By Rakesh Krishnan Simha
If there’s one area in which China has acquired a significant lead over India it is in the development of stealth fighters. While India’s Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) venture with Russia crash landed years ago, China’s Chengdu J-20 has entered service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in limited numbers. The dragon’s stealth programme is unique because it is the only country that has two concurrent programmes. Alongside the J-20, the Shengyang J-31 – a stripped-down export version – is also in the final stage of development. Its first customer could well be Pakistan, which is Beijing’s weapons test market.
A scenario in which the Chinese are armed with stealth fighters may look alarming in the backdrop of worsening India-China relations. However, the thing to note is that the initial batches of the J-20 are still experimental and years away from being fully battle ready. At best they are at the initial operational clearance (IOC) phase. IOC is the state achieved when a capability is in its minimum usefully available form.
Since both the J-20 and J-31 are based on designs stolen from the US, the flaws in the Americans designs (such as lack of aerodynamic shape, poor manoeuvrability, short range and oxygen supply failures) may have penetrated into the Chinese jets as well. It is taking the USAF billions of dollars to remove the defects from the F-35 and the Chinese are also finding it the hard way that building a stealth fighter is no joke.
According to Aviation News International, despite announcements about the official status conferred on the J-20 and J-31, all of the available information is both the Chinese stealth fighter concepts remain works in progress. “This means that still only small numbers of the aircraft have been produced to date. Moreover, those aircraft have configurations different enough from each other that it makes the programmes appear to be more technology demonstrators than mature, ‘frozen’ designs.”
Certainly, India needs to speed up work on its stealth programme, but there is no need to press the panic button yet. The country should not end up in a wasteful arms race but instead learn from the experiences of the US, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea in developing stealth aircraft as well as anti-stealth missiles and radars.
A short history of stealth
A quick recap of aerial stealth warfare will help illustrate the problems and pitfalls that await countries that deploy stealth technology.
In the 1980s the US built the F-117 Nighthawk that was supposed to be invisible to radar. It was such a closely guarded secret that the F-117 was only flown at night. First used in the 1991 Iraq War, it was an extremely trouble prone aircraft that also lacked the capability to dominate the air. It was quietly retired after a Serbian air defence team used brilliant tactics to identify, isolate and shoot down an F-117 raider over the former Yugoslavia. The weapon used was a Russian made S-125 missile manufactured in the 1960s. The US Air Force (USAF) has kept the first stealth jet’s combat abilities and records classified.
It was the Russians who first conceived the concept of stealth aircraft, but despite their spectacular achievements in building weapons during the Cold War, they never ventured into stealth territory. Perhaps they knew stealth wasn’t an invisibility cloak – which the US military has led the world to believe.
In recent years, several American aerospace engineers such as Pierre Sprey have exposed stealth technology as a lie. They say no aircraft can ever be 100 per cent stealthy because there is no such thing as one radar in war. “There are lots of radars,” Sprey said in an interview to Dutch television. “And you can’t be nose-on or dead-level to every radar in the theatre. There are always going to be radars that are going to be shining up (from below) or looking from above – they can all see you.”
Keeping that view in mind, the Russians went ahead and quietly built a range of VHF radars and surface to air missiles that can detect and bring down stealth fighters. The Russian strategy of counter stealth measures seems to be winding up the US defence establishment. According to a former US Air Force pilot who flew the latest F-35 stealth jet, just because Russian VHF radars can detect the F-35 doesn’t mean they can also target and bring it down. Anti-aircraft defences comprise several links – command, control, communication, ground radar, missiles and airborne radar – in a long “kill chain.” The F-35 will seek to snap one of these links, and thereby disrupt the detection ability.
Meanwhile, Russia and China are upping the ante and building a new generation of anti-aircraft missiles, such as the S-400 (which India is in the process of acquiring) that can be fired from an extremely long range. These new radars can detect stealth aircraft in much better resolution as well. This will seek to nullify the biggest advantage of the American stealth fighters – the ability to detect enemy aircraft from extremely long ranges.
Pointers to stealth capabilities
While the US, China and Russia are leading in stealth fighter development, all three are giving non-stealth aircraft priority.
The US Navy, which is acquiring the F-35 in large numbers, has also bought 22 powerful EA-18G Growler electronic warfare (EW) aircraft. The service uses the Growler aircraft kitted out with advanced radar jamming equipment to protect its fleet of F/A-18 attack aircraft during missions. Now, the F-35 is fitted with its own EW capabilities and its supporters say a separate jamming aircraft is not needed because of this technology. But according to others in the US Navy and industry, the F-35’s stealth and EW capabilities are simply not enough.
