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Posts Tagged ‘Air Warfare’

Fighting the Next War, Part II

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 25, 2009

The F-22, which the Air Force has alleged to be the fighter that could not be shot down, has been destroyed on the ground by the American Congress, two days before the news broke that the F-35– the Joint Strike Fighter– is at least two years behind schedule and won’t enter the production phase until at least 2016.

It’s been a bad week for the Air Force.

Where does this leave American air power as we head into the second and third decades of the century? Not in a particularly good place in the short term but, if the Air Force brass can get their heads around it, in a very good position for the mid to long term.

In the first part of this article I touched upon the F-22 suffering from many problems, the most critical of which was timing. Not only was the insanely expensive F-22 up for review during a financial crisis, but at a time in which unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have been constantly in the news for their outsized role in the Afghan theater of the war. Every week we see stories of Reaper or Predator strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and hear the virtues of this style of aerial combat– extremely long loiter times, no American pilots in danger or captured in sketchy places in the event of a shootdown, reasonably stealthy… and relatively cheap. If these drones work so well in the air-to-ground role, what can they do for air supremacy?

The idea of taking the human pilot out of the cockpit holds several advantages, not the least of which is taking the risk of dead American pilots off the table. From an aircraft design standpoint, removing the pilot, cockpit controls, life support system and ejection seat is a dream for the weight savings, allowing greater loiter time, greater deliverable payload and overall cost savings.

In modern fighters, the pilot is always the weakest link; fighters can pull far more Gs than the pilot can tolerate without losing consciousness. While it is true that could make UCAVs incredible dogfighters, that isn’t nearly as important in modern aerial warfare as is the fact that the higher G load the aircraft can handle, the better chance it has of avoiding¬† advanced SAMs You also eliminate the problem of limited mission duration by taking fatigue, food, and discomfort out of the equation. From a mission planning standpoint you can take greater risks; although these planes will be expensive, they will also be more disposable as you aren’t losing pilots when you lose airframes. It’s politically a lot easier to send a fleet of robots against a highly defended target than it is to send someone’s kids to do the job.

There are significant downsides to UCAVs in the air supremacy role; the control systems would be extremely complex, especially if any autonomy is expected. Active control systems are potentially subject to interference and jamming, and the technology to actively control these aircraft in the split-second environment of aerial combat may not even be possible due to broadcast lag time, demanding the aforementioned complex autonomy. When you take humans out of the loop, you also have the problem of the computer choosing incorrectly and destroying the wrong targets or making other mistakes. The “creepiness factor” of robots killing humans is going to inspire a Russian, Chinese and Iranian campaign amongst lesser developed nations to outlaw these things, and it is undeniably going to gain traction as America will likely be the only ones deploying autonomous systems like this for several years.

The biggest problem facing the move to UCAVs, though, isn’t technological– it’s oh so very human. The biggest obstacle is the revulsion with which UCAVs are viewed by the Air Force, which of course is run primarily by fighter pilots whose entire identities are invested in the fact that they have piloted high performance jets. Ever have a conversation with a fighter pilot? They talk about flying a fighter the way a 17 year old boy talks about sex– it’s the ultra-idealized, be all and end all of human existence. They cannot, for the most part, conceive of, first, a computer doign their job in the cockpit and second, of not spreading their profession to a next generation of fighter pilots. That’s a problem when these men and women are the ones who need to set strategic and tactical policy for the Air Force and as well as making the research and procurement decisions about future aircraft.

The Air Force has run up against a wall every bit as imposing as the limits of a human to withstand Gs– the potential of the next generation of planes has outstripped the costs that Americans are willing to pay for them. A plane that can cruise at supersonic speeds rather than only sprint at them, that can engage a dozen targets simultaneously while being nearly invisible to radar, that can maneuver like no plane before it– those are the features of the F-22. So is the $361,000,000 price tag per plane, for a plane that is designed to operate in units measured in multiples of 12. The next plane up, the F-35 JSF, is rumored to be significantly less capable int he air-to-air role than advertised and is getting very expensive itself; if its primary role is to be that of an air-to-ground attack plane with a secondary air-to-air capacity, then one has to question the wisdom of buyign it when UCAV technology has already been demonstrated to handle that role very well.

This week we’ve heard the Air Force make the argument that to deny the F-22 is to fight the last war rather than the next as the F-22, while useless in Afghanistan could be a huge difference maker in a more symmetrical war against a major power. The reality may well be that procuring the F-22 and F-35 may indeed be the move rooted in the last war, as technology has eclipsed the need for the human pilot in the cockpit; the Air Force may finally, unwillingly, be dragged into that realization by the White House quaterbacked drive that ended the F-22’s procurement cycle.

