Friday, July 19, 2013

Russia is designing a new interceptor... Are they on to something?

MiG-31, obsolete aircraft...  But not obsolete concept.

Recently, Russian officials have admitted to developing a MiG-31 replacement.  This sparked some interest from aviation enthusiasts who have long believed the MiG-31 "Foxhound" was little more of a remnant of the Cold War and would see retirement as the PAK FA and Su-35 became the prevalent fighters in the Russian inventory.

Why does this seem odd?  Because in this age of "multi-role" jet fighters, when even the F-22 Raptor is equipped for ground attack, The Foxhound is decidedly single purpose:  Interception.

MiG-25 "Foxbat".
Developed from the legendary MiG-25 "Foxbat", the MiG-31 was conceived as a sort of a "Super Foxbat" with better detection abilities, longer range, and the ability to engage low flying targets.  The MiG-25 itself was developed to counter the threat of  the B-58 Hustler and (soon to be aborted) XB-70 Valkyrie bombers.  Oddly enough, early exaggerated reports of the MiG-25 led to the development of the F-15 Eagle, in a game of "one-upmanship" that was common in the Cold War.

Before the time of ICBMs, interceptor aircraft were all the rage during the Cold War.  The concept was simple enough, aircraft built to engage invading enemy bombers as quickly and from as far out as possible.  Speed, range, and time-to-climb were the ultimate benchmarks of an interceptor's performance.  Powerful radars were needed to detect and lock on to hostile threats.  Since bombers are rather ungainly, maneuverability was a secondary concern.

CF-101 Voodoo.
Canada was certainly no stranger to the interceptor concept during the Cold War.  The Avro CF-100 Canuck was a dedicated all weather interceptor (appearances to the contrary), and the cancelled CF-105 Arrow would likely approached the MiG-31s level of performance.  The Arrow's stand-in, the CF-101 Voodoo, was a pure interceptor (with a minor exception), using nuclear rockets able to destroy entire fleets of bombers.  Even the much maligned CF-104 Starfighter was designed as a high-speed, high altitude interceptor...  The fact that it was used as a low-altitude strike fighter may have been a factor in its poor safety record.


The F-14, last of the Western interceptors?
So what became of the interceptor?  Most modern fighters are required to have at least some ground attack ability, even last true western interceptor, the F-14 was equipped with air-to-ground ability shortly before its retirement.  The proliferation of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and SLBMs (submarine launched ballistic missiles) meant that countering an enemy bomber attack simply wasn't enough.  Further experience in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Libya has stressed the need for "shock-and-awe" type tactics against opponents to quickly eliminate defenses and control enemy airspace.

So why is Russia so keen on replacing a single purpose interceptor like the MiG-31?  For one thing, Russia's sheer size means that a long-range, high-speed interceptor makes sense.  Another reason is to ensure a platform capable of launching long-range "AWACS killer" missiles like the Vympel R-37.  With the retirement of the F-14, the U.S. military has lost its capability of launching the similar AIM-54 Phoenix, now relying on variations of the AIM-120 AMRAAM.

RAF E-3 Sentry AWACS.
One reason for western air dominance in recent conflicts like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya is the use of AWACS (airborne early warning and control system) aircraft.  Eliminate the AWACS, and sizable advantage is lost.  Over southeast Asia, AWACS systems are gaining popularity, with Boeing 737 AEW&C "Wedgetail" being used by Australia and South Korea, the Boeing E-767 being used by Japan, and the KJ-2000 utilized by China.

Needless to say, these AWACS make tempting targets, and their physical size and considerable radar emissions make them easy to detect and lock on to.  Fighter escorts are pretty much standard procedure, but fast, long-range missiles (like the Mach 6 R-37) can be fired from almost 400km away, far enough away for a fast interceptor like the MiG-31 to safely launch its missile and escape at near Mach 3 speeds.

How big of a tactical advantage is this?  Consider a 2008 Rand report that painted a bleak picture of US forces against a hypothetical air war against China in the south Pacific.  Even assuming superiority for American F-22s and F-35s against Chinese fighters (12:1 kill ratio), US fighters would run out of missiles before they ran out of targets, and the supporting AWACS and aerial tankers would likely be lost.  More realistically, the Chinese forces would be much closer to American F-22s and F-35s in performance and kill ratios.


