Exercise Falcon Strike 2015: Gripen vs. Flanker

A J-11A Flanker B Fighter Aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Photo by Weimeng thru the Airliners dot net Website.

In 2015, the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) and China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted their first ever joint exercise called the Exercise Falcon Strike 2015, resulting in a relatively rare interaction between Chinese and Western Fighter Aircraft.

The event was held from November 12 to 30, 2015 at the Korat RTAF Base in Thailand. Although the exercise was publicized, initially specific detailed information about it was kept as low key as possible.

For example, during the event no Press Conferences or Media Days were observed, and all requests for Press Access were denied. The photographs released for the event were limited as well.1

However, over the years more details started to come out, particularly recently when a lecture was given by a senior Pilot of the PLAAF who participated in the Exercise named Li Chunghua Hua.

Hua held the rank of Colonel and conducted his lecture in December 2019 at the Northwestern Polytechnical University in China in which he showed detailed information about the exercise.2 3

What I will do with this blog is try to piece together details from different sources and hopefully we will end up with a clearer picture of what really happened.

’Initial Preparations’
Before the event, a Thai Pilot went to China to fly the Chinese made J-10 Vigorous Dragon Fighter aircraft and in turn, a Chinese Pilot went to Thailand to fly the JAS-39 Gripen aircraft. Both Pilots likely flew in the twin seat versions as none of them are qualified to fly solo on either aircraft.

Chinese Technicians also went ahead to Thailand first to modify the RTAF’s Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) to make it compatible with the Chinese Flankers so the aerial combat could be monitored electronically.

During the exercise the RTAF fielded five JAS-39C/D Gripen aircraft while China deployed four Su-27SK Flanker B and two J-11A Flanker B aircraft.

Thailand reportedly asked permission first from the Swedish Air Force (SAF) and the Gripen’s manufacturer Saab to use the Gripens and both organizations agreed but sent Observers and Advisers to the event.

’The Thai Gripens’4
The JAS-39 Gripen is a light, single-engine Multi Role Fighter (MRF) aircraft made by the Swedish company Saab AB that first flew in 1988. The JAS-39C/D version that Thailand bought were first commissioned into service with the SAF later in 2002.

The Thais signed a contract for six aircraft in 2008 followed by a second contract in 2010 for another six aircraft. The Gripens started arriving in 2011 and delivery was completed in 2013.

Included in the acquisition were three second hand Saab 340 aircraft from the SAF equipped with the Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEWC) system.

Also part of the acquisition was the installation of the Link T datalink system of which ownership and control was given to Thailand. Thirteen Pilots and 60 Technicians were then trained in Sweden for the Gripen program.

Technology Transfer was also provided by Saab in areas such as Electronic Warfare, Datalinks, Avionics and Logistics, and 63 Thais were given scholarships in Sweden.

’The Su-27SK’5
Details of the Chinese aircraft are a little bit hazy, I think part of it could be because China has not been as open about their fighter aircraft programs, and part of it could be due to the language barrier.

From what I can piece together, China bought only two versions of the Su-27 Flanker and these are the S-27SK and the Su-27UBK Flanker C. The Su-27 Flanker is a heavy, twin-engine Air Superiority Fighter made by the Russian company Sukhoi which first flew in 1977.

The Su-27SK is the single seat version while the Su-27UBK is the two seat version. Both are the first export versions of the Su-27, and China is the first country outside of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to buy the Su-27.

The Su-27SK/UBK are also China’s first Flanker aircraft, with China subsequently making and buying a number of other Flanker versions such as the J-15 Flying Shark and the Su-35S Flanker E over the decades.

China first bought the Su-27SK/UBK in 1991 eventually acquiring a total of around 76. These aircraft were made in Russia and then delivered to China.

They were initially said to be compatible only with Russian weapons and were single mission, Air Superiority aircraft, limited only to “Dumb” Munitions such as Free-Fall Bombs and Unguided Rockets for Air to Ground or Air to Surface missions.

Upgrades were reportedly made later on these aircraft, not sure though if it included making them compatible with Chinese weapons and allowing them to use Smart weapons also.

’The J-11A’6
In 1996 China made a deal with Russia to assemble the Su-27SK in China thru the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC), and this version became known as the J-11A. The original Contract for these called for 200 aircraft to be assembled, but China subsequently cancelled the Contract after only 100 were built.

Since the J-11A is just a China assembled version of the Su-27SK, initially it has the same capability as the Su-27SK mentioned above. It may have undergone the same or similar upgrades as the Su-27SK over the years, but just like on the Su-27SK, information on that is a bit limited.

’WVR Combat’
Although the entire exercise lasted around 18 days, the time allocated when the Gripens and Flankers went up against each other lasted only six days. The exercise started with Within Visual Range (WVR) combat for the first two days before allowing longer ranged Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat for the last four days.

During the first two days on November 17 and 18, 2015 of WVR only Combat, the Thai Gripens lost very, very badly, getting “killed” an astounding 25 times while making only 1 kill of their own.

The Kill-Loss Tally of the Gripen and Flanker aircraft during the Falcon Strike Exercise 2015. Photo courtesy of the Alert 5 Website.

