Aside from China, the other country that this new Administration under President Rodrigo Duterte is “pivoting” to is Russia, and as part of that initiative, the Department of National Defense (DND) is considering the possibility of using Russian made Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) on our FA-50PH Fighting Eagles.1
A PGM or “Smart Weapon” is a weapon that is able to adjusts its flight path to hit its target. It can either be guided towards the target, or has its own independent guidance system.2 Note that this is at least the second time that the DND was reported to be pursuing such possibility,3 so they seem to be really serious about doing it. The big question now though is whether this is even possible at all?
This is because the FA-50PH is entirely made by the United States (US) and its allies, and Russia has had a long history of rivalry with them that continues to this day. Hence their weapons might not be compatible at all with western aircraft.
One way to study this possibility would be to look at actual, real-world examples of Soviet or Russian weapons being used on western aircraft, and it turns out that there is quite a number of such examples.
The BAE Hawk combat aircraft of the Finnish Air Force, for example, was able to carry and fire the (then) Soviet made Molniya R-60 (AA-8 Aphid) Short Range Air to Air Missile (SRAAM) in the 1980s. Same with the Saab J35 Draken aircraft of the Swedish Air Force which were able to use Soviet R-13M (AA-2D Atoll) SRAAMs.4
The Mirage F-1AZ/CZ and Cheetah E (only Filipinos who knew the late comedian Rene Requiestas will be able to appreciate that pun) aircraft of the South African Air Force used the Russian Vympel R-73 (AA-11 Archer) SRAAMs5 while the Mirage F-1EQ of the Iraqi Air Force were able to use the Russian Vympel Kh-29 (AS-14 Kedge) air to surface missile in the 1980s and 1990s.6
More modern or recent examples come in the form of the Tejas Mk 1 which is made by India, but is designed to carry Russian missiles like the R-73, Vympel R-77 (AA-12 Adder) Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile (BVRAAM), Kh-29 and Raduga Kh-59 (AS-13/18 Kingbolt/Kazoo) missiles.7
Then there are also India’s SU-30MKI Flanker-H and Malaysia’s SU-30MKM Flanker-H aircraft which were designed and built by Russia, but were fitted with western made Aviation Electronics (Avionics) and Targeting Pods.
The SU-30MKI for example, uses the Rafael LITENING Advanced Airborne Targeting and Navigation Pod while the SU-30MKM uses the Thales Damocles Multi-Function Targeting Pod.8
But both aircraft almost exclusively use Russian PGMs, meaning that those are able to send and receive information to and from the western avionics and pods.
The integration of western avionics and pods to Russian aircraft was made easier when Russia went out and adopted the US military standard MIL-STD-1553 for Serial Data Buses on their most modern combat aircraft like the SU-30. A Serial Data Bus (SDB) is a communication system that transfers data between components inside a computer, or between different computers.
Because of this, it naturally made it easier also for their weapons to be compliant to that standard. Like in the case of the Tejas aircraft, for example (which also uses the 1553 standard), the use of a Pylon Interface Box (PIB) hardware that recognizes weapons made by different countries and some software upgrades on the aircraft’s avionics allowed it to use not only Russian weapons,but also those made by India and Western countries.10
The MIL-STD-1553 standard was initially adopted by the US armed forces in 1978, and was first incorporated into the design of their F-16A Fighting Falcon aircraft. Subsequently it became the standard for North American Treaty Organization (NATO) aircraft as well, and eventually even Russia adopted it starting with their SU-27 Flanker and MIG-29 Fulcrum aircraft.
So the above examples show that technically it is possible to integrate Russian PGMs into western made aircraft like the FA-50PH. But there is another, perhaps more critical consideration before this can be done, and that is the political aspect of such an integration.
The FA-50PH was jointly developed by the South Korean Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and the US defense company Lockheed Martin, and its F404 Engine is also made by another American company, General Electric (GE).
Because of the high level of American content on the aircraft, then they may object to having it integrated with weapons from Russia. And they do likely have the final say on all aspects of the FA-50PH’s use, as shown by an example that happened in 2014.
