interesting little tidbit from the current Congressional draft version of the
2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
The Act proposes increasing the legislatively mandated aircraft carrier
level to increase from 11 to 12. (1)
There are a number of interesting issues associated with this proposal.
We currently don’t really have
11 carriers. One is always in long
term overhaul so our effective carrier level is 10+1. Further, the USS Ford is non-functional
and looks to remain that way for a few more years, at least.
We currently only have 9 air
wings. That means that the maximum
number of combat capable carriers we can field is 9. The cost of an air wing is on the order
of $6B [65 aircraft x $90M per aircraft (just a ballpark average for discussion
purposes) = $5.85 billion] !!!!
There is no mention of Congressional funding of any additional air
wings. Adding carriers without air
wings is illogical and pointless.
Congress would be better to mandate and fund additional air wings
prior to mandating additional carriers.
Combat experience indicates
that carriers should operate in groups of 4 during war. That might suggest carrier levels that
are multiples of four although we can certainly mix and match during war
depending on availabilities.
Prior to the current
shipbuilding budget, our annual shipbuilding budget was around $16B. A single Ford costs around $15B in
actual costs. Every carrier we
purchase costs an entire year’s worth of new construction of other ships
unless Congress is prepared to provide an additional $15B for the mandated
carrier. In other words, with no
additional funding, we would gain one carrier and lose around ten other
ships. One has to ask whether that
is worth it especially given the lack of an air wing and the small size of
the existing air wings.
The Administration is opposed
to an additional carrier. “The
administration objects to a proposed increase from 11 aircraft carriers to
12, “which may not be sustainable” under the Navy’s current budget.” (1) This is odd given that Trump, himself,
has called for 12 carriers from time to time.
The runaway costs of the Ford
class suggests the possibility of “small” carriers instead of $15B Ford
class ships. “Small”, of course, is
a relative term and refers to Midway to Forrestal size carriers, as I use
I have not
seen any detailed explanation for the Administration’s opposition to additional
carriers. ComNavOps believes that the
Navy needs around 15 large carriers but would only be in favor of a mandated increase
if it comes with mandated air wings and funding.
ComNavOps also believes that the Ford class is unnecessary and that updated Nimitz class carriers are more than adequate.
also supports smaller Midway to Forrestal size carriers which could carry
essentially a full air wing and cost half or less of what a Ford costs. Given that the Fords are twice the cost of
the last Nimitz class carriers built, this seems eminently feasible.
News website, “The White House wants 37 items gone from the NDAA”, Joe Gould, 23-May-2018,
I've had a few requests for an open post so I thought I'd give it a try. SNAFU blog does it and it seems to work. This is your chance to bring up any topic you'd like. So, what's on your mind? Got an idea for a post subject that you'd like me to address? Do you have some pet peeve you want to get off your chest? Want to tell me what you like or don't like about the blog? Is there a bit of news that I've missed and you'd like to share it with us? Should I start a military fiction story page for readers? Am I way off base about something? Hmm, ... seems unlikely but it's theoretically possible. Are there subjects you feel I should be paying more attention to? This is your chance if there's something you've been wanting to say!
has resolved the court martial case of the Commanding Officer of the USS McCain
during the recent fatal collision. As
part of a pre-trial plea agreement, the negligent homicide charges were dropped,
charges were reduced, and the officer pled guilty to dereliction of duty. Punishment is to be a letter of reprimand,
forfeiture of $2000/month pay for 3 months (essentially, a $6000 fine), and
requirement that he submit a retirement request which may or may not be
outraged by this. The Captain is
responsible for the safety of his ship and crew. Yes, there was virtually unlimited fault
extending all the way up the chain of command to the CNO and SecNav. Who along the chain is most to blame is a
debatable point but ALL are guilty of negligent homicide because ALL knew about
the problems and DID NOTHING to prevent them.
Every one of the officers in that chain should be charged with negligent
one person, however, who is more responsible then any of the others and that is
the Captain of the ship. His is the
final accountability and final responsibility.
His is the decision to risk taking his ship and crew to sea – all sea
voyages have risk – or to refuse.
Knowing full well all the problems with inadequate manning, lapsed
certifications, inadequately trained crew, and so on, he still chose to take
his ship and crew to sea. When he did
so, he assumed ALL the responsibility for their safety. Therefore, he bears ALL the guilt.
To try him
on anything less than negligent homicide is to make a joke of the
responsibilities of a Captain.
refusal to put to sea would likely have ended his career but we expect a ship’s
Captain to have the moral courage sufficient to take that step, if needed. His career might have ended but it would have
ended without ten deaths on his conscience.
other hand, the Navy’s instructor pilots refused to fly due to safety concerns
and their careers have not ended. In
many circles, they are hailed as heroes who had the courage to stand against
unsafe orders. So, the argument that the
Captain’s career would have ended is not even supported by recent evidence and
is an irrelevant argument anyway. Moral
courage is not a matter of career convenience – it is an absolute that must be
exercised regardless of circumstances.
That it would have entailed risk and possible negative consequences for
him, personally, is why the phrase “moral courage” contains the word “courage”.
prosecutors who accepted (and possibly conceived) the plea deal also exhibited
moral cowardice. This was not the crime
to plea down. This was the crime to set
the example for all ship’s Captains to come.
ashamed of my Navy.
Times website, “Former McCain CO sentenced at court-martial for fatal collision”,
J.D. Simkins, 25-May-2018,
seems to be committed to mounting the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missile on the
LCS for use against small craft.
Hellfire had previously been tested in March 2017 for launch capability
and the Navy was working on problems with tip over – trying to get the missile
to tip over from the vertical launch to horizontal flight and pick up the
target. That issue has apparently been
solved, at least enough to allow further testing.
website reports that the Navy conducted a live fire test in which four
Hellfires were vertically launched from the USS Milwaukee, LCS-5, cued from
ship’s radar and “other systems”, and hit small craft targets. Thus, the test appears to have been an
integrated launch using the ship’s combat control system. The conditions of the test and the results
are unknown although the Navy released footage showing one missile hitting a
target. Whether the other missiles hit
is unknown. The targets appeared to be
moving although speed and range were not stated and it is unknown whether the
targets were maneuvering. The website
article contains a brief video of the launch, if you’re interested. (1)
refresh, here’s a few specs on the Longbow Hellfire, which is the Apache helicopter
version of the missile.
miles with a minimum safe range of 546 yds
missiles have a variety of warhead types (fragmentation, shaped charge, etc.)
and it is unknown which type or types will be used by the LCS.
LCS Hellfire Launch
less than for helo launched missiles due to the vertical launch.
launcher appears to be an adaptation of the Army M299 launcher in an embedded
box mounted in the former NLOS weapon pit.
The launcher can hold 24 missiles. (2)
lineage of this LCS weapon.
The original surface to surface
missile for the LCS was to have been the Non-Line of Sight (NLOS)
After cancellation of NLOS, the
Navy looked to develop a custom replacement missile but dropped this
The Griffin missile was announced in 2011
as the next replacement but was also dropped.
the Navy has still not officially committed to the Hellfire. The project is considered developmental and
is due to wrap up in 2019-20 at which point a decision will be made about
deploying the system.
integration of the Longbow Hellfire missile into the LCS will finally provide a
credible anti-swarm capability. Of
course, the range is too short and the warhead too small to be a serious threat
to corvette or larger size ships. Thus,
the Hellfire will offer a substantial improvement over the current, well …
nothing, but still falls woefully short of the original anti-surface and land
attack requirement of the ASuW module.
believe we are on an inexorable path to war with China (we are) or merely
observing them as they rise benevolently to friendly and helpful world neighbor
status, one thing is certain: we are engaged in a peer level competition, at
the moment, and in such a competition you don’t want to find yourself dependent
on anything that your competitor has a monopoly on.
this the hard way when we were dependent on Middle East oil and those oil
producing countries were able to dictate prices, manipulate our economy, and
create financial and societal disruptions that led to gasoline shortages and
long lines for what gas there was. We
have since become largely energy independent to our significant betterment.
China, it turns out, has a monopoly on
rare earths and minerals that we need for weapons manufacture. The Trump administration initiated a study
and report on the defense industry from a strategic viewpoint. The results were previewed in a Breaking
Defense article. (1)
“The review promises to be the most
thorough look at the entirety of the manufacturing and production of defense
materials ever attempted, involving several government agencies, surveys of
large and small players in the supply chain, and a study of foreign materials
used in the production of American weaponry.” (1)
“China will likely loom large in the
report, given the country’s dominance of the rare earth minerals market so
critical to the U.S. defense industry, the pumping of billions in
Chinese investments into U.S. tech startup firms, …
Last month, Ellen Lord, the
Pentagon’s Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, said that once her
team started taking a hard look at the reliance the American defense industry
has placed on China for critical minerals, the results were “quite alarming…we
have an amazing amount of dependency on China.“
“The United States defense industry relies on Chinese producers for 100 percent of its
rare earth materials …” (1)
example, Gallium and Germanium, used in the production of radars, infrared
devices, and fiber optics, are sole sourced from China, according to the article. (1)
How bad is
“The entire global market now flows
through China, and “China can always underprice competitors,” he told me, as “they view this as
part of their global industrial and defense policy. This is part of their
industrial and defense strategy. No matter how many rare earth mines you open
up, China can undercut them on price.” (1)
“Rare earth metals are so
critical and in so many defense components for guided missiles, smart
bombs, targeting lasers, sonar, radar, night vision and high temperature
resistant metals for military jet engines, that if China cut us off, the U.S.
