We are accustomed to the fact that a war in the air without AWACS aircraft is impossible. But in the future, everything may change. Source: aviation21.ru
It is a fact that early warning and control aircraft (AWACS, hereinafter referred to as AWACS) are a necessary component of the struggle for air supremacy and multiply the effectiveness of fighter actions. aviation against enemy aircraft. In those wars, where one side had such planes, and the other did not, the war in the air turned into beating the blind with the sighted.
At the moment, such equipment is massively in service with Western countries, including the United States, and their allies. China is engaged in the creation of such aircraft. Russia is among the outsiders here. In our country, there are almost no AWACS aircraft left. There are fewer of them than, for example, in Japan. Of the nine A-50s, only 5 have undergone modernization, the new A-100 is being born in agony, and its prospects are not clear.
The enumeration of the benefits that the availability of AWACS aircraft gives is, most likely, redundant. It is worth mentioning, however, some disadvantages.
Typically, such machines are created on the basis of passenger or transport aircraft (or unified with those). This is not due to the fact that the complex of onboard equipment is too large - it is often quite possible to minimize it.
This is due to the fact that such an aircraft must perform airspace control tasks. So, he needs to have a lot of patrol time. And therefore it has to be created on the appropriate "platform". An example - the Americans could well create a very high-speed transonic AWACS aircraft in the dimensions of the same A-3 Skywarrier. But they created it as a turboprop and low-speed, with a long wing. The reason lies precisely in the economy of such a scheme, which makes it possible to patrol for a long time.
But the price of this is low speed and the need to ensure safety from enemy fighter aircraft. Once one-on-one with a fighter, such an aircraft is doomed - even if its jamming systems withdraw all the missiles, it will be shot from a cannon.
This fact should always be taken into account when choosing the distances between your fighters and the AWACS aircraft, and between it and the supposed line at which the fighters will meet the enemy.
Usually, a combination of large forces of fighter aircraft and competent planning of operations is enough to secure your AWACS aircraft, especially after the weakest enemy. But let's ask ourselves a question - what if fighters have the opportunity to attack an AWACS aircraft from a relatively safe distance? Not breaking through, in the style of Tom Clancy's "Red Storm" to the AWACS aircraft, losing one regiment after another, but simply from a distance of hundreds of kilometers, launching an ultra-long-range air-to-air missile at it?
The survival of large and slow-moving aircraft in this case will depend only on their complex of interference. But it is well known that no passive defense systems provide a complete guarantee of security. It is most likely that it will not be possible to protect the aircraft (if the creators of the attacking missile have worked on the jamming immunity of the seeker).
For a long time, this was pure theory. Even the Soviet P-33 was poorly suited here, its maximum range was approximately equal to the distance to the target, which there were some chances to reach with a massive attack. And with losses. We needed missiles with an even greater range. And today they have practically become a fait accompli, which gives opportunities that were not there before.
Could the appearance of ultra-long-range missiles put an end to the concept of a traditional AWACS aircraft? How to provide awareness of fighter aircraft instead of traditional AWACS aircraft? What is needed to destroy an AWACS aircraft with a fighter, besides missiles?
Try to understand.
The first term is rockets
The first missile, which theoretically was supposed to provide the ability to fight against AWACS aircraft, was supposed to be another Soviet development, known today as the R-37. Its development began back in the 80s, and even under the USSR, the first launches began.
The collapse of the USSR significantly slowed down the work on the rocket. But nevertheless, back in the 90s, it already hit targets at a 300-kilometer range. Subsequently, the rocket was redesigned into a new version of the R-37M or RVV-BD. Today, its maximum range, according to open sources, reaches 398 kilometers. For a long time, these missiles were not supplied to the Russian Aerospace Forces, which caused bewilderment. Since what country, and ours - definitely need a "long arm" in the air will always be.
But some time ago, photographs of such missiles began to appear under the wing of the MiG-31. And at the end of 2020, the Ministry of Defense showed a video of the launch of such a missile from a Su-35 fighter. Now we can only hope that the Ministry of Defense will provide decent launch statistics. The small number of missile launches has always been the Achilles heel of our aviation. I would like this problem to be fixed after all.