As more details of the Chinese J-20 are revealed, it is beginning to look more like the aircraft will also be more than capable of the intercept role.  Plenty of internal missile space, along with an abundance of fuel, could give it superior range and payload to the F-22 or PAK FA, whilst sacrificing agility.  No doubt about it, a stealthy, long range interceptor armed with "AWACS killer" missiles would give any invading force pause.

The "Canadian Foxbat" the Avro Arrow.
Should Canada look into revitalizing the interceptor concept?  Of the 4 fighters now being considered, the Eurofighter Typhoon equipped with the MBDA Meteor is as closest to being a "true" interceptor, but the Typhoon is considered more of a short range "point defense" fighter.  The Rafale is even less of an interceptor given its "omnirole" design, and both the Super Hornet and F-35 were developed primarily as strike fighters, with neither the range, nor the speed to be considered as interceptors.  The only proposed CF-18 replacement that could be considered an interceptor would, in fact, be a modernized Avro Arrow.  This concept was not given serious consideration however.

Is the interceptor concept due for a comeback?  Will supercruising, long-range, high-altitude jets fitted with extremely long-range missiles make a return with the Asia-Pacific shift?

If so...  Should Canada look into its own "Foxhound"?

8 comments:

  1. I believe that interception(in time of war), or air sovereignty (peacetime) should be the primary role of the RCAF post cold war. Not a lot of discussion goes on about the F-15, I think it would be a fine aircraft for the job. 38 singles could provide for the air sovereignty role and 10 Es could contribute to any NATO/UN missions........

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  2. Hi.

    So, Russia wants a new interceptor. That’s…. interesting, because that makes it the fourth recent or ongoing program for Russian Air Force: Su-35, PAK FA, PAK DA(a new strategic bomber) and now that. In addition, Su-35 and PAK FA are multi-role jet fighters with a very probable emphasis on air-to-air capabilities. Three (heavy) air superiority fighters, that’s a lot.

    But, as always, I think we must take into account the situation of each particular country. Russia has the ambition and determination to pay for all these aircrafts optimized for particular missions. In fact, heavy interceptors were primarily used for air sovereignty in USSR to compensate for the lack of radar ground stations. That’s why Foxbat and then Foxhound were fitted with big powerful radar in order to cover vast areas. I learnt a lot about that with this Russian (but in English language) video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdtG98OSLco . Performance of these interceptors was not only their speed, for example Mig-31 was the first fighter jet to use PESA radar.

    I see some problems with the interceptor concept. In engineering, when you push the limits, cost grows exponentially, and an interceptor pushes several of them: speed, altitude and range. In addition, that calls for a big aircraft and consequently higher price tag and higher cost of ownership. Finally, such an aircraft isn’t very suited for lower altitude operations or close air support and is a poor dogfighter (in the Mig-25/Mig-31). So, you either need other fighters, as Russia does, or you consider interception performance is worth the cost and the lack of tactical flexibility.

    There is no dedicated interceptor in western countries anymore. Eurofighter in Europe and F-15 in the USA, as Goose says, are probably the best in the interception role now. If Canada wants to favor interception skills, these two competitors will have an edge. Development of a Canadian fighter is a good idea: France does that for many reasons! You have partially the technical means to do it with civil skills of Bombardier and the Canadian arm of Pratt & Whitney for engines. But acquisition of remaining needed skills could cost a lot… here goes something else: will Canada have the Ambition?

    Silver Dart

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  3. It makes sense from a certain viewpoint. The PAK FA and Su-35 can easily fit a "high/low" mix of top tier fighter (PAK FA) supplemented by larger numbers of cheaper, but still effective, fighters. The MiG-31, and its replacement, is a different beast altogether, being used as a sort of a high-speed AWACS with teeth.

    I'd like to see if some of the Su-35's improvements will make their way into the Su-34 platform. This would make for a very potent strike aircraft.

    As far as the interceptor concept itself, I think it does have merit. Especially over larger, sparsely populated countries like Russia and Canada. Recent advances in super cruising jet engines, combined with heat resistant materials, makes it less of an engineering challenge. I think the MiG-31 replacement will be interesting.