could not replace or build most of our advanced weapon systems.” (2)
“These materials are also found in
smart phones, small electric motors, sensors and catalysts in automobiles,
computers, commercial aircraft and most green technology. If China embargoed these
materials the U.S. would be forced to shut down all or most of our nation’s technology
manufacturing assembly lines.” (2)
always the case? No.
“Rare earth materials are the
byproduct of almost all normal mining activities, and while they can be mined
and produced in the United States — which until the 1980s was meeting all of its domestic needs — a
series of rules, and Chinese moves to undercut the market, dried up most
domestic production.” (1)
is that we are already at war with China – or, at least, they are at war
with us. China views war as the totality of a
nation’s actions, unlike the US, and holding a monopoly on defense-critical
rare earth minerals is just another weapon in China’s war chest. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that
the threat of being cut off from our sole supplier of critical defense
manufacturing resources makes it very difficult for us to take actions in other
areas such as trade, tariffs, patents, cyber espionage, etc. In other words, China’s monopoly makes it difficult for
us to act in our own best interests.
monopoly needs to be broken and decisively so.
We had production capacity once and we can re-establish it again. The Trump administration has taken the first,
vital step of recognizing the problem.
Whether you like Trump or not, his investigation into this area is of
vital national strategic importance. He
has done what several previous administrations have failed/refused to do.
administration, for example, failed badly, as noted in the article.
“The focus of the Obama
administration when it came to rare materials was “reduce, reuse, recycle,” he
added, “what was missing was production.” (1)
mistake, China will use our dependence against
us. It is a matter of national security
to break China’s monopoly over us. We must begin taking the same view as China regarding the totality of war and
start fighting back on every front.
Trump is quite correct on this issue.
It’s not even debatable. It’s a
matter of national security not politics.
ComNavOps recurring themes is that we are making a mistake by focusing on
information at the expense of firepower.
you start typing out an ignorant reply, go back and reread that sentence. I’ll wait …
Okay, Did you take note that I DID NOT say that we
shouldn’t pursue information systems?
What did I say? I said that we
are focusing on information AT THE EXPENSE OF FIREPOWER.
is vital. Recon, recon, recon,
right? But, when we begin dropping
firepower to pay for information we’re making a huge mistake. That path will lead us to having perfect
knowledge of the enemy who is raining heavy artillery on us as we die, unable
to muster the firepower to fight back.
have cut tanks and artillery and are continuing to reduce firepower to pay for
UAVs, 3D printing, information specialists embedded in companies and squads,
etc. One of the latest reductions is the
elimination of the 120 mm towed mortar (Expeditionary Fire Support System) (1). The towed mortar was a lightweight system
that provided significant firepower at low organizational levels.
“The EFSS, fielded in the early
2000s, was designed to be extremely portable, small enough to be towed by an
all-terrain vehicle that fits easily inside anMV-22 Osprey.
Made by General Dynamics, the full
system weighs roughly 18 pounds and can fire high-explosive, smoke and
illumination rounds.” (1)
information in the world is of no use if you haven’t got the firepower to take
advantage of it. A corollary to that is
that firepower can make up for a LOT of information shortages. For example, you don’t need to know what’s
waiting for you over that next hill if you can simply conduct an area
bombardment and kill whatever might be there.
120 mm Mortar
combat, information is a very difficult thing to master and use. Recall the recent destroyer collisions and
groundings despite the ships having many information sources such as radars,
satellites, transponders, electro-optical sensors, and old fashioned lookouts –
and yet the collisions and groundings still occurred – during peacetime! Or, recall the Vincennes shootdown – a massively capable
Aegis system rendered useless because the operators couldn’t properly interpret
the data in the adrenaline rush of combat.
contrast, firepower is simple, effective, and easy to master and use. Firepower is an example of the KISS (Keep It
Simple, Stupid) philosophy while information is the epitome of complexity and
failure-prone systems. Which do you want
to depend on in war?
