Review: Russia’s Air-launched Weapons

Harpia Publishing is one of those publishers who seems to have a more or less continuous stream of interesting titles coming out, but who’s books I’ve never actually have gotten around to trying out. As such, I gladly jumped on the opportunity when they contacted me and asked if I was willing to review their recent titles on the Russian Air Force. First out is something quite a bit out of the ordinary: Russia’s Air-launched Weapons by Piotr Butowski.

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Compared to many western countries, Russia operate a range of different air-launched weapons. Partly this is due to the fact that while many design bureaus have been pushing newer designs, few weapons have been completely phased out in the recent decades. Instead, newer weapons have been bought in relatively small series, which are used alongside older designs. Russia has also kept a considerable number of ‘traditional’ gravity bombs, and contrary to the west, largely use these as ‘dumb’ weapons due to the difficulty of fitting them with guidance kits (contrary to the Mk 80-series, the Russian bombs are usually welded monoliths, making it impossible to change out the fins).

All this makes for a bewildering array of weapons, making the need for this book high amongst aviation geeks. A second group for which the title ought to appeal are national security pundits keeping track of what the Russian Air Force carries and uses in Syria.

The book uses a clear layout, going through the weapons category by category, including strategic weapons (nuclear bombs and strategic/theatre-level cruise missiles), tactical cruise missiles, air-to-air missiles of different classes, helicopter launched missiles, bombs, rockets, guns and gun pods, as well as naval weapons such as torpedoes and mines. Targeting pods also get an overview, though it should be noted that Russia has traditionally preferred fixed sensors instead of pods, and these sensors aren’t covered in the book. All currently operational weapons are covered, as well as those currently in development. An interesting aspect is that Butowski appears to have toured major Russian air and arms shows for years, providing a valuable source of information for projects which have at different times been in development, but which then have faded away or gone silent for some time.

There are some real gems in this volume. While I appreciate having a comprehensive overlook of the R-27 family or the Kh-31, my personal favourites where the more obscure weapons systems, such as the huge Klevok-V helicopter-launched missile, the S-13ALT radar decoy rocket, or the air-dropped mines, information on which is hard to come by.

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9A4172K Vikhr and a B-8V-20 20-round rocket pod, both systems are covered in the book. Source: Минпромторг России via Wikimedia Commons
The book is a rather thin soft-cover, being just under 100 pages, and I must admit I felt a bit disappointed when I first pulled it out of the postal package. Having read it my opinion changed, and it doesn’t feel like it leave things out due to its size. When I reached the last page, on the whole I felt I had gotten all information I had hoped for, with the possible exception of the chapter on naval weapons which I felt could have been a bit longer, as well as discussing at longer lengths to what extent some systems are in wide or limited use. Those are minor complaint, as said, the information on naval systems are hard to come by, and the book provide new information for me here as well. For the production figures, it is understandable that these are guarded secrets of the Russian Air Force. The level of illustrations is also good!

On the whole, it is hard to not recommend this book. As said, it isn’t overly thick, and the price (around 20 euros) is on the higher end. However, it functions as a very handy guide both to those wanting to ID what is hanging under the wings of Russian aircraft at home and abroad, but also for modellers looking into creating suitable loadouts for their models. The information seems solid, and especially considering the fact that this is in many ways an unique book in covering the latest development up to this year. Well worth a recommendation.

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HX Trumped

The HX-program is moving forward, and several of the programs have seen significant changes, in many cases caused by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s new resident.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

Things are looking up for the ‘Rhino’ (or ‘Super Bug’ if you want) for the moment. The Kuwaiti deal is finally looking like it could secure a second export order for the aircraft, and the Canadians seem like they could actually lease or buy  a small amount as a stop-gap to cover for the cancelled F-35 buy. This move has been discussed for years, but in the last year it has moved from speculation to government policy.

But the twist that has caused most buzz is without doubt the announcement that the new US leadership has ordered a review of the carrier-based version of the F-35C against the Advanced Super Hornet concept. While I find it unlikely that the ‘all-inclusive’ most advanced form of the Advanced Super Hornet would be ordered, this review will likely provide an updated concept (with price tags) that can be employed for future (more limited) USN updates as well as for export drives such as the HX.