That was when South Korea was forced to cancel a performance by their Black Eagles Aerobatic Team in China due to objections by the US who claimed that there was a risk of exposing classified technology to China.11 The Black Eagles currently uses the T-50B, a version of the FA-50PH that is specialized for Aerobatics and equipped with Smoke Generators, Lights, Cameras, etc.12
’No Russian-American Examples’
Note also that in the examples shown above of aircraft or avionics that were integrated with Russian weapons, none of them were American, they were either from Europe or India. The BAE Hawk for example, is made in the United Kingdom (UK), while the Damocles and Litening Pods are made by France and Israel, respectively.
Also if we look at the air forces around that world that operate both Russian and American combat aircraft and weapons, none of the American aircraft ended up being equipped with Russian weapons. Indonesia for example operates both the F-16 and SU-27/30 Flanker aircraft while Poland operates both the F-16 and MIG-29.
Romania operates the F-16 alongside their MIG-21 Lancer (a modernized MIG-21 with western avionics) aircraft. In all three cases, none of the F-16s were ever modified to use Russian weapons.
There is the case of Iran which illegally modified their F-14 Tomcat and F-4 Phantom aircraft to use Russian (and even Chinese) weapons,13 14 but Iran is an exception since they have been under heavy economic sanctions by the US already since 1979, and thus there is not much more the Americans can do to them in terms of sanctions.
’US Pressure and Russian Solution’
Of course in theory the FA-50PHs are all already in our possession and we could just go ahead and do the integration whether the US approves of it or not, but the US could get back at us by imposing sanctions which could make it harder to get Spare Parts from KAI, thus endangering our ability to keep the FA-50PH flying.
An alternative solution would be for us to simply buy not just the PGMs from Russia, but also their Weapons Platform like fixed wing combat aircraft and helicopters, and Russia does have quite a number of those.
But then again, it could be a case of us solving one problem, only to end up having another set of problems to solve because as I wrote in my blog about the JF-17 Thunder, Russian engines are not always as advanced nor as durable as that of western engines.15
One question I had in mind coming into this blog was whether Russian smart weapons are really cheaper than those in the west, and if so, by how much? Unfortunately, Russia has been not as transparent about the costs of their KAB-series and Kh-series of smart weapons as I could find none in open sources.
The closest I found was the cost of one of their air to air missiles, the R-77 which was sold to Malaysia for around USD 1 million each.16 Now the R-77 is Russia’s equivalent to the American AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile to the point that the west jokingly referred to it as the “AMRAAMski” when it first came out in the early 1990s.
The price of the AIM-120 as exported to Malaysia also was USD 2.1 million each,17 which is the average price as sold to other countries as well. This makes it twice as expensive as the R-77, and assuming that this is true for their smart weapons as well, then we can expect the Russian PGMs to be cheaper by probably around as much.
Technically it seems possible to integrate Russian Smart Weapons on the FA-50PH, and that would be the best result for us, especially if such weapons are indeed significantly cheaper than western ones. However, I think it is unlikely that the Americans will allow it due to political reasons. In the off chance that they do, though, then it will be the first time it will be done so legally.
The likeliest scenarios for me would that we either have to keep using western smart weapons on our FA-50PHs, or buy Russian weapons platforms to use Russian smart weapons, which will introduce some other problems. Going Russian though might not be such a bad idea, as long as we are aware of the compromises we will need to make and prepare to offset them somehow.
DND mulls purchase of Russian weaponry,
The Development of Precision Guided Munitions,
DND to acquire PGMs for FA-50PHs in Russia,
Shooting camp at Oulu,
Armscor – Russian Weapons can be Fired from Western Aircraft,
Is India aiming to boost the Rafale’s firepower with Russian missiles?,
Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, India,
Program Dossier: Sukhoi Flanker,
History of MIL-STD-1553,
- Korea Bows to U.S. Pressure Over Chinese Air Show, (https://web.archive.org/web/20150304081731/http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2014/11/03/2014110301064.html) ↩
The Legendary F-14 Tomcat: The Plane America and Iran Both Love,
The F-4 Is a Great Fighter with a Bad Reputation,
The JF-17 Thunder for the Philippine Air Force?,
Russia to supply RVV-AE missiles to Malaysian Air Force,
Malaysia –AIM-120C7 AMRAAM Missiles,