Over the last few months, defense and aviation media have reported on a lecture made by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) test pilot Li Zhonghua in December 2019 at the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Shaanxi. The lecture provided a rather detailed look at the PLAAF experience in the Falcon Strike 2015 exercise conducted in Thailand with the PLAAF’s Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) counterparts. The PLAAF contributed Su-27SK Flankers, while the RTAF contributed Falcon Strike 2015; hereafter to be referred as Su-27 and Gripen-C, respectively.
Some of the commentary surrounding the newly disclosed results of the exercise has extrapolated capabilities of other aircraft in the Su-27 or J-11 family, or inferred details of the exercise toward overall PLAAF pilot aptitude and training. This article will evaluate the capabilities of the respective aircraft and review the results of Falcon Strike 2015 in the context of those capabilities.
Su-27SK and Gripen-C
It is difficult to judge the results of the exercise without first being able to accurately assess the capabilities of the aircraft involved, as well as the rules of engagement. Unfortunately, specific rules of engagement and detailed parameters of most exercises are difficult to ascertain, and while the lecture by Li provided information on various types of engagements in the overall exercise, exact parameters have not been identified.
However, a relatively detailed comparison of the Gripen-C versus Su-27 is provided in the lecture, with a summary of salient points follows:
Medium range (beyond visual range/ BVR) domain:
- BVR missile: AIM-120 missile – 80km range versus RVV-AE missile – 50km range
- Radar: 160km range, track 10 targets versus 120km range, track 10 targets
- Radar cross section: 1.5-2m2 versus 10-12m2
- Simultaneous target engagement: 4 versus 1
- Electronic warfare systems: 1 internal and 2 external podded systems versus 1 external podded system
- Towed decoy: present versus not present
- Decoys: flares and chaff versus flares and chaff
- Warning systems: radar warning and missile launch warning and missile approach warning versus radar warning and missile approach warning
- Datalinks: 2 versus 1
- Night vision: present versus not present
Close range (within visual range/WVR) domain: various factors were coded as “average” to “capable” to “strong” in ascending levels of relative capability
- G limit: +9/-2 versus +8/-2
- Engine thrust: “capable” versus “strong”
- Avionics systems: “strong” versus “average”
- Sustained performance/turn rate: “capable” versus “strong”
- Instantaneous performance/turn rate: “strong” versus “average”
- WVR missile: AIM-9L missile -“capable” versus R-73 missile-“strong”
- Helmet mounted display/sight (HMD/S): “strong” versus “capable”
- Combat radius: 900 km versus 1500 km
- Air to air refueling: present versus not present
- Payload: 6 tons versus 4 tons
- Aircraft role: air to air and air to surface and reconnaissance versus air to air only
From the above, the relative advantages and disadvantages of each respective aircraft can start to be mapped out.
The Gripen-C enjoys substantially more capable BVR capabilities than the Su-27, in terms of maximum radar range (160km versus 120km), as well as the maximum range of its BVR missile (80km versus 50km), and the ability to engage more targets simultaneously (4 versus 1). The radar cross section of the Gripen-C is also substantially smaller than the Su-27 (1.5-2m2 versus 10-12m2). The overall electronic warfare, datalinking and avionics architecture of the Gripen-C is also substantially more capable than the Su-27. The Gripen-C also enjoys better instantaneous kinematic performance/turn rate than the Su-27.
The Su-27 on the other hand, benefits from greater engine thrust and better sustained kinematic performance/turn rate than Gripen-C, while enjoying a more capable WVR capability in the form of R-73, which features higher off boresight capability which can be exploited by the primitive but effective Shchel-3UM HMS.
Therefore, a condensed summary of strengths and weaknesses could be described as:
- Gripen-C enjoys a massive advantage in BVR capability as well as electronic warfare, communications, datalinking and situational awareness, while also enjoying the benefits of a more modern avionics architecture and cockpit.
- Both aircraft featured their own strengths in different domains of kinematic performance.
