“Stealth does not make you invisible,” said the Russian designer sitting across the table at an out-of-the way institute in Moscow. “It makes an aircraft more survivable–but the concept that it is the only path to increasing the survivability of a military aircraft is wrong. We have taken a different approach from the U.S.”
More than a decade ago Russian aerospace scientists recognized two very inconvenient realities about the fighter aircraft produced in their country. First, although engineers could reduce the radar cross section (RCS) signatures of the Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27/30 aircraft with external coatings and appliqués, such measures wouldn’t make enough of a difference against the modern radar systems that U.S. and NATO forces would employ in the coming decade.
Second, the Russian industry would not likely produce analogues to the U.S. Lockheed-Martin F/A-22 and F-35 warplanes. Aircraft made of radar-absorbing materials with an aerodynamic shape dictated by RCS considerations first and performance second are just too expensive. Building them could wipe out the profits from Moscow’s core defense business–exporting as many Su-27/30 and MiG-29s as they could find customers to which to sell them.
Russian industry had developed two new-generation air superiority fighters in the 1980s– the Mikoyan Multi-Role Fighter Project 1.42 and the SukhoiS-32/37 forward-swept-wing technology demonstrator, both of which were supposed to counter the U.S. and European fighter programs. Heavyweight Cold War “monsters,” as one Russian analyst described them, they carried hefty price tags and became impractical now that customers could get affordable middle to lightweight multirole aircraft they could deploy anywhere in the world.
In an effort to make today’s Russian aircraft survivable on the modern battlefield, Russian designers set out to combine RCS-reduction coating techniques with more powerful and capable electronic warfare systems. Using an airborne jammer against an enemy’s radar would stand as the last key element to remaining undetected until a Russian fighter came too close to its target to interdict.
Russia has two main EW design centers, the Central Scientific Research Institute of Radio Technology (TsNIRTI) and the Kaluga Scientific Research Institute of Radio Technology (KNIRTI). The two institutes have developed multiple derivatives of their baseline designs to adapt them to different models. Their approach centers on creating a modular configuration manufacturers can build “up or down” depending on the mission and how one deploys the jammer.
The L203 Gardenia series jammer, adapted for the MiG-29, Su-27 and other aircraft, has served as TsNIRTI’s baseline design for many years is. A compact model of the L203, the L203B, it fits internally into the MiG-29, while more powerful Gardenia models under production in two-pod underwing or wingtop configurations could fly aboard export models of the Su-27, the Su-25 and other fighters.
KNIRTI’s flagship product has been the much-more-closely held L005S Sorbsiya. Unlike the Gardenia, which has gone to a number of export clients, the Sorbsiya has only recently won approval for sale outside of Russia, with some units already exported to China. The L005S works in the H/I frequency band and has served as the primary EW model for use by Russian air force Su-27s. By interfacing with the Su-27’s main mission computer the L005S can identify and warn of radar signal threats in order of their proximity and defeat them by feeding back the same signals in conjunction with jamming modulation.
New Digital Jammers
KNIRTI has now developed a series of new jammers tailored to specific aircraft missions and designed to perform numerous functions. The latest versions of the L005S fly on the wingtips of a Sukhoi Su-32FN aircraft with two underwing L175V/VE pods–another KNIRTI jammer. The combination creates an airborne jammer with the functionality of the Grumman EA-6B Prowler.
Also in the KNIRTI stable, the larger and more powerful MKS-818 escort jammer fully compatible with the 1553 mil standard digital databus. It employs multiple linked processors, but it still relies on traveling wave tubes and some other previous generation technologies.
Russian designers enjoy two advantages of sorts by offering these systems for use by customers already operating Russian aircraft. For the comparatively small cost of purchasing a jammer (versus that of a brand-new fighter), a MiG-29 or Su-27 becomes a much more survivable platform. Second, since the State Scientific Research Institute for Aviation Systems coordinates the configuration of electronic systems in Russia, integration is rarely an issue. Russian designers, one might say, had “plug-and-play” technology before it really existed anywhere else.
One final question remains. Will the U.S. and Europeans be able to deploy new generation radars that are only marginally vulnerable to these jammers in the near term? Or can Russian industry erode the technological advantage of Western systems with new and more innovative jammers, as it has done before? A lot rides on the answer.