Launch of R-37M with Su-35S. Source: mil.ru
This is not the only version of a rocket capable of reaching an AWACS aircraft. For a long time, the Novator Design Bureau has been developing the ultra-long-range rocket KS-172. This rocket at one time thundered in the media precisely as an "AWACS killer". I must say that its characteristics fully corresponded to this definition - the missile could destroy a target from a range of more than four hundred kilometers. The rocket was developed, passed all preliminary tests and, in principle, was ready for state tests. And if they are successful (almost guaranteed due to the depth of product development) - for adoption. But after that the project was stopped.
Information about the reasons for its stopping in open sources is different: from "organizational reasons" to the desire of the Aerospace Forces to have the R-37M with the same range. While the fate of the rocket is unclear. But the fact that our VKS also have this option as a backup is a fact. For now, at least.
Russia is not the only country that is working on such weapons... Besides us, China is actively engaged in these missiles. China began work on its ultra-long-range air-to-air missile much later than Russia. But, like us, it already has it in the series. And PLA Air Force planes have already been seen with this rocket on a suspension many times. This is a product that Western sources refer to as PL-15.
This missile entered service (as reported in the media) in 2016. That is, the Chinese have bypassed us in terms of the timing of the arrival of ultra-long-range missiles. But so far they are inferior in tactical and technical characteristics. If our R-37M has a range of up to 389 km and a speed of up to M = 6, then the Chinese one has 350 kilometers and a "four-speed" one.
PL-15 under the wing of a J-16 fighter
But these parameters may be enough for a large group of fighters, even with losses, to reach the AWACS aircraft. At the same time, China is developing a new, longer-range and high-speed missile PL-21. There is reason to believe that very soon she will also be in the ranks. In any case, her tests are already underway, as they say, with might and main.
Naturally, the USA should also be mentioned. For a long time it was their missile - AIM-54 "Phoenix" that was the champion among long-range missiles. Although, by modern standards, the rocket, as they say, is not impressive. Obviously, the scientific, technical and industrial potential of the United States has made it possible to create a killer missile for AWACS aircraft for a long time. But the opponents of the United States with such aircraft were seriously strained.
For the USSR and Russia, and then for China, the American Hawkeye and Sentry were like a bone in the throat. For a long time, the United States did not face such a problem - the A-50 in terms of the performance characteristics of its radar complex did not even reach the deck-based Hawaiian, and there were not many of them. China, on the other hand, had only rather poor experiments.
Today the situation has changed.
China is actively developing its air force. And we should expect that by the time of a hypothetical collision with the United States, it will have a lot of AWACS aircraft. In an acute form, the need to have long-range missiles can get up at sea - on the third Chinese aircraft carrier, which has catapults, AWACS KJ-600 aircraft can also be based. Taking into account the high-quality AFAR radars on Chinese fighters, their combination with AWACS aircraft turns out to be very dangerous. This means that the destruction of Chinese "flying radars" is becoming a necessity, otherwise China will have an advantage in air combat, not the United States.
Chinese carrier-based AWACS aircraft KJ-600 for the future ejection aircraft carrier "003". He's already flying.
Thus, the development of China's military power also made the Americans puzzled by the destruction of air targets at long range. Since the US Air Force and the US Navy are independent of each other, development proceeded along two paths at once.
The Air Force, "under whose wing" periodically launched, achieved success and "killed" various versions of ultra-long-range air-to-air missiles, are now developing the next iteration of this undertaking - the AIM-260, with a speed of 5 M and a range of 200 kilometers. I must say that the range is too small. But, on the one hand, the Americans have simpler opponents. On the other hand, the United States can almost always guarantee itself a superiority in numbers: either over us or over the Chinese. And therefore they will be able to get to our A-50 and 100 and Chinese KJs due to the "head-on assault". Just breaking through to them, despite the attacks of our or Chinese fighters, not really worrying about losses (whatever they may be, the numerical superiority will still remain considerable).
In addition, an even more serious missile is being developed for the Air Force - the Long-Range Engagement Weapon (LREW). Translated - a weapon for long-range attack, which will have an even greater range of target destruction.
The Navy went the other way.