- Su-27 benefits from greater engine thrust, and a WVR missile with greater high off boresight capability paired with an HMS
Weapons and Avionics Matter
Before reviewing the results of Falcon Strike 2015, it may be instructive to first examine the age and capability of the Su-27SK in Chinese service. The Su-27SK – also produced in kit form as the J-11A – was the PLAAF’s first 4th generation fighter aircraft in service, imported from Russia in the early 1990s.
However, in the decades of service since that time, Su-27SKs have only been minimally upgraded, such as with the ability to fire RVV-AE/R-77 BVR missiles (which the original airframe lacked), or with missile approach warning systems and minor cockpit changes. The rest of the aircraft – in particular its radar, avionics architecture, electronic warfare suite, datalinking capability, and weapons suite – unfortunately remain substantially behind that of other contemporary 4th generation fighters let alone 4.5 generation fighters.
The “4th generation” of fighter aircraft can arguably be classified into different sub-generations which reflect the above mentioned differences in capability in avionics, weapons, sensors and datalinks. Listed below are a small number of select examples:
- “Early 4th generation” could include F-14A, F-15A, Su-27SK/J-11A
- “Mature/contemporary 4th generation” could include F-15C, J-11B, J-10A and Gripen-C
- “4+/4.5 generation” could include F-15EX, F-16V, J-16, J-10C and Gripen E.
The J-11A/Su-27SK is therefore an “early 4th generation” fighter by virtue of its lack of upgrades and is easily the PLAAF’s oldest and least capable 4th generation fighter. To emphasize the importance of avionics, sensors and weapons, it is likely that even upgraded 3rd generation fighters like J-8DF (equipped with contemporary 4th generation radar technology and more capable PL-12 BVR missiles) can probably defeat the Su-27SK in BVR combat under equal conditions.
Reviewing the Results
As a mature/contemporary 4th generation fighter, one could predict the Gripen-C to enjoy a large margin of victory against the Su-27SK in BVR engagements as well as in formation engagements requiring more complex situational awareness and coordination. Such results would have been predicted based on the Gripen-C’s overwhelmingly superior sensors, BVR weapons, radar cross section, electronic warfare, datalinking, and avionics architecture. Pilot training would have a minimal effect in mitigating such a massive imbalance of inherent technology.
The Su-27SK could have been expected to have an advantage in WVR engagements where it could try to exploit its more capable R-73 missile and superior sustained kinematic performance/turn rate, where there is much less technological imbalance. However, technology is also less decisive in WVR engagements, allowing pilot training to potentially play a greater part in overcoming any WVR imbalances.
The results of Falcon Strike 2015 largely follow the above logic, albeit the Su-27SKs seem to enjoy a greater margin of victory in the WVR domain than one might have expected. This could be attributed to the slightly more capable R-73 missile fielded by the Su-27SKs, or potentially by the Flanker leveraging past experience in conducting air combat training with their fellow PLAAF J-10 family aircraft.
What Can Be Taken?
The results of Falcon Strike 2015 are a strong confirmation that aircraft with superior sensors, weapons, avionics, datalinking and electronic warfare, can resoundingly defeat aircraft in BVR domains and in engagements that demand greater cooperation and mutual situational awareness.
The dominance of the Gripen-C against the Su-27SK in those engagements is not unexpected; however, these results certainly do not imply the overall Flanker family is somehow incapable. After all, the Su-27SK is one of the earliest and least capable Flanker variants in service in the world, and many subsequent Flanker variants have been developed boasting substantially improved weapons, sensors, datalinking, avionics, and electronic warfare systems. The PLA itself is equipped with multiple improved Flanker variants, including the Su-30MKK/MK2 multirole strike fighter, the domestic J-11B/BS air superiority fighter, and the latest J-16 domestic multirole strike fighter featuring AESA radar and the PL-15 missile.
