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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Signing Off

It's been a great experience writing articles for American Innovation, but I will be discontinuing the blog as I've accepted a full time position at a defense media publication. I will leave the blog up and check the comments on a semi-regular basis.

I greatly appreciate all the feedback and constructive criticism provided over the years which has helped me greatly improve as an author. Thank you for your support.

Threat Analysis: Su-35S Part III - Armament R-77 & EW/ECM

R-77/AA-12 Adder

Image 1: R-77-1 mounted on the inner most wing pylon of an Su-35S deployed to Syria. Note the supplemental Khibiny-M EW/ECM pods on the wingtips. 

The most advanced medium-range BVR ARH missile in the VKS inventory is the R-77-1; the missile is also referred to as the RVV-SD and Izdeliye 170-1 in Russian language sources. The R-77-1 is a modernized variant of the original R-77 (Izdeliye 170) AAM developed during the early to mid-1980s. The baseline R-77 was produced by the Molniya OKB in Ukraine in limited quantities solely for testing purposes until 1994. In 1993, the Russian Air Force ordered the R-77 production line and all further developmental activities be transferred to Vympel NPO in Moscow.[1] As a result of financial difficulties during the 1990s, the Russian Air Force did not adopt the R-77 into service. Vympel relied upon sales of the export variant of the R-77, the RVV-AE, to sustain the R-77 production line. At least 750 RVV-AEs have been sold to the PRC and at least 1,000 RVV-AEs were sold to India; Malaysia, Indonesia, Sudan, Syria, and Peru also have stocks of RVV-AE missiles for use on their MiG-29 and Flanker fleets.[2]

The Russian Air Force ordered its first batch of improved R-77-1 missiles in 2009 in tandem with its initial Su-35S purchase, deliveries of R-77-1 missiles began in 2011. According to editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief, Mikhail Barabanov, the VKS ordered two additional batches of R-77-1 missiles in 2012 and 2015 which are expected for delivery between 2016 and 2017; the 2015 contract is worth 13.175 billion rubles ($226 million) which roughly equates to more than 220 missiles.[i] Barabanov further notes that the VKS is unlikely to have “sufficient” stocks of R-77-1 missiles until the latest batches are fully delivered.[3] However, it is unclear if the contracted R-77-1 purchases will prioritized for the Su-35S fleet or will be evenly distributed amongst the VKS’ fighter forces such as the Su-30M2 and Su-30SM regiments.

In February 2016, operationally deployed R-77-1 missiles were observed for the first time on the Su-35S. However, as of April 2017, the vast majority of Russian fighter aircraft photographed in Syria and those conducting aerial intercepts over Europe continue to be predominately armed with R-27 AAM.  

Design and Performance

The R-77 is 3.6 meters long, has a diameter of 200 mm, and a launch weight of 175 kg. The baseline variant has a maximum kinematic range of 40.5 nm or 75 km. The missile’s most distinguishing trait is its use of lattice fins which provide excellent subsonic and supersonic maneuverability performance. However, lattice fins tend to generate greater drag than conventional control surfaces at transonic speeds and generate larger radar returns.[4] The R-77’s guidance system comprises of an inertial midcourse system with radio updates as well as an Agat 9B-1348 X-band monopulse active radar terminal seeker which has a home-in-on-jam capability. The slightly modified 9B-1348E in the RVV-AE can detect a 5m^2 target at a range of 16 km or a 0.0002m^2 target, F-22’s frontal RCS, at 1.27 km.[5] Unlike the R-27, the R-77 utilizes a laser proximity fuse to activate the missile’s 22.5 kg blast fragmentation warhead. In principle, a laser proximity fuse equipped AAM should be more effective detecting low observable targets and successfully cueing the warhead when compared to a radar proximity fuse equipped AAM.

The R-77-1 is an evolution of the original design and features a more streamlined nosecone, software updates, and enlarged fuselage which is 17 centimeters longer and 15 kg heavier than the baseline R-77. In terms of performance, the R-77-1 has an extended kinematic range of 60 nm (110 km) and incorporates the improved 9B-1348-1 seeker which features a more powerful transmitter and receiver over the baseline 9B-1348.[6][7]

Image 2: PAK FA captive carry tests with R-77-1 and R-73 missiles. Image Credit: Anatoly Burtsev

The R-77M (Izdeliye 180) is a “deep modernization” of the original R-77 design which replaces the lattice fins with conventional tail control surfaces for RCS reductions and improved transonic drag performance, incorporates a modernized active terminal seeker produced by Istok (possibly an AESA), and an improved dual-pulse rocket motor which will more than double the range of the original R-77 missile to roughly 81 nm + (150 km+).[8][9] In 2007, the Russian Air Force planned to field the R-77M by 2010, but the absence of operationally deployed R-77M missiles in 2017 suggests either budgetary or technical issues have impaired the R-77M program.[10] Russian defense publications often report the R-77M is the principal BVR weapon of the PAK FA which would suggest an entry date around 2020. However, As of February 2017, all R-77 external captive carry tests with the PAK FA feature the R-77-1 not the R-77M. Therefore, Russia’s fighter forces will likely continue to rely upon the R-77-1 until at least the mid-2020s as its primary AAM. Similarly, the ramjet powered R-77ME has been proposed since at least 1999 when a mockup was presented at that year’s Farnborough airshow, but little credible evidence within the public domain suggests that the R-77MD’s development has progressed. 