Boeing, somewhat surprisingly, has kept a low profile in Finland. It remains to be seen if this will change with this summer’s air shows.

F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 has been under quite some pressure following the tweets of President (then elect) Trump, who was happy to trash the cost of the program.

Lockheed Martin quickly recovered their posture (though not their stock price), and explained that they will certainly look into this, and that they have a plan ready to reduce costs further.

Now, it is uncertain to what extent Lockheed Martin and (especially) Trump are honest and to what extent they simply figured out that this theatre is just what they need. It is no secret that the unit price of the F-35 is on a healthy downward trend following the troubled early years of the program. It is also no secret that Lockheed Martin has been pushing for larger block buys, as these would make it possible for the company to achieve higher efficiency in their production lines. This is an excellent opportunity to enlist the support of the White House for the larger block buys, and in the meantime the president can happily boast about getting a better deal by getting the low-rate lots cheaper than his predecessor. Win-win, at least until some troublesome aviation journalists starts looking it…

Regardless of the politics behind it, the F-35A is now officially and for the first time below the 100 million USD threshold. This came as part of the LRIP 10 agreement, and Lockheed Martin indeed thought it prudent to credit ‘President Trump’s personal involvement’ with accelerating the negotiations and sharpening Lockheed-Martin’s focus on driving down the price. Despite the recent issues with the landing gear of the F-35C carrier-based version, the F-35A version is moving forward and meeting milestones according to plan, and the above-mentioned F-35C review against the Advanced Super Hornet will likely result in yet another paper explaining the need for stealth and sensor fusion on the modern battlefield. In other words, the mid- to long-term prospects for the F-35 look good, perhaps even slightly better than they did before Trump got involved.

Eurofighter Typhoon

In January BAE (finally) launched their official Finnish Twitter-account, quite some time after BAE Systems Belgium got theirs. On the whole, BAE has significantly heightened their profile, and isn’t the least bit shy about the fact that they thinks the Typhoon would be the best answer to the needs of the Finnish Air Force.

While BAE still hasn’t explained exactly why they think that’s the case, they have been happy to announce that the acquisition could be funded through the UK Export Finance.

What is often forgotten is that the Typhoon does indeed have an impressive service record in the harsh semi-subarctic climate of the South Atlantic, having been responsible for the air cover of the Falkland Islands since 2009. Of note is that while the aircrews assigned to RAF Mount Pleasant have been rotated, the aircrafts haven’t. The original four aircraft maintained a constant 24/7 QRA flight for over five years, before finally being relieved a while back. Honouring the traditions of the Hal Far Fighter Flight based in Malta during World War 2, the Typhoons wear tailcodes matching the names of the Gladiators of the original flight.

Dassault Rafale

Eight months ago I sat and listened to a presentation by a representative of Dassault, who happily explained the value of the fighter and (almost) all of its subsystems being French. I smiled and nodded politely, thinking to myself that while I understand the value of this from a domestic point of view, I am unsure whether this is a plus or minus in the case of HX. My worry was based on the sometimes volatile state of French politics, especially compared to the relatively stable state of US ones.

Let’s just say I have revised that opinion.

While France certainly has their share of pro-Russian politicians of different colours, Donald Trump has very efficiently demonstrated that the political risks associated with buying French is no larger than buying from the US.

#MAGA.

Saab JAS 39E Gripen

The first flight of the ‘Dash Eight’ prototype is still some time away. Though this was originally slated for Q4 2016, representatives of Saab are adamant that the program as a whole is still on track, and that the delay is due to moving around different parts of the test and development program.

While this might be true, and not flying for the sake of just flying might be the proper decision from a program point of view, this is still something of a PR-loss for Saab, who has been pushing the “on time and budget” narrative. 2017 will be an important year for Saab’s new fighter.

Seinäjoki International Air Show 2017

Contrary to what usually is the case, the Finnish Aeronautical Association’s air show will receive some competition for the Finnish aviation crowds, in that another major air show will take place in Helsinki the day before. Still, the organisers are clear with that they try to get as many HX-competitors attending as possible, and that they hope to see them “both in the air and on the ground“. Last year the JAS 39C Gripen was flying, with the Eurofighter Typhoon being found on static display. Hopefully this year will bring some new players to the Finnish airspace.