According to Air Force Technology magazine, “It is an admission that the US Navy is not entirely comfortable with the F-35’s capabilities in Anti-Access/Area Denial environments.” The purchase of more Growlers is seen as the US Navy’s “escape hatch” from the unpopular F-35 programme, which has historically received a lukewarm reception from some sections of the service.
The Russian experience has been similar. After promising to buy hundreds of PAK-FAs – and accepting hundreds of millions of developmental dollars from India – Russia has decided to scale back its plans. Instead of a largely stealthy fleet, the Russian Air Force will rely more on 4+ generation aircraft such as the Su-35 Super Flanker – also known as the stealth killer. Russia will build only a handful of PAK-FAs while continuing work on the aircraft.
Meanwhile, China, which doesn’t lose any opportunity to boast about its twin stealth aircraft programmes, has bought 24 Super Flankers from Russia. This is a tacit admission that the Chinese military is not confident about the capabilities of its stealth jets. Despite the Chinese showing off their stealth jets, the doggedness with which they have pursued the Su-35 and begged and cajoled the Russians to sell them the Super Flanker points to serious shortcomings in their twin programmes.
Lessons for India
With the PAK-FA experiencing developmental bottlenecks, India can no longer look at the decades-old policy of running to Russia for jet fighters. Since the Russians are unable to provide what the IAF wants, India should push harder on its own fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme.
But the IAF should make sure that the AMCA should not travel the same trajectory as current stealth programmes. Instead of packing everything into one aircraft (as the Americans did in the F-35), India should go for practical aircraft with robust offensive and defensive capabilities, without too many bells and whistles.
At this point, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) claims the AMCA’s stealth aspects will allow it to plunge straight into battle without worrying about enemy air defences. However, the Agency’s decision to pick a design layout similar to the F-22 severely underestimates the amount of equipment required to carry out true 5th-generation warfare, say Abhijit Iyer-Mitra and Pushan Das in a report prepared for the Observer Research Foundation.
According to the report, while stealth is just one aspect of a 5th-generation fighter, “The most critical aspects are in fact sensor fusion, man-machine interface and the integration of the aircraft with other land, sea and air forces, and as part of a broader fleet of aircraft comprising a totality of air power. An elaboration of these aspects has been notably absent from the design phases.”
If the AMCA becomes mired in the quicksand of compromise, it could turn out to be India’s F-35. The American jet’s stealth has been significantly compromised, prompting several commentators to reclassify the fighter from very low observable (VLO) to merely the low observable (LO) category.
Failure is not an option for India. With 3300 combat jets in various branches of its military, the US can fall back on older fourth generation aircraft to finish the job. Deep pockets (US$500 billion defence budget) and a large industrial base allow America to go back to the drawing board and undo its mistakes or produce a new plane. Even when it flies inferior fighters, no country in the world will dare attack the US.
India with a US$57 billion defence budget and less than 800 combat jets can’t afford to produce a dud FGFA. A wise General once said: “A mistake in strategy cannot be undone in the same war.” With the Chinese and Pakistanis increasingly envious of rising India, a war could be thrust upon us in the near future.
Options for the IAF
The IAF must continue to invest in 4+ generation aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Rafale as these will be the air dominance fighters that will kick in the door and allow secondary fighters such as the Mirage-2000, MiG-21 and Tejas to enter the battle space. The US, Russia and China are all buying 4+ generation aircraft or upgrading existing ones to the 4++ generation standard. These aircraft are likely to keep flying well into the 2040s and beyond.
According to David Axe of War is Boring, stealth fighters are not only hard to build but they could well be overrated. The implication is that it’s better to buy greater numbers of cheaper, non-stealthy planes.
The huge expense of developing, buying and maintaining stealth jets means they will – at least in the next couple of decades – be used sparingly, perhaps at night and escorted by plenty of non-stealth aircraft. This scenario has completely upended predictions that stealth fighters would play a dominant role in air combat by the early part of the 21st century.
There is no need for India to rush into buying stealth aircraft when the world’s leading powers have chosen the sensible way of falling back on 4th generation jets. There will certainly be a time when stealth aircraft will be common and dominate the skies, but that scenario is more than a decade away. That’s enough time for India to work on its emerging stealth fighter.
-The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda