Last week, I attempted to link the remarkably positive contribution the destructive arts played in the creation of the modern world. But the effects of innovations, especially in the military arena, are not uniformly positive. Military development gives us lemons as well as lemonade. Examples abound: the Chauchat machine gun, the Ferdinand tank destroyer, the M247 Sergeant York anti-aircraft gun, and the notoriously inaccurate and unreliable SM-62 Snark cruise missile (a weapon is clearly a dud when the epitaph reads So many Snarks were fired down the Atlantic Ocean Test Firing Range that the crews referred to them as “Snark Infested Waters“). But these pale in comparison to failures that are not even recognized.
Part 1: The Generals are Blind
Before delving into the the implications (in another post) with innovations that attempt to take the human out of the operation of machines and the resulting love affair with automation that is sweeping through the economy, I will go back to its roots. I’ve already touched on how stupidly vulnerable drones are, but a historical perspective might be in order.
Since the First World War (more or less where air power debuted), a basic truth has been demonstrated time and time again. Well-trained airmen are far more valuable than cutting edge weaponry. This lesson, however, has in the past been resisted at length by the U.S. Air Force:
After the Korean cease-fire, [Brig. Gen. Robin] Olds said U.S. tactical air power entered the Dark Ages. “We weren’t allowed to dogfight,” he said. “Very little attention was paid to strafing, dive-bombing, rocketry, stuff like that. It was thought to be unnecessary. Yet every confrontation America faced in the Cold War years was a ‘bombs and bullets’ situation, raging under an uneasy nuclear standoff.”
The degree that the USAF turned away from training for conventional warfare bordered on the absurd:
“My boss was a bomber guy with a missile badge. He was a really nice man who knew absolutely nothing about fighter warfare or tactical warfare. As a matter of fact, I thought he didn’t know much about bomber warfare either. To him, there wasn’t any warfare. We just postured and threatened with our nukes.”
Olds recounted how — while writing a paper on conventional, tactical air power — he was ordered to stop by his two-star commander. “He said I had to get it through my head that we would never again fight a conventional war,” Olds recalled. “That was in 1962. We already had advisers in South Vietnam.”
The doctrine espoused by bomber commanders were put to the test soon after:
While commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, Olds flew 152 combat missions, 105 of them over North Vietnam, from October 1966 to September 1967. He shot down two MiG-17s and two MiG-21s, two on one mission.
“Young pilots showed up at Ubon who saw for the first time an F-4 loaded down with live ordnance,” Olds said. “They had never been taught how to deliver a cluster bomb unit, didn’t know about SAM [surface-to-air missile] evasion tactics or electronic countermeasures formation flying. They knew how to fly the airplane, but didn’t know how to roll over into a 60-degree dive bomb attack from 16,000 to 17,000 feet. They hadn’t been taught anything like that.
“They didn’t know B.S. about combat. What the hell was I supposed to do with them? So, we had to train them ourselves. That, on top of a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operational schedule.”
Robin Olds, who was already a legendary double ace from downing 12 German aircraft in the skies above Europe, turned his Vietnam F-4 unit into the quite possibly the most formidable USAF fighter wing to fight in that conflict. Olds himself thought “it took that long, protracted, lousy war to convince us we needed to develop better, more precise, viable air power.”
On that all-important training front, both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy have internalized these Vietnam lessons, with the USN’s Navy Fighter Weapons School (popularly known as TOPGUN and now officially known as SFTI) since 1969 and the USAF’s Red Flag exercises since 1975.
Vietnam did not just demonstrate that failing to teach pilots how to fight conventionally is idiotic. Robin Olds’ message was also hammered home with the utter failure of the technologies bomber commanders assumed had made dogfighting fighter planes obsolete. Here again, the perspective of history is in order.
The Korean-Vietnam interwar period was not the first time a crucial aerial mission was neglected. Simply put, the air forces the world over and the USAF (and its U.S. Army predecessors) in particular have always had trouble coming to grips with the fact that the air superiority mission is not going away:
Between the world wars many thought that the higher speeds and G-loading of the higher-performance aircraft that were appearing made ACM [(Air Combat Maneuver)] impossible. In 1940 during the Battle of Britain the British rediscovered the art of ACM after realizing the inferiority of their fixed vic formations vis a vis the German fighter escorts that had already re-learned the art of air combat.
These false assumptions about ACM logically carried through into prewar fighter design. Oddly enough, the same circumstances played out with the fighter that dominated MiG Alley:
Some might say that the WWII P-51 Mustang and F-86 Sabre were pure fighters, but that is not the case since they were not designed with dogfighting in mind. The Mustang was designed for range and speed and it became the premier WWII fighter because the Brits changed the power plant into a bigger Rolls-Royce engine. The F-86 was designed as a high-altitude interceptor with big wings and because of the large wing area became an excellent maneuvering fighter, which was not a design criteria.
The dominance of the P-51 and F-86 were technological accidents, easily overlooked and downplayed. The post-Korea 1950s placed overwhelming emphasis on intercepting incoming Soviet bombers, and with the fielding of the 30 nautical mile range AIM-7 Sparrow the concept of attacking from Beyond Visual Range (BVR) was born. Simple questions like how Rules of Engagement might limit the advantages of BVR likely were not considered:
With the enlarged American commitment in Vietnam the fighter community began to realize just how far off target the fixation on interception and nuclear weapons delivery had put them. The large, heavy, unmaneuverable and purely missile-armed fighters were forced to engage older but more agile Migs. The matter was made worse by the fact that ACM training left the curriculum soon after the Korean War.7 Political-based limitations on Rules of Engagement (ROE) further hampered fighter pilots. Incidents in which damaged American aircraft returned to base with American missiles lodged in them as well as fears that foreign non-combatant aircraft might be downed generated the policy requiring an aircraft had to be identified visually before it could be fired upon.8 This ROE negated many of the intended advantages of the missile-armed fighters of the period with their emphasis on Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capability. The resulting engagements frequently devolved into lower, slower endgame battles American fighters without guns could not fight well.
Which might not have mattered much considering how the AIM-7 initially performed:
Experience during the Vietnam war demonstrated it to be virtually useless against maneuvering targets. A special AIM-7E-2 dogfight version was produced to overcome these shortcomings.
Nor was the much more reliable heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder free from technical issues:
The lessons of Vietnam and the Yom Kippur clearly indicated the limitations of the established Sidewinder subtypes, which did not perform well at low altitudes due background infrared emitted by the earth’s surface and reflected by clouds.
But these problems all paled in comparison to this fiasco:
On May 4, 1967, Col. Robin Olds was robbed of ace status. On that day he fought two fighter engagements over North Vietnam. In the first he fired all of his missiles and downed a Mig-21. In the second he displayed his superb flying skills, engaging highly-agile Mig-17s in his lumbering F-4C and obtained firing solutions on three or four enemy aircraft from as close as 20 feet. His proficiency was for naught that day for the simple reason that his fighter was not equipped with a gun. Olds had nothing to shoot with from close range.1 “A fighter without a gun,” he said later, “is like an airplane without a wing.”2 The USAF and the American military establishment had forgotten the lessons of air warfare’s brief history and were ill-equipped to fight anything other than a strategic nuclear war. For the USAF fighter community, this meant that their fighters were not designed for old-fashioned dogfights.
War has a way of finally forcing armed forces to correct severe deficiencies. The development in the 1970s of the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 finally broke the USAF’s obsession with “Bigger-Higher-Faster-Farther” fighter designs. Using Major John Boyd’s Energy-Maneuvering studies ensured superior dogfighting performance coupled with better armament (above all installing an internal 20mm cannon in all fighters) was expressed with the “Fighter Mafia’s” mantra–“not a pound for air-to-ground.”
Having developed weapon systems that have turned TOPGUN and Red Flag trained pilots into the deadliest aerial warriors on Earth, since the 1970s the armed forces of the United States finally have internalized a century of hard-won wisdom in warfare. Well, internalized for manned aircraft...
