While exercises are a good indication of operational capabilities, it is always a tricky matter to draw firm conclusions from them, for they can never replace combat experience. But, in the absence of real wars where both sides enjoy relative parity, multinational joint exercises offer an interesting view of the 'actual' operational capabilities of weapons systems as well as national competencies and trends.
It acquires an altogether new meaning in the context of the arms industry, especially when a number of air forces are contemplating future fighter aircraft purchase options. For example, in addition to the prospective $10 billion contract for 126 fighters it is to release soon, India is also examining the value of force multipliers and force projection platforms in its air force. Therefore, a closer analysis of Exercise Indra Dhanush 2007 at Waddington, UK, is likely to be a fairly instructive exercise.
Sukhoi vs Typhoon
India's SU-30Ks have faced American F-15Cs and F-16s during joint exercises in India, in 2004 and 2005. But Indra Dhanush 2007 featured more advanced combatants on both sides. Britain's Eurofighter Typhoon, whose advanced aerodynamics and intuitive controls and avionics have rated it as the second-best air superiority aircraft in the world, was supported by the Tornado F3 and the very latest GR9 Harriers from the Royal Navy. On the other side was India's SU-30MKI, the most evolved operational version from the Sukhoi family of flankers, which has aerodynamics that allow unique manoeuvres and full thrust vectoring.
The operational part of 'Exercise Indradhanush-2007' began with a series of 1-to-1 air combat sorties. The RAF pilots were candid in their admission of the Su-30 MKI's observed superior manoeuvring in the air, just as they had studied, prepared and anticipated. The IAF pilots on their part were also visibly impressed by the Typhoon's agility in the air.
Missiles vs guns
Here, it must be understood that in today's 'beyond visual range' (BVR) aerial combat scenario, it is highly unlikely that any of the modern-day fighters will ever get into a close air combat situation that closely resembles a classic World War II dogfight. But this was the exact situation simulated in the 1-to-1 sorties, which had 'kill' criteria based on the front-cannon range, usually less than 1,000 metres. The visual tracking envelope behind the target was only for up to a 60-degree cone; an unlikely scenario if ever there could be one.
But the fact is that there are a number of counter, as well as counter-counter measures to make modern missiles redundant by using 'chaff' and other active and passive measures, regardless of their impressive 'kill' parameters. A 'gun kill' on the other hand, no matter how unlikely, is a certain kill. Pilots are actually matching their real-world tracking and combat skills under such close combat situations. Even in the BVR missile era, the vast majority of air-to-air kills have been within visual range. Consequently, these parameters, regardless of how antiquated they may seem on paper, are still relevant.
At short missile ranges, both aircraft are capable of carrying out fast 'slew and point' manoeuvres, can deploy infrared search and track systems, bring helmet-mounted sights to bear, and launch the highly manoeuvrable short-range infrared missiles (ASRAAM and AA-11/R-73) with wide boresight seeker cones. This creates more forgiving parameters for a kill than the front gun range requirements; the SU-30MKI's superior maneuverability would have to contend with UK Typhoon flight profiles enabled by ASRAAM's longer range and lock-on after launch capability.
How do they measure?
In long-range combat situations, issues of detection and reach would also make a difference. The Eurofighter is smaller than the SU-30, and has more 'shaping' to reduce its radar profile and its Meteor ramjet BVRAAM missile can kill from a longer range than the Russian AA-12/R-77. Speed can compensate somewhat by reducing detection time and extending missile range, especially in anti high-value asset (HVA) missions against tankers, AWACS aircraft, etc.
But neither aircraft can reach the capabilities of the F-22A Raptor or the F-35 Lightning II. Unlike the American F-22A, the Typhoon's supercruise capability for sustained speed above Mach 1 relies on the aircraft being 'clean', with no external weaponry or fuel tanks mounted. The SU-30 also lacks that capability, but will get it as and when plans for an engine with higher ratings are realised.
Exercise Indra Dhanush 2007 reaching its high point with a 6 v/s 6 exercise with 4 Indian Su-30 MKIs, 4 British F3 Tornados, 2 British Typhoons and 2 Royal Navy GR9 Harriers. An Indian IL-78 MKI aerial refuelling tanker and a British E-3D Sentry AWACS were also in the air. But no details have been released regarding the results.
The force projection angle
To India, however, what matters a great deal more than the excitement of the aerial battles is the successful deployment of its latest aircraft using IAF aerial refuelling and the attendent logistics. An Indian ministry of defence release states: "When the IAF Jaguars flew to Alaska during their first overseas joint air exercise 'Cope Thunder' in July '04, the newly inducted Ilyushin-78 MKI 'air-to-air' refuellers of the IAF heralded their acquired strategic reach capability. This year, the six Su-30 MKIs that flew from the Pune airbase in India to the RAF airbase at Waddington (UK), were also accompanied by two IL-78 MKIs of the 'Valorous MARS' (No: 78 Mid-Air-Refuelling Squadron) from Agra, through their long ferry route. Despite the din and the excitement of the first-ever arrival of the formidable Su-30 MKIs in the UK, the significant aspect of IAF's continued enhanced strategic reach capability did not go unnoticed."
When India gets the IL-76 Russian-Israeli Phalcon AWACS aircraft, its power projection ability will grow. Coupled with the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier (to be called INS Vikramaditya), it will be a force to be reckoned with in the Indian Ocean area. Exercises like Indra Dhanush 2007 are valuable, as much for the insights and the trends that they provide, as for the more direct logistics and interoperability lessons learned. Last, but not least, the IAF gets to see what the fighter aircraft the country is thinking of buying are actually capable of.
The IL-78 MKIs have been employed in five overseas assignments so far. These include Alaska, South Africa, France, Singapore and now UK. Unfortunately, tanking the RAF fighters during the exercise was not part of the mission, as that would have really tested interoperability. The six IAF Su-30 MKI fighters that participated in Operation Indra Dhanush flew nearly 19,000 km each, and did mid-air tanking eight times, transferring nearly 225 tonnes of fuel mid-air in all, spread over 28 flying hours. Stopovers were at Doha (Qatar) and Tanagra (Greece), both coming and going.