Su-35S Electronic Warfare & Self Protection Systems

The Su-35S features a robust ECM suite designed to defeat and delay detection across the electromagnetic spectrum including the CKBA L150-35 Pastel RWR, KNIRTI L265M10R Khibiny-M ECM suite, NPK SSP ultraviolet missile approach warning system (MAWS), and six 14-round UV-50 decoy dispensers.[11] These systems complement one another to significantly enhance the Su-35S’ survivability against radar and IR guided AAMs.

Beyond Visual Range

The internally stored components of the Khibiny-M system cover the H-J (X to Ku) bands while the optional wingtip mounted pods cover the E-G bands (S to X). The Khibiny-M is likely linked to the L150-35 RWR to enable several common ECM and EW techniques such as noise jamming, repeater jamming, and deceptive electronic counter measures (DECM).[12] The basis for all ECM systems is for the jamming signal to exceed the skin return of the aircraft from the perspective of the adversary radar.[13] For example, when an adversary radar is within range of a repeater ECM equipped aircraft, the ECM suite detects the radar pulse against the skin of the aircraft (skin return), amplifies the skin return, and repeats the false signal at random intervals back toward the adversary radar. This technique effectively masks the location of the aircraft by generating false targets on the adversary’s radar.[14]

Surviving until the merge will be critical for Su-35S pilots engaging fifth generation aircraft because their adversary’s use of stealth will both severely diminish BVR opportunities and degrade radar guided AAM PK performance in terms of terminal seeker sensitivity and radar fuse failures. Under ideal conditions for VKS pilots, Su-35S’ would be directed toward stealthy aircraft via external long-range sensors such as VHF radars or extremely sensitive emissions detection systems. Compared to fifth generation aircraft, the Su-35S is more reliant on its ECM/EW suite to protect the aircraft until the merge at WVR given its much larger RCS. All of these techniques require knowledge of the adversary radar’s location identified by the RWR. However, U.S. AESA equipped aircraft operating in low probability of intercept (LPI) mode will prove significantly more difficult for the Su-35S to detect, track, and jam.

A major determinant of the Su-35S’ effectiveness against Western militaries will be the ability of the Khibiny-M to degrade the probability of kill (PK) of the AIM-120D AAM. The AIM-120D features an X-band monopulse terminal seeker with a diameter of approximately 178 mm and a home-in-on-jam capability against noise jamming emitters.[15] Furthermore, monopulse radars are inherently immune to signal amplitude modulation jamming because they generate an error signal based upon each pulse.[16] Arguably, the greatest deficiency of the AIM-120D is its limited sustained kinetic performance compared to emerging ramjet powered AAMs such as the MBDA Meteor. The AIM-120 has a historical PK of 0.46 against Iraqi and Serbian Air Force aircraft, but both EW and missile guidance technology have significantly progressed since the 1990s such that the historical PK is likely no longer informative of the current PK. Because both the AIM-120D and Khibiny-M’s most sensitive specifications are not likely to be released, I believe there is significant uncertainty regarding the ability of the Su-35S to close to WVR of fifth generation aircraft without sustaining substantial casualties.     

Within Visual Range

The Su-35S’ MAWS can detect the launch of a man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) from 10 km away (6.2 miles) as well as SAM and AAM launches at 30 km (19 miles).[17] Very little information on the Su-35S’ MAWS exists among English language sources, but the system should in principle give VKS pilots greater reaction against missile threats. MAWS are particularly useful in defending against IR and other types of passive guided AAMs which will avoid detection on the aircraft’s RWR.

[1] Jane’s, “Russian Air-Launched Weapons 38”, 2001.
[2] SIPRI Arms Transfers Database
[3] Dave Majumdar, “Russia's Best Military Aircraft: Not Armed with the Best Aircraft-Killer Missiles”, August 2016.
[4] Aerospaceweb, “Missile Grid Fins”, last accessed November 2016.
[6] Jane’s, “Russian Air-Launched Weapons 38”, 2001.
[7] Karlo Kopp, “The Russian Philosophy of Beyond Visual Range Air Combat”, last updated 2012.  
[8] Ibid.
[9] Piotr Butowski, Jane's International Defense Review, August 2014.
[10] Piotr Butowski, Russia & CIS Observer, June 2007.
[11] Piotr Butowski, Russia’s Warplanes: Volume I, pp. 89, Houston: Harpia Publishing L.L.C. & Moran Publishing, 2015.
[12] Ibid. 
[13] George M. Siouris, Missile Guidance and Control Systems, pp. 122-123, Air Force Institute of Technology, 2004.
[14] United States Navy “Radar Jamming: ‘Defensive Electronic Countermeasures’ May 1962 US Navy Training Film”, last accessed April 2017. 7:55
[16] George M. Siouris, Missile Guidance and Control Systems, pp. 116 & 137, Air Force Institute of Technology, 2004.
[17] Piotr Butowski, Russia’s Warplanes: Volume I, pp. 89, Houston: Harpia Publishing L.L.C. & Moran Publishing, 2015.

