This article originally appeared in the January edition of SA Flyer and FlightCom magazine. The only change has been to revise the number of aircraft acquired from 18 to 12 in line with the most recent information.
The recent news that Angola has purchased 12 Sukhoi Su–30K fighter aircraft from Russia has taken many by surprise and led to questions being asked about how the air power balance in Southern Africa might change as a result.
To answer, it’s important to understand what air power is and what it represents. Dennis Drew, the air power theorist, has said that the essence of air power is the ability to apply great power quickly to any target on the planet. Vreÿ and Esterhuyse later placed that in the context of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) by amending the whole planet context to any target in Southern Africa.
The implication of both statements is that true air power requires the ability to strike effectively beyond one’s borders at short notice.
Although often expressed in terms of the ability to carry out air strikes, other facets of air power that are just as important are the capabilities to provide aerial defence or reconnaissance over the same distances and time scales. No discussion of the relative merits of aircraft types can be seriously had without an understanding of the supporting systems.
Air power is thus a national capability which has to be built up over time and at great expense. Its three pillars are: Equipment, People and Processes. If any of these three are deficient, an air force will have only limited power projection capabilities that it will be unable to sustain for any length of time or adapt in the face of changing circumstances.
Shortcuts have not traditionally worked. This is because modern air power is inextricably linked to high technology, as aircraft and other military systems became more complex. The relatively simple analogue systems of 1960s and 1970s era fighter aircraft have been replaced with integrated digital systems that require a high level of skill, both to operate and maintain. This in turn requires sophisticated logistics, training, maintenance and supply chain processes and systems along with the skilled personnel to operate and grow them.
Fighter aircraft and their pilots are only the most visible part of this massive chain of people and systems, whose job it is to ensure that the aircraft are properly supplied with consumables like fuel and ordnance, that each and every one of the hundreds of individual systems on the aircraft are maintained to the manufacturers’ standard with a ready supply of spares, and that the air and ground crews are suitably trained and continually retrained to keep them competent.
So complex is this task of sustainable airpower that every aircraft type in an air force is typically supported by its own Organisation, People, Process and Data (OPPD) structure. This is an entity so specialised that a new one is often established for a different variant of an aircraft type.
It takes a lot to put a pilot in the cockpit of a fully supported and functioning fighter. Yet even that is only a small part of a much larger supporting infrastructure of ground-based air defence, strategic and tactical intelligence, command and control, human resources management, acquisition support, operational planning and funding. And without tactical and strategic transport there’s no such thing as an expeditionary capability for a fighter squadron, nor can it engage in long-range strikes without the ability to stage from forward bases or be refuelled mid-air.
None of this infrastructure can be properly built-up in a country that does not have the necessary resources to provide the skills and industrial base to support it. The necessary pilots, engineers and technicians can only emerge if the education system is graduating enough highly-skilled people and if there is a strong enough economy to demand and absorb those skills.
So it makes no sense to regard air combat as being only between pilots and their aircraft; modern combat is the clash of entire systems. The force with the better total system will win even, if its aircraft at the sharp end might be inferior in some respects to their opponents.
For a time it appeared that countries may have been able to short circuit the ground-up development of an advanced fighter aircraft capability and the resultant air power options by buying off-the-shelf aircraft, crew and maintenance. Eritrea and Ethiopia famously did this to acquire MiG–29s and Su–27s respectively around the year 2000, introducing advanced aerial combat capabilities within months to the war they were fighting. But later experience has shown that while the off-the-shelf option is effective at allowing a country to establish a strong air power capability quickly, any country that does so will struggle to maintain that capability after the early phase has ended and circumstances have changed. A major reason for this is that in such cases the fighter squadrons are operated as independent units from the rest of the military and lessons learnt are not institutionalised within the rest of the supporting infrastructure.
As combat circumstances change and the organisation needs to adapt to survive, a lack of integration and of supporting institutions means that it will be unable to change fast enough. With that considered, Angola’s reported acquisition of 12 Su–27Ks is important but unlikely to represent a major shift in the air power balance in Southern Africa.