A mortar is
an outstanding example of a dirt-simple weapon system that is incredibly cheap
and provides firepower all out of proportion to its size. It’s exactly the kind of KISS weapon system
we should be acquiring and yet we’re dropping it. When we face the Chinese with our tiny, squad
level UAVs and 3D printing while they’re raining heavy artillery down on us,
we’ll quickly regret the decisions we’re making today.
making these decisions have clearly never engaged in peer combat against a foe
who emphasizes great big gobs of heaping, steaming firepower. To be fair, that kind of combat hasn’t
occurred within their lifetime so they couldn’t have faced it. However, they’re supposed to have studied
warfare and learned the lessons from those who have faced it – and they’ve
failed to learn the lessons.
website, “Marine Corps Ditches Towed Mortar System in Push to Fund
Modernization”, Hope Hodge Seck, 19-Dec-2017,
Defense Blog has published a report with pictures of a Chinese bomber and Su-35
escort fighter conducting patrols out and around Taiwan (1). The interesting aspect of this is the photo
of the bomber carrying an AKD20 Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
ALCM is derived from the CJ-10 land based cruise missile and the new air
launched variant is reported to have a range of 930 – 1550 miles (1500 – 2500
km), depending on its payload. (4)
was the H-6K which is an updated version of the H-6 which is, itself, a license
built version of the Soviet Tu-16 Badger.
Upgrades include new engines, new radome, improved ECM and defensive
measures, EO/IR sensors, datalinks, composite materials of construction and improved
avionics and a glass cockpit, search and attack radar, navigation, and fire
control. The bomb bay was eliminated to
provide additional fuel capacity for longer range. (2)(3) The bomber carries air launched cruise
missiles on 6 wing hardpoints and is reported to have a combat radius of 2170
miles (3500 km). (3)
H-6K Bomber with AKD20 ALCM and Su-35 Fighter Escort (1)
the bomber has a combat radius of 2170 miles and can carry the AKD20 ALCM with
a range of up to 1550 miles, that gives the aircraft a strike range of 3720
miles. Guam is 1952 miles (3148 km) from FujianProvince on the east coast of China, just across from Taiwan.
That puts Guam
within easy unrefueled, ALCM strike range.
If the US hopes to use Guam as a significant forward base in
the war with China, we need to greatly increase our
defenses. It is obvious that Guam will be a major Day-1 target. The question is what will be left of Guam on Day-2? We need to start preparing for major Day-1 defensive combat. We have not had to fight to defend an airbase since the very early days of WWII and we have not only forgotten how but we have forgotten even the necessity. We need to quickly learn how to defend against modern cruise and ballistic missile threats. We not only need to defend but we need to learn how to mitigate damage. No defense will be perfect and we need to learn how to take hits and come out of an attack with a still functioning base. We need to figure out how to protect the aircraft and facilities that are hit so that something functional is left. We also need to give some intense thought to how to construct easily repaired bases as opposed to the exquisitely constructed bases we currently have. We need to disburse fuel, spare parts, power sources, computer facilities, etc. We need to construct hardened shelters for aircraft and facilities. No amount of hardening can totally prevent damage but sufficient hardening can mitigate damage and make the enemy's task much more difficult. It's time to wake up and begin serious defensive preparations.
Defense Blog, “Routine patrol with AKD20 ALCM”, 13-May-2018,
anonymous comment pointed out that while we have been focused on fighting third
world terrorists for the last decade or so, our peer competitors have been
developing advanced electronic warfare capabilities, new families of armored
vehicles, new cluster munitions, and so on.
We lost focus on what our military is supposed to be doing which is
preparing for high end combat. ComNavOps
has unceasingly criticized military leadership for allowing our readiness and
combat capability to atrophy. However,
ComNavOps is nothing, if not fair and so it is time to note and acknowledge the
first glimmer of the beginning of the reversal of that trend.
several instances of the Army recognizing high end combat shortcomings and
beginning to take action to rectify the situation. The Army is currently far ahead of the other
services in correcting the situation.
the Navy is also beginning, just barely, to recognize and correct the
deficiencies and I would be remiss not to take a moment to list a few of those
efforts and acknowledge them as baby steps in the right direction.
LCS/Frigate – The Navy finally terminated the
LCS and has initiated a frigate program to take the place of the LCS as the
small combatant. Despite ComNavOps’
reservations about the usefulness of a frigate, it is still a step towards a
more capable surface force.
LRASM – The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile
is a long overdue replacement for the venerable and obsolete Harpoon. This will greatly increase our anti-surface
Manning/Tempo/Training – The Navy identified insufficient
manning as a contributor to the recent collisions and groundings and noted that
excessive operational tempo and the concomitant lack of training were also
factors. Having identified these factors,
the Navy is saying all the right things about correcting them but has yet to
implement any significant corrective actions.