[i] Malaysia ordered 35 RVV-AEs for $35 million i.e. unit cost of approximately $1,000,000. Likely to be cheaper given production efficiencies since 2012.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Revitalizing America’s Carrier Air Wing

 Image 1: F-35Cs onboard the USS George Washington. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin & taken by Todd R. McQueen.

Author’s Note: For the purpose of this article, the majority of analysis will concern the role of carrier based fighter aircraft. For a quick primer on the roles of other carrier based aircraft, please refer to Sam LaGrone’s “Inside the Carrier Air Wing”.

In response to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) rise as a near-peer competitor, bipartisan support continues to grow in support of rebuilding the American Navy. However, the U.S. Navy (USN), Congress, and the Administration officials continue to neglect modernizing the carrier air wing (CVW) as part of any major naval build-up. The current CVW is smaller than any deployed since the USN’s first super carrier in 1955 and consists of short range aircraft ill-suited for sea control and power projection operations against high-end adversaries. The F-35C is a critical component to the future CVW as the Lightning II greatly extends the reach, survivability, and lethality of the entire carrier strike group. Despite suggestions by the President that the F-35C could be replaced by a “comparable” F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, both the F/A-18E/F and F-35C will serve complementary roles as part of a high-low mix force structure. In order to demonstrate the necessity of funding the full procurement of 260 F-35Cs for the USN, an analysis of how the threat environment in the Western-Pacific challenges the modern CVW will be provided in parts I and II. Part III will discuss the unique capabilities of the F-35C and how its presence on USN carriers will multiply the effectiveness of other USN assets. Lastly, the fourth article in the series will conclude with a list of recommendations on the future structure of the CVW such as the role and ideal requirements for the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) and the need for a carrier based long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability to replace the S-3 Viking.

Future Threat Environment & the Role of Carrier Based Fighters

Chart 1: Planned CVW in the mid to late 2020s. 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the USN obtained uncontested dominion over the world’s oceans for the first time since the end of World War II. The USN no longer needed to prioritize sea control assets, munitions, and doctrines such as the F-14D, the anti-ship variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile, and the Outer Air Battle concept. Given the permissive operational environment, the USN gradually tooled the CVW to provide persistent presence and air power against non-state actors following 9/11. The USN will have to relearn the institutional knowledge, skills, and doctrines associated with sea control in addition to procuring new ships and aircraft to face the modern threat environment. The Department of Defense (DoD) defines sea control as:
…operations designed to secure use of the maritime domain by one’s own forces and to prevent its use by the enemy. Sea control is the essence of seapower and is a necessary ingredient in the successful accomplishment of all naval missions…Such operations include destruction of enemy naval forces, suppression of enemy sea commerce, protection of vital sea lanes, and establishment of local military superiority in areas of naval operations.[1]
CVW fighters are an indispensable means towards establishing sea control in terms of providing defensive counter air (DCA) cover for the strike group, conducting anti-surface warfare (ASuW) operations, denying an adversary’s air and maritime use of a particular geographic region, and securing freedom of action for maritime forces. Once sea control is established, carrier based fighter aircraft facilitate power projection operations in the offensive counter air (OCA), suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD)/destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD), interdiction, and strike roles. Given the sparse availability of land bases in the Western-Pacific, USN carrier based aviation will play an indispensable role in any U.S.-PRC conflict.  

Image 2: SAM coverage of Type 052 destroyer. Image Credit: Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), 2015.

The PRC is quickly fielding anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems such as anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), submarines, sea mines, and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) which will force carrier strike groups to operate hundreds of miles from directly contested regions at the start of a major conflict. However, PRC ASCMs and ASBMs will be heavily reliant on a mix of space, sea, and air based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to provide over the horizon (OTH) targeting information. The PRC is also fielding an increasingly potent mix of integrated air defense systems (IADS) such as the HQ-16, S-300PMU, HQ-9, and S-400 surface to air missile (SAM) systems cued by a mix of VHF search radars and passive electronically scanned array (PESA) as well as active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire control radars.
These systems will pressure non-stealthy U.S. aircraft to operate at greater distances from A2/AD zones thereby greatly diminishing the utility of short range weapons. For example, adversary aircraft conducting DCA missions have the option of staying within the protective cover of their own IADS which limits the ability of non-stealthy CVW fighters armed with medium range air-to-air missiles (AAMs) to conduct OCA missions. Long-range SAMs will also degrade the utility of direct attack munitions, air-to-surface weapons with a range less than 50 nautical miles (nm) such as the 13 nm range Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), in the strike and interdiction roles.[2] In terms of both munitions and aircraft, the current CVW is ill-suited to execute sea control and power projection missions against high-end A2/AD adversaries. Both the current and planned CVW will be assessed with respect to sea control capabilities (ASuW, DCA) as well as power projection in a contested environment (OCA, SEAD/DEAD, strike, and interdiction).


Current CVW Sea Control

Image 3: Exploitation of critical sea lines of communication and geographic features will be crucial towards successful carrier operations in any U.S.-PRC conflict. Image Credit: RAND.