Looking at the WVR capability of both aircraft,7 8 they should’ve been roughly even with the Gripen having around 15% less Wing Loading and thus more maneuverable. The Flankers on the other hand had an advantage in Thrust to Weight Ratio, but not by much, only around 9%.

’WVR Missile Difference?’
One of the deciding factors I think for the Flanker’s dominance in WVR Combat is because of the WVR missiles that were used. The Flankers used the Russian made R-73 Archer while the Gripens were only limited to the American made AIM-9L Sidewinder.

The weapons and equipment used by Gripen and Flanker aircraft during the Falcon Strike Exercise 2015. Photo courtesy of the TAOG_1575 account on Weibo.

One factor why the R-73E is better than the AIM-9L is because its Seeker can move at a higher angle off its boresight to acquire its target, giving it a bigger area to detect and lock on to an enemy aircraft.

The AIM-9L reportedly has an Off-Boresight Angle (OBA) of only 30 degrees while for the R-73E it is around 45 degrees9. Missiles like the R-73E with wider OBAs are also known as High Off-Boresight (HOB) missiles.

The R-73E could also be used with a Helmet Mounted Sight (HMS) unlike the AIM-9L, allowing even easier and faster acquisition by the Pilot of enemy aircraft.

Note that the Thai Gripens do have access to HMS aimed, HOB missiles in the Infra-Red Imaging System – Tail/Thrust vector-controlled (IRIS-T) which Thailand bought as early as 2010,10 but they weren’t used for this exercise.

The Thais did not say why they didn’t use the IRIS-T, but a good reason could be because they intentionally held back from revealing their capability too much to China, which makes sense. The IRIS-T has an OBA of 90 degrees,11 even better than that of the R-73E.

’BVR Combat’
The exercise took a break from Air Combat on November 19, 2015, but resumed it the next day from November 20 up to 23, 2015, and this time they allowed the fights to start from Beyond Visual Range (BVR).

From here the fortunes switched drastically to the Gripen’s side, with the Gripens making a total of 41 kills while getting killed only 9 times in four days. This gave the Gripens a Kill Ratio of 4.5:1, meaning on average they managed to get at least 4 kills before losing one of their own.

’BVR Missile Range’
One reason for the Gripen’s success was again because of the missiles used by both sides. The Gripens used the American made AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM) while the Flankers used the Russian made RVV-AE missile (the export version of the R-77).

Various sources in the internet credits the RVV-AE as having a range of around 100 km, but the latest Russian Rosoboronexport website gives it a range of only 80 km.12 On the other hand, the AIM-120C is estimated to have a maximum range of at least 105 km.13

Hua though gave much shorter maximum ranges for both missiles, only 50 km for the RVV-AE and 80 km for the AIM-120C, but still giving the AMRAAM a significant 30 km range advantage that allowed the Gripens to fire them earlier than the Flankers can.

’Balakot Airstrike’14
The RVV-AE was also the same missile that India reportedly had problems with during their aerial skirmish with Pakistan in Balakot in February 2019. The Indian Su-30MKI Flanker aircraft using RVV-AE missiles had to go on the defensive earlier as they were outranged by the BVR missiles of Pakistani aircraft.

India claimed that Pakistan had used their F-16C Fighting Falcon aircraft armed with AIM-120C missiles, but the Pakistanis denied this as it would’ve been a violation of their agreement with the United States (US) not to use the F-16s against another country.15

Russia does have a newer and improved version of the RVV-AE with a supposedly longer range estimated at 110 km, the RVV-SD (the export version of Russia’s R-77-1 missile),16 but India reportedly chose to go instead with the Israeli I-Derby missiles to re-arm their Su-30MKI aircraft in the aftermath of the Balakot Airstrike.

’BVR Ripple Fire’
Another BVR advantage Hua revealed was that the Gripens were able to “ripple fire” or quickly fire the AMRAAMs up to four at a time while the Chinese Flankers were only able to fire their RVV-AEs one at a time.

Both missiles have “fire and forget” features, but due to the relatively long flight times before they reach their targets, for best accuracy they need to be guided or corrected for most of their flight via datalink before the missiles turn on the small radars on their noses and guide themselves to the target.

And here it seems that the Gripens are able to guide or update more missiles at a time while the Chinese Flankers are only able to do the same for only one missile at a time. With more missiles in the air, the Gripens had better chances of hitting their targets than the Flankers.

’RCS’
Very interesting also is how Hua noted the Radar Cross Section (RCS) of each aircraft and the Detection Ranges of the Radars as another factor the Gripen’s success against the Flankers.

The Gripen is not really a stealth aircraft, but it does have some stealth features built into it that makes it a bit harder to detect by radar. Its small size and use of composite materials (around 30% of the aircraft is made out of it17) for example help lower its radar signature. As a result, the Gripen reportedly had an RCS of only 2 m^2.

The Su-27SK/J-11A on the other hand were much bigger aircraft than the Gripens, and they also had fewer stealth features, like the fact that they were constructed mainly of Titanium and Aluminum Alloys.18 These made them easier to detect by radar with Hua placing their RCS value at 12 m^2, or six times that of the Gripen.

