Raptor vs. Flanker from the Malaysian side.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force and the United States Air Force engage in an air combat exercise called Cope Taufan. Haris Hussain joins the ‘furball’
“FIGHT’s on! Fight’s on!”
‘Mogwai’ immediately picks up his target off the port side. He’s chugging along at a fairly fast clip. Together, the closure speed of both aircraft is nudging north of 900 knots.
As the two fighters merge and pass within an eyelash of each other in a blur of black and grey, Mogwai doesn’t even have time to flinch as he rolls the jet, yanks the control stick back into his gut and reefs his big fighter into an eye-wateringly tight left turn.
G-forces rip into his body and Mogwai sucks in a lungful of oxygen as he cranes his neck to keep his adversary, a United States Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor, square in his sights.
He works the throttles and makes constant changes to the engine settings. His eyes are fixed on the target but one eyeball is cocked to the airspeed reading on his heads-up display (HUD). At this turn rate, he’s bleeding off airspeed and energy like they’re going out of style. Dogfighting is all about energy management.
The two jets are in a classic turning fight at 15,000 feet (4.57km) over the air combat range in Grik, Perak. Mogwai and ‘Smegs’, his weapons systems officer (whizzo in RMAF parlance), are flying the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s latest and most capable aircraft, the Sukhoi Su-30MKM Super Flanker multirole fighter.
Outside, the twin nozzles of their thrust-vectoring Lyulka AL-31FP engines crank up at a crazy angle and Mogwai begins to “walk up” the nose of his huge fighter onto the Raptor’s centre fuselage.
Up front, Mogwai eyeballs the Raptor, which is also blessed with thrust-vector control, but only in the pitch plane. The target designator box (TDB) on his HUD is locked onto the stealth fighter. The trick now is for Mogwai to bring the “pipper” or gunsight square inside the TDB before he can squeeze off a shot. In the back seat, Smegs provides a running commentary of the unfolding fight.
“Makan dia! Makan dia, beb! Lagi! Lagi! Lagi!” Smegs yells into the hot mike in his Ulmer oxygen mask. His job is that of part tactician, analysing the threat picture, part cheerleader, pushing his pilot on, and as an extra pair of eyes for Mogwai.
This particular evolution is a 1v1 (one-versus-one) engagement, which calls for the employment of short-range air-to-air missiles or guns. The Raptor is armed with the AIM-9M Sidewinder heat-homer and an internal, six-barrel, Gatling-type 20mm M-61A Vulcan cannon. The Super Flanker is carrying the super-agile Vympel R-73 Archer air-to-air missile and has the 30mm, single-barrel Gsh-301 cannon embedded in the starboard leading edge root extension (LERX).
Launching off from Fightertown RMAF Butterworth, this is the second engagement for the two fighters as part of the biggest air combat exercise in the country. Called Cope Taufan, the joint biennial exercise between the RMAF and the USAF is primarily to enhance bilateral training in a realistic environment, ramp up combined readiness, and improve interoperatability between the two fighting forces. In the first “hop” earlier, the advantage went to the Sukhoi boys. Because both aircraft were still hauling bags of gas, the exercise director gave the go-ahead for another fight.
The outcome of a dogfight hinges on a number of things — the aircraft’s aerodynamic and engine performance, fuel load, the position of the sun, the individual aircrews’ learning curve and the ability to adapt and react to a fluid and rapidly changing set of circumstances. The advantage enjoyed by one aircrew could be lost and shift over to the adversary in the blink of an eye. A gun track can last only one or two seconds. Miss that shot and you’re toast.
Just as Mogwai is close to getting a gun solution on the Raptor, the USAF pilot rolls his jet level and pitches the nose up in a high-G manoeuvre. Vortices stream from his wing root as moisture is literally squeezed from the air. The American plugs the afterburners on his twin Pratt and Whitney F-119 turbofan engines and his nozzles belch out tongues of blue flame. He goes vertical and grabs sky like a homesick angel.
“Pacak! Pacak! Dia pacak, bai!” screams Smegs, as he instinctively grabs the speed handles on his instrument panel in anticipation of the onslaught of Gs. Pacak, in RMAF fighter lingo, is to go vertical. Mogwai sees the move but he’s nanoseconds too late. The Raptor has so much excess thrust that by the time Mogwai bangs on the throttles and selects Zone 5 on the afterburner, he and Smegs might just as well have been talking to themselves because the Raptor is looong gone...
STEEP LEARNING CURVE
Back on the ground, the RMAF pilots whom Life&Times spoke to said the training and experience they received in the two weeks of Cope Taufan was invaluable.
“The objective of these types of exercises is not to see who wins or loses. It’s more of an opportunity for us to learn new things and expand our mission scenarios and capabilities. It also gives us a chance to validate our procedures,” said a Super Flanker pilot.
Sometimes, they have to make things up as they go along. For instance, fighter pilots use what is called EM or energy manoeuvring charts to figure out how best to tackle an adversary.
“We had EM charts on the F-15s but had nothing on the Raptors, since it is still highly classified. So we had to rely on other sources, go online and even make educated guesses based on the aircraft design to come up with a plan to capitalise on its weaknesses,” added the Sukhoi driver.
“There were a lot of things that we learnt from the Americans. The use of large force employment, planning of strike packages and, overall, how to use our forces effectively were some of the lessons we learnt from Cope Taufan,” added an F/A-18D Hornet pilot with No 18 Squadron, based in Butterworth.
A MiG-29N fighter pilot with the famed Smokey Bandits squadron, home ported in RMAF Kuantan, summed it up best.
“Bro, both sides’ learning curve went right through the roof. On the first day! We both went home with a mutual and healthy respect for each other’s capabilities. And to have these (USAF) guys say that we were s*** hot is the biggest compliment you could give a fighter jock.”
Note: For security reasons, the call signs of the aircrew are fictitious and the engagement is a composite of several dogfights as recounted by RMAF pilots.
THE star attractions for this edition of Cope Taufan were undoubtedly the United States Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor and the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-30MKM Super Flanker multirole fighter.
For the Americans, the Su-30 is an exotic beast, blessed with immense power and agility.
The Russian type’s nose-pointing ability, thanks to its thrust-vector and fly-by-wire flight control system, is second-to-none.
If there’s one aircraft that can pose a serious threat to the USAF in the air-to-air arena, it would be this baby.
On the flip side, the prospect of going head-to-head with the world’s only fully operational, fifth-generation stealth fighter sent RMAF pilots into a tizzy. Many were itching to go up against this much-vaunted fighter. Although the results of the engagements were classified, it was learnt that several RMAF jet jocks acquitted themselves well against the Raptor.
The F-22As are from the 154th Wing, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii and are the only Air National Guard unit equipped with the type. They were joined by a number of Boeing F-15C Eagles from the 131st Fighter Squadron, 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts, and other support units.
While RMAF pilots had tangled with the Eagles in previous exercises, Cope Taufan 2014 was the Raptors’ first outing in Southeast Asia.
Cope Taufan is a biennial large force employment exercise designed to improve the US’s and Malaysia’s combined readiness.This year’s edition from June 9-20, collectively involved close to 1,000 personnel.