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Sunday, July 26, 2015

A New Age of Great Power Competition? - Russia Part II


Efficacy of the Current US Response

Image 1: "Dragon Ride" exercise across Europe, 2015. 

Key Points from Part I: 
  • Russia's main foreign policy objectives are (1) remain a nuclear power on equal footing to the United States (2) retain great power status in international politics, and (3) attain regional hegemony (Leon Arron, 2013). 
  • Russia's increased belligerence is not an indicator of Russian strength. The conventional Russian military faces substantial modernization challenges which are unlikely to be addressed in light of the country's bleak economic prospects
  • Given Russia's poor economic prospects, Russia is more likely to invest in its nuclear modernization program as a means to offset conventional US military advantages. Furthermore, Russia will invest in its asymmetric capabilities to coerce states below the Article 5 threshold as part of its strategy to attain regional hegemony in the near abroad. 
The principle US Military response to the Russian intervention in Ukraine has been "Operation Atlantic Resolve". Congress approved $1 billion towards funding Atlantic Resolve which facilitated substantial rotational deployment of US forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, prepositioning heavy equipment in six Eastern European countries, and large scale exercises between US and NATO partners. Unlike the US & EU sanctions which are intended to enact costs such that Putin will cease Russian support for Ukrainian separatists, the objective of Atlantic Resolve has been to deter Russian aggression into NATO states and reassure US allies. The short-term goal to reassure US allies and deter Russia has worked insofar as no Russian military incursions into the Baltics or Eastern Europe have occurred but the sanctions have largely been ineffective given the extent of Russian commitment to retain Ukraine within its sphere of influence. However, two major military policy issues remain unaddressed by Atlantic Resolve: (1) the large scale deployment of conventional military forces is ill-suited to counter Russian asymmetric forces - which are more likely to be used given the shortcomings of their conventional military and the greater geopolitical consequences of overt conflict, and (2) the NATO alliance continues to fade into irrelevance as a unified fighting force. Few European NATO members are capable of conducting both intensive military operations and are willing to use force to deter potential Russian aggression. NATO's shortcomings will be discussed followed by policy recommendations within a larger US foreign policy context in Part III.

The Hybrid Threat

Image 2: Pro-Russian separatists in Slavyansk. Image Credit: Roman Pilipey

Russia's use of unconventional forces poses significant challenges to conventional NATO forces, particularly in terms of response time. The speed at which Russian forces overwhelmed Crimea caught Western leaders off guard and underlined the inadequacy of the current 30 day mobilization period of conventional NATO units (Saunders, 2015).  Prior to the Ukraine crisis, NATO maintained a meager rapid response force of 5,000 troops with a response time of five to seven days; NATO now has plans to expand the rapid reaction force to 40,000 troops with a response time of 48 hours. While the expansion of the rapid reaction force is prudent, it is not wholly sufficient to counter Russian asymmetric capabilities in a potential conflict over the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

A great deal of literature acknowledges the shortcomings of conventional US & NATO forces in dealing with the various aspects of hybrid warfare including information operations, use of special forces, paramilitary forces, cyber attacks, etc. but much less is published on specific tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) US forces would utilize to counter hybrid threats. In order to create new TTP, the United States should continue to collect as much intelligence information on Russian capabilities as possible throughout the conflict. For example, the US Army has garnered useful information on the efficacy of counter-mortar radar units against hybrid forces and potential vulnerabilities of US & allied networks to Russian electronic warfare systems:
"The U.S. Army is working to glean intelligence on Russian military technology from the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, American generals said...'The lightweight counter-mortar radar, turns out, that it is a much better piece of equipment than we realized,' Hodges said. 'None of us have ever -- maybe one or two exceptions -- have ever been under a massive Russian artillery [attack] the way the Ukrainians have, and so we have learned a lot in the way that they have responded to that.'On the other hand, the conflict has exposed the potential for Russian electronic warfare technology to pierce U.S. and allied battlefield communications networks', Hodges and other U.S. generals said. Rostec, a Russian-owned arms and technology company, last year claimed it used 'complex radio-electronic' frequencies to hack into an MQ-5B Hunter drone that was flying over Crimea and belonged to the Army's 66th military intelligence brigade based in Germany." - Brendan McGarry, 2015

