New Documentary About Russian Dogfighters Reveals Russia’s New Cutting Edge Fighter Tactics
Ace. A documentary
Kubinka, Moscow Region, July 2017
Kubinka Airfield, Moscow Region. Two pilots on Su-30SM fighter aircraft engaged in an air fight. The goal of this clash doesn't consist in destroying the adversary, but to demonstrate the air superiority of these fighters. Cutting-edge tactical components have been developed specifically for them.
Alexander Kharchevsky, honored flying officer: «It's a part of the operational training. But we did it to show how a pilot should act in various situations in the air. There can be hundreds of such situations during an air fight. One should choose only one, the most relevant and likely to preserve the tactical advantage or carry out an offensive or defensive maneuver».
Alexander Kharchevsky is an air combat master. He has over 40 demonstration air fights to his name with pilots from the US, South Africa, France and no defeat. While serving, he has mastered almost all modern MiG and Su fighter aircraft. Now he's mostly piloting Su-30 at his leisure.
Alexander Kharchevsky: «Since I started air fighting, I've dreamed of piloting an aircraft which does what I want. You predict your enemy's maneuver and you feel that you must act this or that way. The aircraft is under your full control».
In the 2000s, it was Kharchevsky who then was head of the Lipetsk fighter-pilot school and the Falcons of Russia aerobatic team, was among the most active supporters of adopting Su-30SM. But before the fighter aircraft began to defend its homeland, it was to impress foreign customers. After the collapse of the USSR, domestic aircraft industry pinned little hope on the state procurement. But it was indispensable to keep enterprises and design bureaus. Russian engineers had considerable technical groundwork, and a reliable and trustworthy partner was needed to launch the project of a new aircraft.
Oleg Demchenko, Irkut Corporation Designer General: «The Soviet aircraft industry was always up to the mark, one of the best in the world. Designers of the Sukhoi school are splendid. They know how to make these aircraft. The enterprise has colossal experience of working with aviation. So, ideas came naturally».
The fighter aircraft was supposed to be a cut above its competitors. Otherwise, it wasn't worth the trouble. The project appeared to be expensive, but New Delhi soon caught the enthusiasm of the Russian aviation workers.
Konstantin Makiyenko, Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies deputy CEO: «It was Mikhail Petrovich Simonov who played an exceptional role in the whole program, including convincing the Indians to build a new air complex based on this aircraft. And of course Alexei Innokentievich Fedorov's energy, the then-head of the Irkutsk Aviation Production Association which became the Irkut Corporation in the 2000s».
The market niche for the Russian aircraft was well-chosen. Firstly, the Su-30NK is a twin-seater aircraft, which increases the efficiency during long-term missions when there is nothing eye-catching, for example, over the sea, desert or ice. Without refueling a fighter aircraft can cover up to 3,000 km. Naturally, it was a great advantage for future customers, states with vast territories.
Besides, it was much easier to train a new generation of pilots in a two-seater aircraft. 12 suspension points can bear up to 8 tons of ammo, meaning almost every kind of modern air armament. That is, the aircraft can hit ground, sea and air targets all in one flight.
Konstantin Makiyenko: «What the Indians asked for was at the far limits of the existing technological capabilities of the time for Sukhoi and Russia in general. But it was feasible at the same time».
It was the first time that Indian, French, Israeli and South African equipment was installed on the Russian platform along with domestic developments. Most of the under-the-hood components, avionics, were created specifically for the new Su-30. The result was a cross-functional aircraft capable of acting as an interceptor, strike aircraft, and even a command post to manage a military aircraft team. Notably, all simultaneously.
Vladimir Mikheev, Radio-Electronic Technologies Concern advisor: «It was the first aircraft to have huge databases. Back then, it was already a self-teaching unit on the battlefield».
Steerable thrusters and horizontal canard made Su-30MKI the first serialized air-superiority fight aircraft. Open avionics architecture which had never before been used on Russian aircraft allowed for installing almost any equipment. And the innovative radio detector with a phased antenna is the technology for 5th-generation aircraft.
