The Indonesian air force wants to replace its outdated American built F-5 fighters with the brand new Russian Su-35 Super Flanker, but the country’s political leadership is unable to act quickly because the U.S. is pitching in with its F-16 and F-18 jets.
The Indonesians operate both American F-16s and Russian made Flankers – five Su-27s and 11 Su-30s. How Russian aircraft ended up in the air force of an American ally is interesting. “Indonesia’s turn toward Russian fighters stemmed partly from necessity,” explains Defense Industry Daily (DID).. Its 12 remaining F-16A/Bs and 16 remaining F-5E/F fighters experienced severe maintenance problems in the wake of a U.S. embargo.”
The embargo was imposed after Australia started meddling in Indonesia’s civil war in East Timor, and the U.S. accused Jakarta of human rights violations.
In order to address the problems created by the U.S. embargo, in 2003 Indonesia signed a $192 million contract with Russia to supply Sukhoi multi-role fighters through Rosoboronexport. The induction of Russian fighters gave the Southeast Asian country some sort of parity with its neighbors, including China and Australia.
Four years later, at the MAKS 2007 air show in Moscow, Indonesia and Russia signed a follow-up $300 million deal to supply more Sukhoi Flankers. What makes Indonesia’s purchase of Russian military hardware remarkable is that it is happening in the backdrop of close security cooperation between Washington and Jakarta. “It does not reflect Indonesia's current geopolitical orientation. It is certainly a tribute to the attractiveness of the Sukhoi aircraft,” says foreign affair commentator Martin Sieff of UPI.
According to DID, both the Su-27 SK and Su-30 variants the Indonesians are currently flying “share the Sukhoi Flanker family’s combination of long range, large payloads, and air to air performance that can match any American fighter except the F-22A Raptor. Those capabilities, and Russia’s policy of avoiding political conditions on its weapon sales, nudged Indonesia into a tilt toward Russia as a weapons supplier”.
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 Hornets, are now 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.”
Technological leap forward
The Su-35 Super Flanker, which the Indonesia air force is eyeing, is certainly more advanced. Sukhoi classifies it as a 4++ generation aircraft, which places it just below fifth generation stealth aircraft. Compared with the F-16 and F-18, which are based on 1970s technology, the Su-35 is only just entering the Russian Air Force. China has also inked a multi-billion deal to acquire 24 Super Flankers, and Chinese pilots have begun arriving in Russia for training.
According to Air Force Technology, the Su-35 “has high maneuverability (+9g) with a high angle of attack, and is equipped with high-capability weapon systems that contribute to the new aircraft's exceptional dogfighting capability. The maximum level speed is 2,390km/h or Mach 2.25.”
The magazine says the Su-35 is capable of carrying numerous air-to-air, air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles. It also says the airplane can be armed with various guided bombs, and that its sensors “can detect and track up to 30 airborne targets with a radar cross section (RCS) of 3m² at ranges of 400km using track-while-scan mode”.
Reporting for Aviation Week from the 2013 Paris Air Show, legendary aviation writer Bill Sweetman writes that the high agility demonstrated by the Sukhoi Su-35 is rooted in a Russian concept in which close-range, low-speed air combat remains important.
“The aircraft, equipped with three-axis thrust-vectoring and fully integrated flight and propulsion control, performed maneuvers here which no other operational fighter can match,” Sweetman writes.
Sweetman then quotes Sukhoi chief test pilot Sergey Bogdan: “Most of the fighters we have available today with vectored thrust, the Su-30MKI and MKM, can perform these maneuvers. Where this aircraft is different is that it has more thrust, so when it performs the 'bell' maneuver, it can stand still, with afterburning on, and can sustain flight at 120-140 kph.”
The emphasis on “supermaneuverability” runs counter to much western air combat doctrine, which stresses high speed, the avoidance of the slower “merge” and tactics that do not lose the aircraft's energy. Bogdan, however, says supermaneuverability can be essential.
“The classical air combat starts at high speed, but if you miss on the first shot—and the probability is there because there are maneuvers to avoid missiles—the combat will be more prolonged,” he says. “After maneuvering, the aircraft will be at a lower speed, but both aircraft may be in a position where they cannot shoot. But supermaneuverability allows an aircraft to turn within three seconds and take another shot.”
As for the doctrine that energy should be conserved, Bogdan notes: “The theory of air combat has always evolved. In the 1940s and 1950s, the first priority was height, then speed, then maneuver and then firepower. Then with the third and fourth generation, it was speed, then height and then maneuver. Supermaneuverability adds to this. It's the knife in the soldier's pocket.”
And despite not having any stealth capability, the Su-35 can under certain conditions become invisible to enemy radar. Sweetman explains that the “rapid change in velocity can cause a Doppler fire-control radar to break lock. The maneuver is more useful on the Su-35S because the pilot can fly the aircraft out in any direction”.
With Australia planning to acquire 72 F-35 stealth fighters by the end of this decade, Indonesia needs to look at counter measures. Russia’s T-50 seems like the most ideal candidate but in the meantime the Su-35 can fill the interim and also take on the F-35 threat.
Dave Majumdar of the National Interest says a US Air Force official with experience on the F-35 believes the Su-35 could pose a serious challenge for the new American jet. The F-35 was built primarily as a strike fighter and does not have the sheer speed or altitude capability of the Su-35 or F-22. “The Su's ability to go high and fast is a big concern, including for F-35,” the Air Force official said.
According to Majumdar, “As an air-superiority fighter, its major advantages are its combination of high altitude capability and blistering speed—which allow the fighter to impart the maximum possible amount of launch energy to its arsenal of long-range air-to-air missiles.
“The Su-35 would be launching its weapons from high supersonic speeds around Mach 1.5 at altitudes greater than 45,000 ft; the F-35 would primarily be operating in the 30,000-ft range at speeds around Mach 0.9.”
Sergey Ptichkin of Rossiyskaya Gazeta says the Su-35S is almost identical to the Russian T-50 in terms of the on board electronics suite, control systems and armament. “Therefore it will not prove difficult for pilots to convert to the classic fifth generation fighter with its obligatory stealth technology: any pilot who has assimilated the Su-35S can easily convert to the T-50,” he says.
The upshot: Indonesian pilots will have had a head start when it comes to flying fifth generation stealth aircraft in the next decade.
Training with the aces
In October 2013, India agreed to train and support the Indonesian air force in operating its fleet of Sukhoi fighters. According to the agreement, which was arrived at during the Indian defence minister’s trip to Jakarta, India and Indonesia will cooperate in the areas of training, technical help and spares support.
In the past Jakarta had a pact with China to train its pilots and provide technical support for its Flanker fleet. But Jakarta has now veered round to the view that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is an ideal mentor. For, the IAF has earned a worldwide reputation as a dogfight duke after beating the powerful US Air Force in a series of Cope India air exercises. Plus, in three wars – in 1965, 1971 and 1999 – it routed the Pakistan Air Force.
If Indonesia decides to grow its Flanker force, ample support is available in the region.
No strings attached
The most pressing argument to go with Russian weapons is that unlike other major powers, Moscow has never imposed an embargo in the midst of a conflict. After all, to first sell weapons to a country and then apply a choke on supplies during war is like a stab in the back. The US embargo during the East Timor crisis was clearly aimed at giving the Australians the advantage. In any future crisis involving Indonesia and Australia, the outcome won’t be markedly different. The Indonesian political leadership might well consider that when they take a final call on the fighter purchase.
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