Cloning the adversary

The Indian Air Force needs a dedicated aggressor squadron.

The last decade has seen remarkable shifts in the scenario confronting the Indian Air Force (IAF). There is significant improvement in the prowess of the Pakistani and the Chinese air forces. Not only are these forces fielding increasingly advanced airplanes; they are also attempting a number of data fusion schemes which can act as force multipliers in any combat environment. These air forces are now able to operate at night and from bases at high altitudes. If the IAF is to keep abreast of this evolving threat environment, it must seek out a way to simulate the performance of adversary platforms and for training purposes mimic the opposing force.

The modern airplane comprises a number of complex flight controls, weapons control and information management systems. The exact details of the system integration are critical in ensuring the effectiveness of the airplane in any combat environment. The information management system on each airplane interacts with a much larger information network and keeps the pilot updated on all relevant developments. Today we have a situation where an AWACS airplane can detect a threat several hundred miles away, relay the information to an interceptor that has the appropriate long range weapon and organise an interception in a matter of seconds. Understanding the interaction between this global information system and the enemy fighters’ local information system is critical to understanding how the enemy behaves in a confrontation.


A growing area of intense research and development is flight control. After early demonstrations by the Americans in the 1980s, it is very clear that using computers to execute flight control algorithms allows for an expanded flight envelope. Merely knowing an aeroplane’s shape and engine parameters is no longer sufficient to discern the flight envelope. As long-range weapons are increasingly common, the modern dogfight is quite different from its ancestors. The pilot has a limited time window in which to lock onto a target and launch a weapon at it. After the weapon is launched, the pilot has to be ready to launch an evasive maneuver in case his attack fails and the enemy launches a counterattack. It is here that the performance of the flight control system becomes crucial, as most of these evasive manoeuvers have to be performed at high speed. The specifics of the performance of the flight control systems of any aeroplane are therefore usually a closely guarded secret. Understanding the flight envelope is key to grasping how the enemy will react to a failed attack.

A modern air combat scenario requires that the weapons control system perform to perfection. In the past, there were reliability issues with these systems, particularly with long-range weapons. There were many slips between the radar and the missile and a lot of work on avionics has focused on reducing these problems. It is not possible to simply read the brochure about a weapon and determine how it will perform under combat conditions.

Stealth technology represents another area of growing work in the aviation community. It is now possible to make aeroplanes with significantly reduced radar cross-section. These airplanes can evade detection from an air defence network. Used in combination with long range air-to-ground weapons and cyber warfare, these stealth aircraft can be used to completely compromise a nation’s air defence system.

A great deal of work has been done in TACDE and the IAF has conducted a number of exercises with friendly nations. If these efforts were reinforced by the creation of a dedicated aggressor squadron, then rapid progress towards understanding the enemy can be made. An aggressor squadron could comprise two IAI-Lavi, two Su-27SK, two Mirage Vs, two modified LCAs or Ching Kuo-1 and two smaller jets to simulate low RCS platforms. Additionally, at least one AWACS, one IL-78 Midas refueling airplane and one of the DRDO AEW/CS planes should be available for attachment to this unit as needed.

Ideally this aggressor unit should be manned by highly qualified pilots from the IAF’s flight instructor ranks and it should devote all its time to matching the exact performance of adversary’s platforms. In addition to simulating the enemy pilots airplane performance, the aggressor pilots should endeavor to replicate the mindset of the adversary — capturing key aspects of their motivation and mental biases. It would be advisable for this unit to be led by an Air Vice Marshal with appropriate intelligence experience. Any ancillary personnel from the intelligence community with expertise in enemy psychology should be made to report directly to the head of this unit.

The unit should also have people with specific backgrounds (NAL/ CABS/ LRDE/ DEAL) and if need be, replicate the necessary facilities to enable rapid scientific consultancy. It may be that a number of questions about the systems integration of adversary platforms can be answered by ‘cloning’ experiments where a replica of the enemy platform or sub-system is built for test and evaluation purposes. Alternatively, it may be possible to evaluate the aerodynamic performance or radar signature of an adversary system by creating a computer model of it and testing it in silico.

It would also be desirable for this unit to interact with the air forces of other nations (such as Taiwan, Israel, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Oman), which share similar concerns and build a large pool of knowledge that everyone can draw upon. This unit would emerge as a natural clearinghouse for information relating to adversary capabilities.

While the creation of such a unit would undoubtedly require a great deal of funds, effort and time, the benefits are too significant to ignore.

Photo: Jaskirat Singh Bawa