For all their enormous financial capabilities, Americans know how to save money. The fleet relied on ... the adaptation of the ship's anti-aircraft missile SM-6 for launch from an aircraft. The Americans kill many birds with one stone at once with this missile - unification with missile defense systems for ships, savings on training technicians, a good missile for striking surface targets (SM-6 is very lethal in this capacity), with a speed of much more than three "sounds" (from an airplane, probably , will be under four) and small size, making it difficult to intercept. And yes - an ultra-long-range missile for intercepting air targets - all in one.
The tests of this rocket are already underway, the results, in general, are encouraging. Naturally, we are talking about special modification. But it is basically unified with a purely naval missile. The flight range of the SM-6, even when launched from a ship, is significantly higher than 200 kilometers. And if it is launched from an airplane and in conditions when it has an initial speed of many hundreds of kilometers per hour and there is no need to spend fuel to climb? We can safely assume that this rocket will fly far enough to talk about the destruction of the AWACS aircraft.
Rocket RIM-174 or SM-6 under the wing of the US Navy F / A-18F. Source: Michael Grove
Thus, we can safely say that the missiles necessary to "knock down" a slow and clumsy AWACS aircraft at a sufficiently long range, or the main players already have, or will soon appear.
Of course, there are nuances here.
For example, Russia is chronically unable to properly master even mass-produced weapons. In the United States, serious military programs often turn into various types of "sawmills". And the Chinese can fall short in performance characteristics and hide it. But all these moments are in any case correctable, if there is an awareness of the problem and the desire to eliminate it. This means that the fact that all "high negotiating parties" have a long arm can be considered reliable.
What else do you need in order to successfully deal with the E-3 or A-100?
Rockets are launched from airplanes. And in order to get an AWACS aircraft defended by fighter aircraft, you need an aircraft that meets specific requirements.
Let's consider it on the example of the Russian Aerospace Forces. Having stipulated at the same time that other air forces of the world will be able to acquire similar capabilities in one way or another.
First of all, such an aircraft must have a very good, powerful radar. If we talk about Russia, so far the only serial radar that can be approached with such epithets is the N035 Irbis radar. Its disadvantage is the architecture - it is a radar with a passive phased antenna array, which makes it very noticeable in the radar range and requires a lot of electricity. Everything else is a plus. This radar with a huge radiation power is precisely capable of detecting an AWACS aircraft at a distance that allows it to be attacked, that is, somewhere around 400 kilometers. At the same time, it has a high resistance to interference.
Thus, we need to "merge" in one aircraft the possibility of using the R-37M and the powerful Irbis radar.
What other qualities should this plane have? Good range and the ability to quickly "rush" to the target. Do we have such a plane? Yes, this is the MiG-31. Alas, its modernization according to the truncated version of "BM" with the revision of the old radar "Zaslon" (developed by JSC "NIIP" of the 70s, serial plant - JSC "Zaslon"), which ultimately led to extremely, so to speak, contradictory results of the program MiG-31BM. But the technical possibility of normal human modernization of these interceptors is there.
What is the main quality of the MiG-31 in the context of the destruction of AWACS aircraft? In a combination of a powerful radar (so far in relation to the "Irbis" - hypothetically), a large number of long-range missiles and at the same time - high speed. Whatever one may say, but to enter the zone in which the enemy directed from the AWACS aircraft will be able to launch missiles at our fighters will have to in any case. The MiG's speed somewhat minimizes the time that the enemy has to organize his attack, which, we recall, must be carried out before the launch of the R-37M. It also makes it possible (in some cases - not always) to simply preempt the enemy with access to the launch line and then break away from him. The flight range and combat radius of the MiG-31 are large, there is a system for refueling in flight. In general, the chances are very good.
MiG-31 is an almost ready-made AWACS killer. You just need to replace the radar. Photo: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation
The MiG-31 may well become the "AWACS killer", it has everything for this. Of course, additional modernization is needed, you need to work out the implementation of such a task in exercises, you need to regularly shoot missiles at combat targets in order to know both their real performance characteristics and the real level of reliability. But we have the main thing.
A few words about partners and "partners".
If we minimize the time during which enemies can attack our MiG-31 with high speed, then the enemy of the United States and China can take advantage of stealth - the J-20 and F-22, as well as the J-31 and F-35, have reduced radar signature. , whatever and whoever thinks about it. Thus, if we fly fast, then they are detected late - the same result is achieved in a different way. China manufactures world-class AFAR radars. This country has already outstripped Russia in this area. And the United States has always been the world leaders in radar, so they will have radar with the necessary performance characteristics in any case.