Part II: The Return of Irrational Exuberance
“The last manned fighter.” This statement usually directed at the F-35 is becoming so commonplace it must have merit, right? The Economist isn’t known for the kind of sensationalism prevalent in American mass media, and they are by no means alone. After all, UAVs have even triumphed in air-to-air combat:
Just like a classic gunfighter’s standoff, the guy that was able to shoot first lived to tell the story, just barely averting mutual destruction. Surely the Iraqi MiG-25 pilot must have been amazed when he saw what amounts to a seemingly defenseless glorified radio controlled plane shoot back at his mach three capable interceptor. Yet maybe what at face value seems like a loss for the USAF was in fact exactly the outcome they wanted as that was the last time Iraqi fighters ever pushed an intercept on an unmanned US drone.
And that my friends is how the future of unmanned air to air combat was born…
A highly-regarded Air Force technical troubleshooter named James Clark approached Gen. John Jumper, chief of staff of the flying branch, with the idea of adding the 34-pound, heat-seeking Stingers to the drones [patrolling the Iraqi no-fly zone].
Expectations were modest. “A Predator crew would find it hard, if not impossible, to spot an Iraqi fighter and launch a Stinger quickly enough to have a chance of hitting it, given the speed of a jet,” Whittle wrote. “At the very least, though, giving the Predator a way to shoot back might spook [Iraqi dictator Saddam] Hussein’s pilots, Jumper and Clark agreed.”
Predator-maker General Atomics got a contract to integrate Stingers in September, and by October a drone was flying mock dogfights against a Cessna playing the role of an enemy plane. Four Stinger test firings resulted in two misses.
In November the Stinger-armed Predators deployed to the Middle East and were soon maneuvering against Iraqi MiGs, albeit apparently without launching missiles. Then on Dec. 23, 2002, an Iraqi MiG-25 intercepted one of the Predators and, for the first time, the two planes exchanged fire.
Video of the brief battle, shot by the Predator, was obtained by CBS News. “The engagement began when the MiG turned to attack head-on and fired a missile,” Whittle recalled. “The Predator crew fired a Stinger back. The video shows the smoke trails of the missiles crossing, then the Stinger starting to dive, coming nowhere close to the MiG. Then the Predator video suddenly ends.”
The drone fell to the ground in pieces. The MiG was reportedly unscathed.
When U.S. forces invaded Iraq just over three months later, Hussein ordered the MiG-25s and the rest of his air force buried in the sand rather than face American F-15s. Predators continued flying over Iraq and Afghanistan. “Given the absence of air threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, the decision was made not to equip those RPA with air-to-air weapons,” Deptula says.
“Rather than face F-15s.” The Iraqis feared the USAF’s formidable air superiority fighters, not defenseless drones. The rhetoric is starting to sound like the 1950s and early 1960s again…
IIa: Can’t See, Can’t Land, Can’t Afford
UAVs have major shortcomings. Probably the most worrisome is bad optics. Not figuratively, literally:
[T]he ability of [the MQ-9’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System] to identify targets—to discern just what they are, based on the clarity and resolution of the imagery received on the ground—has serious limitations.
According to test reports, these sensors have had difficulty finding and tracking targets as large as “vehicles,” and they have even more difficulty with “dismounts” (people). To improve the resolution of these sensors, Reaper operates at altitudes well below its nominal 25,000 to 50,000 foot ceiling; they typically operate at 10,000 to 15,000 feet to enable better image resolution, and they may operate lower than that, if severe terrain and vulnerability to hand held air defenses is not a problem.
The failure to be able to discriminate valid human targets was vividly and tragically displayed in a combat engagement in April 2011 involving Marines and the Taliban in Afghanistan. A Predator was unable to discriminate the highly distinctive combat outline of two Marines (with full battle equipment) from the irregular enemy. Based simply on detecting muzzle flashes and making a poorly informed assessment based on their geographic location in the middle of a fluid firefight, a Predator with Hellfires killed two Marines, mistaking them for the enemy. As the internet video cited above makes abundantly clear, the quality of the imagery transmitted to screens on the ground from operational altitudes is so poor it cannot make critically important distinctions.
