Douglas Barrie/LONDON

Fifth-generation fighter, second- generation cockpit - what's the point? So goes the succinct view of no less than Col Gen Anatoly Sitnov, Russian defence ministry acquisition chief, in considering Russia's future combat-aircraft programmes.

Sitnov's barbed comment was directed at the Sukhoi S-37 forward-swept-wing multi-role fighter prototype, but it is equally true of upgraded Russian aircraft such as the MAPO MiG-29M (and developments thereof) and the Sukhoi Su-27M (Su-35).

While the S-37 undoubtedly provided a dramatic sight in the skies over the flight-test research centre at Zhukovski, near Moscow, the suggestions are that the cockpit interior is significantly more conservative. Moscow sources suggest that it contains only very basic analogue flight instrumentation.

The aircrew-office environment has long been a weak point in Soviet, and latterly Russian, combat-aircraft design. Asenior Royal Air Force officer who had the opportunity to fly basic models of the Su-27 Flanker and MiG-29 Fulcrum on the same day characterises both as aircraft to "either fly or fight", but not to do both.

During the Soviet era, air force air-combat doctrine relied heavily on a ground-controlled-intercept (GCI) philosophy. Such an approach avoided the pilot having to do either a great deal of flying or fighting. He could sit in the cockpit, point the aircraft in the right direction, turn on the air-intercept radar when instructed by his GCI controller, and punch the red button when told to fire a missile.

Such an approach also circumvented the need to develop a cockpit environment which could effectively support a pilot acting autonomously in prosecuting his mission. Rudimentary flight instrumentation, with little or no thought given to cockpit ergonomics, was very much the order of the day.

While this was a credible approach, given the emphasis on GCI and the Soviet air force's numerical superiority over its potential adversaries, the increasing sophistication of air-intercept radars, coupled with the emergence of infra-red and offboard sensors, has thrown Russia's cockpit-avionics limitations into stark relief.




While it is one thing to stare down at the display output of a relatively simple air-intercept radar such as the Sapfir-21 (RP-22) of the Mikoyan MiG-21Bis (Fishbed L), dealing with the output of even the basic Fulcrum's N-019 radar, coupled with its infra-red search-and-track sensor, is considerably more demanding. There is also off-board data provided by types such as the Beriev A-50 Mainstay airborne-early-warning aircraft to consider.

The RP-22 has a claimed maximum detection range of 18km (10nm), while the Fulcrum's N-019 has a range of 70km against a target with a radar cross-section roughly equivalent to that of a MIG-21 in the forward hemisphere. The Flanker's detection range with the N-001 radar against a similarly sized target in the forward hemisphere is 100km. The improved radar performance enables the pilot to receive track data from a much greater volume of airspace, with the probability of multiple targets and unidentified returns greatly increasing the basic workload.

Coupled to this have been advances in air-to-air weaponry, such as the semi-active radar-guided Vympel R-27 (AA-10 Alamo), which provided beyond-visual-range (BVR) engagement envelopes complementary to increased radar-detection ranges.

While Soviet radar and missile technology was moving apace, however, cockpit avionics and design languished in the doldrums. Despite being separated by two decades of development, the Sukhoi Su-15 Flagon and the Su-27 Flanker cockpits retain considerable similarities, although the latter is less reliant on GCI. The same criticism cannot be made of their Western counterparts.

The extension of the air-combat environment from the visual to the BVR arena placed a premium on situational awareness. The advent of active, rather than semi-active, radar-guided missiles in the guise of the Vympel R-77 (AA-12 Adder) made this an even greater imperative, since a multi-target engagement capability can place even more demands on the pilot.

In part, the trick of competent cockpit-avionics design lies in determining which of the increasing amounts of raw data should be provided to the pilot, and in what format. Western developments during the 1980s (moving towards integrated cockpit design, based around digitally driven multiple-screen displays rather than clocks and dials) has not passed unnoticed among Russian designers.

Mid-life updates planned for the MiG-29, dubbed the Fulcrum E, and the Su-27 moved towards more-integrated cockpits, with a hybrid mix of multi-function displays (MFDs) and analogue instrumentation.