NATO's Growing Irrelevance

Image 3: NATO military spending by member states.
"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources ... to be serious and capable partners in their own defense..future U.S. political leaders, those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me, may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost,” - Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, 2011 [emphasis added] 
In recent years US diplomats and top Administration officials have lamented the continued perceived lack of defense spending among European partners. As the graph above shows, it immediately appears as if the United States is responsible for a disproportionate burden of defense responsibilities relative to European allies. In terms of the spending burden, two major factors must be kept in mind. A major caveat is the US economy is nearly equal to the combined total of the 28 European Union countries despite its much smaller population; the US has a population of 320 million and a GDPs of $17.45 trillion 2014 dollars compared to the EU's population of roughly 500 million and GDP of $18.48 trillion in 2014 dollars (IMF, 2015).Thus it is important to remember that given even a low percent of GDP allocated towards defense, the US is bound to significantly outspend any individual member of NATO.

The second major caveat is US forces are spread throughout six operational commands given the global national interests of the United States. A more apt comparison for peacetime aggregate defense spending would be US expenses related to the defense of Europe relative to NATO allies e.g. the costs associated with the forward deployed 65,000 US troops stationed in EURCOM. However, during wartime conditions in Europe forces from other operational commands would be allocated to USEUCOM e.g. surge forces from US. With these two factors in mind, the overwhelming extent to which the US provides funds for Europe's defense is somewhat reduced but remains substantial relative to other NATO members. Most importantly, the United States disproportionately provides the bulk of warfighting capabilities within the NATO alliance despite the aforementioned caveats with respect to US defense spending.

Image 4: Note the divide among member states between increasing expenditures among Eastern European members and cuts in Western European countries. Image Credit: Defense One, 2015.

The aggregate spending figures alone do not illustrate the full extent to which the US composes the alliance's warfighting capability. Defense spending is a means to produce warfighting capability and "bean counting" type of analysis's which look at total defense budget figures alone glaringly overlook how defense budgets translate into a fighting force's effectiveness. Defense budgets are generally divided into four categories: procurement, research & development, operations and maintenance, and personnel expenditures. The most troublesome trend among European allies in terms of defense budgets has not been the overall budget cuts of recent years. Rather, European militaries consistently spent upwards of 50% of their existing defense budgets on personnel expenditures such as benefits in conjunction with overall defense spending cuts. Given the higher proportion of personnel expenditures in European militaries, less new equipment can be purchased, existing vehicle and equipment are not as likely to be maintained, and more capable future systems will be delayed or not pursued. Thus, European defense budgets translate into substantially less warfighting capacity than the United States. It is worth noting that the DoD has also struggled in recent years with the onset of sequestration and the end of two wars to reign in personnel expenditures, but in percent terms these additional personnel costs do not approach many of the EU states below.

Image 5: EU member states proportion of defense spending allocated to personnel expenditures. Note: Austria, Cyprus, Malta, Sweden, Finland, and Ireland are not part of NATO.

Another worrisome trend within European militaries is the growing rift among Eastern and Western European NATO members in terms of their willingness to use force. Western European states face a less immediate threat from Russia as Eastern European states such as Poland and the Baltics. Unlike the Cold War, Western Europe has substantial economic ties with Russia and is incentivized to limit further economic damage from sanctions relating to Ukraine. The cohesion of the alliance has been disrupted further by the Snowden leaks which have drastically lowered US favorability in Europe, particularly in Germany. In an overt military conflict with Russia, these trends are unlikely to be as impactful as peacetime efforts against countering asymmetric Russian advances in Eastern Europe. Given the lack of immediate danger to themselves and economic incentives, Western European states are much less willing to confront Russia in Eastern Europe so long as Moscow refrains from overt military intervention. The combination of high personnel expenditures in the face of overall defense cuts coupled with the reduced willingness to use military force effectively erodes the extent in which European partners contribute to NATO's overall deterrence via providing substantial warfighting capabilities.

