Does India Need a Stealth Fighter?
“Years ago, a Gripen fighter reportedly appeared on the left wing of a Typhoon without being detected by using its jamming abilities. It would be fair to assume Gripen is one of the most capable electronic warfighters out there,” says Justin Bronk, an aerial combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute.
So how does the Gripen fighter avoid detection even without the stealth feature? And how does it observe the low observables?
The answer lies in Saab’s state-of-the-art electronic warfare system.
"Saab's strategy is to counter stealth by focusing on electronic attacks. Our sensor suite including the IRST (InfraRed Search and Track) helps Gripen silently detect or track targets," says Mats Palmberg, Head of the Gripen India campaign.
The rapid pace of radar technology advancement means that an aircraft will eventually be visible to radars. And upgrading an aircraft to make sure it can maintain its stealth in the face of sophisticated radars of the future is not an easy task. As a result, Saab decided to build an aircraft that could dominate the battlespace by staying ahead of the opponent in terms of other evolving technologies.
According to Patrick Palmer, Executive Vice-President Saab Canada, stealth is much more than the radar cross section. “That (stealth) is a perishable commodity as technology evolves. Ten years from now, the technology in terms of radar capability will be far more advanced than it is today. What this allows us to do is provide that upgradability, to be forever responding to whatever those new threats are,” he says.
During a BVR mission, Gripen’s IRST (with the guidance of an AEW aircraft) can detect and track even low observable targets at long range. Being a passive sensor, it doesn’t emit energy to give the aircraft’s position away. The AESA radar on the other hand, gives the pilot a 140-degree search volume with the ability to scan from left to right. The pilot can move away a little and still monitor the area, even use weapons either beyond the point at which opposing forces can respond or without them ever realising Gripen was there in the first place.
“Today, our work with algorithms means we are able to detect contacts that are around 10 times smaller compared with just a few years ago. So, yes, we are working to counteract stealth, and that’s not just with an infrared sensor, because stealthy platforms employ IR reduction techniques — it’s about combining our sensors to achieve this,” says Saab test pilot Robin Nordlander.
It is worth noting that a stealth aircraft can still be detected by a powerful radar. Also, it is the frontal sector of an aircraft that has low radar signature. Canard controls and aircraft external hard points are vulnerable to an extent. A fighter aircraft like Gripen can engage in a collaborative pair and enable targeting from different aspects and detect a stealth aircraft.
Last, but not the least, it is the high cost - courtesy exotic materials used, need for extensive flight tests - that raises the question if an air force would actually get the best out of a stealth aircraft. “Stealth is a costly proposition. The high development, production, and maintenance cost means a fleet of stealth fighters will not be used as frequently as desired. A bigger fleet of highly manoeuvrable, agile fighters that offer excellent availability sounds like a much better deal for a modern air force,” Mats says.