Main problem with today’s materialistic, consumeristic, technoaddicted, narrow-minded worldview when translated to the military is a tendency to look at everything from platform level and not battlefield level: we want more “capable” aircraft, with capability often being defined as number of different missions single aircraft can carry out and number of mostly-useless technological gadgets it carries. Consequential increase in cost is justified by “increased capability”; lost are lessons of previous wars: facts, that people are most important part of the war machine; that if enemy is in range, so are you – and it works in all areas of combat; and that numbers, despite everything, still matter. Increased complexity is slowly driving modern air forces towards impotency. In the Korean War, helicopters required 6 days from factory to war zone.
Many different types of combat missions are needed in a war: air superiority, low-level strikes against fixed targets, and close air support being some of the most important combat missions. But these missions have vastly different requirements from aircraft undertaking them. Air superiority aircraft require high thrust-to-weight ratio, low wing loading, light weight and small size; bombers require ability to carry great payloads, which means large and heavy aircraft; low-level strike aircraft need to be able to go fast near the ground and carry relatively heavy payloads while not being easily detectable, which results in high wing loading and medium weight; close air support aircraft need to be very maneuverable at low speeds near the ground, and very survivable in face of enemy fire, which results in aircraft with strong engines, large straight wing and lots of armor. Recon aircraft need to be very fast and fly very high, which results in low drag, strong engines and no weapons at all.
As it can be seen, some of these requirements fly in face of each another. Air superiority requirements are in particular strict and incompatible with low-level strike requirements, but this does not mean that many types of aircraft are needed: CAS aircraft can perform most types of tactical bombing when required, whereas strategic bombing is useless. Therefore, air superiority, CAS and scouting aircraft are only types of tactical aircraft that are a must, whereas low-level strike is useless. SEAD can also be done by air superiority or CAS fighters simply by adding anti-radiation missile, which could also be used in air-superiority role; but only CAS aircraft would be capable of carrying actual bombs, and SEAD mission requires massive number of aircraft that can constantly loiter overhead with anti-radiation missiles which makes CAS aircraft more suited for it. Battlefield interdiction will naturally be done by CAS aircraft, as it is almost identical in requirements to CAS mission – difference is in coordination with ground troops, or rather lack thereof. None of these missions require sensors other than FLIR/IRST, RWR and MkI eyeball.
In air-to-air combat, turning on radar is a death warrant. Due to that, as well as unreliability of BVR missiles, with Pk likely to be below 1% against capable opponent, combat will be visual-range. Air superiority fighter would thus have to have all-passive 360° situational awareness, and use revolver cannon and visual-range IR missiles as its armament.
CAS aircraft have to be able to land and take off near ground troops, without requiring even dirt-strip air bases. Another requirement is flying low and slow enough to visually identify targets detected by sensors to determine what is sheep dung and what is dug-in tank, and also visually confirm damage to targets. This is something that neither fast, costly, thin-skinned multi-role jets or slow, vulnerable, limited-FoV and crash-prone UAVs can do. Another very basic requirement for CAS aircraft is to be able to loiter above battlefield for long time; this is best achieved by a straight wing and engines that are fuel-efficient at subsonic speeds, which means that maximum speed of CAS aircraft will remain subsonic: this, however, is not an option for multirole fighters. Two best – and only – Western CAS aircraft are A-10 Thunderbolt II and IA-58 Pucara.
Usual excuse for replacing “low-and-slow” CAS A-10 with high-speed multirole aircraft is alleged A-10s vulnerability to MANPADS, but Soviet experience in Afghanistan runs contrary to that statement: even after introduction of Stinger, heavy machine guns were cause of 70% of Soviet helicopter losses. Result was loss of 118 aircraft and 333 helicopters. Low-altitude attacks proved useful for Mi-24 pilots in countering Mujahedeen Stinger usage through reducing avaliable targeting time. This same tactic is useful for dedicated, slow-flying (but faster than helicopters) CAS aircraft but not for multi-role fighters which are vulnerable to small arms fire and are too fast for such attacks. On the other hand, Army helicopters simply are not survivable enough to do the same work as CAS aircraft: in Vietnam, unarmored helicopters suffered loss rate of over 100%; 500 helicopters were lost each year yet never did number of helicopters go above 500 – losses were, at best, 1 per 1.500 sorties despite most sorties being transport. In First Gulf War, 274 AH-64s launched 2.764 Hellfire missiles, compared to 5.000 Maverick missiles and 40.000 bombs used by 132 A-10s. In Second Gulf War, between March 19, 2003 and July 4, 2007, 32 AH-64/AH-1 helicopters were lost, compared to two CAS aircraft. A-10 losses in GWI were 1 per 3.100 sorties, and it is only tactical aircraft in US inventory that can reliably survive in unsupressed MANPADS+AAA environment; no A-10s were lost, or even damaged, during night – record identical to that of F-117. Helicopters are also so complex that many sorties are aborted due to maintenance woes of complex electronics, even though AH-61 is relatively robust as far as helicopters go; but its numbers are too few for COINOPS, even though at least there Apache can be useful. What is actually needed in attack helicopter category is small, two-seat helicopter similar to old Little Bird or Gazelle, equipped with jet pods, and which will also be used for ground attack only. V-22 tiltrotor is faster, but it is so complex that enemy does not need to shoot it down – it will fall from the sky by itself after several combat missions.
