India’s Evolving Response to China’s “Stealth threat”

Article appeared on June 8, 2018 in the Asia Times

UPDATE: On June 13 the Daily Mail (UK) reported that a senior Rolls Royce engineer has been arrested after it was reported that there was a Chinese plot to acquire secrets about the British F-35B.  The engineer is a specialist in combustion technology, meaning that China has major engine problems with its versions of stealth aircraft (the J-20 and J-31).  

by Stephen Bryen


India has been alarmed by China’s deployment of the J-20 low observable (“stealth” or “LO”) aircraft facing India’s s as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force or PLAAF) conducted extensive military exercises in Tibet involving the Chengdu J-20 LO aircraft and other fighters, primarily the  Chengdu J-10C and extensive north east border.  Last January the Chinese Air Force (officially known as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force or PLAAF) conducted extensive military exercises in Tibet involving the Chengdu J-20 LO aircraft and other fighters, primarily the  Chengdu J-10C and Shenyang J-11

Su-30 MKI, Indian Air Force

The Chinese planes were using improved Tibetan airfields that China has made all-weather capable.  Around 14 important airfields in Tibet are now supporting PLAAF operations.


Sometime in March, Indian Su-30MKI fighter jets were able to detect the J-20 on radar, according to top Indian officials and even reported by Russian news agencies.  India followed this up in April with a large scale air exercise called  Gagan Shakti 2018, covering the border with Pakistan, with China and supporting maritime operations.  (Gagan means GPS Aided Augmented Navigation. Shakti means power, ability and strength.) According to the Indian Government, “The aim of the exercise was real time coordination, deployment and employment of air power in a short and intense battle scenario.” 


Most importantly of all, India showed renewed self confidence that the J-20 was not so great an LO airplane, although many questions remain on exactly when, where and how India’s SU-30MKI jets picked up the Chinese jets.


The SU-30MKI is a Russian designed platform that with improved engines performs closer to the Su-35, Russia’s current top performing fighter.  In India’s case the Russian platform has some Western avionics coming from Israel and France, and better engines now manufactured in India
However, the rise of “stealth” air forces and the threat to India has geared up India to put in place various solutions.  In some cases India is moving relatively smoothly in the right direction, in others so far it has come up empty handed.


India, for example is shifting to even better airborne radars for its fighters and is planning to retrofit it Su-30 platform with a new active electronically scanned (AESA) radar.  An AESA radar has many operational benefits, although the older generation Russian radars in the Su-30 are quite good.  Perhaps the biggest reward of moving to AESA is that it is hard for an adversary to use electronic countermeasures and jam or mislead an AESA plane because these radars can rapidly change radar frequency and do so randomly enough to make jamming extremely difficult.  Modern US aircraft including upgraded F-16’s and F-15’s and of course the F-35 have AESA radars.


Despite this, it is worthwhile to note that the detection of China’s J-20 was by an older radar (specifically the N011M Bars passive electronically scanned array radar) that is less automated than AESA radar sets.  


India is also moving toward BVR (Beyond Visual Range) missiles for its aircraft, but it has hit a big barrier.  China already has BVR missiles like the PL-12 (Chinese: 霹雳 or “Thunderbolt-12”) and was testing them in Tibet when India detected the J-20 which uses the PL-12. One of the yet unanswered questions is whether the J-20’s were carrying the missiles internally to avoid radar detection, or whether they were mounted externally for test and evaluation purposes.  If they were externally mounted then the J-20 would have been easily detected by any radar.


India has ordered a European BVR missile called Meteor which was developed and is manufactured by MBDA, a consortium of companies in Germany, France, UK and Italy.  The Meteor is currently regarded as the most capable long range BVR missile now entering the Western inventory with a range some 30 to 40 percent better than the improved American AMRAAM BVR missile.  Meteor also has a unique ramjet engine and the ability to speed up when it gets close to its target.  But MBDA abruptly cancelled the deal with India, allegedly claiming it would not do business if either Israel or Russia are involved.


The design and support for the Su-30MKI and the fact that the Su-30’s weapons integration requires Israeli and Russian experts. Israel’s Elbit provides some of the Su-30 avionics in India and Russia produces the current radar and will supply in future the new AESA radar.


Israeli technology especially in missiles, radars and cockpit systems is on a global scale today.  But Israel, and for that matter Russia is also a potential competitor in beyond visual range air to air missiles.  For example Israel’s Rafael is teamed with Raytheon in the United States on a project to convert the David’s Sling interceptor missile into a long range BVR missile.  Why this would present a problem to MBDA has not been explained: the Israeli interceptor, which is called Stunner operates quite differently from Meteor.  It uses a triple pulsed rocket engine for propulsion, is a hit to kill vehicle (non-explosive) and does not have a fragmentation warhead like Meteor.