We have to admit that AWACS aircraft in the next war between more or less developed opponents will become not only an “all-seeing eye”, but also an object for very strong attacks, which will be very difficult for them to survive. For this, all the components are ready, it remains to grow them together.
And this is already clear to many. A simple example - the Indian Navy does not finally break with the MiG, because they hope (they were very interested in the KS-172 in the 2000s, and in the recently published requirements of the Indian Air Force, the long-range missile defense system laid down the characteristics, in fact, of the KS-172) when- then get a plus to these aircraft and ultra-long-range missiles. This is not the only reason, but it is. The Indians, who have all aircraft carriers (both existing and under construction) springboards, understand that no AWACS aircraft will shine for them. But after all, inequality of opportunities can be eliminated not only by increasing one's own, but also by decreasing others? India does not have its own carrier-based AWACS aircraft, but it may be able to make it so that the enemy will be left without them.
This simple logic is applicable not only (and not even so much) to India.
It is necessary to ask yourself the question now - how can you do without AWACS aircraft in conditions when they cannot be used?
This is all the more relevant for Russia. Because we have fewer of these aircraft in the ranks than fingers on two hands. And one more on endless tests and improvements. As in the case of India, our only aircraft carrier is a springboard. And a full-fledged AWACS aircraft will never fly from it.
Is there a way out?
Let's just say - there are some options that are either already being worked out, or may be in it very quickly.
Option 1. Special reconnaissance equipment on aircraft. An example here is just given by our "Kuznetsov". Specially for him in the 2010s, universal reconnaissance containers were developed and adopted in 2015: UK-RT container complex for radio-technical reconnaissance, UK-RL - long-range container radar with an active phased antenna array, UKR-EO - electro-optical intelligence service.
Each of the containers can be suspended under the aircraft (on Kuznetsov under the Su-33, in parts of the Aerospace Forces on any Su aircraft), as a result of which the three aircraft will even slightly surpass the AWACS aircraft in their reconnaissance capabilities. The disadvantages of the solution are the impossibility of targeting fighter aircraft without a ship or ground command post. Nevertheless, in conditions where "either this way or not", this decision will be quite appropriate. Especially if the enemy AWACS aircraft can be destroyed. As for the vulnerability of the communication between the aircraft and the command post, the Americans many times, and the Turks in Karabakh clearly showed us that the radio channel can be “hidden” within a very wide range, with a constant change of frequencies. And so that no radio intelligence and no electronic warfare will reach.
Su-34 takes off with an overhead container UK-RL. Inside - a radar with several antenna panels with AFAR. Source: airliners.net
Option 2... From the overhead containers, you can take the next step - an airplane to illuminate the radar situation in a glider, unified with a fighter. We are talking about the following.
Here you need to make a reservation. One crew member severely limits the ability to control a group of aircraft. The Su-30SM has two crew members, but the Bars radar with significantly more modest capabilities (inferior to modern Western aviation radars).
Undoubtedly, the right decision was made to deeply modernize the Su-30SM "for the Irbis". However, even with it, the problem of ergonomics remains in the organization of information interaction "operator - airborne radar" when solving an extremely complex task of air combat control. And in this case, the cockpit has many great possibilities, where the crew members sit side by side, shoulder to shoulder. This was implemented on the Su-34 fighter-bomber (largely thanks to this layout, it provided for and ensured the solution of very difficult anti-submarine missions for operators) and on, perhaps, the most underestimated, but promising aircraft of the Su-33KUB line.
The possibility of installing a very powerful radar and ensuring the effective work of operators when solving air combat control problems raises the question of resuscitating the Su-33KUB backlog (including when solving problems over the ground as a multipurpose tactical AWACS aircraft).
Imagine a carrier-based aircraft similar to the Su-33UB (KUB), but with a powerful Irbis radar in the nose cone, with additional radar blades in the edges of the wings, in a suspended gondola-container, on the fuselage from above, in the tail. If we assume that the crew of the aircraft is freed from the need to fight, and all the antennas work in a single complex, then such a machine may well provide illumination of the situation no worse than any AWACS aircraft.
