Thursday, August 9, 2012

What's Old is New Again

The current issue of the USNI Proceedings (1) reports that China has reached a deal to license-produce Tu-22M Backfire bombers.  The arrangement will initially result in 36 bombers which is regimental strength from the old Soviet days and was believed to be the amount needed to defeat a US Navy carrier group.

As you recall, the Navy’s response to the Soviet bombers was the long range, high speed Tomcat with its load of AIM-54 Phoenix missiles guided by the plane’s AWG-9 radar.  Tomcats made up the outer layer of the carrier group’s layered defenses.  I bet the Navy wishes they had Tomcats now!

Tu-22 Backfire - Bigger Threat than Ballistic Missiles

The Navy’s current front line fighter is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet carrying AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles.  The Hornet has a combat radius of 390 nm compared to the Tomcat’s 500 nm.  The latest version of the AMRAAM has a 100 nm range which is comparable to the Phoenix but has a lighter warhead, 40-50 lbs versus the 135 lb warhead of the Phoenix.  Given the massive size of the Backfire, the much larger warhead of the Phoenix will be missed.

There are a couple of interesting points in all this.  First, the acquisition of bombers strongly suggests that the Chinese have realized (or known all along) that the magic, carrier-killing ballistic missile that has the Western media so frightened is only half the equation.  The other half is targeting.  Trying to produce launch quality targeting data on moving ships 500-1000 nm away is a challenge, to say the least.  We can’t do it and I highly doubt the Chinese can, either.  That renders the carrier-killing missiles ineffective.  Bombers, on the other hand, carry their own radar and generate their own firing solution.  The only question is can they survive long enough to get within radar range and launch? 

This is the Cold War scenario all over again and that brings us to the second point.  The Navy was misguided, to put it kindly, to abandon the long ranged, hard hitting Tomcat for the short ranged, light hitting Hornet.  This decision is further compounded by the decision to reduce the size of the carrier air wings based on the rationale that newer planes are superior to older ones.  If you’re going to fight an outer air battle to protect the carrier, you probably want as many airframes as possible to carry your missiles.  Instead of developing the marginally effective Hornet, we should have developed a new airframe with the characteristics of the Tom/Bombcat.  Oh well, at least we have the long range, weapons-dripping JSF coming soon and that will …  ah … well, it's not really long ranged, actually, and it can't carry much of a weapons load but still it can, ah   Oh crap, we’re screwed!

(1) United States Naval Institute Proceedings, “Back(Fire) to the Future?”, Norman Friedman, Aug 2012, p. 90


  1. It's time to bring back the AIM-97.

    Think A2A RIM-66

    Throw in the AMRAAM seeker & datalink and it has a 200+ lb warhead.

    At 1300 lb each, the F-35 could carry 6 external.

  2. The Seekbat. Hmm... That's an interesting one from the Cold War. I wasn't familiar with it. If Wiki is to be believed, a range of 460 miles! I wonder how the target gets illuminated from that far away? Thanks!

  3. I would take ANY wiki claim, especially one without a reference, with a boatload of salt.

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    1. You bring up an interesting thought. I have no idea whether your specific idea would be practical or not but the key point is that the Navy could develop modified weapons by mixing and matching existing components to create a weapon tailored to a current need. This approach would not produce the leap-five-generations-of-technology, win-the-war-singlehanded, combination of magic and technology that the Navy insists on trying to produce in all its new programs but it would produce a solid, already half proven, immediately useful and produceable weapon for a fraction of the price of the beyond-Star-Wars stuff that breaks the bank and takes twenty years to get to production.

      Good comment!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Even without the Tomcat/Phoenix system, the USN is well prepared for a return of the Backfire.

    1. F-18E/F can easily carry 6 AMRAAM and 2 AIM-9X. When you figure that the normal F-14 loadout was 2-2-2, it looks pretty good. The F-14 has a longer range but configured for air superiority, the F-18F is not too bad and F-35C should be even better.

    2. E-2D is light years ahead of the E-2C, allowing for longer detection, and it has Cooperative Engagement.

    3. KC-46 will have three probe and drogue stations right from the start, dramatically expanding potential non-CVW aircraft refueling capability.

    4. Legacy F-18C/D offer vastly superior AAW capability than previous A-7 or A-6 strike aircraft.

    5. SSGNs can carry large number of Tomahawks to strike Backfire bases early in any conflict. As opposed to tens of Tomahawks available in the Cold War days, you can expect hundreds today.

    6. SM-6 (AMRAAM seeker on a SM-2 Block IV body) will reach far beyond the radar horizon. And there are close to a hundred AEGIS ships available, so stationing one or two 100-200nm or so downrange allows killing Backfires long before they can target the CSG. Shoot, you could fairly easily integrate an SM-6 without a booster rocket (think Standard ARM) if you really wanted a long range air launched missile vastly superior to a AIM-54.