Vladimir Mikheev: «These systems allowed us to use weapons before the enemy saw us. Whatever their capacity, the maximum number of targets the aircraft could hit was fantastic for that time. That is, we could simply cripple any number of aircraft and anti-aircraft systems».
The city of Nashik, situated not far from Mumbai, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, or HAL. The main aircraft of the Indian Air Force, Su-30MKI, are assembled here. It's the Indian fighter with a Russian character and soul.
First, India bought ready-made aircraft used to train Republican pilots. Then, after they understood how it worked, they wanted to know how it was made. At first, the Nashik Su-30 was assembled of big parts, ready-made blocks, and aggregates. Now, the aircraft is produced here from scratch. Some details are made of Russian materials, for example, the wing mainframe is cut out of base metal. It guarantees structural toughness under maximal loads. Indian engineers are learning fighter maintenance under the guidance of Russian experts. Modern equipment reveals the slightest deficiency.
Tarungu Somi, assembly shop engineer: «It's the final assembly. All specialists are here. They check if all the systems work well. And the aircraft is moved to a hangar».
Since 2002, more than 220 Su-30MKI of the 272 ordered aircraft have been shipped to India and produced under the license. To date, Su-30 is the most widespread fighter and the pillar of the Republican Air Force.
BrahMos missile is another joint project by Moscow and Delhi. Its latest modification is designed especially for use with the Su-30.
Sudhir Kumar Mishra, BrahMos Aerospace CEO: «We think Su-30MKI is the world's best fighter. And BrahMos is the world's best missile. When we decided to bring together our missile with an aircraft, Su-30MKI was the best option one could think of».
The missile weighs almost 2.5 tons. Nobody has ever placed such heavy ammo on a fighter. The missile's supersonic speed of Mach 3.0 makes it almost invincible for the enemy's air defense. Its range is 300 km. When tested, BrahMos launched from Su-30MKI successfully hit the sea target.
Vyacheslav Averyanov was the first to fly the new Su-30MKI. The aircraft was developed as a commercial product, so they had to consider the customers' desires which were often rather bold. All changes in structure were verified in test flights, there were hundreds of them. But the result was an almost immaculate aircraft.
Vyacheslav Averyanov, Irkut test pilot: «The truth is that the Su-30 was preceded by experimental aircraft. After some first steps were made, we realized that we had to create a more technologically advanced aircraft, with sophisticated equipment, and Su-30 was the result».
It was a teenage passion for speed that made Vyacheslav Averyanov enter the aviation academy, as the fighter pilot is the fastest. In the 90s, he started to master the aircraft and advertise it at global airshows. Before Russian test pilots, nobody could perform aerobatics on heavy fighters at minimal speeds. Averyanov not only got the ball rolling, but also elaborated the aircraft pilotage techniques. The new generation of aces follows in his footsteps now.
Vyacheslav Averyanov: «Pilots want to fly. It's essential for them to be properly prepared both theoretically and practically. They pilot such a machine with a great deal of zeal, not just enthusiasm. The goal is to enable each pilot to have 2-3 flights a day».
There are quite a lot of dynasties of test pilots. Evgeny Averyanov, Vyacheslav's son, had many choices, but only one path — aviation. He chose his profession at the age of 14.
Evgeny Averyanov, Irkut test pilot: «I didn't want to dread going to work. Here you come and think: „Oh, work, great!“ The biggest problem and disappointment is when there is no work».
First, Evgeny's father talked him out of his choice as the situation was complicated, volatile. But Averyanov Jr. tried his luck and chose military aircraft.
— In this position, I let you pass like this…
— We need to reach a higher speed.
In this exhibition air fight, Evgeny Averyanov is Alexander Kharchevsky's peer rival. The program was trialled on the ground and in the air multiple times, but still, after each prolusion pilots clarify the details.
Evgeny Averyanov: «Obviously, a real combat encounter is a bit different. We show the capabilities in every mode — at a minimal speed, a maximal angle of attack — which was unthinkable for the previous generations of aircraft».
In the 2000s, the success of the aircraft abroad made the Russian military consider it. Moreover, Russian engineers developed a modernized fighter specifically for Russia's Air Force. Irkut has always been pro-active, it never waited for customers to come and order.
