A recent article in Netwerk24 asserted that Angola’s recent purchase of Su-30Ks poses a serious threat to South Africa’s security and air power capabilities. Although this may bear some thought and consideration, a counter-argument in response is detailed below.
In short, modern air combat is no longer merely about raw performance, it’s about the interaction of complex systems of systems, all of which have a part to play. Fighter pilots are now concerned not only with dogfighting, basic radars and short-range missiles, but with juggling a complex array of jammers & other EW systems, tactical data links, covert and active radar modes and missiles which are massively more advanced than just a few years ago.
One interesting look at how those systems can interact to allow even flawed aircraft like the F-35 to prevail is highlighted in this fascinating simulation of the F-35’s theoretical capabilities in BVR air combat from the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Tim Robinson.
If we look at the SAAF’s situation, there are some clear gaps that need to be filled:
1) A lack of a proper AEW aircraft
2) A lack of aerial refuelling platforms
3) A lack of an operational beyond-visual range (BVR) missile
The first can be mitigated somewhat by the use of a single Gripen in the AEW role feeding radar data to the attacking Gripens which operate in EMCON nose-cold mode, with all active transmitting sensors turned off. The Gripen has an impressively small RCS, making it difficult to detect unless the Su-30Ks are burning the sky with their radars on full power, which would make them vulnerable to being detected from far out by the Gripen EW systems.
The second is a problem, mitigated slightly by the way the Gripen is designed to be easy to sustain and operate away from main bases, but it’s a gap that ideally needs to be filled. Without it the Gripen has an 800 km – 900 km combat radius with 30+ minutes on station, adequate for most defensive scenarios but there’d be a lot more flexibility in mission scenarios if that could be extended by aerial refuelling.
Finally, the lack of a BVR missile is temporary and can be rectified quickly if the need were there by acquiring MBDA Meteors and giving the SAAF pilots needed refresher training. As it is, I would expect a BVR missile buy within the next five years, as it is on the Gripen roadmap as a necessary capability.
Finally, there’s doctrine. For various reasons, the Angolans allowed their air force to lose much of the expertise it gained in the 1980s and with it their ability to keep up with the latest developments in air power doctrine and technique. The SAAF, on the other hand, has the Air Power Development Centre and still places as much emphasis on up-to-date techniques and training as funding allows. This was highlighted by the excellent performance of 2 Squadron’s pilots in within visual range combat in Ex Lion Effort, where they also learnt valuable lessons in effective BVR combat.
Finally, beginning from next year the Gripens will be armed with the A-Darter, an extremely capable short-range air-to-air missile which is better than the R-73s the Angolan Su-30s are going to be equipped with. It’s nearly smokeless, very difficult to jam or decoy and has a range of at least 20km with good terminal manoeuvrability. In the interim they carry the equally-impressive IRIS-T, procured as a stop-gap until the A-Darter entered production.
So, let’s walk through a possible scenario in which four SAAF Gripens have to come up against four Angolan Su-30Ks for some reason. Let’s assume equal starting altitudes, a hostile situation allowing a first-shoot ROE and equivalent closing distance. We’ll also assume no ground radars, though those would play a factor in a real situation.
The first thing the SAAF would do is send a single Gripen D up near its service ceiling behind the lines, with its radar on full power and the picture being data-linked to the four Gripen Cs in the advance flight. The SAAF Gripens might fly in a wide formation of two each, providing good separation for their EW sensors and the ability to initiate a pincer movement if necessary. The SAAF pilots will constantly adjust positioning to ensure that they’re not outpacing the Gripen D in the AEW role and moving outside its protective radar umbrella.
Angola’s Su-30Ks carry the relatively old NIIP N001 Myech radar, which features an older conventional mechanically-steered cassegrain antenna and few of the electronic niceties that came in later variants. As a result of its age and widespread use, the radar has been quite well-studied and its capabilities are known. For one, it can detect a 1 m² – 3 m² target at between 80 km – 100 km depending on flight profile and when at full power. The Gripen C has a frontal ideal RCS of 0.1 m², going higher depending on angle, so let’s call it 0.5 m² to be fair and to account for marketing exaggerations. Simplifying things a lot, that would drop the Su-30K detection range down to 40 km – 50 km at best and the tracking range down to somewhere around 15 km – 20 km.
Note too that the Swedes have been developing and customising the Gripen’s systems to handle new-generation Sukhois and MiGs from the start, as a result of which there is serious capability in the onboard EW systems and radar.
The Gripen’s PS-05/A, on the other hand, which in this scenario is up at 50 000ft, is said to be able to acquire a Su-30K-sized aircraft at 120km and track it for a firing solution not much later. And the moment the Su-30Ks appear on that radar, the information is immediately sent to the four Gripen Cs flying ahead allowing them to use it to launch Meteor or Marlin missiles. As they’d be about 60 km away from the Flankers and out of detection range and don’t turn on their radars the entire time they won’t be seen until missile release.
In other words, given current capabilities plus the acquisition of a BVR missile, the Su-30K pilots would get missile launch warnings before they could see a single one of the launch aircraft. They’d be able to detect the Gripen D in the AEW role, but it would be too far away to do anything about and the Meteor has a good probability of kill for a long-range missile. Splash four Flankers.
This is without the PS-05/A Mk4 and Mk5 upgrades, which double detection and acquisition range. It also ignores the use of the Gripen EW system to jam the N001, which it’s quite effective at as the N001 does not have spectacular peak transmitting power.
Of course, this is a contrived scenario and it elides a lot of the complexities and variables, but it’s nonetheless as accurate a look at the relative capabilities of the SAAF’s new-generation Gripens vs Angola’s old-generation Su-30Ks as we can make with open source data. Were we speaking about latest-generation Su-30s with AESA radars and better defensive subsystems the picture would change drastically, but we’re not.
The Su-30K also has performance advantages over the Gripen in a close-in dogfight, but those too are mitigated by the Gripen’s carriage of the IRIS-T or A-Darter high off-boresight missiles and Cobra HMDS which allow pilots to fire missiles at targets in any direction, including directly behind their aircraft.
In sum, this acquisition is not the threat it initially appears to be. Nor do the Angolans intend it to be that, as they seem to want to use their Su-30Ks the same way they’ve used their Su-27s, for their ability to cover vast distances and mount long-range airstrikes in Angola. No doubt they find this discussion bemusing.