Neither of these updated aircraft has entered front-line service, although the air force's planning dates under the Soviet regime called for both types to be in the inventory by the early 1990s. The prototypes of both models exhibit a wide variety of cockpit layouts, but there remains a question mark over the level of deep integration achieved.

The aircraft which was once designed to succeed the Su-27 in the air-superiority role, Mikoyan's Article 1.42, is described by a variety of Russian sources as being intended to have a fully integrated cockpit-avionics suite, with direct-voice input and artificial intelligence. Like much else in the defunct 1.42 programme, this has turned out to be a pipedream.




Ironically, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the resulting collapse of the air force's procurement budget, is providing Russian aircraft manufacturers with access to some of the avionics technology which it was struggling to develop in the latter days of the Cold War.

Instead of merely passing out hand-me-downs to its Warsaw Pact allies, Russia's combat-aircraft manufacturers are now faced with having to compete with their Western counterparts, coupled with their traditional customer base becoming more discerning.

Baseline Russian avionics have generally proved to be unacceptable to more recent export customers. India, for instance, has a preference for Sextant Avionique equipment in its Sukhoi Su-30MKI strike aircraft.

Some Eastern European operators of Soviet-era combat aircraft, driven by aspirations to NATO membership, have also implemented limited cockpit-modification programmes adding Western-standard identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) systems and navigation aids.

India has taken delivery of eight Russian-equipped Su-30Ms, which were probably originally built for the Russian air-defence forces, but left on the tarmac because of lack of funding.

These aircraft have been delivered with the original Russian avionics, but the cockpits will be retrofitted with the Sextant equipment as soon as feasible. The Indian procurement of 40 Su-30MKIs is based on a rolling upgrade schedule, reminiscent of the Royal Malaysian Air Force's MiG-29N programme.

The Fulcrum in many ways exemplifies the way in which a piecemeal approach to avionics upgrades is being implemented by Russian manufacturers in addressing the requirements of, primarily, export customers.

The latest Fulcrum cockpit variant to be unveiled is that of the MiG-29SMT, which, in general layout, is reminiscent of that of the MiG-29M. The cockpit is dominated by two large-screen multi-function displays, with a set of conventional analogue instrumentation sitting in between them.

While the MiG-29M, which carried the internal designation 9-15, was to be fitted with Russian-manufactured MFDs, the MiG-29SMT, or 9-17 to give it its internal designation, is fitted with commercially available Western-manufactured MFDs.

Whereas the Russian MFDs fitted to the MiG-29M prototypes were monochrome, those equipping the MiG-29SMT are understood to be full colour.

The MiG-29SMT is being developed primarily with exports in mind, although following presentation of the aircraft to president Boris Yeltsin at the 1997 Moscow air show, there appears to be a possibility that it might yet find its way into the Russian air force inventory.

The MiG-29SMT is joined by Su-27M prototype aircraft number 711, and the MiG-AT advanced jet trainer, in sporting Western avionics. In the case of the MiG-AT, fitted with Sextant equipment, this could conceivably be the first aircraft to enter Russian service with the air force, fitted with off-the-shelf Western cockpit displays.


Within the air force, and the Russian defence- aerospace sector, there is resistance to the acquisition of Western subsystems. Russia's indigenous avionics manufacturers are more likely to take the opportunity of a close look at the technology in attempting to address their own shortcomings.

It is known that Israeli avionics houses have considered offering cockpit upgrades to MAPO for MiG-29 developments which would be offered to the Russian air force aircraft, as well as for export. Political worries that elements of such projects could be introduced to hostile Middle Eastern states, as much as Russian resistance to Western systems, have served, however, to dampen Israel's interest. Instead, companies such as Elbit and Israel Aircraft Industries have had to remain satisfied with offering avionics upgrades to selected third-party states with Soviet-era combat aircraft.

Whether by acquisition or by imitation, however, it is essential that Russia begin to close the generation gap between the airframe and its avionics if Sitnov's concerns are to be satisfactorily addressed.

Source: Flight International