However, this is not to say that Falcon Strike-2015 did not provide any useful lessons to the PLAAF for their own pilot training. Chinese language articles written by Chinese insiders, as well as the information from the original slides presented in December 2019, indicated deficiencies of having sufficient situational awareness, particularly in multi-ship engagements and reduced ability to accurately defeat simulated BVR missiles, the latter of which was described as potentially related to different simulation parameters used by AMRAAM compared to the PLAAF’s prior PL-12 and R-77 simulators. Deficiencies in situational awareness could also be partly attributed to the inferior sensors, cockpit and datalinking of Su-27SKs, however the brisk way in which the presentation described those results perhaps indicate a degree of expectation that Su-27SK pilots should be able to overcome those imbalances even in the face of technological inferiority.
Overall, the way in which the PLAAF seemed to review the results of Falcon Strike 2015 suggest a strong emphasis on the human aspects behind the PLAAF’s engagements. This is not necessarily unexpected, as the PLAAF does not participate in a great number of international aerial exercises, making every encounter a valuable learning opportunity. Additionally, it cannot be forgotten that the PLA at large was undergoing a large scale institutional shift to overhaul their training regimens that began in the mid-2010s and reached its rhetorical peak around the mid-2010s right when Falcon Strike 2015 occurred. Placing greater emphasis on the pilot factors behind the results of Falcon Strike 2015 would have made for further useful ammunition to argue for even more enhanced training and simulation syllabuses at that time.
PLAAF Overseas Exercises
Prior to the 2010s, the PLAAF rarely conducted exercises with foreign air forces of any notable scale. In the 2010s, the international exercises the PLAAF conducted tended to be exercises with Pakistan (the Shaheen series) as well as Thailand (the various Falcon Strike series since 2015), and involvement in some Russian aerial competitions (Aviadarts). There was also a onetime exercise between the PLAAF and their Turkish counterparts in 2010 as part of the Anatolian Eagle series.
Notably, the PLAAF sent Su-27SK aircraft to Anatolian Eagle 2010, while the Turkish Air Force (TAF) fielded upgraded F-4Es, and while formal results were never revealed, some rumors strongly suggested the Su-27SKs performed poorly. While no subsequent exercises between the PLAAF and TAF have eventuated since 2010, it is notable that Anatolian Eagle 2010 involved Su-27SKs on the PLAAF side, similar to Falcon Strike 2015 between the PLAAF and RTAF.
It is reasonable to speculate if there is a rationale for deploying Su-27SKs to inaugural aerial exercises with a foreign air force that the PLAAF had never engaged with before. As the least capable 4th generation aircraft in the PLAAF’s inventory (in 2010, 2015, as well as today), perhaps sending Su-27SKs reflect a degree of caution to not reveal more sensitive details surrounding the PLAAF’s more capable fighters. As seen in subsequent Falcon Strike exercises between the PLAAF and RTAF, the Chinese side then sent more capable and more modern aircraft like J-10A and J-10C, perhaps reflecting greater trust as the defense relationship is strengthened.
Of course, the PLAAF regularly exercises with only a couple of foreign air forces, making it difficult to confidently draw the above conclusion with any degree of certainty. But it is notable that the PLAAF’s Shaheen exercises with the Pakistani Air Force – in context of a much longer term defense relationship and geopolitical relationship – have tended to include a variety of new PLAAF systems ranging from new 4+ fighter aircraft and AEW&C systems, usually without too much of a multi-year delay from first entry of frontline combat service.
For the Future
The Falcon Strike 2015 presentation provided some very useful and rare details for the PLAAF’s first exercise with the RTAF, and while the details of the presentation discuss a number of deficiencies in the performance of the pilots involved in the exercise, some of the English language interpretations of the exercise likely overreach the scale of consequence. Specifically, it is difficult to ignore the weighting of the results in the BVR domain and engagements requiring multi-ship situational awareness that are significantly more dependent on the technological advancement of the aircraft in question rather than pilot training.
In subsequent Falcon Strike exercises (2017, 2018 and 2019) the PLAAF sent successively more advanced aircraft than the Su-27SK, namely the J-10A and eventually the J-10C. Rumors surrounding those subsequent exercises have suggested the PLAAF side achieved more desirable results, particularly with the J-10C in 2019. But unfortunately it is very unlikely for the PLAAF to reveal such a detailed breakdown of those subsequent Falcon Strike exercises.