The Vietnam People’s Air Force’s (QDNDVN) Sukhoi Su-30MK fleet is almost complete. With the delivery of two more of the multi-role fighters just before New Year, only four of 36 ordered Su-30MK2s remain to be delivered.
The final four are expected in two pairs, as with most of the other aircraft they will likely be flown in by AN-124 heavy-lift aircraft from Volga-Dnepr.
Vietnam Su-30 deliveries
Vietnam already had 24 Sukhoi Su-30MK2s when it ordered another dozen in 2013. Early deliveries took place in 2003 (4 aircraft), 2009 (8) and 2010 (12). The Flankers of the 2013 order started to arrive in 2014. Moreover, the Vietnam People’s Air Force flies 12 older Sukhoi Su-27, delivered between 1995 and 1998.
Vietnam Flanker bases
The Sukhoi Su-27SKs, -PUs and -UBKs all fly with the 940th Fighter/Air Training Regiment out of Phù Cát in the middle of the country, while the newer Su-30 operate from Thộ Xuân (Bai Thuong) in the north and Biên Hòa in the south of Vietnam.
A 4th generation fighter jet can cost 50,000 euro to fly per hour. That’s a lot of cash. More advanced missions are flown by four-ships. That’s 200k per flying hour. Then they need someone to fight. That means a second 4-ship: 400k.
Add air-to-air refuelling, a ground based target to drop a weapon on, chaff, flares plus some more fancy stuff and the bill is easily at 500k per hour. Some high end missions cost 1 million euro. It’s easy to see how suddenly the cost becomes quite crippling. If that training can be flown in a simulator for “mere” thousands, it is easy to understand the huge advances the synthetic world offers. So how real can it get? Simulators have limits. G-force, how a radar will actually react to jamming or chaff, difficulty in finding a target coming at you from the sun, the reality that you can die if you mess up, the big entrance door at the back of the simulator dome which means you’ll never see the hostile in your deep 6, the play of light and shadow and how it helps or hinders you in making an ID of a ground target. The list is long, so other than saving money, what can the simulator do for us?
Practice Red Flag
Well, first of all, simulators can be linked up just like any on-line game. You can fly as a linked 4-ship and your friends will be seen from your sim dome (although there are no pilots to show hand-signals etc). You can fly in close formation, refuel off a tanker (nowhere near as tricky as the real thing), and fly anywhere in the world. We used to practice Red Flag missions before going to Nevada for real just to get used to the departure and recovery procedures. You can do the same for any war zone you can imagine.
Fight against a Flanker
The biggest positive for the simulated world though is the ease of manipulation. To get a real Su-27 to fight against is tricky. To get to fight against a Flanker with no restrictions, unless in real conflict, is never going to happen. In the simulated world, a click of the mouse can plonk 4 of them (or more) wherever you want. You can give them a skill capability and let them test your tactics on their own, or you can have a second operator control them to test a specific skill if you wish.
Night flying is probably the way we would fight at the start of a war. If your squadron is training during daylight at the time (eg they are practicing dogfighting), you can keep current in certain night procedures using the sim without having to keep you engineering team in work for 20 hours. The UK has poor weather at times of the year. The simulator is used to renew instrument ratings with the examiner able to change the weather to force the pilot under test to fly the approach he wants to see. The examiner can make the weather below limits to see what actions the pilot will take when he can’t see the runway.
And now onto tactics. Simulators can be loaded with flight models of actual missiles and radar software. Tactics can be flown against smart hostiles who shoot back. Pulling the trigger and seeing a missile fly off the wing is excellent training, not least when you watch your wingman shoot. You know he has fired rather than relying on his radio calls. You can see hostile missiles flying towards you from a variety of threat systems and practise how to defeat them. Once all this flying is done, the simulator can play back what happened. A full mission can be watched on large cinema screens. Flight leads will check to make sure that what was there was actually found by his team’s radars and targeted properly. As an instructor, you can fly and then save a manoeuvre and then sit your student in the cockpit and they can watch what you did over and over again and then copy it. The demo is the same for every student.
And then the final use, the one pilots don’t like the sim for: emergency handling. As a fighter pilot, you are drilled in emergency actions for every month of your flying career. Immediate actions must be known or else you lose your privilege to fly. Fighters are the formula one of flying machines. They are at the limit of engineering. They break. We are tested hard for an hour every month with head scratching puzzles. If you don’t work out the problem fast enough, you lose the jet. It’s excellent training and certainly saved my skin on a mission over Libya when my jet had a system failure. But that’s another story.
Air Force core capabilities
There is a second element to be considered. It is easy to find out what a country has equipped its air force with. Airshows have become huge trade events with big deals announced to the media to reassure stockholders that their chosen aerospace company is doing great business. Not just airframes, but avionics and weapons. These core capabilities drive how an air force can fight. They help us build and develop tactics. We practice those tactics in vast training areas. We sometimes use encrypted radios to talk to our radar controllers and formation members, but often our communications are “in the clear”.
It is easy for the average member of the public to watch near real-time radar feeds of our fights and listen to our radio work on their computers. It takes very little to work out some of our tactics. We must be careful to keep our tactics secret. A simulator allows us to fight as we would for real, in secret. With new stealthy jets like the F-35 coming into service and the need to protect their tactical secrets, the age of the simulator is well upon us.
UPDATED 20 November | For the first time the Russian strategic bomber fleet has been waging war in modern combat, launching long-range air strikes against targets / areas in Syria last night.
