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Glasnost and the glass cockpit.

Glasnost and the Glass Cockpit

The traditional image of a Warsaw Pact fighter pilot, as seen by the West, is of a highly disciplined, defensive-minded airplane driver. Fighters, in the Soviet tactical plan, are manned interceptors, umbilically tied to a ground-controlled intercept station by radio data-link. Individual initiative is discouraged, and only set-piece air intercepts are practiced with the controllers on the ground calling all the shots. Free-lance "dogfighting" is prohibited.

The historical rationale behind this approach is complex, but was rooted in several factors. Effective air defense of the Soviet fatherland required protection from the deep penetration bombers of both the Strategic Air Command and the Royal Air Force's V-Force. This requirement was historically paramount. Secondly, a perceived high degree of proficiency in air defense is obtainable with the expenditure of a minimum of flying time, providing each engagement is scripted in advance with a predetermined outcome. This approach efficiently generates successful training sorties. Proficiency in the real world of contested air combat is expensive. It costs fuel, maintenance resources, and with the inevitable crashes, it costs pilots and airframes. The Soviets have chosen to avoid spending money dogfighting and thus have saved Rubles to be used for more wings of interceptors to cover the USSR's vast geographical expanses. A more subtle limiting factor than money may have been political currency. Air combat requires pilots to develop individual initiative and self-reliance. Each pilot must be empowered to make his own decisions, instantaneously, based on a detailed knowledge of the overall air battle situation. If Soviet fighter pilots, the cream of Soviet society, were allowed independent thinking in the air, could they be trusted not to violate Marxists-Leninist dogma by thinking for themselves on the ground as well? This approach to air fighting has one drawback - it doesn't work. This was made painfully clear to the Soviets when their air defense system was confronted with unexpected and unplanned threats, such as various lost civilian airliners wandering around unimpeded over the USSR for hours at a time. Their air defense shortcomings were further publicized when a Cessna 172 landed unannounced in Red Square and taxied up to the Kremlin.

More to the point, Russian deficiencies in fighter pilot training became obvious in various engagements in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Vietnam. Warsaw Pact-trained pilots were handed their heads by their US Air Force, US Navy & Israeli counterparts. These disastrous defeats and humiliations evidently convinced the Russians that a change was needed. This has been clearly stated in public by senior Soviet officers and in published works.

It is not too great a mental leap to draw an analogy between Russian ineptitude in free-form air combat and the Russian economy's failure in a free market world. Comrade Gorbachev's solution to the USSR's economic miseries is the introduction of "Glasnost" and "Perestroika". Will there be a corresponding new "openness" and "restructuring" in Soviet air combat tactics? A look at current MiG and Suhkoi cockpits may give us a clue on how feasible this change might be. We can use the state of the cockpit designs as indicators of both the Soviet approach to air combat and as measures of aircraft competitiveness in the air combat arena.

As seen at the 1989 Paris Air Show, both the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the Su-27 Flanker cockpits represent mid-1960s technology. Flight and engine data are indicated by old style circular dials. The radar displays are small, and not sunlight-proof or mounted under the glare shield. The radar warning receiver (RWR) display is out of ready sight. Each aircraft's head-up display is small, with a narrow field of view. The infrared search and track set does not have a separate display. The visibility looking out of the canopy is marginal in the Flanker, very poor in the Fulcrum, and both fighters have almost no visibility to the rear, from 5 to 7 o'clock. The ejection seats are slightly reclined, true, but not enough significantly to increase the pilot's ability to withstand G loading.

What limitations do these cockpits impose on their pilots? Some conclusions are obvious. The small, out of sight radar displays will prevent an understanding of the total air battle situation occurring beyond visual range. Compare the single, small Su-27 display with the three large multi-function displays in the F-18. The Hornet pilot is going to be much more proficient at what fighter weapons instructors call "situational awareness", i.e. a mental grasp of the overall situation. Poor rearward visibility will prove to be another Achilles heel in air combat as a Fulcrum pilot is blind from 5 to 7 o'clock. By contrast, an F-15 Eagle driver can look over his right shoulder and see his left vertical tail, and an F-16 Falcon pilot sits in a "nude to the waist" bubble canopy.

The impression one gets from sitting in the Flanker and Fulcrum cockpits is of a Soviet fighter force still oriented toward a ground-controlled intercept environment, dependent on radar vectors to place the target in the fighter's front quadrant.

At Le Bourget, the Russians hinted at a new Flanker cockpit to be introduced next year featuring more modern displays, i.e., a "glass cockpit". A large radar display, giving a "God's eye view" of the air battle arena would be a strong indicator that they are serious about opening up their tactics and giving the pilot more information on which to base his own decisions.

Two more clues will be furnished by the appearance of the new MiG-33 and MiG-35 aircraft. The Flanker and Fulcrum were designed in the Breshnev era, and only so much can be changed once the basic design is fixed. Bubble canopies on the new MiGs, once the West gets a look at them, will be a strong indication that the Russians are getting serious about air combat. A look in the cockpits will tell even more.

The amazing marketing thrusts exhibited by the Russians at Farnborough in 1988 and Le Bourget in 1989 may be applied to the new fighters, allowing the West to examine the aircraft at a much earlier stage in their evolution than was possible with the MiG-29 and Su-27. Thus, we may know a little sooner in which directions the design bureaus are headed and through them, the thinking of Soviet tacticians.

PHOTO : The MiG-29 cockpit: an unexpected contrast.
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Title Annotation:Soviet fighter pilots, air combat tactics and fighter plane cockpit design
Author:Cobleigh, Ed
Publication:Armada International
Date:Aug 1, 1990
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