We’ll have to wait to see what, if anything, develops from this.
Tanker – The MQ-25 unmanned tanker program
will alleviate the dependence on F-18 Hornets as tankers.
VPM – The Virginia class submarine Payload Module will
add additional Tomahawk cruise missile capacity to the submarines. This will help offset the pending loss of the
SSGN cruise missile subs as they retire without replacement. To be clear, this a poor solution but it is a
recognition of the impact of the loss of 600+ Tomahawk launch cells and an
attempt, if a suboptimal one, to mitigate that loss.
Hornet Upgrades – The Navy is adding IRST,
conformal fuel tanks, and other upgrades to the F-18 Super Hornet. These are welcome, if long overdue, additions
that will allow us to get the maximum out of the Hornet that it has to give.
all peripheral items that will have no significant impact on the overarching
problems (inept leadership, inappropriate fleet composition, huge maintenance
issues, runaway costs, quality issues,
tactical atrophy, lack of warfighting focus, etc.) plaguing the Navy but they
are, potentially, the first steps to reversing our decaying lethality,
firepower, and readiness trends.
There is a
persistent faction of naval thinkers out there who believe that a carrier is an
outdated, obsolete, vulnerable target just waiting to be sunk by Chinese
“carrier killer” ballistic missiles, submarine torpedoes, massive supersonic
anti-ship cruise missiles, and all manner of converging, lethal weaponry that
can’t be stopped. In fact, if one
listens to these people, the only question one comes away with is, how can the
vast array of attacking weapons not collide among themselves as they approach the
carrier! I guess they probably will but
there will be so many that it won’t matter.
the rest of this post is going to be about how wrong these people are and the
lead in to that discussion is the question, why are these people so very wrong? How did they come to such an incorrect
is one of ComNavOps pet peeves: they
consider the carrier in isolation rather than in its true operational form.
considers a lone carrier, sitting out at sea, presumably motionless in these
thinker’s minds, with no support and no purpose other than to survive, fighting
off wave after wave of attacks, then, sure, it is inevitable that, sooner or
later, the carrier will be sunk. So,
that’s it then. The carrier is obsolete
and unsurvivable. We need to say goodbye
to the carrier, the mainstay of naval power since WWII and move on in our naval
thinking to the next mainstay – networks, perhaps? Or small UAVs? But, I digress …
with this line of thinking, as I noted, is that it considers the carrier in
isolation rather than in its true operational form.
We need to
keep firmly in mind the true nature of a carrier. It's not a carrier - it's a
carrier GROUP. That's an incredibly important distinction. One lone carrier is
somewhat vulnerable. However, a wartime carrier group would consist of 3-4
carriers, 300 some aircraft, and 30 or so Aegis cruisers/destroyers (you’re not
going to risk 3-4 carriers without substantial escorts, are you? Check the WWII historical escort ratios) with
multiple Hawkeyes out in all directions providing situational awareness. It is
an immensely powerful, LAYERED, defense.
The layered defense includes long range carrier fighters, long range Standard
missiles/Aegis, medium range ESSM, short range SeaRAM/CIWS, passive ECM and
decoys, and more. Nothing is getting through all of that easily. Nothing is
invulnerable but a carrier group on a wartime footing is as close as you can
get to invulnerable.
escort numbers, consider our WWII experience and Adm. Marc Mitscher’s
description of a carrier group composition..
“Said Mitscher: "The ideal
composition of a fast-carrier task force is four carriers, six to eight support
vessels and not less than 18 destroyers, preferably 24. More than four carriers
in a task group cannot be advantageously used due to the amount of air room
required. Less than four carriers requires an uneconomical use of support ships
and screening vessels." (1)
description is a bit light. Every
carrier group had multiple cruisers and, often battleships attached in addition
to the listed destroyers.
gotten so used to single carriers sailing around in peacetime with only 3-4
escorts that we’ve come to believe that’s how carriers will fight in a war and
that’s just plain wrong. We’ve also
gotten so used to a numerically tiny navy that we’ve come to believe that
escorts of up to 30 vessels is unthinkable.
Well, combat will change our thinking quickly enough. We learned all this in WWII and have
completely forgotten it.
