Monday, April 16, 2012

Strengthening the IAF part 1: Counter-ISR platforms for IAF

In modern day battlefield, information and knowledge are two of the most lethal weapons in any arsenal. A country or entity that possesses real-time information about its enemy can use this information to their own advantage. Emphasis on information has led to creation of a new type of assets classified as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) assets. ISR assets can include flying platforms like Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C)Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), etc.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has been operating Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&C platforms for more than two years. A total of four such aircrafts have been ordered by PAF and might order few more in near future. Although much less capable when compared to IL-76 mounted PHALCON operated by Indian Air Force (IAF), they pose a credible threat to IAF aircrafts in case of a war with Pakistan.

Saab 2000 Erieye in PAF colours
Coming to the Eastern front, PLAAF is fielding a large number of AEW&C platforms in terms of KJ-200 (mounted on An-12 derived Y-8) and KJ-2000 (AWACS) mounted on IL-76. Unlike IAF’s PHALCON (Phased Array L-Band Conformal) AWACS platform coming from Israel, KJ-200 and KJ-2000 are designed and developed domestically. Due to this reason, a large number of AEW&C platforms could be churned out in case hostilities break out between Asian neighbours.

PLAAF KJ-2000 uses IL-76 as a platform
PLAAF KJ-200 uses An-12 derivative as a platform
To counter these combined numbers of AEW&C aircrafts from PAF and PLAAF, IAF has only three PHALCON aircrafts in service with a potential order of two more. These numbers are wholly inadequate for a country with India’s size and threat perception. These numbers would be augmented a little by smaller AEW&C platform with AESA radar developed by LRDE mated to Embraer EMB-145 aircraft. Although this combination is not enough for round the clock coverage of sensitive areas, numbers might increase as time passes. While IAF will induct more such platforms, Pakistan and China won’t sit idle. In addition to building AEW&C aircrafts for PLAAF, China might gift or sell such aircrafts to PAF at discounted prices.

MiG-29 escorts first PHALCON AWACS of Indian Air Force
In order to ensure that we are step ahead of our enemies, we should induct systems to neutralize AEW&C aircrafts in addition to building our own AEW&C aircrafts. An ideal (and I daresay only readily available) solution would be to induct MiG-31BM (NATO reporting name – Foxhound) equipped with R-37 series of missiles. Russian air force has already placed an order to overhaul and upgrade 60 MiG-31BM. IAF should acquire around 30 such aircrafts and split them into 3 special purpose squadrons dedicated to anti-AEW&C (or anti-AWACS) role.

MiG-31 displaying fearsome arsenal and powerful Zaslon-A radar
Some might ask why we need MiG-31BM when we already have a fantastic platform in form of Su-30MKI. After all Su-30MKI can also deploy R-37 missiles after some modifications. Answer to this question lies in the design of MiG-31 family of aircrafts. MiG-31 was developed as more refined aircraft to replace the brutish MiG-25 Foxbat. MiG-31 retains superb performance specs of its predecessor and features a better radar, longer range and improved low altitude handling and performance. MiG-31BM goes even a step further featuring Zaslon-AM (aka S800AM) radar with a detection range of 240km for fighter sized targets, improved glass cockpit and wider array of long range missiles. Since radar has a range of 240 km for fighter sized targets, it would only increase for an aircraft that is size of a medium airliner. This can allow shots at a longer distance and better kill probability. Compared to Su-30MKI’s top speed of ~ 2100 km/h, MiG-31BM has a top speed of ~3000 km/h. Moreover MiG-31BM has a service ceiling of 67,500 ft which is much more than 56,800 ft of Su-30MKI. A missile launched from an aircraft with higher speed and higher altitude will have more kinetic energy and hence range to take out the target aircraft. E.g. R-37 missile has a direct shot range of 150 km but range can increase up to 400 km in glide profile. According to some sources, R-37M variant with jettisonable rocket booster can have direct shot range in excess of 300km. 

Post-launch, higher speed would be required to scoot the area in order to avoid being shot at by aircrafts escorting AEW&C aircraft. As is the standard procedure, escort aircrafts are usually armed with BVRAAM (Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missiles). So it is in best interest to get out of their range and into friendly airspace.

MiG-31 demonstrator with R-37 missiles
In addition to current arsenal of R-37 family of missiles, potential weapons include but are not limited to KS-172 (aka K-100) “AWACS killer”, K-77-1/K-77M family of missiles. There is also an option to equip MiG-31BM with air-to-ground (A2G) arsenal like Kh-31P and Kh-58U anti-radar missiles, Kh-31A anti-ship missile and Kh-59M and Kh-29T TV-guided missiles. Even if IAF might induct MiG-31BM, they might not be used for A2G missions as we have number of other aircrafts to fly of such missions.

Powers that be should seriously start thinking about strengthening the IAF and taking preemptive action to counter ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) assets of our neighbours. 


  1. Very impressive analysis of India's strategic air power needs. I sincerely hope that the research wing of the IAF takes cognizance of your brilliant article and puts it across to the power that be.

  2. Thank you for the appreciation boss. :)