Su-27 Flanker uses iPad tablet to launch American AGM-88 HARM

The launch of an MGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile from an original Soviet-designed Su-27 Flanker of Ukraine’s Air Force is captured in a video, which clearly showcases a Western tablet, likely an iPad or a similar model, in the cockpit. As analyzed by American experts, the video, released by a Twitter account known as OSINTtechnical, distinctly displays this modern integration. 

Su-27 Flanker uses iPad tablet to launch American AGM-88 HARM
Video screenshot

Since the war began in February 2022, a myriad of Soviet-origin Ukrainian fighter jets have been upgraded with various Western systems, including missiles. The exact process of how the tablet integrates with the missile launch system, however, remains a mystery, according to US analysts who scrutinized the somewhat obscure video footage.

Dr. William LaPlante, the US Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, provided some perspective. In an April 24th interaction with reporters, he affirmed that numerous Western weapons had been successfully modified for use on Ukrainian aircraft. “Working together with the Ukrainians, we’ve managed to outfit their planes with a range of Western weapons, essentially operated via an iPad in the cockpit. What’s most impressive is the rapid adaptability, with the newly equipped planes being flown into conflict just a week after receiving the updated systems,” he disclosed. 

From the snapshot captured in the released video, we can only glean a modest portion of the entire story. It seems to depict an iPad or a similar device, the screen of which exhibits an extensive geographic area—the intended flight path of the missile to a target several kilometers distant. The device screen also presents a cascade of puzzling data arranged in a table at its top, along with more complex information along its left and bottom edges.

Like a moth drawn to a flame, a recent video piqued our interest. It urged us to reevaluate the long-abandoned notion of “that’s simply not possible”. As we delved deeper and consulted an expert well-versed in military C4ISR systems, the seemingly improbable idea of utilizing an iPad or a similar device as a remote controller for a missile from a fighter jet began to take the shape of plausibility. The cornerstone of this audacious concept is the development of a bespoke app or software equipped to exchange commands with the missile’s onboard systems. Such software must be sophisticated enough to dispatch directives to the missile, retrieve feedback, and present this information in an easily comprehensible manner on the device screen. 

The transmission of information between the iPad and the missile would presumably be initiated via a secure wireless connection, possibly a shielded Wi-Fi or Bluetooth link. Through this connection, the device could issue commands to be processed by the missile’s onboard computer systems. These commands could range from initiating a launch to adjusting trajectory, and even triggering detonation.

Ukrainian Su-27 flew over the front line and landed in Russia
Photo credit: Yandex

Imagine the possibility of an iPad relaying real-time data from a missile’s onboard sensors during flight. This could include crucial details such as the missile’s speed, altitude, and positioning, among other pertinent data. Such information could be instantaneously displayed to the user, enabling them to closely track the missile’s trajectory and implement any necessary adjustments on the go. 

Despite these exciting prospects, several challenges suggest that the answers may not be as straightforward. Incorporating consumer electronics within military frameworks brings its own set of challenges, with security being a paramount concern. Any system that can remotely control a missile must have superior security measures in place, to prevent chances of unauthorized access or disruption. 

Furthermore, the harsh physical conditions under which the fighter jet operates greatly differ from the usual environments for which consumer electronics like tablets are designed. The device should be robust enough to endure high G-forces, fluctuating temperature changes, and potentially survive in the face of gunfire. This necessitates a major overhaul of the tablet’s design or the creation of a specialized instrument.

F-35 will carry solid rocket-ramjet AARGM-ER: INS/GPS, 250km range AGM-88 HARM
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Undeniably, there’s a possibility that the tablet may serve as the plane’s navigational system in this context. This carries significant importance, considering that Ukrainian Su-27 Flankers, for instance, have not seen an upgrade with original manufacturer components and systems in over ten years. 

Though notably advanced in the 1980s, today’s standards render the Su-27’s navigation system somewhat obsolete. This system relies on terrestrial navigation aids, augmented by onboard inertial navigation mechanisms. Despite their reliability, these systems don’t offer the accuracy or real-time updates characteristic of modern, GPS-based systems. 

In contrast, the iPad utilizes a combination of GPS, GLONASS [the Russian GPS counterpart], Galileo [the EU’s global navigation satellite system], and BeiDou [China’s satellite navigation system] to determine positioning. This multifaceted approach enhances accuracy, providing a redundancy feature. Furthermore, the iPad receives real-time satellite data updates regarding weather conditions, terrain, and other navigational factors.

Su-27 Flanker uses iPad tablet to launch American AGM-88 HARM
Video screenshot

Continually updated with the latest in software advancements and satellite data, the iPad navigation system ensures the most accurate, up-to-the-minute information is always on hand. In stark contrast, updates to the Su-27’s navigation system require physical alterations to the aircraft, a process that is both cost-intensive and time-consuming. 

Expanding on the video clip in question, we are led to ask: is the iPad directly controlling the AGM-88 HARM missile, or does it simply serve as an auxiliary tool for the pilot? The notion that the HARM missile is controlled by an iPad might seem a bit of a stretch, considering it is primarily regulated by the fighter jet’s built-in computer system. However, devices like an iPad can play a significant role in mission planning and control procedures. Military personnel could use a tablet to operate mission planning software, input objective coordinates, and transfer this information to the missile’s integrated computer ahead of launch. 

In addition, the iPad can function as a receiver and display live data from the missile’s onboard sensors. This enables mission controllers to monitor the missile’s status and refine the mission plan as necessary in real-time. Yet, this doesn’t imply that the missile itself is directly under the control of an iPad.

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