Subsequent versions of the Flanker started using more composite materials in their construction which help lower their radar signatures.

’Radar Detection Range’
As for each aircraft’s radar detection range, as I understand it from Hua’s presentation, the Flanker’s N001 Myech were able to detect the Gripens only at 120 km but the Gripens were able to detect the Flankers at 160 km.

Based on this then the N001 Myech’s detection range is pretty close to the data provided by other sources. However, the detection range derived from Hua’s data for the Gripen’s PS-05/A Mk3 radar is higher than what’s found on a Game Simulation data that I have been using for years19 (see the table for this).

Despite this though, it seems that the Flanker’s radar still is more powerful than that of the Gripen, but the Gripen’s lower RCS tilted the advantage allowing it to detect the Flanker first by a good margin of 40 km earlier.

’Other Factors’
Other factors noted down for the Flanker’s poor performance in BVR Combat were that the Flankers were mainly using old Analogue Technology with mainly Analogue Cockpits. Remember that these Su-27SK/J-11A were among the earliest Flanker versions in service.

This meant that some information like Air to Air Weapons Firing Solutions weren’t presented to the Pilots who thus had to do it via mental calculations which often resulted in slower reaction time and inaccurate results.20

Some weaknesses also were noted down on the Chinese Pilot’s BVR Combat training, like the fact that they had poor Situational Awareness, being focused only mainly on the front rather than all around the aircraft.

They also lacked coordination among themselves and their evasive maneuvers were too “mechanical” or deliberate. They also lacked the proper judgement on which evasive technique to use against missiles coming in from different ranges.

’Holding Back’
As we can see in some of the examples above, both sides were clearly holding back in this exercise. The Thais for example did not use their IRIS-T missiles, and aside from that they also didn’t use their Erieye aircraft which the Gripens work closely with, especially during BVR Combat.

And yet despite that, the Gripens still won overwhelmingly against the Chinese Flankers. The Thais also used the Gripens of which they only have a dozen of instead of their F-16A/B Fighting Falcon aircraft which they have more than three dozen aircraft.

On the other hand, China sent their oldest Flanker versions instead of their newer and more advanced Su-30MKK Flanker G, Su-35, Su-30MK2 Flanker G+, J-11B Flanker B+, J-15 and J-16.

They also did not use their own PL Series of Air to Air Missiles and instead used Russian missiles.

’WVR Combat Lessons’
Despite the above limitations, for me there are still a number of lessons that can be learned from this Exercise. First would be the importance of HMS/HOB combination in WVR Combat. This lesson had actually already been learned before by other Air Forces, just relearned again during the event.

Like after the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany in the late 1990s for example, former East German Mig-29 Fulcrum Fighter aircraft suddenly had unlimited opportunities to practice dogfights with American fighter aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle, etc.

The Fulcrum’s R-73 HOB missiles and HMS worked so well and gave so much advantage in WVR Combat for the Mig-29 that within years the Americans developed and then fielded their own HMS/HOB combination in the AIM-9X Sidewinder and the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS).21

‘BVR Combat Lessons’
Assuming that my interpretation of Hua’s detection ranges are correct, then another lesson for me is the importance of Stealth and missile ranges in BVR Combat. The Gripens had the advantage in both areas against the Flankers and thus helped them dominate the long range combat phase of the exercise.

Another lesson for me is the importance of realistic BVR Combat training which the Chinese Pilots lacked which contributed to them being beaten badly by the Gripens in BVR Combat.

‘Overall Lessons’
While the Falcon Strike Exercise 2015 was indeed very interesting, it didn’t necessarily reflect the true capability of the C/D version of the Gripen aircraft in aerial combat owing to the limitations imposed on it by the Thais themselves.

It also didn’t necessarily reflect the true capability of the RTAF since the Gripen only consist of a small portion of their fighter aircraft inventory. The PLAAF’s full capability also wasn’t revealed as they sent their oldest Flanker versions and did not use any of the Air to Air Missiles that they locally developed and built.

The exercise though did reflect the poor capability of the Su-27SK/J-11A aircraft against a more modern aircraft like the Gripen in BVR Combat. I think the PLAAF will need to upgrade the avionics of those aircraft to improve their chances in long range combat, if they haven’t done so already.

The Chinese Pilot’s insufficient and ineffective BVR Combat Training was also revealed and will have to be corrected, again if they haven’t so already yet.

‘Parting Shot’
Moving forward, despite the impressive performance of the Gripen in BVR Combat in this exercise, the Thais aren’t sitting still and are planning to upgrade their Gripens to the latest Material System 20 (MS20) standard which will allow them to use the even longer ranged Meteor BVR missile and thus be even more formidable in BVR Combat.

China and Thailand did hold subsequent Falcon Strike Exercises after 2015, but specific details for those have not been made available yet. They should be quite interesting also as China decided to send their J-10 aircraft in those next exercises, so hopefully details about those events will also be revealed soon.

A JAS-39C Gripen of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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