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Posted in American Politics, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Who, Us? We Didn’t See a Thing.

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 2, 2009

middle-east-mapA curious little tidbit was nestled within the stories earlier this week about the United States returning “control” of the Green Zone to the Iraqis. As it turns out, this was a two-for-one deal with Iraq not only getting back the Green Zone tar baby but also taking responsibility for controlling their own airspace.

That might not seem like too big a deal– after all, who is possibly going to be attacking Iraq from the air with so large a percentage of the US military sitting on the ground there? What makes this interesting, however, is the fact that Iraq literally can not control its airspace; their Air Force currently consists of a gaggle of Cessna 172s (the ever popular “Cessna” of US private aviation), some Beech & Cessna 8 seat transport planes, a few helicopters and a couple of C-130s. What’s missing from that mix that might help in controlling one’s airspace? If you said, “Fighters and radar warning aircraft” promote yourself to Junior Wing Commander.

It is true that in the 21st Century controlling your airspace is a cornerstone of sovereignty, so even a symbolic turning over of the airspace has some meaning. An alternate and somewhat more interesting meaning, however, comes into better focus when you look at a map of the Middle East.

As we’ve all been told a few hundred times, Iran is embarked on a program to build nuclear weapons and the Israelis… well, let’s just say they aren’t terribly pleased with this development. One of Israel’s larger problems in doing something about the Iranian nuclear program is proximity– as in Iran is a “You Can’t Get There From Here” locale if you’re flying an IDF strike fighter.

To reach Iran, the enterprising Israeli air commander is left with a very few options. The first but most remote possibility is a flight north up the Med to Turkey, then across Turkey and Southwest through Iran. I consider this to be a highly unlikely option; the Turks are unlikely to want to antagonize the Iranians with whom they share a border, and an Israeli strike that crosses Turkey would either mean landing and refueling at Turkish bases (diplomatically untenable) or the Turks allowing Israeli refueling aircraft not only to refuel the strike package on the way in but then to loiter over Turkish territory and refuel on the way out– it’s not something I can see the Turks condoning, especially when you recall how they got cold feet about allowing the US to use Turkish bases as jumping off points for the 2003 Iraqi invasion. Turkey and Iran aren’t openly belligerent towards one another right now; why would Turkey wish to change that when they have enough problems with the Kurds to keep them occupied?

Taking out the Turkish option, Israel’s planes are almost certainly going to overfly Jordanian airspace, which isn’t going to make anyone particularly happy… on the surface, a point we’ll get back to. The only viable non-Jordanian flight path is through very hostile and very well defended Syrian airspace, and hey, who needs a two front-war, right? So, assuming a transit of Jordan, Israeli planes can either go southeast over northern Saudi Arabia (not going to happen as if it did the King’s head would be a on a pike by nightfall) or, and here’s the interesting bit, head due east across Iraq and refuel over the Western Persian Gulf before going on attack runs at Iranian nuclear hot spots like Esfahan/Natanz, Bushehr, Arak, and even perhaps as far as Karaj & Tabriz.

From my perspective, a major stumbling block to Israel taking that route has been that they would need to seek permission from the Americans to overfly Iraqi airspace, which we were responsible for up until this week. America, of course, would be put in an interesting diplomatic spot if we did that for allowing the “hated” Zionisits to overfly Islamic (if Sunni) lands to strike at Iran. At that point we may as well conduct the raid ourselves as we’d be getting all of the love notes at the UN anyway.

It sure is a good thing that in the waning days of the Bush-Cheney Admin, however, that we handed the responsibility for protecting that airspace to the one group that couldn’t do it– the Iraqis themselves. By the time they realized the Israelis were over their country the planes would be heading out over the Gulf and the Iraqis won’t be able to do a thing to stop them on the way back even if they do know they’re coming. The Americans can put a diplomatic “Huh?” face on as we aren’t the ones controlling the airspace so we can’t be legally blamed for the incursion. The Israelis aren’t going to give much of a damn what the EU countries think about the move, the Russians will be thrilled because this means they can sell the Iranians more reactor components and a freshly updated integrated air defense system and the Jordanians– remember them, the guys who first had their airspace violated?– are just as happy that the Iranians are dealt a huge blow in their quest to become the regional hegemon. Iran holding nuclear control in the Gulf would put enormous pressure on Saudi Arabia, who hold in trust the Holy Cities of Mecca & Medina. Jordan’s King Abdullah, being the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is much happier with his brother Sunnis holding those cities unmolested by Shi’a power, which would undoubtedly be brought to bear should Iran gain nuclear weapons.

Will this all come to pass? Good question. If it does it will likely happen within the next 10 days so as not to overlap the American Inaugural.

Keep your eyes on those Iraqi skies.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Middle East, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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