Image 6: Divisions among NATO member states in response to Russia. Image Credit: The Wall Street Journal, 2015.

Given Russian capabilities and NATO's growing irrelevance, Part III will discuss policy recommendations within the context of a larger US foreign policy perspective.

Sources (in addition to Part I) 

  1. Explainer: This Graph Shows How NATO’s Military Capability Has Evolved Since 1949, Janine Davidson, 2014. 
  2. NATO Members’ Defense Spending, in Two Charts, Kedar Pavgi, 2015. 
  3. International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook Database, 2015.
  4. World Europe U.S. pledges commandos and high-end equipment for new NATO force, Carol Williams, 2015.
  5. U.S. Consolidates Forces in Europe to Save Money, Helene Cooper, 2015. 
  6. National Defence Data 2013 of the 27 EDA Member States Brussels, Silvija GuzelytÄ—, 2015 
  7. Ukraine’s Army Slogs Through the Merciless Donbass, Robert Beckhusen, 2014. 
  8. Carter Says U.S. Will Contribute to New NATO Rapid-Action Force, David J Lynch & James G Neuger, 2015.

Friday, July 10, 2015

F-35 loss to F-16? Setting the Record Strait

Image 1: F-35. Image Credit: Liz Kasynski Code One, 2015.

Earlier in July David Axe from “War is Boring” published excerpts from a report made by an F-35 pilot upon the conclusion of basic fighter maneuvering (BFM) exercises which took place in January of 2015.  During the exercise, the clean configured F-35 was outmaneuvered by an F-16 with two drop tanks and was subsequently defeated. Axe argues the failure of the F-35 to defeat the aircraft it was intended to replace is the latest in a series of developments which ultimately demonstrate the F-35 is a waste of American tax payer dollars and the aircraft will be of little use on the battlefield against maneuverable fourth generation opponents. The article caused considerable public debate and even prompted an official response by the Joint Program Office (JPO) which oversees the development of the F-35. Upon reviewing the circumstances of the test within the broader context of the maturity of the F-35 program, it becomes apparent that the BFM testing in January does not provide conclusive results with respect to assessing the F-35’s potential dogfighting prowess.

First and foremost, the test aircraft utilized in the BFM exercise (AF-2) is among the oldest in the fleet and is optimized for flight sciences not dogfighting; AF-2 has neither radar absorbent material coatings nor the latest software configuration to enable HMD and full avionics functionality (Jennings, 2015). Thus, the F-35 was effectively deprived of its two most significant advantages over legacy aircraft, enhanced situational awareness and low observability. The combination of stealth and complete situational awareness enables the F-35 to effectively perform “stand-off” kills or beyond visual range engagements. The F-35 sharesthe fifth generation traits of stealth and situational awareness with the F-22which has already demonstrated their value- even when controlling for theF-22’s superior maneuverability performance

Image 2: F-35 AIM-120 test
“…the results of training exercises indicate the Raptor is highly capable in close range maneuvering fights but it is clearly not invincible. The results of close in maneuvering fights indicates supermaneuverability alone is not responsible for the Raptor's success, stealth and heightened situational awareness have contributed immensely to the Raptor's overall combat effectiveness exercises. All [simulated] instances of Raptors being shot down, with the possible exception of a case where an AIM-120 missile kill was achieved by an EA-18G, occurred at visual range in close in maneuvering fights. The F-35 shares stealth and heightened situational awareness with the Raptor and, given all the information that has been publicly released, there is no credible reason to conclude the F-35 is incapable of performing similar ‘stand-off kills’ utilizing stealth and situational awareness as described by Brown” - Matt, 2013
Without stealth and enhanced situational awareness, the F-35 utilized during the test was effectively a fourth generation fighter. But, the lack of stealth coatings and software upgrades were not important as the objective of the test was to determine the limits of – and ultimately improve – the aircraft’s maneuverability characteristics as per the pilot’s recommendations at the end of the report. Lockheed had initially framed the outcome of the test, prior to David Axe’s publication, as a positive outcome given that the F-35 can be “cleared for greater agility as a growth option” (Davies, 2015).

