Sat, 26 Apr 2003

Russian fighters promise RI air superiority and massive bill

Berni K. Moestafa and Novan Iman Santosa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Six years after the original purchase was aborted, advanced Russian Sukhoi 27 and Sukhoi 30 jet fighters will soon enter service with the Indonesian Air Force.

With another economic crisis unlikely to stop the Air Force from getting its latest toys, the next question is: just how good are the Sukhois?

"The Su-27 is a plane that gives air superiority," aviation expert Ninok Leksono said on Thursday, explaining that the aircraft's main purpose was to fly interception missions.

Interception means to stop incoming enemy planes, and this makes the Su-27 primarily a defense-oriented combat plane.

As an interceptor, the Su-27 joins the ranks of the older Su- 15 Flagon, and the MiG-25 Foxbat, which at three times the speed of sound remains the world's fastest combat plane.

Speed, flight range, and the ability to take out enemy planes are the main characteristics of an interceptor.

"In terms of size and range, the Su-27 has often been compared to the F-15 Eagle," said Ninok.

The crucial difference, however, is that the F-15 Eagle is a strike or attack plane, the very type of enemy plane that the SU- 27 must stop.

Indeed, the Su-27 was born in part due to the threat the F-15 posed after the Russians learned that the Americans were planning a new attack plane to replace the Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom.

The F-15 has demonstrated its prowess to worldwide television viewers during the first and second Gulf wars.

While the MiG-25 Foxbat is fast, it lacked maneuverability and the technology to effectively engage an invading F-15.

Against this foe, the Soviets wanted an interceptor, which was agile and fast, could cover the country's vast borders and still carry a heavy weapons payload.

Work on the latest Sukhoi began as early as 1969.

The Su-27 prototype, called the T-10, had its maiden flight in 1977, after which NATO named the plane Flanker. But subsequent development ran into a wall. Two of the planes crashed and killed the pilots, raising doubts over the T-10's design.

Moreover, when the F-15 Eagle entered service in 1976, it dawned on the Russians that their T-10 upon completion would still be no match.

In 1979 construction on new models began with a maiden flight in 1981. These models then became the Su-27, which entered into service in 1985.

The Su-27 has a wingspan of 14.70 meters, is 21.90 meters long and weighs up to 33,000 kilograms when fully loaded.

Its maximum flight range is about 3,680 kilometers, enabling the interception of enemy planes entering Indonesia from almost anywhere in this country.

When a Su-27 is scrambled for an interception, it can climb to a height of 12 kilometers in 55.5 seconds, then get to the enemy at a top speed of Mach 2.35, twice the speed of sound.

An enemy plane entering Su-27-defended airspace could well find 6,000 kilograms of air-to-air missiles screaming toward it.

Visibility, though, is not necessary. The Su-27 can spot an enemy from a distance of 185 kilometers and more, depending on the type of radar. Even without using radar, it can still detect, track and hit a target.

Being a world class dogfighter, the plane is made for close combat. So the last thing an enemy pilot may see is the Su-27's 30-millimeter cannon firing at him.

To hit targets on the ground, the Su-27 can carry a five- round rocket pod under each wing or a load of freefall bombs.

By now, however, the Su-27 faces a new generation of strike or attack planes, such as the F-16 Falcons and F-18 Hornets.

Ninok dismissed concerns that the Su-27s had been rendered obsolete by the new American planes. "The Su-27 is being upgraded all the time, with new weaponry, radar and other technology being added to it," he said. The plane was actually designed to allow for a maximum variety of modifications and upgrades.

Also part of Indonesia's deal with Russia is the purchase of the Su-30 KI, which has a better ground attack capability.

"The Su 30 is more like the F-15 in that both are made for attacking ground targets," Ninok said.

And with all its capabilities, he said, the Russian fighter was also cheaper than most Western products.

Still, a glance at the Su-27 price tag reveals US$30 million just for the plane without weaponry, or anything else for that matter.

A fully equipped model costs some $100 million and Indonesia plans to purchase 48 planes within four years.

The Sukhoi's air superiority and the subsequent leverage officials say it will add to Indonesia's diplomacy will eventually cost Indonesia billions of U.S. dollars.

Yet few here ever protest about the purchase of expensive military hardware. This remain just as true today as it ever was, even as the economy still reels under the impact of the crisis and the Iraqi war showed the devastating effect of such weapons against human life.