[Analysis] South African Air Force Gripen versus Angolan Air Force Sukhoi Su-30K flanker who wins?

This is article is a counter-analysis to refute the defenseweb’s purported claim that Angolan Air Force Sukhoi Su-30k has changed the balance of power in the region.   This article looks at the issue from a holistic perspective and analysis the affair in a purely technical and logical scope.

South African Air Force SAAF SAAB Gripen Versus Angolan Air Force Sukhoi Su-30K Flanker

SAAF SAAB Gripen Versus Angolan Air Force Sukhoi Su-30K Flanker

SAAF GRIPEN VS ANGOLAN AIR FORCE SUKHOI SU-30K

BACKGROUNDER
The proverbial ‘Pot of Soup’ is brewing in the Southern African hemisphere as various defense media outlets announces that the Angolan Air Force just received two Sukhoi Su-30K Air Superiority Flankers with ten more on the way. Adding a new powerful combat platform into the mix of an already ‘over-weaponised’ region in Africa.

The question that usually comes to mind amongst defense/military enthusiasts is that does this latest acquisition change the balance of power down south? Considering that the Southern African National Defense Force (SANDF) is seen as the de facto regional hegemony and power in the somewhat volatile region. Is there a discrete power tussle in play spearheaded by Angola to topple the declining SANDF domination? Another once quiet nation in the area- Botswana has been silently considering up -arming the aerial branch of it’s military so as not to be left behind. Botswana is musing to buy either the Gripen (same aircraft used by the South Africa Air Force) or the South Korean KF-50 light combat aircraft.

It appears that as the SANDF regional power and influence reduces due to severe budget cuts, more nations are attempting to fill the vacuum which would be left open by the SANDF demise.

Although at the moment, all Southern African countries are at peace with each other and it’s security cooperation is at an all time high but we have to remember that few years back it was the opposite as almost all sides engaged in a bitter border conflict that lasted for more than 23 years, a conflict which saw Africa’s largest battles since the World War II.

The Su-30s the Angolan Air Force just received cannot be mistaken for a Light combat aircraft or a Counter-insurgency platform for a Low Intensity Warfare (LICW) instead it is clearly an Air Superiority fighter and without mincing words a very powerful and sophisticated war fighting machine which in any condition can go toe-to-toe with even the world’s current powerful combat aircraft like the F-15 Eagle, F/A-18, Eurofighter Typhoon , F-16 Falcon, Mitsubishi F-2, SAAB Gripen and Dassault Rafale. It can even stand its ground against top notch stealth fighters in the hands of a very skilled pilot.

Today’s article would feature a scenario whereby a squadron of Angolan Air Force Sukhoi Su-30K would go against a squadron of South African Air Force SAAB Gripens. In this scenario, realistic combat conditions would be factored-in as much as possible.

FACTORS CONSIDERED INCLUDES

  1. Pilot Training
  2. BVR capabilities
  3. Tactics
  4. Aircraft Flight Characteristics like
  5. Maneuverability
  6. Thrust-to-Weight ratio
  7. Speed
  8. Range
  9. Service Ceiling
  10. Weapons carriage capacity

Critical Aircraft Technology like are factored-in:

  • Infrared Scan and Track (IRST)
  • Datalink
  • Netwide connectivity
  • Also Support Systems like
  • Radar
  • Electronic Warfare (EW)
  • Presence of Anti aircraft systems
  • E.t.c..

THE PLOT
(You can skip this portion if you like)
Since the South African military joined the fight against Rhinoceros horns and Elephant tusks poaching several years ago, the struggle has never been this tough because the smugglers has become more brazen and daring in their attacks targeting wildlife conservation deep in South African territory while expertly evading various security personnel and apparatus. After each high profile attacks they seemingly vanish into hideouts into Namibia while making their way all the way to Angola to auction off their booty in open air market to foreign buyers and collectors. All in the full glare of the Angolan authorities.

With the rate of attacks on the rise and the South African border and immigration forces unable to unravel the mystery of the smugglers modus operandi due to the use of sophisticated gadgetry by the latter, suspecting foul play, the South African government fingers the Angolan government officials for complicity in the whole illegal operations since the sale of illegal items are conducted without interference in Angolan soil in the open. An  operation which brings in steady flow of dollars into Angola and propping the battered Angolan economy. The Angolan economy has been severely damaged by years of corruption and misappropriation of public funds, the sales of the illegal artifacts brightens the prospect of the gloomy economy. The South African Government further accuses some Angolan officials of providing intelligence, training and even logistics to the smugglers which the Angolan government vehemently denied.