Multiply This By Four !
another, almost always overlooked, layer to the carrier’s defense and that is that
a carrier group's best defense is a good offense. We all think of a carrier, on
its own, sitting in the middle of the ocean trying to fight off wave after wave
of attackers and we conclude that the carrier, ultimately, has no hope. The
reality, however, is that the carrier group has a mission. It doesn't stay in
one place. It moves at high speed to a mission execution point, executes the
mission, and returns to base. During that movement and execution, rather than passively
playing defense and hoping to survive long enough to execute the mission, the
group would be launching massive Tomahawk cruise missile attacks against all
likely enemy bases and missile sites to suppress attacks before they even
begin. This is the part of the layered defense that most people overlook and
the part that, properly planned and executed, can be the most effective.
Aegis escort (Burkes) had 30 Tomahawk missiles, the group of 30 escorts would
have an inventory of 900 Tomahawks.
That’s a lot of suppression over a thousand mile radius!
typical WWII carrier strike operations.
The carrier group would dash into aircraft range of the strike target,
launch fighter sweeps to suppress enemy counterattacks, strike the target, and
leave before effective counterattacks could be mounted. The same holds true today except that we now
have thousand mile suppression attack capability.
The submarine is probably the carrier group's greatest threat and we'll come to
regret the loss of the S-3 Viking. Still, a carrier group is going to be moving
at 30 kts and no submarine, unless it gets lucky and finds itself dead in the group’s
path, is going to catch up to a carrier group without giving itself away.
Even if a
submarine managed to launch a salvo of torpedoes at a carrier, none would make
it to the carrier. With an escort of 30
vessels, the torpedoes would latch on to the escorts rather than the carriers. That would be tragic for the unlucky escort
but that’s part of their job description.
Again, the group is a very tough nut to crack.
in isolation” is one of the major problems with modern naval thought and
analysis and its application leads inexorably to incorrect conclusions. It’s at the root of the
win-a-war-singlehanded school of thought that leads to massively capable (only
on paper) and massively expensive ship designs such as the Burke. Instead of recognizing that a Burke is just
one ship and should have only one main function as part of a group of other
ships, each with their specialized functions, we load it up with every function
we can think of because we consider it in isolation. Seriously, does anyone think a single ship
has the time to train to perfection as an AAW, BMD, ASW, ASuW, group air
defense controller (when the Ticos are gone), and land attack platform? Good grief, the acronyms alone would take a
year to master! It’s been demonstrated
that we can’t even train to perform basic seamanship proficiently yet we
believe that a single ship will master all those disparate combat
functions? That’s a fantasy that Walt
Disney would be proud of.
when considered in its proper operational form as a group, is the most
survivable military asset there is. It’s
time to put the misguided, incorrect notions about carrier vulnerability to
Theodore, “The Magnificent Mitscher”, Naval Institute Press, ISBN1-59114-850-2, p. 316
pilot was all too aware of the reason for this mission. The latest Hawkeye shootdown had been just
like the others. The Chinese VLRAAM
(Very Long Range Air to Air Missile) had used the American E-2D Hawkeye’s radar
transmissions for detection and guidance and made its approach at Mach 6+ from
well over 200 miles away. The 350 kt
Hawkeye had attempted to evade but the Hawkeye’s utter lack of stealth and slow
speed made escape impossible. For the
Chinese, it was like shooting a turtle with a rifle – escape just wasn’t an
had shot down two of the carrier group’s Hawkeyes, so far, and forced the
remainder to operate 50-100 miles behind the group instead of out in front and
offset to the sides where they should be to provide early warning and long
distance situational awareness. The
Chinese VLRAAM had effectively blinded the carrier group or, at the very least,
substantially degraded their “vision” and shifted the operational and tactical
advantages from the Americans to the Chinese.
U.S. carrier groups were not used to
operating from a tactical disadvantage and it had unsettled the group and
blunted its operational usefulness.
about to change. The analysts on board
the carrier had calculated the range of the Chinese VLRAAM and, combined with
the location of known Chinese air bases, had predicted the launch point for the
J-16 strike-fighter that carried the VLRAAM.
The point was above a somewhat sizable island that neither side had
bothered to occupy. Now, a U.S. F-35C had been tasked with ambushing
carried two AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles in its internal
weapon bays. The small combat load was
one of the weaknesses of the F-35 but, for this mission, it shouldn’t
matter. A simple ambush against an
unsuspecting J-16 carrying a very large missile, which rendered the aircraft
not very maneuverable, ought to be a straightforward affair.
was China’s version of the Sukhoi Su-35,
itself an advanced and upgraded version of the venerable Su-27. To be sure, the base Su-35/J-16 was a very
capable strike fighter with excellent maneuverability but it wasn’t terribly
stealthy and, saddled with the VLRAAM, it wouldn’t be very fast or nimble.