While Angola benefitted greatly from Soviet and Cuban tutelage in the 1970s and 1980s in establishing and building a competent and effective Angolan Air Force, known as the Força Aérea Nacional Angolana – FANA, its focus on its ground forces during the conflict with UNITA, and political apathy, led to a severe degradation in the FANA’s capability. Maintenance schedules were not adhered to and entire fleets of aircraft became derelict.
Viewing satellite images of many FANA bases now shows dozens of aircraft, especially older Su–25s and Su–22s, that have not moved in years from their revetments.
In recent years there has been a concerted effort to turn this around and re-establish the FANA’s lost capabilities, but expediency has sometimes interfered with this process. An example is Angola’s purchase in the late 1990s of what is believed to have been six Su–27 and two Su–27UB fighter aircraft from Belarussian stocks, in order to beef up the FANA’s capabilities against the resurgent UNITA rebel movement.
Under the terms of the purchase, the aircraft were supported by the Ukraine and flown in combat by Ukrainian pilots with an eventual promise of training up Angolan air and ground crew to operate the type independently. It remains unclear how well this handover was implemented, as scattered reports indicate that less than half of the Su–27s delivered remain airworthy. It’s also questionable how much focus was placed on air-to-air skills, especially as the Su–27s were all painted in a low-level camouflage pattern which would be highly visible at altitude, indicating that their primary purpose was ground attack.
In that context, Angola’s acquisition of these 12 Su–30Ks seems potentially unwise and may make it even more difficult for an air force already struggling to maintain large fighter aircraft. Most importantly, the Su–30Ks are not new, but are second-hand former Indian Air Force aircraft that have been languishing in the open at the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Belarus for a few years. To merely refurbish the fleet to operational condition will take 4–6 months, according to Russia’s Military-Technical Cooperation Federal Service deputy director Alexander Fomin.
Although Fomin has stated that it would be possible to modernise the aircraft before delivery, there is as yet no indication that Angola has chosen to do so. The first eight of these Su–30Ks, serialled SB001-SB008 and sometimes referred to as the Su–30MK–1 (not to be confused with the later and more advanced Su–30 MKI) in Indian Air Force service were inducted into No. 24 ‘Hunting Hawks’ Squadron in 1997. They are reported to have been delivered with an improved electronic warfare suite and Precision-Guided Munition (PGM) capability compared to the standard Su–30K.
In 1999 they were supplemented by another ten Su–30Ks, serialled SB009-SB0018, which had been intended for Indonesia before the Asian Financial Crisis and which lacked any enhancements. Thus they lack advanced avionics, canards or thrust-vectoring, have the basic N001 mechanically-steered cassegrain antenna radar and are generally inferior to the SA Air Force’s Gripens in terms of their onboard systems and datalinks.
The 12 Su–30Ks which Angola is buying are the same aircraft which famously recorded a 9–1 kill ratio in simulated air-to-air combat against US Air Force F–15Cs in Cope India 2004. But it would be a mistake to conclude that it means these planes are better than F–15Cs, for reasons that emphasise the points made above. First, the Su–30Ks in Cope India ’04 did not operate independently, they were elements of a Blue Team that included AWACS support, MiG–29 and MiG–21 support fighters and ground radar, using joint tactics that had been perfected over years.
That kind of combined arms capability takes years to develop and needs to be organic to an air force; it can’t be acquired off-the-shelf. Second, the Indian Air Force pilots were exceptionally well-trained and well-versed in modern tactics. Their front-line aircrew are on a near constant war footing and fly nearly twice as many training hours as pilots in most comparative air forces, focusing on mastering the full range of capabilities. As the American pilots stated later, after each engagement an Indian Air Force team would analyse each move and pass on instructions to their pilots on how to negate the tactics used by the F–15C pilots.
Lastly, like all exercises, Cope India was rigged in favour of the Blue Team, with the USAF F–15Cs performing the role of the capability restricted Red Team and unable to use the full capabilities of their aircraft or beyond-visual range (BVR) tactics.
Angola, in contrast, will have none of these advantages against a potential foe. As such, it appears that for now at least, the introduction of Su–30Ks will not have a meaningful effect on the balance of power in the region. This may change in future, which will be the subject of my next column on the future of air power in Southern Africa.