 

Spitfire vs. Messerschmitt Bf 109

And now for some out-of-schedule aviation geekiness:

Yesterday I encoutnered an off-hand comment about whether the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt (understood to be the Bf 109) was the superior fighter. This is a matter of debate that arises any time aircraft aficionados gather, but it’s Saturday, and I’m slightly bored, so I feel for writing something lighter.

The aircraft that came to be the Supermarine Spitfire was the brainchild of R. J. Mitchell, a talented engineer that had designed some of the most iconic racing seaplanes of the interwar years. Willy Messerschmitt’s bird had a rather different background, with Messerschmitt learning the trade by designing sailplanes. Much (too much) has been made of these different pedigrees, and how they shaped the fighters that came to be. Still, both designs had much in common, being powered by large liquid-cooled V-12 piston engines, relying on all-metal monocoque structures, and having a single low-slung set of wings. In fact, the Spitfire and the Bf 109 were amongst the first mature fighters to discard the biplane design in favor of the single low-mounted wing that has since dominated the world of fighter aircraft.

Spitfire Mk I being rearmed during the height of the Battle of Britain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The engines of the aircrafts deserve a closer study, as these played an integral part in the development of both series. The Messerschmitt prototype flew with a rather unlikely powersource, namely a British-made Rolls-Royce Kestrel. In the early pre-war versions of the Bf 109 this was then replaced with a Jumo 210 V-12 engine (Jumo standing for Junkers Motoren), but by the time the war broke out the E-version of the Bf 109 had introduced the excellent Daimler-Benz DB 601. By mid-42 a further upgraded version of the DB 600-series had been launched in the form of the DB 605. This would then power the two final versions of the Bf 109, namely the Bf 109G ‘Gustav’ and the Bf 109K ‘Kurfürst’.

The Bf 109E ‘Emil’ of Battle of Britain-fame, here in Swiss colours. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sandstein

Compared to the Bf 109, the Spitfire had a more straightforward development, with the engine forever associated with the aircraft being the Rolls-Royce Merlin. This powered the prototype (as well as the early Spitfire Mk I in the Battle of Britain), and in refined form it powered the Mk VIII that roamed the skies of Burma in 1945. In parallel, a number of late-war Spitfire variants were also powered by the markedly bigger Rolls-Royce Griffon.

It is easy to overlook exactly how huge these improvements were. The Spitfire Mk I that went to war in 1939 featured a Merlin II, giving it 775 kW of power for a top speed of 580 km/h. The aircraft was armed with eight light machine guns in the form of the 0.303 Browning (7,7 mm). Only four years later, the Merlin 60-series (61, 63 and 66) gave Spitfires of the marks VIII, IX and XVI some 1280 kW of power, for a top speed in excess of 650 km/h. The armament consisted of two 20 mm cannons backed up by two heavy .50 calibre machine guns (12,7 mm), and for ground attack up to 450 kg of bombs could be carried. This remarkable increase in power and speed was taken even further by the late- and post-war Griffon-engined versions, in which the final version of the Spitfire, a carrier-based version named Seafire F.Mk 47 mounted a 1752 kW Rolls-Royce Griffon 88 driving a contra-rotating prop, propelling the aircraft to a top-speed of almost 730 km/h! In the meantime, the Bf 109 had progressed from the pre-war Bf 109A ‘Anton’ with its 493 kW Jumo 210D to the Bf 109K-4 ‘Kurfürst’ featuring a Daimler-Benz DB 605DC with a boosted output of 1470 kW.

The sleek lines of the Griffon -powered Seafire F.Mk XVII, one of the last variants of Mitchell’s classic fighter. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Adrian Pingstone

Herein lays the true remarkability of the aircrafts, the fact that they could take on ever larger amounts of power, and still maintain their fighting capability. Extremely few front-line aircraft stayed in production throughout the Second World War, and both the Spitfire and the Bf 109 belong to this exclusive club.