Reaper is commonly described to have a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for finding and identifying targets through weather (which the other sensors are unable to attempt). However, according to DOD’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), the SAR has been problematic, in part due to power and payload limitations: Reaper “remains unable to execute all-weather Hunter-Killer operations. The SAR is the only MQ-9 system capable of providing MQ-9 UAS with the capability to find, fix, track, and engage targets through the weather.” If the SAR were to be available, several experts cautioned the author that it remains quite controversial whether SAR imagery would materially assist the ability to actually find and identify targets.
According to GAO, Reaper’s Block 5 upgrade will attempt to address these and other deficiencies, by attempting to re-mediate poor performance in area surveillance and the ability to detect “dismounted soldiers.” These improvements are not expected to be available until 2014 to 2015. The extent to which they will be effective is unknown, but it is notable that problems in Predator’s (and by implication Reaper’s) sensors have been an issue for a long time. A report as early as 2001 from DOT&E noted them;  the problems are persistent, and assuming a new technological development will eliminate them has proven to be a false hope in the past.
While it is conventional wisdom that drones are prone to crashes, that wisdom seems to understate the dimension of the problem.As a gross indicator of the seriousness of the problem, DOD had expected the Reaper inventory to be 256 air vehicles in 2017, a year after the previously planned buy of 396 was to be complete. Assuming the last purchase is delivered within a year, losses as high as 140 air vehicles appear to have been anticipated. If the delivery lag is two years, not one, 92 air vehicles would seem to have been anticipated as losses.The Air Force claims that it has reduced the loss rate for Predator from 28 mishaps per 100,000 hours to 7.6 and that Reaper can or will share this reduction in losses by virtue of its triple redundant flight controls, back up communications and other characteristics. The available data do not appear to support this claim.While Air Force “mishap” reports show only three Reaper crashes since 2006; that data base is incomplete. A larger number has been publically reported, as well as an extremely high crash rate of 16.4 for every 100,000 flying hours.
In 2011, the declared operational inventory of 69 Reaper air vehicles flew a total of 97,727 hours. That calculates to 1,416 hours per air vehicle per year, or 118 hours per month, or 29.5 hours per week. For a Reaper that flies the maximum 42 hour sortie (using two wing fuel tanks and two munitions), the air vehicle gets into the air less than once a week. If a Reaper flies what is described as a more typical 14 hour mission, it will be in the air twice a week, on average. Thus, individual Reaper air vehicles fly from less than once a week to as much as twice a week
These sortie rates are a small fraction of what manned aircraft have flown in historically relevant combat. In Operation Desert Storm in 1991, GAO found that throughout the course of the 41 day air war, F-16s flew more than one sortie per day, not two sorties, or less, per week. The A-10 flew significantly more often than F-16s in Desert Storm. The notoriously unreliable F-111Fs flew almost one sortie per day (0.9), and the even more difficult to support F-117 had a rate of .7 sorties per day. In 2011, the average Reaper air vehicle flew somewhere between 0.1 and 0.3 sorties per day, a rate that for a single manned aircraft in sustained combat would surely be deemed catastrophically low.An astute reader will observe that this analysis ignores Reaper’s much longer endurance (from up to 14 hours to as long as 42 hours) which enables it to search for targets and intelligence. To make the argument that Reaper’s (and other drones’) ability to loiter and search for and find targets proves superiority over manned aircraft in a critically important dimension assumes that the drones are effective at finding targets and collecting intelligence and at prosecuting the targets once detected and identified. The available evidence, discussed in Part 3, shows that, as a practical matter, Reapers (and other drones) are less effective than simple, even primitive, manned Cessnas at finding and identifying targets.
The proclamation that the Reaper (and, by implication similar drones) is the future of warfare bound to yield a revolutionary transformation in combat doesn’t seem to stand up to a reality scrub. The evidence is out there for anyone willing to hunt it down and and compare, as they like to say at the Pentagon, apples to apples.
