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The Fastest Hunk of Junk in the Indian Subcontinent

January 27th, 2014 - 10:35 am
Fly the not-so-stealthy skies

Fly the not-so-stealthy skies

I’m playing catch-up with the weekend news after playing catch-up with my boys and our 2,127-piece Lego R2-D2 that the three of us got for Christmas, when I came along this sad tale (hat tip, Glenn) of India’s procurement woes with Russian aircraft:

Despite initial high expectations, the Indian Air Force appears to be souring on a joint development deal with Russia for a new fifth-generation fighter jet, according to the Business Standard, a major Indian business publication. The Russian prototype is “unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered,” said Indian Air Force Deputy Air Marshall S Sukumar at a Jan. 15 meeting, according to minutes obtained by the Business Standard.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s paid much attention to Russian (nee Soviet) aircraft development over the last 50 or 60 years — or longer.

The Russians have focused on three things in their fighters: Maneuverability and simple construction for building lots and lots of aircraft. Those three things have about as much relevance to fifth-generation fighter systems (they’re systems now, not planes) as a white tie and tails have to gearing up for the Superbowl.

The old Russian system worked fine for the Cold War, when they prepared for a short and nasty air-land battle for Germany. The idea was to send up oodles of fast, maneuverable aircraft into West Germany’s tiny airspace, and overwhelm NATO with in the inevitable furballs. And judging by some fine performances of Russian aircraft against us in Korea and Vietnam, it might even have worked. Certainly it was custom-tailored to Russia’s manufacturing strengths. Russian jet engines are built to last for only 2,500 flying hours, maybe 4,000 with a rebuild along the way. Western engines last thousands of hours longer.

The American response to that was to develop stealthy, networked aircraft in very few numbers but with (hopefully) very long lives. A couple of F-22 Raptors can destroy (nearly) as many enemy aircraft as the Raptors have missiles before the enemy even knows there are other jets in the sky. This plays to America’s manufacturing strengths in spending oodles of money of difficult to make (and even more difficult to maintain) exotic aircraft.

Judging by the results during exercises over Nevada, the American way works scarily well.

Russia of course still has a defense industry they need to keep intact, and lots of airspace to defend. They’ve seen what works, so now they’re trying to adapt to the American way.

It’s a difficult transition, if Russia is capable of managing it at all. One indication might be that Russia has yet to fully develop and deploy a completely new fighter airframe since before the end of the Cold War. They’ve built a few stealthy PAK-FA planes for testing and evaluation, but they aren’t expected to perform as well (or be as stealthy) as our Raptors, or even as our F-35 Lightning II.

All their other “new” models since then have been variations and upgrades to MiG-29 and Su-27, which were originally developed to counter early models of our F-15 and F-16. The Russians have done some good work with some highly-maneuverable planes, but in the Fifth Generation, that’s the billion-dollar version of bringing a knife to a gun fight.

All Comments   (6)
All Comments   (6)
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You got the LEGO R2-D2? That looks awesome. My son and I got the LEGO Death Star this year.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
We're about halfway done after two good sessions, some of which involved undoing what the three-year-old did.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
One thing about the Soviet successes in both Korea and Vietnam: For political reasons we weren't permitted to fight the way the equipment was designed to fight. The rules of engagement required visual ID before killing, and our counter to superior Warsaw Pact numbers was to start killing them before you could see them.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment

I'm not sure how much an Indian project says about Russian procurement--India's defense establishment is notoriously messed up. But it's true Russia hasn't deployed anything close to a 5th-gen fighter.

I'm more interested in what this might say about China's airframes. I suspect it won't be long before we regret refusing Japan's request to purchase the Raptor.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
The other thing is that Russian jets can tolerate several pounds of FOD per flight, typical of runways that deal with being frozen and re-thawed daily for several months out of the year. Russian jets can launch and land on far crappier runways, and with far less support, than their American and NATO counterparts.

Russians build tanks and aircraft like they do Kalashnikov rifles: As cheaply and simply as they can, with the worst possible conditions for manufacture, and the simplest to either maintain, cannibalize, or abandon as necessary. They view war as "come as you are", and dealing with large numbers of barely trained conscripts is part of the plan.

They also see dumping a bunch of SCUDs with non-persistent agents on an airfield as a necessary step to taking out enemy aircraft. Cold war era tactics, but, effective.

It only counts if you can get it in the air.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
They have to. Much of the FOD comes off of the jets themselves while on a takeoff roll.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
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