Con-ops, Competition and Capability

Ed Timperlake Comments on Air Power Australia Assessments of AESA Radar Competitions

A key item which we will discuss on the website will be the evolving concepts of operations for air power working in the joint and coalition arena.  An important dimension of the new fighters is the integration of sensors and radars in shaping new capabilities usable across the spectrum of warfare.  We will build some basic modules over time on the impact of Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA)  radars and they integration with the combat systems on systems such as the F-22 and F-35.  Indeed, the F-35 is a “flying combat system” in large part to the AESA integration with the combat systems.
But the US and its allies are not alone in shaping new capabilities.  Indeed, one of the fallacies of the contemporary “debate” about air power in the United States is the assumption that the US is largely in competition with itself.  From time to time, we hope to highlight work of analysts who are focusing upon the competitive nature of the air operations environment.
One such analyst has been Dr. Carlo Kopp and his associates (Air Power Australia).  Dr. Kopp has analyzed Russian technologies in the AESA area and has published a paper entitled “Assessing the Tikhomirov NIIP L-Band Active Electornically Steered Array” which can be found at
http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2009-06.html.  This analysis has been extended to discuss the competitive environment within which the F-35 will operate (http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-NOTAM-140909-1.html)

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Ed Timperlake** has provided an insightful look at these two papers and his comments follow:

Two mutually supporting papers published in Air Power Australia one by WGCDR Chris Mills and the other by Dr Carlo Kopp perfectly capture the action/reaction dynamic cycle of fighter aircraft design features.

Fighter aircraft progress in a Type/Model/Series sequence, for example the F-4 Phantom II went from F-4 A to S and then the next generation was the F-14, F-15, F/A-18 and now F-22 and soon to be introduced F-35.  Concurrently, the Russians were evolving from Mig 21 to a generation of SU’s 27, 30s and as the paper points out SU-37.
The key to understanding modernization of tactical aircraft is that it is always relative and never absolute because of a reactive enemy.
However, there are moments in military history some arriving quicker than others in which a step function made a break from a continuous incremental improvement of existing weapons and defenses.  I use “step” function in the sense that the jump in improvements if graphed would depart straight up in capability from a previous more smoothly progressing upward curve of capability.
There are many examples in history–Gunpowder against body armor, cannons against forts, the Monitor and the death of wooden ships, machine guns and tanks against Calvary. The invention of the submarine and airplane and perhaps the biggest military step function in history is the A-bomb– are all “step” functions.
Even with a “step” function technology breakthrough a reactive enemy eventually catches up.
In fighter aviation cycle of improvements or “step” function grew out of WWII research and experimentation– the jet engine, airborne radar and eventually AA missiles;IR-Sidewinder series, Semi-active-Sparrow series, and US current fire and forget-AARAM. These are all advances that left the WW II propeller powered fighters and the Mark-1 eyeball behind.
Over almost three decades ago thanks to Secretary Perry and DARPA “Stealth” was embraced as a defining aviation step function. Stealth became a closely protected technology and was often herald in absolute terms. To be fair, the US did establish a commanding lead but it came at a cost.
There have been many career killing debates in the US over the issue of “stealth” vs improving radar capability (mostly ground base systems). The debate has favored  “stealth” and it is possible these technology debates have had a chilling effect on radar R&D.  Having personally seen the results of this ongoing fight it would be fair to say it was tilted toward “stealth.

Now both authors perfectly capture with insightful and extremely well documented analysis that Russian design teams are focusing on improving airborne radar designs to defeat US “stealth” design characteristics. Both papers are cutting edge and have the possibly of being seminal works. Similar to the famous John Boyd P sub S– energy maneuverability research.
Now the issue is practical-what to do with their analysis?
Since the issue of more F-22s for the US is on life support I take heart that the papers are Australian. After the F-22 fight which made it to the Oval office to stop production at 186 there is one glimmer of hope left.
It has been reported that a Senate Committee is writing report language that will direct the USAF to set aside some R&D funding to develop an export version of the F-22. The focus is primarily on an export version to Japan but Australia has an equally pressing need.

Both authors in their respective papers show the reader why current Russian airborne radar advances are important to acknowledge. Both authors do not lecture or “tell”, they cogently and factually describe why the F-35 is not the F-22 in AA Fighter capabilities.
Once a Russian airborne radar design action/reaction cycle begins to nullify stealth designs the air to air combat equation must come back to a package of other basics. Airframe performance (range, payload, maneuverability and speed) on-board system capabilities, weapons carried and pilot training and tactics, all must come together to win the AA engagement.

One rule I usually follow is if the Russians have the technology the PLAAF (Chinese Air Force) is not far behind.

In the AA equation of kill or be killed there is one new dimension  (if 20 years of research is new) which is the latest AA missile development is constantly improving  “fire and forget” missiles.  Today’s fighter pilot not only has to kill his adversary, but it must be done at a range the enemy can’t get off a kill shot prior to being splashed.
So once again it is back to the basics. A fighter pilot must search, acquire, identify and shoot— quicker than the opponent. Stealth gave the US a tremendous survivability advantage.  However, once challenged by improving radar capability as mentioned above—the basics of technology come back in the debate;; airframe flight performance, airborne systems and weapons carried.  Stealth is a survivability attribute along with other survivability multipliers–the ability of the airframe to take a hit, chaff, flares, and jamming.
I have purposely left external capabilities out of this discussion –ground and airborne search radar, IFF technology and other command and control technology that all help the fighter pilots situational awareness in the cockpit.

Both authors’ contribution has been huge. With “stealth” advantages being challenged by radar advances the F-22 v F-35 fighter comparisons come into realistic focus and every one who has any credibility must agree the F-35 is not the F-22 flying the Air Dominance mission.

Australia needs the choice to buy the F-22 along with the F-35 if they wish.

Authors note: I fully recognize the brilliant insight expressed by Andy Marshall Director Net Assessment when he wrote about “The Revolution in Military Affairs”. The future of war fighting technology is moving toward precision guided munitions with remote sensors, and information war (now known as “cyber war”). I also realize there is currently a battlefield evolution of UAVs and robotics. I focused on  fighter versus fighter and the issue of “stealth”  a catch all term clouding  a frank assessment of the F-22 and F-35. When I hear “stealth” as a panacea making up for less relative fighter performance I think of previous historical arguments. Pre-WWII weapon system beliefs were:

  • The Bomber will always get through
  • The Battleship will rule the waves
  • and Subs should be used as scouts for the fleet.

Stealth is a weapon system survivability multiplier nothing more nothing less.

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** Ed Timperlake is former CO VMFA-321, and co-author of “A Methodology for Estimating Comparative Aircrew Proficiency” (Theater Forces Division, Office of Strategic Research, Central Intelligence Agency) and Project Manager inventing “The TASCFORM-Air Model,  A technique for assessing Comparative Force Modernization in Tactical Aviation” for Director of Net Assessment, (OSD).

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***Posted October 25th, 2009

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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