 The fighter contingent of the current CVW consists of one to two squadrons of F/A-18C/Ds Hornets and two to three squadrons of more capable F/A-18E/Fs Super Hornets for a total of 44 fighter aircraft.[3][4] Both the legacy Hornet and Super Hornet are reliable and versatile strike fighters, but they are severely constrained by their relatively short combat radius of approximately 290 nm for the legacy Hornet and 390 nm to 410 nm for the Super Hornet depending upon the flight profile and configuration of external stores.[5] With the retirement of the S-3 Viking in 2009, between five to six F/A-18E/Fs are used in the buddy tanking role to extend the reach and endurance of the remaining Hornets which further erodes the effective strength of the CVW.[6] 

Image 4: PLAN fleet distribution. Image Credit: ONI, 2015.

The sea control mission will greatly vary depending upon the nature of the PRC-U.S. conflict in terms of objectives and geography. Namely if the conflict occurs in the South China Sea (SCS), East China Sea (ECS), or is part of a broader Indo-Asia Pacific regional contingency. For example, the PRC would not be able to mass and sustain the same degree of air and sea power in the SCS as the ECS given its greater distance from the Chinese mainland.[7] However, across all plausible contingencies the PRC will retain an in theatre numerical advantage in combat aircraft and aggregate sortie generation rates; the PLAAF and PLANAF field more than 800 modern fighter aircraft including 400 J-10s and approximately 400 Flankers across all variants. In order to obtain sea control, CVW fighters must:
1.      Establish localized air superiority while maintaining a heavily favorable exchange ratio against People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) fighter aircraft given the numerical advantage of PRC forces and the difficulty in resupplying the carrier with new aircraft in the midst of a conflict.
2.      Disrupt or destroy PRC OTH sensors enabling long-range employment of ASBMs and ASCMs
3.      Target PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft and surface combatants caring ASCMs-ideally before they are able to engage the strike group thereby reducing the cruise missile defense burden of the surface combatants
4.      Fleet anti-air warfare (AAW) assets must ensure the survival of special mission aircraft such as the EA-18G and E-2D as well as USN land based ISR and ASW assets supporting the strike group such as the P-8A and MQ-4C
5.      Facilitate collection of OTH targeting information for the strike group such that USN surface combatants can conduct long-range ASuW
6.      Destroy or disable enemy surface combatants as part of a broader ASuW effort.

Image 5: Carrier strike group composition. Image Credit: NAVSEA. 

Defensive Counter Air

Even without the F-35C, current CVW fighters will be able to achieve high exchange rates against PLAAF and PLANAF fighters within the defensive cover of the strike group. The USN has heavily invested in its AAW capabilities with the development of Aegis baseline 9.0 combat system, E-2D Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) for the DDG-51 Flight III, 200 nm + range SM-6 SAM, 90 nm range SM-2 Block IIIA SAM, 27 nm + range Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) SAM, SeaRAM, and upgraded CWIS Block 1B. A strike group typically consists of four DDG-51 guided missile destroyers and one CG-47 guided missile cruiser which collectively have 506 vertical launch cells (VLS); the USN is considering expanding the number of surface combatants per strike group up to seven or eight for a total capacity of 698 to 794 VLS cells (not including the SSN which is typically assigned to the strike group but in practice often operates autonomously).[8]

The USN has been proactive investing in its F/A-18E/F fleet with its spiral upgrade flight plan which will add additional APG-79 AESA capabilities, enhanced electronic warfare (EW) and self-protection capabilities, IR search and track (IRST) pods, and improved software to support sensor fusion as well as network centric warfare and multi-missile shot capability.[9][10] Furthermore, the USN has been procuring AIM-120D and AIM-9X AAMs at an accelerated place with 1,170 and 758 missiles requested in the five year defense plan (FYDP) respectively.[11] Within the short-term, F/A-18C/Ds and F/A-18E/Fs will maintain a significant qualitative edge over PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft in beyond visual range (BVR) combat engagements. The vast majority of current PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft utilize mechanically scanned array radars such as the indigenous Type 1473 and Type 1474 for the J-10A and J-11B which are further constrained by obsolescent fire control computers and networking capabilities. Therefore, most current PRC fighter can only engage one to two aircraft simultaneously at BVR which mitigates their numerical advantage in contrast to the Hornets and Super Hornets which can engage multiple targets at longer ranges simultaneously.[12] Over the next decade, the PRC will field increasingly capable Flanker variants such as the Su-35, J-11D, and J-16 as well as the fifth generation J-20 which will significantly erode the quality advantage of current CVW fighters.

Image 6: Pair of J-20 fighters on display at Zhuhai 2016. Note the Luneburg lens radar reflectors mounted on the underside of the aircraft to mask the J-20's real RCS. The J-20 program continues to make steady progress as shown by design refinements made between the initial J-20 prototypes and the low rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft. The DoD estimates the J-20 will reach initial operational capacity (IOC) around 2018. A production run of a few hundred airframes is plausible and the design will only become more formidable as Chengdu engineers thoroughly examine the PLAAF's new Su-35s. 

