The Indonesian air force has asked Jakarta to greenlight the
purchase of advanced Russian Su-35 fighters. Here’s why it’s a sensible
Indonesian air force wants to replace its outdated American built F-5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.
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.”
embargo was imposed after Australia started meddling in Indonesia’s
civil war in East Timor, and the U.S. accused Jakarta of human rights
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.
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.
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”.
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
Technological leap forward
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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”.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.