Konstantin Makiyenko: «Irkut has always made offers on its own. Irkut invested its own corporate money, around 1.5 billion rubles, back then in 2008-2009, in the design and development of Russification work».
Now the military proudly call Su-30SM the most widespread fighter of the Russian Air Force of the 21st century. The supplies started in 2012, soon, the Marine Air Force chose Su-30 as well. These fighters are already serving in the fleets of the Black Sea, the Baltic, and the Northern Sea.
Yury Slyusar, United Aircraft Corporation president: «Indeed, the aircraft is the most serialized combat aviation product of the Corporation. This tested, refined aircraft sold abroad at a competitive price can fulfill the tasks which its competitors can't. That's why we rely on the Ministry of Defence to renew its aviation fleet with Su-30SM. And our foreign customers will continue to buy it».
The state procurement of the aircraft is around 120 pieces. The anniversary, 100th aircraft made by the Irkutsk plant joined the Kursk unit of the Western Military District in late 2017. Regarding the platform, it's still the same aircraft.
Konstantin Makiyenko: «But its air complex has been constantly developed mostly by integrating new airborne weapons. Obviously, the Su-30SM can carry more airborne weapons than the Indian aircraft».
By the way, Su-30 aircraft were the first to be deployed in Syria in September 2015 when Russia launched a counter-terrorism operation there. They also escorted Air Force One when Vladimir Putin arrived at the Khmeimim air base to congratulate the Russian Aerospace Forces personnel on the victory.
Yury Slyusar: «The aircraft proved to be good when serving both the Russian Ministry of Defense and foreign customers. It showed excellent performance while fulfilling combat missions in Syria, where it showed all its military capabilities».
Su-30 fulfilled several tasks at a time, destroying terrorists, protecting the base from a possible air attack, and covering the strike aircraft which bombed the ISIS infrastructure. In case of an air fight, Su-30 could protect themselves.
After the Syrian campaign, which advertised the Russian weapons best of all, the demand for Russian aircraft, Su-30 in particular, soared. Kazakhstan was the first foreign customer to buy Su-30SM. In 2015 Astana got 4 aircraft. The Republic intends to increase this number to 24. Belarus followed by ordering 12 fighters. To date, the total number of contracted aircraft is around 500. Several more contracts with a number of states are being actively negotiated.
Vladimir Mikheev: «This aircraft has found its niche in the foreign market in terms of its price and, what's essential, its combat effectiveness. It's an extremely effective combat aircraft which will remain one of the world's cutting-edge aircraft for 10-15 years to come».
Kubinka, Moscow Region
The home airfield of the Russian Knights aerobatic team starts working early in the morning. The technical staff comes to the park 4 hours before the flight. They remove the covers, check all the systems, fuel the aircraft. They greet the grew with a full report.
Each pilot is certain to pass under his aircraft, ask the technician about its condition, touch the iron bird multiple times as if he knew what could cause trouble. They prepare in silence, with concentration. Journalists know that they'd better not bother them now, all interviews come after the flight. Before every take-off, the technicians always clap the fighter on the wing, as if they wished it good luck. The right side of the cabin has the flags of the countries where the Russian Knights have already had a performance, from the East and Asia to Europe and the USA.
In late 2016, the aerobatic team changed the legendary Su-27 for Su-30SM. New aircraft meant new capabilities. Trios take off one by one to fly in a minute over the spectators in a single figure of 6 fighters. Heavy aircraft dive in every cloud and afterward, they disperse. The air superiority of Su-30 and their steerable thrusters allow the Knights to add far more aerobatic maneuvers to their toolkit.
Alexander Bogdan, the Russian Knights deputy commander: «The stalled turn, the flight with big angles of attack, the tailslide turn. It's a pleasure to follow the lead in the group on this aircraft».
All the aircraft are under warranty, so the industry staff is always ready to help the technicians with maintenance. Although, such requests are rare in Kubinka.
Evgeny Atlaskin, air complex engineer: «Su-30 belongs to the new generation. To our joy, there are almost no failures. So, to the engineers' joy, it's a very reliable aircraft».