Several smugglers cells caught by the South African border Patrol and intelligence units in nearby Botswana indicates that the smugglers are been infiltrated by Angolan servicemen volunteers carrying what looks like Angolan Army issued arms and communication devices. With this solid evidence in hand, the South African Government takes the matter to the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN) respectively. However, both organisations refuses to shoulder the responsibility, throwing it at each other ( the UN says the matter is under the jurisdiction of the AU, while the AU says it does not have the economic and political wherewithal to pursue a regional issue, and recommend the UN to intervene. Although the UN volunteers to monitor the situation closely).

With the AU and UNs indecisiveness and unwillingness to intervene, the South African government decides to handle the issue solely, conducting a joint security meeting to curb The menace. The conclusion was to pressure the Angolan Government to cease it’s support to the smuggler or else the South African government would clandestinely support anti-government movement and insurrectionist within Angola. Additionally, the SAAF would conduct more aggressive border patrol and surveillance in concurrence with a massive ground exercise with Namibia near the Angolan border.

The Angolan President quickly denounces the South African military exercise and called it an act of provocation, it also issued an ultimatum to the South African military to cease it’s drone surveillance operations across the Angolan-Namibian border or face the risk of military action. Furthermore, the Angolan military quickly mobilized a large force and stationed them at the border fearing the South African-Namibian military exercise as a dress rehearsal for a border incursion.

And so began a series of event that spiralled dangerously close to a shooting war between both sides. On one fateful morning, a South African Seeker 400 UAV leased from Denel systems was on routine patrol over the Angolan-Namibian border when the ground control operator reported that he has lost telemetric data and active control of the drone, the drone has stopped responding to transmitted control information and the Ground Control Station (GCS) has lost all signal from the drone. The Operator suspecting that the drone has been shot down probably by an Angolan Army SA-7 Grail MANPAD reported the incident to the South African Military high command. Facing a dilemma, if the UAV wreckage falls into Angolan hands, it would signal to the world that South Africa has been violating Angolan airspace and the Angolan propaganda media would surely spin the tale in a way to paint the South African government in a bad light. An endeavour the South African government could not afford due to it has most recently been battered by the media for various corruption scandal mismanagement of the economy, ineffectiveness of national policies and other vices.

To prevent such incident, the SAAF was tasked to destroy the crash site first thing in the morning using a pair of Rooivalk attack helicopters armed with Air-to -Ground rockets and the newly inducted Mokopa guided missiles. The plan involves flying at extremely low altitude to prevent radar detection while using the ongoing military exercise as cover. Furthermore, a flight of 12 SAAB Gripens would go westward to draw out the Angolan fighter jets stationed at the Mocamedes Airport.

South African Air Force SAAF SAAB Gripens

Alarmed by the massive probably hostile aerial formations heading towards its airspace, the Angolan Air Force sends its own fleet of 12 Su-30K to ward the Gripens off its territory.

THE ANALYSIS

AIRCRAFT READINESS/AVAILABILITY
The SAAF has 26 operational Gripens which are all in flying conditions, while the Angolans has just 12 Su-30Ks which are just delivered so hypothetical their availability rate should be 100%. With 26 Gripens, the SAAF can call up more aircraft than the Angolans since there is a 3:1 aircraft ratio in favor of the Gripens. What this means is that for every Angolan Su-30K, the SAAF can field 3 Gripens which is a win for the South African Air Force.

TACTICS
in the area of tactics, the Angolan Air Force utilizes Soviet/Russian air formations which relies heavily on Ground Controlled Intercepts (GCI) whereby a ground commander in a Command and Communications (C2) station actively controls the aerial maneuvers from the ground with the pilots only able the aim and fire his weapons.

A typical Soviet/Russian box formation

This tactics has been severely criticized for limiting the pilots critical decision making since he can neither  act independently nor take decisions without the ground commander’s approval. This method is slow, cumbersome and ineffective because the pilots are handicapped while the ground commanders cannot quickly access critical data to prosecute the fast-paced aerial maneuvers.

While the SAAF is known to use the ‘Finger-four‘ air formation. This is an Air combat flight formation whereby a flight of four aircraft is split into 2 sub-units with the flight leader having a Primary and Secondary wingmen with his primary wingman also having his own wingman. This method is very effective because in the event of an aerial ambush, the whole flight package can easily split while still enjoying mutual protection especially in their rear area.

Four F-16s doing the Finger-four formation
Four F-16s doing the Finger-four formation

The SAAF further enhances this formation by using the flight leader as a makeshift Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) whereby he (flight leader) flies higher and further out than his squadmates with his radar turned on at full power while his mates keeps theirs off so as to reduce the enemies radar detection time. The leader invariably shares telemetric and radar data through and Integrated Datalink thereby acting as the eyes and ears of the group. With the small Radar Cross-sectional Area of the Gripen this tactics gives the SAAF an edge.
Therefore in tactics, the SAAF WINS.