    Not to mention the difficulting in finding the CSG, coordinating any regimental sized attack (50% is probably a realistic inservice rate), and properly identifying your targets.

    Sky not falling.

    1. You're right. The sky isn't falling but, then again, I never claimed it was. I made two points, the second of which you addressed. I stated that the Navy made a poor decision to abandon the Tomcat/Phoenix design characteristics. This does not mean that the carrier groups are helpless, only that they are sub-optimally equipped to deal with a Backfire type threat.

      You note that the F-14 typical load was 2-2-2 and that the Hornet can carry 6 AMRAAM. True. However, the Tomcat in an anti-Backfire scenario would have been loaded with 4 or 6 Phoenix. To be fair, Hornets don't typically fly with 6 AMRAAM, either.

      You make a good point about the E-2D/CEC.

      A KC-46 (or any Air Force tanker) will be very scarce in a China combat scenario. Aside from being tied up in Air Force missions, the only way an AF tanker would be of use in a Backfire attack would be if one just happened to be over the carrier at the moment. That implies either precise knowledge of the timing of an attack (possible, certainly, but not likely) or a sustained presence and there just won't be enough usable bases or tankers to achieve that. The AF is going to find bases to be in very short supply if an all out conflict occurs.

      Legacy Hornets are certainly better at AAW than A-6s or A-7s. They're also better than Hellcats and Fokker Triplanes. Not sure what your point was with that?

      I certainly hope we would attempt to attack Backfire bases!

      I certainly hope the SM-6 will prove effective! Of course, with 1000 nm of open ocean to trade for time, the Chinese may well pursue a policy of rollback of the escorts.

      SM-6 as a Phoenix is a really neat idea! Whether it would prove practical or not, I love that kind of out of the box thinking!

      To kind of sum up and, to an extent, repeat the theme of the post, the Navy made a poor decision to abandon long range fighters/weapons in favor of short range ones and now that we are confronted with A2/AD requirements (and possible Backfire threats) that decision is coming back to bite them. We're stuck with short range planes and when the JSF arrives we'll have very limited weapons carrying capacity. In addition, the air wing size continues to shrink. This is a case of multiple bad decisions stacking up.

      Thanks for checking in!

    2. I am not sold on the idea that abandoning the F-14/AIM-54 combination was a mistake. The Backfire threat doesn't exist yet, the new versions of the AIM-120 virtually match the AIM-54 so no great loss there, and it is hard to argue that the F-18E/F aren't better strike fighters than the F-14 and much cheaper besides.

      While the F-14 can carry 4 or even 6 AIM-54, they virtually never did as it significantly hurt their range (and there was never a huge abundance of AIM-54s on the CVN). On the other hand, 6 AIM-120s on a F-18C/D/E/F is pretty normal in the Air Defense role (although they normally drop bombs). F-35 can easily carry 10 AIM-120s (6 internal, 4 external) to pretty extended ranges if they are in an air defense role.

      A-7s/A-6s played virtually no role in air defense outside of hauling gas. F-18s on the other hand are pretty effective fighters so there are two more squadrons of fighters on the carrier available. So even if 20 F-14s can do more than 20 F-18s, there are 40 or so available. Not to count the EF-18Gs which can also carry and use AIM-120s.

      At least with a KC-46 much of the USAF tanker fleet will be able to support USN aircraft. Wasn't the case before, and in a Joint world, I am not sure that you won't see dedicated USAF assets to help defend the CSG (that whole Air-Sea battle thing), to include fighters, AWACS, and Tankers. For that matter, I would also expect to see USN SEAD assets used to support USAF bombers.

      And, geography tends to favor the USN here. The expected former USSR regimental raids would be done against CVBGs operating outside of effective support. Any similiar Chinese attack on US CSGs would have to get by the first island chain to attack the carriers, so early detection and attrition is a significant possibility.

    3. Anonymous,

      Sorry but A-7s were flying CAP when the Kittyhawk BG was in the NAS back when Iran first threatened to close the PG in 1987...


  6. The decision the USN made to retire it's expensive to operate longer ranged carrier aircraft in favor of cheaper to maintain F/A-18's was not an unreasonable compromise post Cold War. As China's capabilities evolve it's clear that we're going to have to invest in some areas we deemed less of a priority since 1990.

    The real replacement for the F-14 is F/A-XX (NGAD). Perhaps the Navy should take a long hard look at it's range requirements and increase them?

    It's also worth considering that we don't have to put our carriers into harms way before preparing the battle space. We'd certainly be striking their air bases. Personally I'm more concerned with how their submarine programs mature, both boats and crews, than their other systems.