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  4. I don't think we can speak about a High/low mix in the Russian case: all their current programs are about fighter jets in the 'High' category (PAK-FA, SU-35, MIG31 replacement and SU-34, thanks to remember me that one ^^). All of them are heavy (no one with empty weight under 15 tons!) and pretty sophisticated.

    I agree it makes sense for Russia, because they intend a massive update in their air force after 20 years of stalled developments. They want a very capable air force and are ready to pay a lot for it: I know only two other countries that could reasonably do the same.

    But, I don’t imagine Canada purchasing 4 different aircrafts… Besides, it all depends what you imply with a ‘Canadian Foxhound’. If you’re talking about a 21 tons airframe (empty) flying at Mach 3 and above 70,000 ft, then that’s a tactical and financial dead end. With a less radical approach, that could work, but you will come closer to the “eurocanards” in this case.

    I think we could discuss more about what you see as Canadian needs and the price that could be payed ;)

    A word about su-34: this monster is amazing! I also think su-34 could become an incredibly good strike platform. Its maximum take-off weight is basically frightening, 45 tons! But the CF-101 Voodoo you talked about in your post is even more impressive: nuclear rockets???

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  5. I think the "High" will consist of the PAK FA and PAK DA, with the "Low" consisting of the Su-35 and improved Su-34.

    The MiG-31 isn't really part of the mix. It's more of a specialized platform. It supplements the fighter fleet, doing a job the others can't do.

    Canada certainly doesn't need 4 fighter aircraft. Politically, a dedicated strike fighter is not needed. A high speed interceptor for sovereignty and a multirole fighter for NATO commitments could be ideal however.

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  6. Well, you know what I mean : Su-35 as a "Low" in High-Low mix is pretty laughable. As I saw it at Paris Air Show, manufacturing standards are maybe different between su-35 and modern occidental fighters, but still, I don't think we can qualify su-35 performance with the word "low". Moreover, High-low mix is mainly about affordability and while procurement cost will be significantly higher with PAKFA, maintenance costs of both will probably be rather close in my opinion.


    I agree Mig-31 is a specialized platform. That's why it represents a problem : specialized platforms are costly and the fact that Mig-31 is considered "specialized" asks the question of the suitability to others missions of an interceptor.


    So you see Canada with 2 different fighters : an interceptor and a multirole fighter. In fact that's not far from the US and UK solution, apart the fact that F22 and Eurofighter aren't fully-dedicated to interception mission. In this case, have you a precise mix in mind? I would imagine an "off-the-shelf" fighter for the multirole one, rather affordable, so probably single-engine : Gripen NG? The high speed interceptor would then be self-developed, and could be a heavier twin-engine fighter with no a2g capabilities. That's how you would see the thing? How many of each? And how much that would cost?

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  7. I'm not saying beyond a shadow of a doubt that Canada should go along that path, but it may be an option worth looking into.


    Russia and Canada share similar geography (big countries, mostly cold) but very different military strategies and budgets. That being said, any arguments over arctic land claims are going to have the Russians as, at the very least, an interested party.


    At the very least, Canada should consider a multi-role aircraft that is geared more towards the "interceptor" end of the spectrum (such as the Typhoon or Eagle). Given the interest in resurrecting the Avro Arrow in modernized form, perhaps even that solution isn't as far-fetched as some believe. Realistically, a Gripen NG fleet mixed with small number of "Stealth Eagles" outfitted mainly for air-to-air could fit the bill quite nicely... But neither is being seriously considered right now.


    I'm not demanding a high-low force or multiple platforms for Canada. All I am suggesting is that the idea merits discussion and possible study.

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  8. I think that's interesting. You are thinking about something like 50 Gripen and 20 Silent Eagle.


    I agree the idea merits discussion. But finance ministry would certainly oppose the cost of such choice^^
    However, if we put aside money, I understand. Between Eagle and Typhoon, South Korea could be important : if they choose the Silent Eagle, that could be a good choice, but if they did otherwise Typhoon might be a better option. Non-recurring cost to develop Silent Eagle for only ~20 aircraft could be too much.
    In the same way, a self-developed interceptor for only 20 airframes isn't interesting.



    In terms of capability for RCAF, your concept seems promising.

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