A group of SAAF Gripens in flight
A group of SAAF Gripens in flight


RADAR, & RCS
The Su-30K is fitted with a NIIP N011M Bars (Panther) advanced multifunction pulse-Doppler radars designed by Phazotron NIIR Corporation built for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.
The forward-facing N011M (Panther) is a powerful integrated passive electronically scanned array radar. The N011M is a digital multi-mode dual frequency band radar. N011M has a 400 km search range and a maximum 200 km tracking range, and 60 km in the rear hemisphere. The radar can track 15 air targets and engage 4 simultaneously.

The N011M Bars (Panther) radar mounted on the Su-30K flanker
The N011M Bars (Panther) radar mounted on the Su-30K flanker

While the Gripen uses a PS-05A radar which is a Pulse Doppler, X band radar, monopulse radar
It has enhanced look-down shoot-down capacity while offering a Low probability of intercept
Mode. It can detect multiple target and tracking While Searching others. It has a high ECM immunity and can be used in a Passive operation.

The PS-05A radar mounted on the Gripen
The PS-05A radar mounted on the Gripen

 

RADAR Su-30K Gripen
Type N011M Bars PS-05A
RCS (m^2) 10.0-20.0 0.3-0.5
Detection range
for fighter-sized object
190km 120km

Although, the Su-30s massive radar can detect at longer range than the Gripen but the Gripen’s very small RCS makes it difficult for the  N011M Bars  radar to see it. The Su-30 can detect the Gripen at 114km while it can track it effectively at just 96km (85%) meanwhile the Gripen would see the Su-30 at 120km while tracking it at 102km

For the Sukhoi Su-30K
190 x 1000 (km) x 0.3 (Gripens RCS) divided by 0.5 (N011M detection range for fighter sized object)
190 x 1000 x 0.3m^2/0.5m^2=114,000m= 114km

**note: tracking distance is usually 85% of the detection range.**

The Gripen would see the Su-30k first and would have 8km headstart to engage it before the Su-30k radar can track the small Gripen. (since closing velocity is 3000Km/h)

However, at the time of writing this article, none of the belligerent has any BVR capable  missiles.

BVR and WVR engagement

The SAAF A-Darter missile
The SAAF A-Darter missile

Neither The SAAF nor the Angolan Air Force posesses BVR capabilities at this moment. The SAAF IRIS-T has an engagement range of 22km additionally the new A-darter has a 24km range while the Angolan R-60 infrared  Air-to-air missile have a maximum range of only 8km. So during a merge, the SAAF Gripen has an excess of 12km to shoot down the Su-30k with either the IRIS-T or the A-Darter.
The A-Darter has a 360 degree off-boresight capability which allows it to shoot down targets at any direction even at the 6 O’clock position without turn the aircraft.

Although, the Su-30K possesses another powerful device which is the OLS-30 IRST– very useful in WVR engagements, it will enable the sukhoi to sneak up on its opponents without using its radar (whose emissions can be detected) and fire the first shot if necessary. OLS-30 laser -optical Infra-red search and track includes a day and night FLIR capability and is connected to the helmet mounted sighting system with a detection range of up to 90 km depending on the atmospheric conditions but yet again the Angolan flanker is limited to the 8km range of the R-60 missile.

The R-60 missile
The R-60 missile

MANEUVERABILITY

an aerial dogfight
A graphical representation of an aerial dogfight

We will look at technical factors like

  1. Wing Loading
  2. Power-To-Weight (PTW) ratio
  3. Limit load factor (G-limits)

Although, other critical criteria like Maximum Alpha, Stall Speed,  Wing +ve/-ve lift force ratio at all speed, Sink rate, Induced drag and wing G-limit load factors would have been very useful in this analysis but such data is difficult to access.

**note a high P-T-W ratio would translate to a faster rate of climb while a lower wing loading means more tighter turns during dogfighting.

FACTORS Su-30K Gripen
Positive limit load factor (G-limits) 9Gs 9Gs
Wing area (m^2) 60.0 30.0
Wing Loading (m^2) 82.3 lb/ft² 58.0 lb/ft²
Maximum engine thrust 27.3K ibf 18k ibf
Power-To-weight ratio 0.96 0.97
Maximum take-off weight 85,600 lb 31,000 Ib

 

  • POSITIVE LIMIT LOAD FACTOR is equal for both aircraft.
  • WING LOADING: Favors the Gripen C with its decisive 23% lower wing loading.
  • THRUST TO WEIGHT RATIO: Almost even for both aircrafts, with a small advantage for the Flanker.

This means that in a dogfight, although the Gripen would be more agile,  but the flanker would have more power for  acceleration to greater height. The winner in this contest would depend on the pilot with the best skill in pressing home his aircraft strong points.