A classic picture of a Bf 109G-2 ‘Gustav’ in Finnish service. Source: Wikimedia Commons/SA-kuva

This puts the question of greatness into perspective. Both planes evolved continuously during their long careers, and any attempt at an answer will have to include a reference to the timeframe in question. There is no doubt that the post-war Griffon-powered Spitfires in the form of the land-based F.Mk. 24 and the carrier-based F.Mk 47 were the all-out finest fighters, as the development of the Messerschmitt had (almost) ended by that time. During the late-war years the Spitfire also held the edge, with the Mk IX being a finer plane than the Bf 109G/K, which were starting to show signs of the airframe not being able to absorb the vast increases in power while maintaining the fine handling in the same way the Spitfire could. During the early war years, the question is harder to answer. The Bf 109F ‘Fredrich’ probably held a slight edge over contemporary Spitfires when it came out, especially over the North African desert, were the Messerschmitt’s dust covers hampered its performance less than the corresponding items on the Spitfire. During the battle of Britain, it is impossible to pick one over the other. The Bf 109E had heavier armament, and a slightly higher top speed, but the thin wing discouraged pilots from taking the aircraft ‘to the limit’ in dogfights, as overstressing the wings could have fatal consequences. In capable hands, both aircraft could more than hold their own against any aerial adversaries.

Still, the final word would go to the Messerschmitt, and in a very unlikely way.

After the war, the Czechoslovak aircraft industry had to find a way to supply the country’s reborn air force with fighters. As the Bf 109G had been produced in the country during the German occupation, it was a natural choice. The ‘new’ fighter was named Avia S-99, but after only a minor batch had been delivered, a warehouse fire destroyed the stored stocks of DB 605 engines. A new engine had to be found if production was to continue. This was solved when it was decided to mate the Jumo 211F engine and propeller used by the Heinkel He 111 to the airframe of the Bf 109G, a decision based more on availability than any finer points of engineering.

The resulting aircraft, dubbed the Avia S-199, was probably the worst version of the whole Bf 109-family to reach production. The large paddle-bladed propeller caused a huge amount of torque, making the aircraft extremely difficult to handle on take-off and landing. The layout of the Jumo-engine also meant that the fearsome 30 mm cannon that had been firing through the propeller hub on the Bf 109 G/K had to be discarded. All in all, it would most probably have slipped off into the pages of aviation history largely unnoticed, if not for developments in the middle east.

An Israeli S-199 showing its huge propeller and redesigned engine cowl. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Upon Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948, the country faced a massive attack from all sides by neighboring Arab states. One of the major problems was that the young state lacked any kind of combat aircraft, and due to an arms embargo, acquiring them proved difficult. Czechoslovakia was eager for any influx of dollars it could find, and was willing to part with a number of S-199’s. The aircrafts enjoyed a brief but eventful career in Israeli service, sporting an extremely high accident rate, but also scoring the first kills of the new air force when Mordechai “Modi” Alon, squadron commander of the sole Israeli fighter unit at that time, managed to shoot down two converted C-47 transport planes that were bombing Tel Aviv (Alon would later die in a non-combat accident with the S-199). However, of the (circa) seven kills attributed to the Avia in Israeli hands, at least one is confirmed as being a Royal Egyptian Air Force Spitfire. In a weird twist of irony, the Messerschmitt won the last of countless of duels. And it did this flown by a Jewish pilot, who had shot down two Bf 109’s while flying for the US Army Air Force during the Second World War.

Epilogue:

There was yet another chapter in the story of the Bf 109. During the latter part of the war, Spain had secured license production rights of the Bf 109G from Germany, but they too found that the DB 605 where not available. In this case, the Germans desperately needed all available engines for themselves. For their homebuilt HA-1109 they therefore used French-made Hispano-Suiza 12Z, but soon a need for more power (and less torque) was evident. Although the plane was outdated as a fighter by this time, the Spanish Air Force decided that an improved version could be useful in counter-insurgency operations in their North African colonies. Thus was born the final version of the Bf 109, the dedicated ground-attack HA-1112-M1L “Buchon” of 1954-vintage, fitted with a, you guessed it, Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.