UPDATE | More footage has appeared of Russian bombers launching cruise missiles or dropping bombs, some of them under the watchful eye of -rather surprisingly – Iranian F-14 Tomcats. See here.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defence the attack fleet last night included 5 Tupolev Tu-160 “Blackjack”, 6 Tu-95MS “Bear”, 14 Tupolev Tu-22M3s “Backfire, 8 Sukhoi Su-34 “Fullback” and 4 Sukhoi Su-27SM “Flanker” all flying in from land-bases in Russia with flights lasting 4 hours and several thousands of miles. With at least the fighter aircraft probably supported by IL-78 “Midas” tanker aircraft.
Sources in Western capitals have acknowledged their governments were informed far ahead of the Russian operations this time, which included the launch of 34 cruise missiles. The attacks were concentrated on the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor areas, as well as Aleppo and Idlib. The Russian planned 127 sorties against 206 targets, with 82 sorties against 140 objectives done. Syrian troops are said to have started a ground offensive about 15 to 25 miles from Idlib.
Part of the Russian Expeditionary Wing based at an Syrian military airbase near Latakia (Khmeymim) also went airborne. The wing now consists of eight fighter-bombers (4 Sukhoi Su-30SMs, 4 Sukhoi Su-34s), 12 strike/bombers of the Sukhoi Su-24M “Fencer” type, 12 close-air support and attack aircraft of the Sukhoi Su-25SM “Frogfoot” type, a dozen Mil Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopters and 4 Mil Mi-8 “Hip” assault helicopters.
25 extra long-range aircraft
Moscow plans to augment the wing for now with 25 extra long-range aircraft (likely bombers and tanker aircraft), eight Su-34s and four Su-27SMs all operating from land-bases within the Russian Federation on lengthy strike missions to Syria against forces such as ISIL/Daesh.
Apart from Russia, French warcraft bombed targets they say are from ISIL/Daesh as well during the same night in Northern Syria, in what could may have been jointly co-ordinated attacks. France is stepping up its military operations in the area after ISIL has claimed responsibility of the terror attacks in Paris during the weekend. The attacks claimed the lives of at least 129 people. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle – with on board Rafale multi-role fighters – is steaming towards the Eastern Mediterranean.
UPDATE 21 September | Russia is beefing up its military presence in Syria in such a way that it will be able to operate from an airhead independently with proper defences both in the air and on the ground.
UPDATE | Recent satellite images seem to confirm the presence of at least twelve Su-25 Frogfoots and four Su-30 Flanker in Syria. See image below. US sources say 12 Sukhoi Su-24 Fencers are in Syria as well.
Basid al-Assad Airbase is since Friday home to four Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker multi-role fighters, strengthening the eight helicopters (Mi-24 “Hind” attack and Mi-17 “Hip” assault choppers) that were delivered by cargo planes earlier, according to US military sources. The field is located 12 miles (20 km) south from the strategic important port of Latakia, a city that is controlled by the Syrian government army.
Syrian, Russian and American sources report that Russian engineers have started to lengthen the runways, pave parking areas for aircraft and ground equipment and improve other infrastructure on the base, which recently have seen the flow of small numbers of up to one or two dozen main battle tanks, mobile artillery and at least 30 to 40 infantry BTR-type fighting vehicles / armoured personnel carriers. Amongst the Russian aircraft seen landing at Basid al-Assad were Antonov AN-124 Ruslan (“Condor”) and Ilyushin IL-76 (“Candid”) strategic airlifters.
According to the Pentagon 500 Russian marines are inside Syria, while Russia is said to have moved pre-fab housing to the airbase to serve as the living quarters of 2,000 personnel. Officially all Russian forces are there to “advise” Syria, but several military sources think an increased Russian presence will fight side-by-side with the Syrian government army against the many rebel factions opposing the current regime.
Meanwhile the US-led coalition continues to bomb so-called Islamic State forces positions further east in Syria, and in Iraq, with the Royal Australian Air Force and the French Air Force recently expanding their operations also into Syrian air space.
The Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) forwarded four of its Sukhoi multi-role fighters to the far northeast of the country this week. The four jets operated from Juwata Airport at the island of Tarakan in the Kalimantan region, facing Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah, the Philippines and – further away – the Spratly islands which many countries like to call “mine”.
Squadron 11 provided the jets and crew for the forward deployment, having the Air Force pilots train with the Indonesian Navy in protecting a designated area. Skadron Udara 11 operates five Su-27SK/SKMs and 11 Su-30MK/MK2 jets out of Hasanuddin Airbase in Makassar at South Sulawesi. The deployment package had to hop 600 miles (960 km) to get to its temporary base of operations.
Juwata is the northernmost airfield that the Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara (TNI-AU) can operate from in the east of the country. The Air Force’s presence in this region is sparse. The only military air base on or near the big island of Borneo – which Indonesia’s Kalimantan shares with Malaysia and Brunei – is in Pontianak 612 miles (985 km) from Juwata/Tarakan. There Skadron Udara 1 flies the Hawk Mk109 and Mk209 advanced trainers and light attack aircraft. Neither the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) or the Indonesian Army (TNI-AD) have air assets in the area on a regular basis.
The Indonesian Air Force is happy with the Flankers – as the NATO-reporting name for these Russian-made aircraft is. In fact, the TNI-AU’s leadership is seeking government approval to replace the aging Northrop F-5s at Madiun/Iswahjudi Airbase with even Sukhoi Su-35s, aircraft that are even more capable than the current Su-27s and Su-30s. Meanwhile 24 additional Lockheed Martin F-16s are on their way and Jakarta is keen on bolstering its northern defences.