Malaysia saw the world premiere of the Russian Knights' new program with Su-30SM. 4 fighters were the headliners of the Lima Exhibition.
Andrei Alekseev, Russian Knights commander: «We mastered this aircraft in a very short time at the level of demonstration flights. We'll continue to refine our skills. The aircraft has a great potential. Indeed, it's a huge step up».
The first performance is followed by a photo shoot with the Malaysian colleagues. Pilots understand each other without translation. Of course, they only talk about aircraft.
Jborg, Malaysian pilot: «I've been a pilot for 24 years. I used to pilot MiG-29, now I'm on Su-30. In my opinion, no other fighter in the world can boast such a performance».
Malaysians prepared an extremely complicated program for their domestic exhibition. But, unlike the Russians, it was a solo program. Su-30MK with «M» standing for «Malaysian» is the workhorse of the Royal Air Force. Pilots of the island state used it multiple times in their excellent performance at international exercises all around the world. Indian and Malaysian Su-30s are in step with French Rafales, European Typhoons, American Hornets. Su-30 challenged even 5th-generation fighters like F-22A and even often outdid them not only in the sky, but also by contracts.
Konstantin Makiyenko: «These aircraft have always competed at open markets. Competing with such a technologically and commercially powerful rival as F-18 'Super Hornet' at Malaysia's open market, Su-30 secured a sweeping victory. It was a flawless, technological, commercial, what have you, victory of our aircraft».
The Malaysian Air Force got 18 Su-30MKM fighters in the late 2000s. Now, the modernization of these aircraft is being negotiated, it will extend their lifespan by some dozens of years. Pilots themselves are strongly in favor of it.
Dato Affendi bin Buang, Chief of Malaysia's Air Force: «We've seen the performance of Su-30MKM. I think it's the best evidence proving that the aircraft is excellent. And I'd like to stress that our pilot has mastered it incredibly well».
Russian companies taking part in the Su-30 project create service centers on the customer's territory. They provide full-scale after-sale service from online consultations to urgent shipment of spare parts.
Rustam Ismaylov, Technodinamika deputy CEO: «The competitiveness of the aircraft will grow. We understand that the future doesn't only belong to the producers of modern complexes and products but also to those who can present them well and provide the correct and convenient after-sale service».
Over the recent years, Russian designers have been working to add a third advantage to the Su-30 generation.
Yury Borisov, Russia's Deputy Minister of Defence: «The aircraft is to be modernized in the context of imports phase-out and adaptation of new airborne weapons. Thus, the aircraft will remain in service for about 35-40 years. So, the plant has a service program for the entire lifespan. These are Irkut's obligations to the Ministry of Defence».
Yury Slyusar: Every aircraft should be constantly modernized, that's why now, a modernization plan that includes increasing the number of airborne weapons and combat capabilities is under consideration. It also includes changing the engines for the new-generation ones with better performance at a low operational price. These aircraft will extend the lifespan of the Su-30SM family. We hope that this aircraft will be in demand.
The developments are still secret but the technical design specification is impressive. The project is called Sukhoi Super 30.
Vladimir Mikheev: «A modernized Su-30 will be a fully digital aircraft with artificial intelligence. It won't be only self-teaching. But it will be also possible to increase the aircraft's combat effectiveness by changing the software for a more relevant one without changing electronic units».
Oleg Demchenko: «To date, we've reached everything that was planned for this aircraft and even far more, which explains these modernizations. This aircraft has a huge export potential. Trust me. I know it».
Irkut's Su-30 isn't only a stage of the Russian aircraft industry, it's also a part of the history of hundreds of people involved in creating it and of course, of those who now protect their country on this aircraft. Aces say a pilot grows up along with the aircraft. The fighter itself keeps improving, which means it remains modern.
Vyacheslav Averyanov: An aircraft is like a gift of fate, for life. Indeed, it is. Because it can do even more than a man. Artificial intelligence is needed beyond the limits to help the pilot make decisions faster.
Evgeny Averyanov: You intergrow, you become its part. You understand it, while it understands you. The progress can only continue, it can't be finite.