RANGE & PAYLOAD

  • RANGE

As an air superiority aircraft, the flanker tromps the Gripen hands down. Using the INTERNAL FUEL FRACTION (INTFF) to assesss both aircraft, the INTFF: Favors the Flanker by a huge 68% margin, indicating it can travel 68% farther for the same engine fuel efficiency.

 

  • PAYLOAD

Also favors the Flanker-G as it can carry a commanding 57% (2,890 kg) more load than the Gripen.

SUMMARY
In conclusion, the Gripen if well utilized can achieve a favourable kill ratio against the Su-30. The Gripen strength includes it  very low Radar Cross-Sectional Area (RCS) Which makes it see and track the flanker first- giving it a ‘first see first shoot’ advantage.

The Angolan Flanker is also a great fighting machine having greater power, more fuel and payload than the Gripen. it’s large RCS and none over-the-horizon missiles might be a slight disadvantage.

Please note,  important technical data was gotten from rhk111smilitary and arms page website

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BOTH SIDES

  • ANGOLAN AIR FORCE
  1. The Angolan Air Force should endeavor to equip its fighters with better BVR air-to-air missiles like the R-27 (AA-10C) “Alamo” medium-range air-to-air missiles or the AA-12 Adder (Russian R-77) missile.
  2. They should improve pilot training and combat tactics.
  3. The N011M Bars radar can act as s mini-AWACS or a command post for four other aircraft. The Angolans should fully exploit this capability.
  4. In any aerial combat against the Gripen, the Angolan flankers should attempt to reach higher altitude since it has more greater service ceiling and More power-to-weight to get there faster than the Gripen.
  5. In approaching a merge, the flanker should use it’s IRST device which can detect the Gripen from 30-90km depending on the atmospheric condition. While keeping it’s radar switched off.
  • SOUTH AFRICAN AIR FORCE (SAAF)
  1. The SAAF should induct the Denel Dynamics Marlin radar-guided missile currently under development.
  2. The SAAF should restart it’s aerial refueling capabilities which it dropped few years back due to financial constraints.
  3. The Gripen should never follow the flanker to higher altitude.
  4. The Gripen should utilise it’s agility in a dogfights.

About the Author

E Lionel
Techy, Futurist.

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Anonymous

The issues for the SAAF are that the Denel Marlin will not be available for several years. although development is proceeding, we are several years away from a production line and given that the SAAF has not ordered the Denel Marlin would indicate that they're unable to place a firm order which is critical for development. It would require at the very least $150 million USD if Denel were to design and manufacture the Marlin themselves within 10 years, if the hope is to half that timeline the USD figure would be doubled. It would also require an additional order… Read more »

Anonymous
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5. Can the SAAF enact a successful SEAD operation in modern times? If you recall, during the SAAF's height of military and funding power in the border war days it lacked the capabilities to perform SEAD against Angola's Soviet Union sponsored air defence network. The SAAF would need the Rooivalks to be operational with the Mokopa. At present, it is not. The SAAF requires a stand-off weapon for both the Hawks and Gripens. At present, it does not have it. Denel has made many designs and prototypes of long range tactical and standoff weapons however none have been adopted by… Read more »

Anonymous
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10. The SAAF should work on its maintenance plan it has for its Gripens. At present SAAB provides most the maintenance work for the Gripen. The SAAF's Gripen is not currently on the latest code base due to funding gaps. It is essential for the SAAF to keep an up to date platform. The SAAF makes use of rotational storage for its current Gripen fleet which is OEM recommended for low usage aircraft to extend the lifespan but keep a fleet operational under minimal funds. This cannot continue if the SAAF wishes to have a flight of 12 Gripen in… Read more »

Anonymous
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Added to the above. Carl Zeiss Optronics, took control of Denel Optronics in 2007. At the time – we had developed a capable An infrared search and track (IRST) system which was originally defined as a required for the ALFA with a South African Company i.e. Denel providing the system. However due to a major lack of funds this fell through. This is quite possible to integrate into both the Gripen C and Gripen D which would add a capability enhancement to the SAAF's Gripen Fleet. Unfortunately save for the development of non-conformal fuel tanks which for the Gripen C… Read more »

African Military
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Wow! Such a well detailed suggestions and recommendations.

The SAAF would do well to heed to your advice.

African Military Blog highly recommend your advice to SAAF.

Pleased come back for more great articles like this. Your reply is highly regarded.

Thanks
From A. M.B team

Storm Shadow
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About armament, the Su-30 uses the R-73 and NOT the R-60MK, later models of the R-73 compare equally to IRIS-T, and another big advantage Su-30 has is HMS.

African Military
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Thank you Storm Shadow for the observation, however, the Angolan Air Force does not possess any R-73 missiles as of now