  7. You seem to speak of a gradual climb into a full war, China would not attack just one carrier and the USN wouldn't respond in kind. Both China and the US Navy would go nuclear the first day of any battle/war. This would lead to decimation of all forces until only small scattered remnants of both nation's fleets were remaining. High tech would then go back to world war two levels.

    1. Do you really believe that? Nuclear on day one? The whole point of war is to gain something (typically land and resources) and be able to use them when the war is over. Going nuclear kind of defeats the purpose, don't you think?

      The US will never initiate nuclear exchanges so that leaves China. They want Taiwan and the subsurface oil, gas, fishing, and other resouces in the outer waters. How is winding up with a radioactive wasteland going to get them that?

      I'll grant that they might go nuclear if backed into a corner but that's hardly a day one scenario.

      Think about it a little more.

  8. There was nothing wrong with the desire to replace the maintenance-intensive F-14 with a plane that was easier to maintain. The problem occurred when the Navy also greatly reduced the range and weapons carry. While it's tempting to give the Navy a pass and say that those requirements were OK at the time and it's just bad luck that now we need long range aircraft, that's just not true.

    Since the first caveman threw a rock and decided he needed something with more range, military development has been a non-stop march towards longer range and harder hitting. Rocks to arrows to guns to artillery to planes to missiles ... While I might concede someone not predicting the specific Chinese A2/AD scenario, it's just a given that the development of weapon systems is a trend towards longer range and harder hitting. The Tomcat was a great plane and its replacement should have kept and enhanced those characteristics along with improved maintainability. We went from the Tomcat and Intruder, both long range, hard hitting aircraft, to the Hornet which just doesn't measure up to what it should have been. This is hardly new criticism! And now we're committed to the JSF which brings absolutely nothing to the A2/AD scenario as our next aircraft. Another bad decision that doesn't even require the benefit of hindsight to recognize as bad.

    1. While I tend to completely agree with you, and would add we also lost our very longest ranged aircraft in the S-3, the USN in the early 1990's didn't have a lot of choices and the ones they made were regarding carrier air were logically based. The advantages of longer ranged carrier aircraft were clearly demonstrated 70 years ago and in my view this dynamic has only increased.

      With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden lack of massed long range air and missile attacks it wasn't unreasonable for the USN to retire the F-14 in favor of the much cheaper to operate F/A-18E/F. The aviation account simply wasn't there for both and they decided a far cheaper to operate aircraft was what was needed to get them through the post Cold War draw down.

      Remember all this is going on after the A-6F is cancelled in favor of the A-12 and then they cancel the A-12. The fact we didn't go back to the A-6F or G and just retired the A-6E fairly quickly indicates the budget realities at the time.

      In a perfect world I entirely agree we'd have kept the F-14 and purchased new D's to partially compensate for the loss of the A-6 or keep the A-6. The USN was told by Congress they could get either the F/A-18E/F or another aircraft but not both. They went with the most affordable solution. Personally I hated it and wouldn't have gone with the E/F but I can appreciate how the decision was made.

      All this is 20 years ago or more and we can throw in the USN dropping out of NATF as well. The future is F-35C, UCAS-D (X-47B follow on), and F/A-XX (NGAD). The fighter sized UCAS is probably going to be more important to the future of carrier strike than the F-35 and in many ways is the true replacement for the A-6 and will provide a revolution in terms of ISR. F/A-XX seems focused upon being a 6th gen fighter; however, one can hope the range requirements are more than simply adequate.

      The F-35C brings a bit more to the table in terms of air to air than perhaps you believe. Firstly I'm not sure the F-35C air to air will have a lower range than the F-14? Secondly, assuming they get to a 6 AMRAAM internal load if one looks at all the systems the F-35C looks to do very well in the outer air battle. Most of the listed ranges for the C assume a strike profile.

      In any case the F-14 is long gone and the USN doesn't currently have air superiority fighters. We have to make do with strike fighters till F/A-XX (NGAD) and just hope the USN focuses more on the Next Generation Air Dominance aspect and gives the aircraft more than enough legs.

  9. I agree the DOD should not have forced the rhino on the Navy. The F-14D was what the fleet really wanted. If that happened, the Tomcat would've matured into something truly exceptional. As for the F-35C, I don't see any hope for it. It is too compromised by the USMC requirement for a harrier replacement. The future, it seems, lies with the UCLASS and the F/A-XX. Both of these fit nicely into the new AIR-SEA BATTLE concept. Regarding the TU-22M, I'd be more concerned about Russia's new PAK-DA strategic bomber. It is still on the drawing board, but so was the PAK-FA a few years ago.( Not to mention China's J-20 and J-31.)

  10. The Super Hornet was conceived at a time when the US was riding high. As capable as the F-14 was, (especially in it's D configuration) there just wasn't any perceived need for it. This was a clear case of shortsightedness in my humble opinion.


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