Image 3: F-35 canopy & HMD 

The F-35 test pilot concluded the aircraft had an insufficient pitch rate, suffered from an energy disadvantage (drop in speed after maneuvers), and poor rearward visibility. The pilot subsequently recommended increasing the pitch rate to enable the pilot to have greater options, increasing the alpha onset, increasing the beginning of the blended region to 30 degrees (angle of attack), increase pilot yaw authority, and fixing HMD/canopy issues. By following the pilot’s recommendations in addition to planned block upgrades, many of the deficiencies cited in the report will be either mitigated or disappear. For example, Block 6 improvements include both a canopy expansion and propulsion upgrade e.g. adaptive cycle engine with up to 10% increased thrust and 25%-30% range (Norris, 2015). However, some maneuverability challenges would remain such as high-wing loading which cannot easily be remedied as a result of upgrades. Its worth noting that maneuverability is determined by examining several metrics such as thrust to weight ratio, high subsonic acceleration, rate of climb, AOA, sustained radius turn ability, etc. As with prior generations of US fighter aircraft, inherent design considerations made as a result of trade-offs in capability will ensure an aircraft performs better in some maneuverability metrics over others.  

Ultimately, the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) by test and evaluation squadrons and the Weapon’s Test School will enable F-35 pilots to maximize the aircraft’s strengths while mitigating its weaknesses during engagements. This effort will include attempting to create dogfighting techniques at visual range which favor the F-35. The recent test is yet another reminder that the F-35 program is still in its infancy when compared to legacy systems and the development of TTP will likely take years. Former F-16 pilot C. W. Lemoine argues the BFM test in January means little as it will take a substantial period of time for F-35 pilots to accumulate proficiency in their aircraft and commentators aught to withhold judgement until F-35 pilots become proficient and new TTP are developed: 

Image 4: F-35 & F-16 over Luke AFB. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin 
"...a guy with maybe 100 hours in the F-35 versus a guy with 1,500+ Viper hours? I’ve seen thousand-hour F-16 guys in two-bag D-models beat up on brand new wingmen in clean, single-seat jets. It happens. It’s the reality of the amount of experience in your given cockpit...It’s way too early to declare the F-35 the 'worst fighter aircraft design ever imagined.' Please. Let’s see how it does when guys who are proficient in developed tactics do against guys with similar amounts of experience–the realm of the bros in the operational test or Weapons School environment." - C. W. Lemoine , 2015
Much of the debate regarding the F-35 has stagnated towards fixating on particular maneuverability characteristics or specific technical problems in isolation rather than evaluating the holistic potential of the aircraft based upon how it is likely to be used in combat under a combined arms approach with multiple assets and skilled pilots. With these additional factors in mind, ensuring the F-35 will be effective at visual range will become increasingly important over the next ten to fifteen years as both the proliferation of effective electronic warfare/countermeasure systems and foreign fifth generation fighters will challenge the efficacy of the F-35's ability to reliably achieve bvr kills. In summary, January's BFM tests provide few conclusive results other than the F-35 program is still relatively immature and further work is needed to fix teething problems in the airframe and to ensure F-35 pilots are able to accumulate the required experience to be proficient in their aircraft. 


Friday, July 3, 2015

Blog Update: F-35 Loss to F-16

News of the F-35's "loss" against an F-16 in basic fighter maneuvering testing has been widely discussed in defense/aerospace forums over the past week. I will post my own analysis of the implications and takeaways of the test next week.