F-35C closed to within 100 nm of the anticipated location, the pilot opted for
a quick scan with the APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar
in LPI (Low Probability of Intercept) mode.
The pilot was only expecting a single enemy aircraft but it didn’t hurt
to be safe and sure. The LPI mode ought
to prevent detection with limited use.
As expected, the radar found its target and not more than 20 nm from the
anticipated location. The pilot
smiled. This was going to be a classic
ambush. The J-16 would never know what
carried the AIM-120D AMRAAM with a claimed range approaching 100 nm but the
pilot knew that was under ideal conditions.
Realistically, the probability of a hit increased with every mile closer
to the target. The pilot continued to
close. There was no need to rush the
shot. The pilot knew that his Chinese
counterpart couldn’t see the F-35 at this range so the F-35 was in no danger. As the range closed, the F-35 pilot attempted
to establish an infrared track but was having trouble. Several times he thought he had the J-16 but
he couldn’t hold track.
At 45 nm,
the pilot opted for one more quick radar scan.
Sure enough, the J-16 was still there but it appeared that the aircraft
had turned and was headed away at high speed.
Well, the pilot thought, this was why he hadn’t fired sooner. At this range, the J-16 couldn’t outrun the
F-35’s AMRAAM even though he was already headed away. As the pilot readied the shot, alarm lights
and audible missile warnings startled him out of his calm routine. Frantically glancing at his threat warning screen,
the pilot saw that a missile was approaching from ahead and to the left, at the
position. The pilot was
momentarily frozen with surprise. There
had been no aircraft there and yet a missile was rapidly approaching. It wasn’t possible. Shaking off the surprise, the pilot yanked
the F-35’s nose into the threat to present the aircraft’s best stealth aspect,
the front, waited a few more seconds to allow the missile to approach close
enough, and began ejecting chaff and flares.
Having received no radar warning, he assumed the missile was an infrared
heat seeker but he wasn’t going to take chances and, besides, he had chaff and
flares to spare.
chaff and flares bloomed, the pilot rolled inverted, pulled maximum G’s, and
dove down to get out of the flight path of the incoming missile and its sensor’s
field of view. He tried to twist his
head back to look behind and see if the missile had been fooled but the F-35’s
high fuselage and low canopy provided very poor rearward visibility – the F-35
was an aerial sniper not a dogfighter.
couple of seconds that seemed to last forever, the pilot realized that the
missile must have missed since he was still alive. The frontal stealth and decoys had done their
he still had no idea who or what had shot at him.
from the dive, he pulled level and quickly initiated a radar scan. There was still no target to be seen. Glancing at the IR display, he noted a target
indicator marker ahead and below him but the indicator was not updating
continuously. He knew from experience
that kind of intermittent target was likely due to an aircraft with infrared
suppression and a reduced heat signature.
The intermittent contact occurred as the enemy aircraft maneuvered and
awareness quickly crept over the pilot.
The only time he had encountered this type of situation had been during
a series of training exercises against friendly F-22 Raptors. Then, he hadn’t been able to get usable radar
returns and only intermittent IR indications.
With a start, the pilot realized that he was likely facing a Chinese
pilot was correct. Ahead and below him,
a Chinese J-20 was maneuvering for a second shot on the F-35. In recognition of the F-35’s front aspect
stealth, the J-20 had not even attempted to obtain a radar lock but had,
instead, used its all aspect infrared search and track capability to find and
track the F-35. Low on the deck, the
J-20’s own heat and visual signature had been lost in the ground clutter while
the F-35, high above, had been highlighted against the cold and clear sky.
encounter had been a setup. The VLRAAM
toting J-16 was actually a J-16D electronic warfare version mimicking a J-16
VLRAAM shooter and was now broadcasting both specific APG-81 jamming signals
and broadband electronic noise to render the F-35’s radar ineffective. The Chinese had anticipated an American
ambush and turned the tables. The
stealthy J-20 had waited, low on the deck, watching for the F-35.
evaded the first missile shot from the J-20, the engagement was rapidly
developing into a close range, turning encounter. The F-35’s radar couldn’t track the J-20 but
neither could the J-20 track the F-35.
Both aircraft were now depending on their IRST tracking and, again,
neither could maintain a track long enough to generate a high probability kill shot.
dove for the deck to negate the Chinese aircraft’s infrared advantage. As he did, he got a momentary IR indication
and launched one of his two Sidewinders.