Also, the question arises of the management of aviation forces. Apparently, it can be solved by means of automation directly on board this aircraft. As a last resort, you can additionally develop a special command aircraft. Such an aircraft, unlike conventional AWACS aircraft, will not hover over a given area for many hours. It will operate in conjunction with fighter and reconnaissance aircraft. It will certainly have disadvantages in comparison with a normal AWACS aircraft, but it will be able to survive in conditions when the enemy uses ultra-long-range air-to-air missiles. In addition, the production of such aircraft can be carried out at about the same pace as the Su-35 or Su-34, that is, it will be a mass aircraft.
Su-27KUB, aka Su-33UB, aka Su-33KUB. One of the planes that did not go into production, but its groundwork can be used with great benefit. The aircraft has a characteristic landing of the crew members - shoulder to shoulder. Drawings by Andrey Zhirnov
For the Aerospace Forces, it is possible to develop such an aircraft based on the Su-33KUB, making a ground modification partially unified with the ship (deck) aircraft.
Option 3... "Piercer" / Penetrator. In an interesting way, both the United States and Russia are now investing in this somewhat fantastic option. Just differently. The bottom line is as follows.
A combat vehicle is being created, the task of which, relying on stealth, is to quickly "slip" into the airspace, where enemy aviation is operating here and now. And from there, at their own expense, provide target designation for air-to-air missiles suspended on fighters that are too far away to detect targets with their radars. Or simply hiding from the enemy, not including their radars.
Such an aircraft will be able to "expand the radar field" of the aviation group in the air instead of the AWACS aircraft. Being "caught" by enemy aircraft, he will be able to fight himself. Of course, such an aircraft will have limited capabilities for "highlighting" targets in the air compared to an AWACS aircraft, but many such machines can be made. And to throw a lot into battle.
In the United States, according to this scheme, they plan to use the Penetrator counter air - PAC, an inconspicuous reconnaissance and strike aircraft, which is now being created under the Next Generation Air Domination (NGAD) program. This program is described in the article "The United States is preparing a breakthrough in the creation of combat aviation".
Russia followed the same path, but in a different way. Our future apparatus of this purpose, which should act in the same way as an American plane, is being created unmanned. We are talking about the UAV S-70 "Okhotnik". We read old news about this drone:
The drone made a flight in an automated mode in full configuration with access to the duty zone. The Ministry of Defense explained that during the event, the interaction between the drone and the Su-57 was worked out to expand the fighter's radar field and target designation for the use of aviation weapons.
Obviously, this is it.
The problem here is that for effective use such a machine must be able to think for itself. No quotes. In order for the "Hunter" to fully perform its tasks, it must be controlled by an artificial intelligence capable of waging a battle on its own. It is unclear how far our specialists have progressed in this matter. The problem, on the one hand, can be solved even with the electronics available to us. On the other hand, it is still very complex.
You can read about the "Hunter" and artificial intelligence in war in the article "Russia and the United States are crossing the most important milestone in the development of military robots".
Time will tell what we get out of this in the end. For the time being, it should be admitted that Okhotnik is one of the most important military programs in Russia. And every effort must be made to ensure that it ends in success.
S-70 “Hunter and Su-57 in joint flight. The future may come faster than we think - even in our country. Photo: cezarium.com
And at the same time, you need to have backup options in case it ends in failure. Which ones are described above. However, a high-speed aircraft for illuminating the radar situation can be made together with the "Okhotnik", it certainly will not be superfluous.
Findings for the future
It is impossible to predict the future reliably. But the fact that clouds are gathering over the traditional AWACS aircraft is a fact. In the developed countries of the world, weapons are being created that can seriously limit the applicability of AWACS aircraft in real military operations, up to turning them into a means of peacetime and controlling aviation in the rear. To what extent all this is being implemented in practice is an open question, but the processes are already underway.
At the same time, means are being created that, on the one hand, have the necessary survivability in a war, and on the other hand, they can partially replace traditional AWACS.
In such conditions, Russia, which is experiencing huge problems with the production of such equipment, might it be worth moving in an alternative direction? Moreover, we have R-37s, reconnaissance containers, and Su-planes? And maybe even with the "Hunter" in the end it will still work out?
Of course, since AWACS planes will not disappear at all, there is no need to close this direction at all. But you can make it so that the delay from the A-100 will lose the negative meaning that it has now.
We should seriously think about this.