Detection of low observable aircraft such as the J-20 will present a significant challenge for the current CVW and AAW assets within the strike group. The unique design traits of the J-20 airframe suggest it is a low observable interceptor designed to destroy the enablers of U.S. power projection such as AEW&C, EW, ISR, and tanker aircraft.[13] All of these aircraft have minimal maneuvering capabilities, with the exception of the EA-18G, which thereby increases the no escape zone of long-range AAMs launched against them. The E-2D Hawkeye AEW&C’s APY-9 VHF AESA radar is likely the asset best suited to locate PLAAF stealth aircraft given that the J-20’s use of planform alignment is optimized against the X and S-bands. The APY-9 has a maximum detection range of over than 300 nm and a 250% greater surveillance envelope compared to the legacy APS-145 on the E-2C.[14] The SPY-6 AMDR may be able to locate and track stealth aircraft at tactically significant ranges despite operating in the S-band; the AMDR is composed of thousands of gallium nitride (GaN) transmit receiver modules which grant the AMDR 30 times the detection capability of the legacy SPY-1 on the DDG-51 Flight I and IIs. It is worth noting that both the APY-9 and SPY-6 were built to aid in the defense against cruise missiles which feature a comparatively low RCS. Alternatively, EA-18Gs may be able to locate J-20s with their emission location equipment or F/A-18E/Fs would be able to detect the J-20 with their IRST pods at relatively short ranges.

Even if the current CVW is able to detect low observable aircraft, the USN’s current qualitative edge in fighter aircraft is significantly declining. Without the F-35C, the current CVW will increasingly have to rely upon support from surface combatants and shore based USAF aircraft to establish localized air superiority. CVW fighters will eventually have to leave the protective cover of the strike group to target PRC OTH sensors, ASCM carrying aircraft, and PLAN surface combatants at extended ranges. Even with extensive EA-18G EW support, current CVW fighters will struggle to accomplish the aforementioned missions without high attrition rates.

Anti-Surface Warfare

Image 7: Super Hornet configured for ASuW with four AGM-84D Harpoon missiles. Image Credit: USN. 

The current CVW is armed with two principal anti-ship weapons, the AGM-154 C-1 JSOW and the AGM-84D (Block 1 C) Harpoon both of which have a range of approximately 70 nm.[15][16] In the fourth quarter of FY 2017, the USN will begin fielding the upgraded AGM-84N Block II + which includes a two-way data link, GPS guidance, and enhanced electronic counter measure performance.[17] However, U.S. CVW aircraft will be significantly outranged in the ASuW mission when compared to their PLAAF and PLANAF equivalents. The most numerous air launched ASCMs in service with the PRC are the subsonic YJ-83 (70 nm), YJ-63 (108 nm), YJ-83A (135 nm), and YJ-62A (215 nm) as well as the supersonic YJ-12 (135 nm).[18][19] PLAN surface combatants are also fielding increasingly longer range ASCMs such as the YJ-62A and supersonic YJ-18 (97 nm +); the PLAN’s Russian acquired Sovremenny-class destroyers are armed with 3M54E Klub (108 nm) and SS-N-22 Sunburn (130 nm) ASCMs.[20] Nearly every PLAN surface combatant is armed with ASCMs and at SAMs including smaller corvettes and frigates which greatly increases the number of targets CVW aircraft must engage i.e. the PLAN has been practicing “distributed lethality” for years while the USN continues to make meager process enacting distributed lethality.

The limited standoff ranges of the AGM-84N Block II + and JSOW C-1 degrade the survivability of current CVW fighters in the ASuW role. PLAN surface combatants will continue to improve their own AAW capabilities with continued production of the Type 052D which incorporates the Type 346 Dragon Eye AESA radar and extended range HQ-9 (80 nm). Furthermore, PLAN surface combatants may choose to stay within the protective cover of land based SAMs depending upon the nature of the conflict and resulting geography which would further degrade CVW survivability. In order to successfully conduct ASuW missions with the current AGM-84N and JSOW C-1, current CVW fighters will require substantial MALD/MALD-J decoy and EA-18G EW support. The interim fielding of the 300 nm + range capable Lockheed Martin AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM) in 2019 as part of Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) increment 1 will greatly improve the survivability of the current CVW in the ASuW role.

The AGM-158C features a low observable air frame, jam resistant two way data link, semiautonomous targeting modes, 1,000 pound warhead, and multi-mode seeker.[21] Despite the significant capabilities of the AGM-158C, the USN has only requested 60 AGM-154Cs in its FYDP as of FY 2017 with procurement ending in 2019.[22] The limited procurement quantities likely reflect the interim nature of the OASuW program prior to OASuW increment 2 which will field a larger number of ASCMs across the fleet starting in 2024. The main competitors of OASuW increment 2 are the LRASM, an advanced active seeker equipped derivative of Raytheon’s Tomahawk Block IV, and possibly Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile (NSM).[23]

Author’s Note: Part II will discuss the CVW's power projection capabilities against the PRC.