For India the result is that it is so far without a long range BVR missile. India is attempting to persuade MBDA to reconsider.


There is a lot of controversy on the value of the BVR approach to air combat.  For the United States, BVR is the primary way the Air Force is going to conduct aerial warfare against airborne threats, using stealth to get around detection by an enemy and to shoot first and from long range before the enemy knows what hit him.  An aircraft that is supercruising launches a missile at very high speed meaning that even at a long distance the time to target is short.


For the United States the primary air to air weapon is the AMRAAM, which has been improved.  No one knows whether the AMRAAM, or for that matter the Meteor can be successful under real battle conditions involving a sophisticated adversary.  Stunner is still on the drawing board as an air to air missile and the Chinese PL-12 is quite unproven.  Likewise Russia is counting on its  Vympel NPO R-77missile, which is said to be roughly equivalent to AMRAAM although some think it falls short operationally.

PLAAF PL-12 BVR missile mounted on a Pakistani JF-17 (JF-17 built in Pakistan in a partnership with Chengdu)


India is also upgrading its ground based radars and, despite American objections is getting close to acquiring S-400 ground based air defense missiles from Russia.  The S-400 system is said capable of detecting (at least at reasonably close range) the US F-22 and F-35 jets. 


India is upgrading its most modern aircraft not only by adding AESA radars but new types of sensors, especially dual band electro optical sensor known as a Long Range Dual Band Infrared Imaging Search and Track Systems (IRST).  IRST sensors are growing in importance because current generation stealth aircraft can be detected using dual band infrared sensors.  All aircraft generate heat and give off a heat signature, but stealth aircraft it turns out give off an even greater signature because of their inherent design, the coatings used to defeat X band radar, and the higher speeds (super cruising) at which they generally operate.  In the past the range of infrared sensors and the resolution of the sensors was limited to fairly close range, but this has changed as the technology has rapidly improved. Today IRST sensors on aircraft can see for hundreds of kilometers.


IRST sensors are very difficult to jam and don’t emit pulses like radar. 
India has authorized a procurement of IRST sensors for the Su-30MKI and is seeking partnerships to acquire the technology to manufacture them locally.


The biggest stumbling block for India is the missing LO or stealth aircraft in its inventory.  India had been negotiating with Russia to partner on building a version of Russia’s Su-57 jet.  Russia was counting on the deal to finance completion of the development of the Su-57 at home and to gear up for serial production.  With only a domestic order for 12 jets recently agreed by the Russian Air Force and without any outside financing through sales or partnerships the Su-57 project could atrophy or fail completely.  


India’s objections to the Su-57 was its lack of real LO features and the fact that it was underpowered and that a new engine for the Su-57 seemed to be badly lagging.
In Russia there is less belief in the efficacy of a LO aircraft because of the implied tradeoffs to achieve such a system, and because Russia’s industrial infrastructure is not up to snuff to build a pure LO aircraft along the U.S. model lines. In fact many Western observers have missed the point that the Russians are thinking more about tactical wars against lesser adversaries and not about any challenge from the United States.


Thus in the big picture the Russians are counting on mixed detection technology such as L Band radar and IRST sensors built into the Su-57 to deal with proliferating US (and maybe Chinese) stealth aircraft.  Stealth jets are designed against ubiquitous X Band frequency radars but can be seen by L band and even lower VHF and UHF transceivers.  The problem has been both range and accuracy in such systems, but the accuracy problem can be approach by either ground or air based triangulation and the range is being improved with better technology.  Additionally the Russians are concentrating on sophisticated jamming to neutralize enemy radars and especially BVR weapons.


Even so, the Russian philosophy didn’t sell any fish in India.  By the same token, India faces a quandary. India probably would have difficulty getting the US F-35 (if it wants it) given the pervasive Russian presence in India. Even if India could get the F-35 it is tremendously expensive and extraordinarily hard to maintain and support.  Obviously India isn’t going to buy anything from China, which leaves India’s air force in a tough spot. 


The most likely outcome is India will go with a Russian solution in the form of a partnership with a good chance that some European or Israeli companies will join in to improve India’s aircraft to near F-35 standards (at least in systems integration and electronics and possibly a BVR missile).  The outcome would be an LO-like platform with enhanced sensors, improved engines and significant range, which is probably what India needs. 


India could therefore claim it has a 5th generation aircraft in its inventory, suitable for dealing with its two main potential adversaries, namely Pakistan and China.


In the meantime the good news is that the Chinese J-20 may be a flawed platform and that helps India get to where it needs to be to deal with the longer term stealth threat.  Stay tuned.


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