Rafale’s IRST is capable of detecting stealth and China’s Su-35

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The Su-35, a principal asset of China’s air force, is most directly pitted against the French Rafale, an aircraft also employed by regional powers such as India and Indonesia. The Chinese military strategically deploys the Su-35 in the Southern Theater, an area encompassing the Indo-Pacific, including North Natuna, which is closely monitored by Indonesian Rafales. 

Photo credit: Dassault Rafale

Interestingly, some local analysts suggest that the Su-35 does not fully meet China’s operational expectations. This assessment may explain why Beijing is directing resources toward the development of a naval version of its J-20 aircraft. In the event of a geopolitical dispute in Northern Natuna, this modified J-20 is perceived to be a formidable rival to the Indonesian Rafale, as suggested by some military intelligence experts. 

When it comes to different types of air combat – be it long-distance, close quarters, or electronic – the Rafale holds its ground against the Su-35. The question of superiority between these two fighters is largely subjective and heavily reliant on the ‘pilot factor’ that underscores the outcome of most air combat situations. Yet, a certain school of thought proposes that, in the global fighter rankings, the Rafale falls slightly below the American F-15 Eagle II.

Greater combat experience

“Rafale fighter jets have demonstrated their formidable power in conflicts across the globe, including Afghanistan, Mali, Libya, Syria, and Iraq,” asserts analysts from Indonesia. A key reason these jets are so lethal lies largely due to their array of cutting-edge sensors, they further explain. 

Among these high-tech sensors is the SAGEM OSF Infrared Search and Track [IRST] system. This compact, powerful tool gives the Rafale the capability to detect and track fifth-generation stealth fighters, as well as the lighter Chinese Su-35. “A nose-mounted infrared search and track system, the Thales/SAGEM OSF optoelectronic circuit, autonomously carries out target search, identification, telemetry, and tracking,” insiders revealed. 

Photo credit: Rosoboronexport

The Indonesian F-16s attempted to evaluate the prowess of the SAGEM OSF system, which could spot them from over 100 km away. At a stretch of 70 km, visuals from the Indonesian F-16 began pouring into the Rafale’s tracking system. This detailed visual intelligence included information about the F-16’s shape, the weapons it was armed with, and its speed. It’s fair to say that the Su-35, formidable as it is, simply cannot match the Rafale’s detailed analytic potential.

Deeper in SAGEM OSF (IRST)

SAGEM OSF [IRST] stands for Optronique Secteur Frontal, which translates to Front Sector Optronics. It is an advanced infrared search and track [IRST] system developed by the French company SAGEM [now Safran Electronics & Defense]. 

The OSF system consists of several key components. The primary component is the infrared sensor, which detects heat signatures from potential threats. This sensor operates in two spectral bands to ensure reliable detection under various conditions. The system also includes a television camera for visual identification and a laser rangefinder for precise distance measurement. 

Video Screenshot

In combat, the SAGEM OSF [IRST] system plays a critical role in both offensive and defensive operations. The system continuously scans the aircraft’s surroundings, detecting and tracking multiple targets simultaneously. The infrared sensor can detect heat signatures from enemy aircraft, missiles, and other potential threats, even against the background of the earth or sea. 

Once a threat is detected, the system can track it automatically. Then providing the pilot with real-time information about the threat’s location, distance, and trajectory. This information can be used to launch countermeasures or to engage the threat directly. Importantly, because the OSF system uses passive sensors, it can operate without revealing the aircraft’s position. This giving it a significant advantage in combat scenarios.

Moreover, the OSF system’s television camera and laser rangefinder can be used for visual identification and precise targeting. The camera allows the pilot to visually confirm the threat. The laser rangefinder provides accurate distance measurements, enabling precise targeting with weapons.

Photo credit: UAC

The radar of the Su-35 is not AESA

Unlike the Rafale, the Su-35 from Russia is not equipped with an AESA radar. Instead, the Su-35 is outfitted with a PESA Irbis E radar, renowned for its limited detection capabilities. As explained by military specialist Abhirup Sengupta, this radar can only track a single target. “The Irbis-E, utilized in the Su-35, can only track one target at a time,” clarifies Sengupta. Furthermore, he draws comparisons between the functionality of the Irbis E and the APG-70 radar used in the F-15E Strike Eagle during the 1980s. 

According to Sengupta, the technology of the Irbis E appears to be outdated. “The synthetic aperture resolution of the Irbis E is strikingly similar to the APG-70 radar used in the 1980s for the F-15E,” he highlights. He further suggests that the Su-35 would most likely face difficulties when pitted against the more advanced Indonesian Rafale, predicting the latter would clearly emerge victorious in such a scenario.

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