[1] “Command and Control for Joint Maritime Operations”, Joint Staff, 2013.
[2] “United States Navy Fact File: Joint Direct Attack Munition”, USN, last accessed February 2017.
[3] “The Carrier Air Wing of the Future”, David Barno, Nora Bensahel and M. Thomas Davis, February 2014. pp. 8
[4] “The Basics: Inside the Carrier Air Wing”, Sam LaGrone, April 2014.
[5] “F/A-18 Hornet Specifications”, Global Security, last updated July 2011.
[6] “CNO: Navy Should Quickly Field CBARS To Ease Tanking Burden on Super Hornets”, Megan Eckstein, February 2016.
[7] “The U.S.-China Military Scorecard Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017”, Eric Heginbotham, et al., 2015. pp. xxx
[8] “Navy Wants to Grow Fleet to 355 Ships; 47 Hull Increase Adds Destroyers, Attack Subs”, Sam LaGrone and Megan Eckstein, December 2016.
[9] “FY 2015 Programs: F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler”, DOT&E, 2016.
[10] “RDT&E Budget Item Justification: PE 0204136N / F/A-18 Squadrons”, USN, February 2016.
[11] “Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY 2017 Budget”, DON, 2016.
[12] Modern Chinese Warplanes, Andreas Rupprecht and Tom Cooper pgs. 66, 72, 81
[13] “PLAAF Fighter Modernization & J-20 Updates”, Matt, October 2015.
[14] “Lockheed Martin AN/APY-9”, Scramble, last updated July 2011.
[15] “Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW)”, NAVAIR, last accessed February 2017.
[17] Ibid.  
[18] “A Potent Vector Assessing Chinese Cruise Missile Developments”, Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, 2014.
[19] “YJ-63”, Deagle, last accessed February 2017.
[20] “A Potent Vector Assessing Chinese Cruise Missile Developments”, Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, 2014.
[21] “Offensive AsuW Weapon Capability”, Lockheed Martin, 2015.
[22] “Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY 2017 Budget”, pp. 4-7, DON, 2016.
[23] “Navy: Raytheon Tomahawk Likely to Compete in Next Generation Anti-Ship Missile Contest“, Sam LaGrone, August 2015.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Innovation and Air Dominance: Loyal Wingman Options & Acquisition Approach - Part III

Loyal Wingman Assessment and Procurement Strategy

Image 8: Loyal Wingman Options

            The F-16 is a reliable, combat proven, and highly versatile airframe with nearly 1,000 active aircraft in service within the USAF. The F-16 design is highly mature and upgraded derivatives of the F-16 are expected to fly into the late 2020s to early 2030s ensuring robust fleet sustainment and support activities for any modified unmanned F-16 program. In 2012, Boeing began modifying older F-16 airframes into QF-16 target drones which have superior maneuverability and countermeasure performance when compared to older QF-4 target drones. The greatest benefit a modified QF-16 program would be its comparatively low unit cost. The average cost to modify and F-16 into a QF-16 under a 2014 contract was $6.9 million per airframe.[1] Furthermore, at least some of the 300 F-16 airframes remain stored at the “boneyard” in Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ could be utilized for a modified QF-16 program.[2] Given the reduced maneuverability needs of the loyal wingman concept, the QF-16 could be loaded with external fuel tanks to extend its range and endurance. The greatest deficiency of a modified QF-16 design would be its limited survivability as a result of its comparatively large radar cross section (RCS) relative to 5th generation aircraft. Significant electronic warfare support would be required to keep QF-16s operational long enough for them to fulfill their support role of manned aviation platforms. The following initiatives could improve the survivability of a modified QF-16 at additional cost:
  1. “Have Glass” II radar absorbent material (RAM) coatings applied to the F-16CM/CJ “Wild Weasel” F-16 derivative could conceivably be applied to the QF-16 for marginal RCS improvements
  2. An enclosed specially shaped weapons pod similar to Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Block III concept for the QF-16 could provide additional RCS improvements
  3. Adoption of the Low Observable Asymmetric Nozzle (LOAN) to the F100-PW-200 engine as demonstrated by Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney in 1996 would both reduce the QF-16’s rear aspect RCS and its IR signature[3]
  4. Incorporation of a diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI) similar to Lockheed Martin’s highly successful modified F-16 Block 30 demonstrator aircraft tested in 1996 would likely provide substantial frontal RCS improvements[4]

In contrast to the QF-16, the Predator-C features a built in reduced RCS which would greatly enhance its survivability.
            The Predator-C was originally developed to fulfil the USAF’s MQ-X program to design a low observable airframe capable of withstanding battle damage in a contested environment as well as incorporating a resilient and agile communications system.[5] Notably, the USAF did not find the Predator C’s performance to meet MQ-X requirements and canceled the program in 2012. However, the cancelation of the MQ-X may have been the result of shifting priorities towards the classified deep penetrating ISR and electronic warfare platform, the RQ-180 RPA.[6] Regardless, the Predator C fulfills many of the less ambitious loyal wingman criteria such as low observability, range, endurance, and low technical risk and cost ($15 million unit cost). The modular design of the Predator C facilitates future upgrades and new payloads such as General Atomics’ 150 kW laser module which is scheduled for in-flight interception tests against rocket and missiles between 2016 and 2017 at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.[7]  A more in-depth technical and cost analysis is likely required to definitively determine which aircraft best would fulfil the loyal wingman role, but the greater capabilities and survivability of the Predator-C likely merit the additional unit cost. Should the USAF pursue a SoS solution to air superiority to ease the transition between 5th and 6th generation platforms, the following organizational structure maximizes acquisition agility, expertise, and risk reduction:
  • Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) – oversight and coordination
  • Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) – acquisition
  • Big Safari – systems integration between loyal wingman and 5th generation platforms
  • USAF Weapons School, Test and Evaluation Squadrons (TES), Aggressor Squadrons (ARGS)  – new techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTP)
Image 9: Relevant development, acquisition, and procurement agencies. 

