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Gaining an advantage in the sky

  • Published at 04:39 pm November 20th, 2017
  • Last updated at 06:11 pm November 22nd, 2017
Gaining an advantage in the sky

Russian MiG fighter jets have been in the market for many decades, and are known as among the cheapest options for any air force.

A historical view of MiG

The new MiG-35 and its legacy MiG-29 have their baggage, and few success stories in any air warfare around the world from the Korean War to the Gulf War.

It was the Dassault Mirage jet which saved the Indian Air Force in the Kargil conflict, not the MiG. Although IAF has an extensive inventory of MiGs, the Kargil success was one of the driving factors for IAF to select Dassault Rafale.

The modern 4.5 generation fighter

A modern fighter jet must offer technological and informational advantages over the enemy aircraft to be able to defend the skies successfully. This critical factor has to lead the development of an intermediate 4.5 generation fighter jet before bringing the fifth-generation fighter jet.

A 4.5 generation fighter jet must have an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and reduced radar cross (RCS). If the MiG is compared with its counterparts like Gripen NG or F/A-18E/F, then obviously the MiGs lack an advanced radar and reduced RCS.

Almost all Russian fighter jets are manufactured with speed and agility in mind rather than avionics, radar, and RCS, including the recently developed Sukhoi-57.

A comparison with its European counterpart

The Zhuk-ME radar of MiG-35 is an X band radar manufactured by the Phazotron NIIR Corporation. According to an independent military think tank, Zhuk radar has +- 70 degree oblique view, not a Wide Field of Regard.

The radar uses multiple four channel transceiver modules generating an output of 5 watts per channel, installed on a liquid-cooled base plate to dissipate the generated heat. If a specific transceiver is overheated, it will be switched off by the radar computer until it cools down.

The Raven AESA radar of Gripen NG is an X band Active Electronically Scan Array (AESA) radar manufactured by Leonardo airborne and space systems. According to the manufacturer’s specification, the Raven radar provides plus/minus 100 degree wide field of regard.

The radar makes use of AESA alert-confirm techniques to confirm targets for the first detection. This combined with optimised AESA waveforms results in increased track initiation ranges, while simultaneously maintaining situational awareness.

This is combined with the full capabilities of a detection, tracking, and prosecution system to meet the needs of emerging threats.

The APG-79 radar of F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is also an AESA radar. According to manufacturer’s specifications, the APG-79 radar of the Super Hornet is optimised situational awareness and provides superior air-to-air and air-to-surface capability.

The agile beam enables the multimode radar to interleave in near-real time, so that pilot and crew can use both modes simultaneously. The manufacturer claims that the APG-79 AESA radar is built on solid-state transmit and receive modules to virtually eliminate any mechanical breakdown.

In short, if I translate this technical jargon into non-technical language, then the Zhuk-ME radar of MiG-35 can be compared with a visually impaired person, the APG-79 radar of Super Hornet with a person with excellent vision, and the Raven radar of Gripen to that of a person with perfect vision.

The MiG-35 RCS

The primary measure of stealth aircraft is the low observability (LO), also known as the radar cross section (RCS) of the target, whether this is an aircraft, missiles, or ships.

How does it work?

The radar pulse goes out from the transmitter, hits the target, and bounces back.

The radar receiver measures the energy in the return signal in decibel (dB) units, but that is a hard way for normal people to visualise the size of a target. So, you can convert the decibel to square metres to get the picture. So, for an aircraft with an RCS of 5 dB, it would be 3.16 square metres.

The RCS of an aircraft depends on its characteristics, the orientation of the target to the radar source. Many aircrafts will have a smaller frontal RCS, but bigger rear and side RCS.

Also, some fighter jets have their largest RCS from the side and the rear, due to the exhaust nozzles. Moreover, RCS depends on the wavelength of the radar signal and how far away the target is. The lower the RCS value, the less possible that the conventional radar will detect the aircraft from a distance.

According to military think tank mil-embedded.com, the Russian4++ generation MiG-35 has an RCS of 15 square metres and 4.5 generation Su-35 has an RCS of 3 square metres.

The 4.5 generation F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jet has an RCS of 1 square metre. The next generation Gripen incorporated stealth designs into its basic structure without compromising performance. Hence, the Gripen ended up with such a low RCS of only 0.1 square metres.

If BAF procures MiGs again, Bangladesh will end up spending hard-earned billions to achieve no technological and strategic advantage over any regional air force

The Gripen is a small fighter jet with low RCS, but computer modelling was used to optimise areas such as the curves of the aircraft and the engine intakes along with their inlet tubes to deflect radar waves. Special Radar Absorbing Materials (RAM) were also used in critical areas enabling the Gripen to lower its RCS even further and giving it an excellent advantage against radar.

To understand RCS in plain English, an average man has an RCS of about 1 square metre and a bird has an RCS of about 0.1 square metres.The challenge of a surface-to-air missile or air-to-air missile to shoot down a Gripen NG with RCS of about 0.1 square metres is like shooting down a bird flying at the speed of sound. For MiG-35 with an RCS of about 15 square metres, it is like shooting down a bus flying at the speed of sound.

The sales tactics

As of now, no details are available publicly about ToT from either Rosoboronexport or BAF. I doubt that Rosoboronexport is genuinely offering transfer of any vital technology to Bangladesh. It is the standard sales tactics worked in the past 50 years towards India, but China is an exception.

China received large-scale assistance from the Soviet Union during The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance.

Due to massive industrialisation, China is able to reproduce Soviet-made weapons domestically.

The Russian sales tactics led to the Indian Air Force dearly having no spare parts for its Sukhoi fleet, and an abundance of fighter jets are resting under the Indian hanger.

The Bangladeshi point of view

As for Bangladeshi MRCA deals, Russia will behave the same way they did with India and Iran. Once the sales are over, Russia will withdraw the support and supplies of spare parts. Bangladesh’s previous MiG deal was a dud, and until recently, those MiGs were stored under the hanger.

If BAF procures MiGs again, Bangladesh will end up spending hard-earned billions to achieve no technological and strategic advantage over any regional air force.

The BAF should ask one question: Are they offering free target drones as MiG-35 to Myanmar Air Force?

Raihan Al-Beruni is a contractor and analyst for a global defense and security supplier based in Australia.