Bottom line: the Reaper is more costly to both buy and fly than the manned aircraft it is commonly matched against. The margins are not even close — the Reaper is approximately twice the price to acquire compared to a contemporary F-16 fighter-bomber, and up to six times the cost of an A-10 close-support aircraft. Reaper’s annual operating costs are roughly four times the cost to operate an F-16 or an A-10.
Rather than refer to groups of drones as squadrons, wings, or other traditional U.S. Air Force terminology, these groups are officially known as Combat Air Patrols (CAP). That term is steeped in history for combat aircraft, and it feels somewhat grating to see it applied to UAVs given:
Reaper’s ability to carry weapons, while a vast improvement over Predator, compares unfavorably to typical comparison aircraft, such as the A-10 and the F-16. The comparison involves not just payload, but also diversity of weapons and delivery methods. A more sophisticated analysis comparing Reaper to the A-10, for example, would surely lead to an even more negative relative assessment of Reaper.
A CAP traditionally is the screening force of fighter aircraft that protects an aircraft carrier battle group from aerial attack, now expanded to any fighter mission performing this function over land or sea. Reapers, on the other hand,
Reaper is not survivable in the presence of even minimal air defenses; it is far less survivable than manned aircraft, such as the A-10 which has demonstrated high survivability in air combat since 1991. (In the presence of air defenses, Reaper would require manned escort aircraft, thereby removing the assumed advantage of being unmanned.)
Even the term unmanned is off the mark:
Much of those higher costs are driven by the infrastructure needed to operate Reaper, which has an extensive infrastructure on the ground: the GCS, satellite link, and the local control unit for take offs and landings. Most of this support is not analogous to manned aircraft. For example, without a control tower and its personnel, a manned aircraft remains capable of landing, and without centralized mission control, they are able to perform their missions quite effectively. (Indeed, many argue convincingly that micro-management of manned aircraft by a central command seriously degrades effectiveness.)
Reaper’s infrastructure necessitates at least 171 personnel for each CAP: these include 43 mission control personnel, including seven pilots and seven sensor operators, 59 launch, recovery and maintenance personnel (including six more pilots and sensor operators), 66 Processing Exploitation Dissemination personnel for intelligence and its support (including 14 more maintenance personnel) and three “other equipment” personnel.
As some say, drones like Reaper are not “unmanned;” hence the term “remotely piloted vehicle.”
An obvious retort concerns the fact that the MQ-1B and MQ-9 are not strictly UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles), and the future is bright for the drone. Ah, the future…I couldn’t disagree more.
Part III: The Future…Those That Fail To Learn From History Are Doomed To Repeat It
Wild Weasels (WW). I slogged through the history of the Vietnam War and not once did I mention surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Wild Weasels was initially a mission created after July 24, 1965, the day the first of 110 USAF aircraft lost to SAM fire, a F-4C, was shot down. Starting first with F-100 Super Sabres before switching to far more capable F-105 Thunderchiefs, these units sought out and destroyed SAM sites. The WW units switched to the F-4C in 1972, supporting the Linebacker and Linebacker II Navy and B-52 raids against North Vietnam.
Why mention Wild Weasels? Because losses to SAMs and ground fire far exceeded air-to-air losses in Vietnam. The same was true during Desert Storm. I cannot think of any air-to-air losses suffered in the 2003 Iraq invasion, but know ground fire took down a F-15E. SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions were formalized in the USAF because of Vietnam. F-4G units performed the WW mission until replaced by the F-16CJ/DJ in 1996. Only fighter aircraft are maneuverable enough to perform this mission, just like ACM. This is extremely important, because any aerial conflict will have to commit significant resources to SEAD and ACM. Drones, which are fawned over due to their long range and extreme endurance, will require screens of short-ranged fighters performing ACM and SEAD missions for the foreseeable future. Many “scholars” and aficionados without a doubt disagree vociferously with me. I have to be blunt: they are wrong.
Much of the literature written about future conflicts with an aerial component center on China. That is understandable–of any potential adversary, at first glance only China appears to have anywhere close to the conventional capacity to drag out a punishing conflict with the U.S. Russia also has significant conventional capability, but the prevalence of hotspots like Taiwan and other contested waters turn the eyes of strategic planners to the Pacific Ocean.