The guiding philosophy behind the organizational structure above is that small well financed and highly autonomous offices/organizations staffed by the best and the brightest within an institution are key drivers of innovation[8]. The growth of bureaucracies and oversight requirements has stifled the pace of innovation as two former Skunk Works engineers recently remarked in a Classic Aircraft Magazine interview:
…the time it takes to go from initial design to operational use by the Air Force is directly proportional to the size of the Air Force oversight committee that’s guiding the airplane design. For the F-117, the Air Force team was a colonel and six other experts-the corresponding team on the F-22 was 130. And if you ratio 130 over seven, you’ll get just about the ratio of the time it took from starting the airframes to getting them in service… Because of bureaucracy, […] once you get all these organizations involved-all the different Air Force bases across the country, and every contractor that makes a screw for the airplane-when they have meetings, everybody comes to every meeting, and nothing ever gets settled. It’s crazy! If you’ve got 300 people in a meeting, what the hell do you solve?[9] [emphasis added]
Given the core requirement of any SoS solution to be fielded within a decade, as many of the major organizations which would be required to transition the SoS concept to an operational capability were chosen as a result of their comparatively small highly skilled workforce and greater institutional autonomy.
            The SCO is the newest of the four major organizations listed above and was created in 2012 at the recommendation of Ashton Carter while he served as Deputy Secretary of Defense. SCO has largely developed around the expertise and creativity of William Roper, a Rhodes Scholar with an educational background in physics and mathematics. SCO’s mission is “to help us to re-imagine existing DOD and intelligence community and commercial systems by giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential enemies — the emphasis here was on rapidity of fielding, not 10 and 15-year programs. Getting stuff in the field quickly”. [10] SCO has a full time staff of just six government employees and roughly 20 contractors making it the smallest organization examined in the proposal.[11] The growing clout of SCO, whose budget rose to $530 million in funding for 2016 up from $125 million in 2014, and small size facilitate SCO’s role as the ideal oversight and coordination body for the SoS solution to air superiority. In many ways, the SCO drew its organizational inspiration from the RCO.
            The RCO is the USAF’s premier agile acquisition organization with a consistent track record of success as demonstrated in their involvement of the X-37B space plane and long range strike bomber. Formed in 2003, RCO operates outside of much of the Pentagon’s traditional acquisition system and reports directly to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), Chief of Staff for the Air Force, and Air Force Secretary. The workforce of roughly 80 individuals is widely regarded as among the USAF’s foremost experts in acquisition.[12] Given its extensive acquisition capabilities and experience, RCO would be responsible for leading the acquisition of the loyal wingman. RCO would seek to procure at least 200 primary aircraft inventory (PAI) – the minim number to be strategically relevant, loyal wingmen UCAVs with additional units for attrition reserve, test and evaluation, training, etc. The unmodified base Predator-C has a unit cost of roughly $15 million meaning the low-end procurement estimate cost of the proposal, which does not factor necessary data link and semi-autonomous mode modifications, is $3 billion. The opportunity cost in terms of F-35As would be roughly 28 aircraft using Lot 8 prices of roughly $108 million per airframe.[13]  In terms of the cost effectiveness of a platform to carry air-to-air missiles, the F-35A is $9 million vs. $2.5 million in terms of unit cost divided by SACM storage capacity. Despite the enormous capabilities of the F-35, the minimal curtailment of the F-35 fleet, roughly one fighter squadron worth of aircraft, to fund 200 UCAVs is merited as the UCAVs would have a disproportionate force multiplier effect on the entire fighter force via SoS integration.

Image 10: AH-64 with MQ-1C, OH-58 background. Image Credit: U.S. Army. 

