China has based J-20 Photo: Getty Images
China has based J-20 Photo: Getty Images

New Delhi has been alarmed by China’s deployment of J-20 aircraft near India’s sensitive northeastern 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 with the Chengdu J-20 and other fighters, primarily the Chengdu J-10C and Shenyang J-11.

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

Sometime in March, Indian SU-30MKI fighter jets were able to detect the J-20 stealth or low observable fighters on radar, according to senior 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, China and supporting maritime operations. (Gagan means GPS Aided Augmented Navigation; Shakti means power, ability and strength.) The Indian government said: “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 such an impressive stealth aircraft, although questions remain on exactly when, where and how India’s SU-30MKI jets managed to detect 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” aircraft and the threat to India has caused the country to put in place various strategies. In some cases, India is moving relatively smoothly in the right direction, in other areas it has come up empty-handed.

It is shifting, for example, to improved airborne radars for its fighters and planning to retrofit the 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 counter-measures 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-16s and F-15s and of course the F-35 have AESA radars.

Despite this, it is worthwhile noting that the detection of China’s J-20 was by an older radar – the N011M Bars passive electronically-scanned array radar, in fact – that is less automated than AESA radar sets.

Beyond-Visual-Range missiles

India is also moving toward Beyond-Visual-Range (BVR) missiles for its aircraft, but it has hit a barrier. China already has BVR missiles such as the PL-12 (Chinese: 霹雳 or “Thunderbolt-12”) and was testing them in Tibet when India detected the J-20 firing the PL-12. One important question is whether the J-20s were carrying the missiles internally to avoid radar detection, or whether they were mounted externally for test and evaluation purposes. If they were mounted externally 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, the UK and Italy. The Meteor is currently regarded as the most capable long-range BVR missile now entering the Western inventory and has a range 30-40% 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 canceled the deal with India, allegedly claiming it would not do business if either Israel or Russia were involved.

The design and support for the SU-30MKI and the Su-30’s weapons integration require 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 the future AESA radar.

Israeli technology in missiles, radars and cockpit systems is sold globally today. But Israel and Russia are potential competitors with BVR 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.

This means India is without a long-range BVR missile, so it 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 will conduct aerial warfare against airborne threats, using stealth to get around detection by an enemy and to shoot first from long range before the enemy can react. An aircraft that is supercruising can launch a missile at a very high speed, meaning that even at a long distance the time to target is short.

For the US, 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 unproven. Likewise, Russia is counting on its Vympel NPO R-77 missile, which is said to be roughly equivalent to the AMRAAM although some think it falls short operationally.

Upgrading ground radars and modern aircraft

India is also upgrading its ground-based radars and, despite American objections, is close to acquiring S-400 ground-based air-defense missiles from Russia. The S-400 system is said to be 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 a 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 them. All aircraft generate heat and give off a heat signature, but stealth aircraft give off an even greater signature due to their 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 quarters, but this has changed as the technology has rapidly improved. Today, IRST aircraft sensors can see hundreds of kilometers.

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

The biggest stumbling block for India is the absence of stealth aircraft in its inventory. India had been negotiating with Russia to partner on building a version of Russia’s Su-57 jet. Indeed, 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 domestic orders at a meager 12 jets from 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 stealth features and the fact it was underpowered and that the new engine for the Su-57 seemed to be badly lagging.

A Russian solution?

In Russia there is less belief in the efficacy of stealth aircraft because of the implied tradeoffs to achieve such a system, and because Russia’s industrial infrastructure is not capable of building a pure stealth aircraft similar to US models. 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 handled by either ground- or air-based triangulation and the range is improving with new 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 wanted it) given the pervasive Russian presence in India. And 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 a stealth-like plane 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 – 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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