A favorite whipping boy in this literature is the uselessness of aircraft carriers and fighter aircraft in the Pacific. Carriers are always a favorite target of critics, probably due to the fact that finding and sinking aircraft carriers appears to be priority number one since combatant navies clashed in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. The fact that anti-ship weapons can be arrayed against any maritime target and carrier battle groups are the toughest (between CAP fighter patrols and numerous guided missile escorts) nut to crack conveniently slips these “experts'” minds.
Fighters are spit upon because of their lack of range (on all American fighters) and non-stealthiness (other than F-22 and F-35). With the DF-21 ballistic missile system, a real Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) seems apparent. Range would become a major factor in the aerial component of a hypothetical conflict with China. Their solutions? Long-range stealthy drones and optionally-manned stealthy bombers.
Part IIIa: Note to Stealth
Stealth. That’s always the answer. Especially when it doesn’t make a lick of sense. I will ignore the question if long-wave radar can pick up stealth aircraft, the jury’s out on that. The bigger question is infrared. Every powered aircraft has a heat signature. Commercially available Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras are very sensitive to heat, and new generations of the technology only get more sensitive. How sensitive are Chinese or Russian infrared sensors? Have the S-300 or S-400 families of SAMs been outfitted with infrared tracking as well as radar homing? But then there’s the elephant in the room. Again, having cutting edge technology means very little if it isn’t employed well. Simply put, how well do we know how to use stealth? For the answer to that question, I go back to the origin of stealthy machines. No, not Skunk Works–submarines.
Two words describe submarine operations: silent and independent. Silent in the sense that subs avoid detection by abstaining from using high frequency radios, radar, and other easily detected signals most of the time; and in the literal sense as a submarine’s primary sensor is passive sonar (listening on hydrophones) and noise can give a sub’s location away to enemy hydrophones. They operate independently pretty much because they have to–organizing numerous vessels requires lots of noisy communication. The world of a submarine is in a fluid where pressures and temperatures change massively in relation to the distance from the surface. What does that remind me of?
Oh, yeah–the atmosphere. Another fluid where pressures and temperatures change massively in relation to the distance from the surface. So, then should stealthy aircraft be silent and independent? Almost certainly–the only major difference between submarine stealth and aircraft stealth is planes have the disadvantage that the fluid they travel through does not hide them from sight. So stealth could work–with a caveat. Stealth is advantageous because it allows a military unit (notice the singular) to infiltrate and attack seemingly out of nowhere.
Fleets of UCAVs would not be able to be silent and independent. The premise of American air power has been, is, and almost certainly will remain to overwhelm and decimate with massed numbers, not infiltrate. Rather than approaching like an unseen ninja, UCAVs would attack like a mob armed with pitchforks and torches. UCAVs, like their UAV predecessors, will require massive amounts of data transmission to control and coordinate. Iran was able to locate and capture a RQ-170 by tracking its electronic signature–imagine hundreds in a battle zone. Squadrons of attacking “stealthy” drones might as well be screaming like banshees; or more appropriately hammering away with active sonar.
Part IIIb: Range To Target
Now that I’ve addressed the elephant, one more inanity to address. I can hear the squeals now: fighters are so short-ranged! That’s right–because they’re not bombers or transports. Months ago I explained how the physics of wing loading forces a trade-off between range and maneuverability (increased maneuverability will reduce range correspondingly if aircraft weight remains constant and vice-versa), and I’ll add in another insight of Major John Boyd:
After WWII and Korea U.S. Air Force said that dogfights were history and Vietnam would be a war of missiles and pushbuttons. This was not to be. In fact the introduction of missiles required the fighters to have more maneuverability than previously in order to be able to defeat the missiles by maneuvering.
I see no option where fighters will be dispensable in future conflicts. Unless stealth progresses to the stage of the USS Eldridge completely disappearing from view a la the The Philadelphia Experiment, air superiority and SAM destruction will still be extremely important combat missions.
