to the Australians. But today that security is being eroded by the arrival of super-maneuverable aircraft like the Sukhoi 27 Flanker and Sukhoi 30 Flanker C. These combat jets have been inducted in large numbers in the air forces of China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The arrival of the Sukhois has evened the odds in the Asia Pacific theatre. Australian pilots, who considered themselves top guns flying their F-18 Hornet and F-111 Aardvark fighter bombers, now are having to faceoff with the Flankers that are superior in almost every aspect. According to Air Power Australia, “The acquisition of Russian designed Sukhoi Su-27SK and Su-30MK series fighters by most regional nations now presents an environment where the F/A-18A/B/F is outclassed in all key performance parameters by widely available fighters.”
Australia’s Defence Today magazine says, “From a strategic analysis perspective the acquisition of such advanced weapons by marginally stable nations such as Indonesia or other regional players should be of genuine concern – and this is aside from the staggering numbers being purchased by China. The threat equation (to Australia) is predicated on the presence of both capability and intent but, historically, the capability dimension has always been lacking – whatever regional intent toward Australia there may have been. However, this level of capability is changing with plans to buy advanced aircraft and weapons.”
It adds, “The arrival of long range weapons like the Sukhoi and its suite of modern missiles coincide with important and strategic economic developments in Australia’s north, presenting an entirely new strategic context to consider.”
While the Flanker’s maneuverability – especially the Pugachev Cobra move – is legendary, it is the range of over 3000 km which gives the aircraft a decisive edge in aerial combat. This allows it to perform repeated probes and U-turns – a Cold War Russian tactic – that can leave its opponent disoriented and vulnerable in a dogfight. Chasing the Flanker would be one of the most hazardous jobs in aviation.
In fact, the Flanker’s incredible range can easily be doubled by aerial refuelling and it is conceivable that Indonesia, which is Australia’s No.1 bugbear, would one day acquire tanker aircraft. In the interim, the Indonesians pilots can extend their range through buddy refuelling, where half their Flanker fleet refuels the other half.
The Flankers are known to have 12 hard points – more than any other aircraft. This feature allows it to literally pack a lethal punch – an entire arsenal of missiles and smart bombs. The Russian weapons bureaus have developed a vast armada of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles – including cruise – that in some cases have no equivalent in NATO armouries. The 94 Hornets in Australia’s air force are extremely vulnerable against the Flanker’s much superior beyond visual range missiles.
The Australians are also worried about the vulnerability of the gas platforms and industrial assets on their eastern seaboard. Defence Today elaborates: “From a weapon’s standpoint, a single supersonic Raduga 3M-82/Kh-41 Sunburn, MBRPA 3M-55/Kh-61 Yakhont or subsonic Novator 3M-54E1 Alfa anti-shipping cruise missile could effectively cripple if not destroy any of these large facilities in a single strike. These missiles were designed to cut small warships in half and inflict critical damage on large warships – and the sad history of industrial accidents and fires in petrochemical plants and offshore rigs suggests that even a single hit would be likely to start uncontrollable fires.”
US carriers – a big fat target
The arrival of the Flankers in the Asia Pacific has also increased the vulnerability of the United States’ nuclear powered aircraft carriers. The American military has wargamed situations where these massive CVNs go into battle against Sukhois armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, and the missiles have won every single time.
In the past these nuclear powered carriers, protected by a ring of support ships and AWAC aircraft, and of course their own fighter jets, were able to sail into any troublespot without fear. That’s history.
Today, any American carrier that attempts to come close to, say, China’s shores would be targeted by Flankers based on land, and firing their missiles from safe distances. As Defence Today quips, “The attackers then fly home and watch CNN for bomb damage assessment.”
Basically, the Flanker may have ended the era of American gunboat diplomacy.
Australia’s air force is not big but it considers itself well-trained and butch, with pilots who like to think they are a bit like Maverick of Top Gun. They train according to Western standards and admittedly this can be a decisive factor in war. However, pilot skill, like modern hardware, can be imported too. India’s pilots, who are known to be among the world’s best, are now training Malaysia’s air force. The Chinese and the Indonesians too will find air aces to train their pilots.
F-35: Australia scoots for stealth
There is a reason why the Indian Air Force describes the Su-30 MKIs as its "Air Dominance Fighter". The aircraft is a generation ahead of any other aircraft – bar the stealth types – in the skies. The MKI version is actually superior to the Russian Air Force's own Flankers, which is a result of Russia's policy to provide its trusted customers with export versions that are half a generation ahead of its own base models.
As the realisation dawned on them that the Flanker had degraded their defensive and offensive capabilities, the Australians decided to go for the stealth option and placed an order for 100 units of the F-35 fighter. How will that decision impact the Flankers? Now, that’s an entirely different story.
Canberra needs a new strategy
Paul Keating, a former Australian prime minister, once said that Asia is a place to fly over en route to Europe. Robert Gordon Menzies, another Aussie premier, said about Southeast Asia and the South Pacific: “The risks in this corner of the world have increased.” That was at the height of the Vietnam War.
Clearly, Down Under they have learned nothing about mending fences. The country, which considers itself America’s local sheriff, has continued to distance itself from its emerging Asian neighbours. In effect, Australia has painted itself into a corner.
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