Even as he launched, he saw the IR track fade as the enemy aircraft maneuvered
and knew that the Sidewinder would miss as, indeed, it did.
had catapulted from the carrier with its maximum stealth air-to-air load of 2
AMRAAMs and 2 Sidewinders. With radar
useless against the J-20 stealth aircraft, that left the F-35 with only 2
Sidewinders and the pilot had just wasted one. In contrast, the J-20 had a large central
belly bay which held 4x PL-21 medium range radar guided missiles, comparable to
the US AIM-120 AMRAAM, and two smaller side weapon bays which held a total of 4x
PL-10 short range, infrared, heat seeking, high off-boresight missiles. At this point, the Chinese aircraft had three
heat seekers left to the F-35’s one.
By now, the
engagement had closed to gun range and devolved into a turning and maneuvering
dogfight – exactly the kind of engagement that the US Air Force had bet would
never happen again in aerial combat.
Unfortunately, for the US F-35’s, when two stealth aircraft meet,
neither can effectively use their radar guided missiles and infrared missiles
are unlikely to be able to track reliably enough to get a clean, high percentage
shot from any aspect but the rear – the classic 6 o’clock position. This mandates the classic maneuvering
dogfight in order to obtain the required position. This should have been easily predictable but
the US Air Force had chosen to ignore the possibility. Now, the lightly armed and poorly
maneuverable F-35 was paying the price.
F-35 now down on the deck and neither pilot wanting to go vertical and
highlight their infrared signature against the cold upper atmosphere, the fight
became a one dimensional, level turning contest just like the ancient WWI
dogfights. Unfortunately, it was a
dogfight the F-35 was ill-suited for with its poor turning performance, low g-limits,
and poor maneuverability. The F-35 had
been designed with maneuverability on par with the legacy F-16/18 and now was
facing a stealth fighter equivalent to an F-22.
Worse, the F-35C didn’t have an internal gun! If the pilot couldn’t get the firing position for his missile, he
had no other option and with only one missile remaining, even that was only a
dogfight wore on with ever tighter turns, the F-35’s airspeed bled off faster
than the J-20’s and the F-35 reached a point where it had no choice but to
break out of the turn and go vertical or else get outturned and become a
sitting duck. Getting another momentary
IR lock, the F-35 pilot fired off his second and last Sidewinder and yanked
back on his stick with full throttle to climb out of the turn – it was time to
run for home! The pilot could only hope
that the Sidewinder would occupy the Chinese pilot just long enough to allow a
clean break from the engagement.
thanks to extensive pre-war intel obtained through cyberespionage, the Chinese
pilot knew the F-35 almost as well as the US pilot did. He knew that the F-35’s Sidewinder couldn’t
reliably track his fighter from this aspect.
He ejected a series of flares but otherwise ignored the Sidewinder. Seeing the F-35 go vertical, he waited a heartbeat
to allow the F-35 to establish its direction and then turned his nose across
the F-35’s path. With better
maneuverability, the J-20 was lined up and waiting as the F-35 momentarily
settled on its hoped for escape path.
The J-20, with an internal 30 mm autocannon, fired a three second burst
which shredded the F-35 and sent it cartwheeling toward the ground.
off, the Chinese pilot released a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding
and released the stick to shake the cramps out of his hand which had been
maintaining a death grip. The fight
really hadn’t been a fair one given the F-35’s small weapons load and poor
maneuverability but the pilot would gladly accept any advantage he could get.
Americans would have to come up with another way to negate the Chinese VLRAAM
advantage. In the meantime, the carriers
would have to be pulled back, out of range of the deadly Hawkeye-killing
J-16, a multi-role strike-fighter that is roughly equivalent to the Russian
Su-35. The Very Long Range Air to Air
Missile (VLRAAM) is 19 ft long and 13 in. diameter with a range of 250-300
miles. Missile speed is Mach 6+.
“… large active electronically
scanned (AESA) radar, which is used in the terminal phase of flight to lock
onto the target. The AESA radar's large size—about 300-400% larger than that of
most long range air-to-air missiles—and digital adaptability makes it highly
effective against distant and stealthy targets, and resilient against
electronic countermeasures like jamming and spoofing.” (1)
VLRAAM Mounted Underwing
The J-20 stealth fighter is real, however, its performance is somewhat speculative.
J-20 Stealth Fighter
The point of the story was to explore air to air combat between two stealth fighters and what I see as the inevitable degeneration of the combat to traditional dogfighting.
Science, “China is testing a new long-range,
air-to-air missile that could thwart U.S. plans for air warfare”, Jeffrey Lin
and P.W. Singer, November 22, 2016,