Some time back, while stuck at the Entebbe airport lounge, I whiled away the time by watching a Ugandan Air Force pilot practice touch and go landings in one of their new Sukhoi 30MKK jets.
I watched as the combat patterned aircraft touched down gracefully on to the runway and then in a deafening roar of turbofan engines generating take off thrust, the twin tailed plane flew majestically into the Ugandan sky for yet another circuit and landing.
According to Airnews magazine, the Ugandan Peoples Defence Force has acquired six of these modern fighters at a cost of $746 million, the last of which was delivered this year.
Apparently this continues a longstanding trend; Uganda had the MiG 21s when we had the Strikemasters. It is speculated that these modern combat aircraft were bought to secure Uganda’s Eastern Congo border before oil production starts and the border with South Sudan where Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army has been a thorn in Kampala’s flesh for decades.
I am, however, frequently asked how Kenya’s F5s would stack up against the Ugandan planes, though it is unlikely that the two countries would ever go to war. They are too interconnected and Kenyans are not belligerent enough.
But let us imagine a parallel universe where Migingo island was an issue worth fighting over and Paul Muite had more votes than someone running for campus president.
First we compare the two platforms. The Su-30 is a fourth generation fighter with flyby wire controls, a thrust to weight ratio of 1, 60,000 feet per minute rate of climb, and a maximum take-off weight of 35 tonnes. This is the same as an Embraer 170 designed to carry 80 people.
The Northrop F5 is a third generation fighter that began its military career as a low cost jet to be offered to American allies. Less capable than even its contemporaries, its high manoeuvrability and low cost has seen it remain in service to this day.
The F5 has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, a climb rate of 34,000 feet per minute and a maximum take-off weight just south of a King Air.
So the F5 is inferior in virtually every metric bar cost. The Su-30 could outclimb, outrun, outlast the F5. If the worst comes to the worst an Su-30 pilot could simply climb to his maximum altitude, 4,000 feet above what the F5 can achieve.
An Su- 30 carries a maximum of two people; the rest of that weight is not for carrying gifts to the people of Eastern Congo. It is not just that we’re in different boats, I don’t believe we’re even in the same ocean.
It gets worse. Depending on the avionics and munitions package, the Su-30 is a BVR fighter — beyond visual range. The epic dog fights of the past probably won’t exist in a modern war. A BVR fighter detects an enemy aircraft before he is visible and using radar and highly manoeuvrable short range missiles, takes him out before he even has a look in.
Due to advances in missile technology, whoever gets the first shot will win. And since the F5 was built before BVR warfare, the Su-30 will get the first shot.
The Su-30 has proven itself capable in simulated combat. On the Internet there is a video of a frank admission of how the more advanced Su-30MK1 was more than capable of holding its own against the F15s in the Red Flag and Cope India aerial combat exercises.
So they hired a star for their production, but the supporting cast is just as important. Here is where things get murky.
Having a super plane is nice but you need well trained pilots to fly them. The pay needs to be enough to attract top talent and promotions should be on the basis of ability.
Moreover, air forces are not cheap. Maintenance costs, infrastructure like military radar and information links critical for BVR warfare need to be purchased and maintained. Those air-to-air missiles aren’t free either.
However, when it comes to an all factors being equal air supremacy comparison, our western neighbours are well ahead.
Now, let us resolve the Migingo issue like gentlemen.
Dr Ondieki is a pilot with an international airline.