Note, I am not saying UCAVs will never be capable of ACM and SEAD. If a particular model of UCAV is built with a high energy/maneuverability quotient, drones would have the physical capabilities to engage in dogfights and suppress air defenses. Then all that will be required is an electronic infusion of Red Flag:
True robotic air-to-air capability requires high-performing drones with ultra-sophisticated artificial intelligence, Goon argues. That could be “decades away, if [it happens] at all,” he tells Danger Room.
The military agrees. The Navy and Air Force have both begun thinking about so-called “sixth-generation” fighters that the services say could be unmanned. But these potentially robotic warplanes won’t enter service before 2030, according to current plans.
Until then, drones will be at the mercy of manned fighters. And adding missiles might not help.
Good luck with that. But the trade-off will still be made–a fighter UCAV will have significantly lower range than a bomber UCAV. I would wager the range would be similar to the 1970s Lightweight Fighter Program, which gave the U.S. armed forces the F-16 and F/A-18.
Part IV: Another Take On The Future Conflict
I’ve decided to end this diatribe with a little storytelling. It requires a bit of setup. I will center on the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) long-running Cold War-style conflict with the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan coming to a clash of arms. I’ll start with a reality check.
An extended air campaign over the Pacific could indeed be very costly for the USAF and USN. But fighter UCAVs would have to operate from Taiwan, Japan or U.S. Navy aircraft carriers due to range constraints (see above). Also, the hypothetical conflict would surprise some with its technological constraints.
BVR will have limited application for American and allied forces in a possible war with China. PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) fighters, bombers and other attack aircraft are not likely to dash at high speed at opposing American, Japanese, or ROC CAP fighter patrols. The air corridor between Taiwan and the mainland is crowded with commercial aircraft. The Chinese armed forces have an ancestor that wrote The Art of War, and pilots schooled with this ancient Chinese military doctrine would rather approach American and allied air forces at 450-500 KTAS like civilian Airbus and Boeing air transports to confuse their adversaries. Another possible (I feel likely) gambit the military descendants of Sun Tzu might utilize is interspersing combat aircraft amongst airliners. Either the PLAAF would deliberately operate civilian transports themselves or hide behind the flight tracks of unwitting airliners to force American and allied fighters to close to visual range for confirmation before firing their air-to-air missiles.
Even if targets could be discerned easily at long range (a dubious proposition), the vaunted AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile, the USAF/USMC/USN/Japanese Self Defense Air Force and ROC Air Force replacement for the larger and less capable AIM-7 Sparrow) will not be a technological panacea over the Pacific. Almost all BVR missiles operational today have a significant flaw in crowded airspace–they are self-guiding fire-and-forget weapons. Modern BVR missiles almost exclusively use inertial guidance before entering self-homing range, when the missile turns on its terminal guidance (active-radar-homing (ARH) or infrared (IR)) and tracks the target autonomously. Few if any modern BVR missiles are semi-active-radar-homing (SARH), which continuously require the launching fighter to illuminate the target with the aircraft’s onboard radar. Should an ARH or IR-guided BVR missile miss its intended PLAAF or PLAN target and lock onto an Airbus or Boeing, there would be no way for the fighter that fired the BVR missile to break lock (unlike SARH missiles like the old AIM-7, which has steadily been retired since the 1990s in favor of the AMRAAM).
The only possible exception to the above conditions would be the PLAAF J-20 stealth fighter. Chinese pilots might employ this fighter as an infiltrator, targeting AWACS and airborne tankers. Here BVR would be totally useless. ARH BVR missiles cannot lock onto something airborne radars cannot pick up, and infrared search and track sensors have limited range due to atmospheric attenuation. As a result, any engagement between American and/or allied fighters and their Chinese counterparts would almost certainly be limited to old-fashioned ACM. Air combat for American forces and their allies would rather resemble 1970s engagements over Vietnam–fighting with IR-guided missiles (still the venerable AIM-9!), radar-guided missiles (ARH instead of SARH this time) and 20mm cannons in close range dogfights.
