Monday, February 25, 2008

F-7 Skybolt/Airguard

The Air Force has at last seems to have come to proper senses by scrapping the decision to purchase overkill MiG-29 air superiority fighters and to buy a batch of late model F-7s. Since the LTTE acquired air capability and ran several embarrassing air raids over various strategic positions in SL, the AF still did not possess a decent interceptor capability of shooting down a enemy aircraft out of the sky despite strengthening of ground-based defenses. The first reaction [out of pure panic] was to purchase MiG-29s, which really should have been enabling Kfirs/F-7s with air-to-air and night capability, and keeping them at a decent state of alert. These aircraft were in AF inventory for years, and would have proven more effective than a completely new type.

The F-7, for example, has been in AF inventory since early 90s, and the AF has always had some F-7s flying. It's doubted whether they were used for any other capacity than as advanced jet trainers, but they were simply cool to have. You never feel the same to stand in morning sun prepared for the day's flying in G gear, helmet in hand, with a bunch of colleagues flaking you and an F-7 with its Wopen growling in background. The F-7 had an aura the more modern Kfir never was able to exude.

If the news is right, the humble F-7 will come out of advanced trainer solace to bear the prime responsibility of air defense with the purchase of new F-7Gs. The AF has so far operated limited weather variants F-7BS and trainer FT-7s, but that experience would prove cruicial in amalgamating the new fighters into frontline service.

The F-7 in basically a Chinese copy of the veteran Soviet design of MiG-21, -21F-13 to be precise. Earliest work began in 1964 and the first flight took place in 1966. It was a tailed delta similar to its Soviet forebear, and was an easy aircraft to fly despite being heavy on controls. Collaboration with the Russians ceased at an early stage, but the Chinese went on to rollout a wide array of F-7 derivatives, targeted at both local use and export market. Two large orders were secured from Egypt and Iraq for the export version of an advanced version Chengdu [the Chinese manufacturer] rolled out in 1979 which was compatible with French R550 Magic missiles as well as Chinese PL-2 AAMs. The export version F-7BS was specifically for Sri Lanka, with four underwing pylons, powered by WP-7C turbojet rated 6180kg/4350kg max/military thrust. The F-7MG, which is believed to be a baseline version on which the new purchase order is based, was rolled out in 1993 sporting a GEC-Marconi Super Skyranger radar, leading/trailing edge manoeuvre flaps, 2x30mm cannon with 126 rounds each and compatible with any of AIM-9P/R550/PL-7 air-to-air missiles. Pakistan remains a major export user of the F-7 derivatives, along with its large Mirage force. Strong military ties with that country would also strengthen the SLAF force with training, know-how and equipment.

All in all, the air defense capable F-7G purchase can be marked as one of the wisest decisions by the AF despite being a bit late. It would allow SLAF to enjoy a cheap yet capable point-defense capability, which would allow a far better retaliation in whatsoever future threat to Sri Lankan airspace.