Opinion: Wow-worthy? Russia's Newest Airborne Radars Are a Potential Game Changer

Contributor:  Keith Mallon.
Posted:  09/05/2011  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags:   Russia | T-50 | AESA | airborne | radar | PAK FA | x band | l band | stealth | J 20 | F-22
This year’s round of air shows left me feeling decidedly unsettled as old certainties just keep on disappearing.

Take, for, instance the recent MAKS 2011, held at Zhukovsky as usual, just outside Moscow. Whereas the 2010 Zhuhai Airshow generated a plethora of coverage from  aviation reporters, this 2011’s MAKS passed by almost unnoticed. That is, if you ignore the rather embarrassing sight of the much vaunted T-50 experiencing a flame out as it rolled down the runway…

Indeed, if ever there were a sign that Russia doesn’t preoccupy Western military minds as it once did, this surely was it.

Thankfully, Robert Wall of Aviation Week was on hand to relay to us some nuggets of useful information from the show. In another sign of changed times, the presence of mocked-up sensors for the new T-50 showed a whole new level of Russian openness.

The presence of both L band and X band radars is worth mentioning, as this is a crucial capability in an aircraft that is due to mix it up with the likes of the F-22 Raptor and F-35. A 2009 article in Air Power Australia speculates on the relative stealthiness of both western aircraft, designed to beat X-band radars as distinct from the lower frequency L band radar on display at MAKS. In short, speculation suggests that L band could be a very useful foil to Western stealth technology.

It is possible for L-band AESAs to be installed in the leading edges of the LEX or wings on
the T-50. Image: Allocer, MAKS Airshow

The question that is certainly worth debating is: if Russian 5th Generation aircraft will include the capability to defeat airborne low-observable technologies; does an aircraft sold on stealth over aerodynamic performance make sense?

Of course, the flip side of the argument is just how stealthy the T-50, itself, actually is. Some camps claim “not very”. Although such debates do remind me of a presentation from the vaults of Defence IQ’s long-forgotten stealth conference (yes, we have vaults here, where the ghosts of PowerPoint past lurk in peace). As recounted by Bill Sweetman here, the Russian Institute of Theoretical and Applied Electromagnetics detailed some of the technologies that were then being developed on the Su-35S.
Radar technology develops quickly and, as Sweetman points out, what the Russians were developing at that stage to reduce radar cross section (RCS) had already been placed on many 4th generation Western fighters. But it does point out the ongoing evolution of stealth vs. counter-stealth continuously complicates comparisons between fighters.

One thing that is also of note is that the US Navy is going to endow its Super Hornets with Infra Red Search and Track systems – allowing electro-optical tracking of low observable aircraft under certain circumstances and further altering the playing field between the combat aircraft types.
Keith Mallon. Contributor:   Keith Mallon.

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