The Dong Feng 21 ballistic missile is a tremendous threat if it works. But it is more than a carrier-killer. Iran and Iraq had no compunction about launching missile attacks against Persian Gulf shipping during their 1980s war with each other, and a China so isolated as to be at war with the United States could easily come to the same decision as the ayatollahs. Not to mention the DF-21 has land attack as well as anti-ship (the -21D) variants. It threatens any shipping the Chinese decide to target, not to mention land targets within its range (just like the JL-1 SLBM the DF-21 was developed from). Prime targets are on Taiwan and the Japanese Islands. Andersen Air Force Base on Guam is certainly in range of this missile.
U.S. forces will deploy anti-ballistic missile systems wherever possible, including SM-3 armed Aegis guided missile destroyers and land-based batteries, especially on Guam, Japan, Okinawa, and Taiwan. But these preparations will be a mirage.
Any conflict with China will have a huge naval component, as the most likely flashpoints will be fighting over contested islands. But the battle might never be joined, because the PRC and the Chinese navy are no match for silent stealth.
Part IVa: Real Stealth
The U.S. Navy’s submariners have dominated their potential adversaries for seven decades. The Soviet navy was well aware American hunter/killer attack submarines (SSNs) in all probability would slaughter the Russian forces with ease if war came. The Chinese navy is far less capable than the U.S.S.R.’s was. The PLAN would be at the mercy of the U.S. Navy’s Silent Service.
The battles of the East and South China Seas commences with an American retaliation to a Chinese attempt at invading Taiwan. The opening strike sees 15 attack submarines of the Los Angeles, Seawolf and Virginia-class that have been trailing hapless Chinese SSNs for months dispatch the entire PLAN nuclear submarine fleet without warning. Meanwhile 30 more American SSNs hunt down most of the Chinese navy’s diesel/electric boats.
The five remaining American SSNs not employed on submarine killing duty smash the Chinese landing force arrayed against Taiwan. The combined wolf pack of 50 American nuclear-powered attack submarines then turn their fangs into the Chinese surface fleet, killing thousands of sailors in the wanton destruction of over 60 PLAN destroyers and frigates. After the USS Seawolf plows eight Mark 48 ADCAP torpedoes into the side of Liaoning, the 55,000 ton Chinese aircraft carrier rolls over and sinks rapidly with the loss of an estimated 2,500 hands, eliminating the only possible threats to the American hunter/killers.
Simultaneously, just off the Chinese mainland coast the SSGNs USS Ohio, USS Michigan, USS Florida, and USS Georgia receive via VLF final target coordinates from datalink and radar return intercepted by USAF and ROC ELINT (electronics intelligence) aircraft. The four huge ex-ballistic missile submarines receive orders from NMCC (National Military Command Center) to attack China’s ballistic missile forces before salvoing 616 cruise missiles at the radar sites and DF-21 launchers. Flames and smoke billow into the night sky as radar command and control facilities, communication links, mobile launchers and the ballistic missiles themselves explode into a massive Chinese fireworks display.
The Chinese media screams the U.S. Navy is a mass-murdering band of bloodthirsty butchers while the Politburo considers the fact that the utter annihilation of the entire Chinese navy prevents any tactical goals, yet alone strategic, from being reached in their ill-advised military adventure. Taiwan cannot be invaded. But circumstances are far worse than this setback.
The American SSGNs already having destroyed the vaunted DF-21D Anti-Access/Area Denial ballistic missile system, the communist leaders receives reports that the American SSNs are now firing their cruise missiles at SAM and AAA sites for a highly effective SEAD mission. Knowing ROC, USAF, USMC and USN air power is about launch initial attacks through the decimated coastal defenses, the PRC sues for peace.
I am not rooting for the above scenario. It could potentially spiral into a nuclear exchange, and even a contained conventional-weapons-only regional war like the above Chinese military’s massacre at the hands of the U.S. Navy’s Silent Service doesn’t really serve American or Chinese interests. But I clearly believe many assumptions about future conventional conflict do not stand up to scrutiny, and hope today’s Robin Olds and John Boyds can prevent the United States from having to again relearn the hard lessons of Vietnam…