            Big Safari is a USAF program founded in 1952 and its primary mission is to rapidly create modifications for existing aircraft. Over its long history, Big Safari has supported numerous USAF programs such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint, MQ-1, and reactivation of the SR-71 fleet in 1994.[14] In many respects, Big Safari’s role in the loyal wingman proposal is the most challenging. Both the F-35 and F-22 need to be able to communicate with the Predator-C which likely utilizes a C-Band line-of-sight data link before transitioning to a Ku-Band Beyond Line-of-Sight (BLOS)/SATCOM data link for the majority of its the flight in a similar manner as the MQ-9 Reaper.[15] Traditional methods of ground control are insufficient and reliance on satellite communication systems in the midst of a conflict with a near-peer adversary is possibly shortsighted. Big Safari might be able to incorporate the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) into the F-35, F-22, and Predator-C as a short-term solution to expedite the modification process. The AH-64E already utilizes TCDL to command the MQ-1C under MUM-T. Over the long-term, developing a low probability intercept, resilient, and secure data link is the single most important aspect of any SoS system. The data link and associated battle management network is potentially the Achilles’ heel of any SoS system as disrupting the integration and communication of its various subsystems negates the synergistic effects SoS typically provides thereby potentially making each individual system more vulnerable to attack. At a higher institutional level, the U.S. military needs to be diligent to institute a network-enhanced warfare system, not a network dependent system as Jon Solomon astutely examines in the article, “21st Century Maritime Operations Under Cyber-Electromagnetic Opposition”:
...there is a gigantic difference between a network-enhanced warfare system and a network-dependent warfare system. While the former’s performance expands greatly when connected to other force elements via a network, it nevertheless is designed to have a minimum performance that is ‘good enough’ to independently achieve certain critical tasks if network connectivity is unavailable or compromised...Conversely, a network-dependent warfare system fails outright when its supporting network is corrupted or denied.[16]
A partial solution to a network-dependent system is semi-autonomous capability as this proposal advocates as a core requirement for the unmanned wingman UCAV. Big Safari would likely work with General Atomics on a sole source basis to develop the necessary software and hardware modifications to upgrade the Predator-C with a semi-autonomous mode capable of supporting manned 5th generation assets. Once the modifications to the F-22, F-35, and Predator-C have been completed, the first modified aircraft would be sent to specialized units to create new TTP.
The elite Weapons School based at Nellis Air Force Base is responsible for both teaching the skills required for modern combat pilots and developing new TTP in tandem with USAF TES and AGRS. Once a new aircraft enters the fleet, TES attempt to identify teething problems with the aircraft. After the aircraft’s teething problems have been rectified, the TES pilots often attempt to create new methods of employing the aircraft[17]. Doctrines and new TTP are strenuously evaluated with aggressor units in large simulated combat exercises such as Red Flag, Red Air, or Northern Edge. AGRS enable the USAF to conduct accurate combat exercises by providing a realistic opposing force to engage trainees. Aggressor pilots are among the most skilled pilots in the USAF fighter force and specialize in flying their aircraft in a manner similar as a selected aircraft from a potential adversary. Aggressor pilots will study their chosen adversary aircraft in detail for an entire year based upon briefings from the intelligence community on adversary capabilities and tactics.[18] These institutions provide the USAF with a robust capability to test new concepts of operation in a realistic setting. The feedback and TTP developed by the Weapons School, TES, and ARGS with respect to the loyal wingman will be the final major step before operationalizing the SoS approach to air superiority.
In conclusion, a manned F-X sixth generation WVR capable platform is still needed with an expected IOC of 2035 to 2040. However, a low cost SoS solution to air superiority incorporating MALD, SACM, a loyal wingman UCAV, and 5th generation platforms can ease the transition between the 5th and 6th generation platforms by substantially solidifying the U.S.’ comparative advantage in BVR  capabilities. The loyal wingman and its associated modifications developed and purchased by the DoD and USAF’s leading small, autonomous, highly skilled and innovative organizations such as SCO, RCO, and Big Safari will maximize acquisition agility. Lastly, the Weapons School, TES, and ARGS will translate the potential of the loyal wingman and SoS concept into decisive new operational capabilities for the USAF and the joint force.

[1] Defense Industry Daily, “QF-16s: Look Ma, No Hands!”, last modified May 2014.
[2] “F-16 Fleet Reports”, last visited April 2016.
[3] “F-16 LOAN Low Observable Asymmetric Nozzle”, last visited May 10, 2016.
[4] Eric Hehs, “JSF Diverterless Supersonic Inlet”, July 15, 2000.
[5] David Axe, “The U.S. Air Force Was Not Fond of the Next-Gen Predator Drone”, November 2014.
[6] Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman, “Where Does RQ-180 Fit In Stealthy UAS History?”, December 2013.
[7] Richard Whittle, “General Atomics Plans 150kW Laser Tests; Eye On AC-130, Avenger”, December 2015.
[8] Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos, Skunk Works, (Back Bay Books, 1994), 343-350.  
[9] Dario Leone, “Two former Skunk Works members seem to know why the F-35 program is a mess”, April 2013.
[10] Colin Clark and Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Robot Boats, Smart Guns & Super B-52s: Carter’s Strategic Capabilities Office”, February 2016.
[11] Dan Lamothe, “Veil of secrecy lifted on Pentagon office planning ‘Avatar’ fighters and drone swarms”, March 2016.
[12] Marcus Weisgerber, “Meet the Secretive Team Shaping the Air Force’s New Bomber”, October 2015.
[13] Aaron Mehta,“Bogdan: F-35 Costs Down, Despite Worries”, March 2015.
[14] Global Security, “Big Safari”, last modified April 2011.
[15] Defense Industry Daily, “It’s Better to Share: Breaking Down UAV GCS Barriers”, last modified October 2011.
[16] Jon Solomon, “21st Century Maritime Operations Under Cyber-Electromagnetic Opposition Part Two”, October 2014.
[17] Dave Majumdar,“USAF testers prepare for F-35 operational evaluation”, last modified 11 March, 2013,
[18] Dave Majumdar, “The Aggressors: Someone has to play the bad guy. Part One”, NY Military and Civil Aviation Examiner, last modified April 2009,
[19] Bill Sweetman, “F-35 Stealthier Than F-22?”, June 9, 2014.
[20] John Wilcox, “Arming 5th & 6th Gen Aircraft In An A2AD Environment”, 2015.
[21] Amy Butler, “ACC Chief: Stealth ‘Incredibly Important’ For Next USAF Fighter”, February 12, 2015.
[22] Guy Norris, “GE Details Sixth-Generation Adaptive Fighter Engine Plan “, January 29, 2015.
[23] John Wilcox, “Arming 5th & 6th Gen Aircraft In An A2AD Environment”, 2015.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Bill Sweetman,, et al, “Podcast: What’s Interesting In The New Budget?”, February 2015.