Combat experience shows that maximum survivability altitude against air defenses is below 15 and above 15.000 meters, at speeds of 450 to 550 kph. This speed range, interestingly, is exactly where A-10 operates; no fast, “multirole” jets can do it, unlike World War II where propeller fighters’ air combat was at same speeds as ground attack. Not to mention the fact that many, like Army Sergeant 1st class Frank Antenori and WWII Stuka pilot Hans Rudel, have stated that fast jets are incapable of undertaking Close Air Support. Reasons are fast aircraft’s inability to reliably detect tactical targets, inability to react fast enough to changing conditions on the ground, imprecision of weapons dropped from high altitude, and destructiveness of precision guided munitions. There is also fact that precision weapons are unable to offer immediate and/or suppressive fire and their point of impact has to be calculated, which can delay weapons release by 26 minutes or more, up to several hours, and makes many precision weapons useless against mobile targets. For these reasons, USMC routinely asks USAF to bail them out with A-10 missions despite having Harrier II. Forward air observer aircraft, preferably turboprop, can also be very useful in directing CAS aircraft – but it does not need to be expensive, and can be converted from civilian designs. To improve survivability, tracking time must be minimized for both air superiority and CAS aircraft; yet missiles – both AtA and AtG – have lock-on time in excess of 10 seconds, whereas gun has shortest tracking time of all weapons, in both air-to-air and air-to-ground role. Low altitude also reduces possibility of friendly fire: while A-10s did cause several friendly fire incidents in 2003 war in Iraq, all happened under restrictive conditions preventing A-10s from flying below 2.400 meters. A-10 is also slow enough to attack targets marked by smoke or marker baloons.
Small attack helicopters can be used for surprise attacks against air bases: AWACS ignores anything flying slower than 100 kilometers per hour to eliminate automobile clutter; number of A-10s or helicopters could easily sneak up to visible air bases and catch 250 million USD F-22s and 200 million USD F-35s on ground; even World War I Fokker can be deadly if armed with Sidewinders and used to prevent any enemy fighters from taking off or landing. In Homeland War, Croatian Air Force used crop dusters to throw improvised bioler bombs on Serbian forces: early on, they had 100% survivability rate because they flew so slow that Serb SAMs did not detect them as targets, and entire special SAM unit had to be brought from Serbia in order to deal with that problem.
And for those who say that multirole fighters are more cost-efficient, let’s see flyaway costs of austerely designed single-role fighters and compare them to multirole designs, from less complex to more complex (all costs are in FY 2013 USD):
- single-role, austere fighters:
- A-10: 16 million USD
- YF-16: 16 million USD
- YF-16 with IRST and DRFM jammers (YF-16 II): 18 million USD
- multi-role, austere fighters:
- MiG-21-93: 27 million USD
- multi-role, simple fighters:
- F-16 A: 30 million USD
- JAS-39 C: 40 million USD
- multi-role, complex fighters:
- F-18 G: 68 million USD
- F-16 C: 70 million USD
- Rafale C: 90 million USD
- F-15 C: 126 million USD
- EF2000 T3: 136 million USD
- F-35 A: 200 million USD
- F-22 A: 262 million USD
While Gripen C or F-16C may be able to do both bombing and air superiority missions, their flyaway costs of 40 and 70 million USD, respectively, are still above combined cost for one YF-16 and one A-10, which is 34 million USD; and one aircraft can only be in one place at one time. Further, while multirole aircraft can do ground attack, sea attack and recon, though not as well as single-role aircraft, they are completely incapable of doing quality CAS, and pay heavy price in fuel fraction and thrust-to-weight ratio when in air superiority role. There are other compromises as well: gattling cannon is better for ground attack than air superiority, and Gripen Cs hot gas exhaust, put behind the cockpit to shield it from ground IR sensors when doing ground attack, severely limits visibility from cockpit.
There is also issue of sortie rate: if design is more austere, it requires less maintenance and can carry more fuel and ammo, which both translates into more time in the air. Therefore force presence difference will be greater than it could seem just from cost comparisions. If we know that F-22 can do one sortie every two days, 20-year-old F-16 can do 1,2 sorties per day, and Gripen can do two sorties per day, it is entirely possible that even more austere YF-16 II proposal I made could result in three sorties per day; especially since A-10 itself can do 3 sorties per day.
Instead of likely USAF end force of 187 F-22 and 500 F-35, costing 149 billion USD and generating 90 air superiority and 330 tactical bombing sorties per day (420 sorties per day total), 3.000 YF-16 II and 6.000 A-10 can be bought, costing 150 billion USD and generating 9.000 air superiority and 18.000 close air support sorties per day, for total of 27.000 sorties per day. For comparision, strategically best Western multirole fighter – Saab Gripen – costs 40 million USD (while Wikipedia puts its cost at 40-60 million USD, 40 million USD is mostly cited), allowing for acquirement of 3.600 fighters which can produce 7.200 sorties per day, and only if no CAS aircraft are acquired along with it. Operating cost for single-role fighters would also likely be around 2.000 – 3.000 USD per hour. These numbers are important, as they show cost-ineffectiveness of current force; and if there is US-China war (which I hope there won’t be but is main reason stealth aircraft proponents give for continuing production of F-22 and F-35), best chance for US to counter millions of Chinese infantry and thousands of armored vehicles is qualitative and quantitative superiority in the air; let Chinese waste money on stealth aircraft, and concentrate on what is actually effective. No matter how effective F-22 is, producing 7% as many aircraft generating 1% as many sorties as YF-16 II, or 15% as many aircraft generating 4% as many sorties as Gripen C is a crippling disadvantage. And that disadvantage United States, dependant on air superiority as they are, cannot afford.
There we get to another issue: vulnerability of aircraft while on the ground. In September 2012, 6 Harrier IIs were lost in Camp Bastion raid, resulting in 264 million USD damage. Had these been F-35s, loss would have been worth 1,2 billion USD; at the same time, loss of 6 A-10s would have resulted in 96 million USD of damage. Similar attacks happened during entire US involvement in Vietnam, and are even greater danger when faced with well-trained special forces in larger-scale wars. There already are neoprene suits designed to counter IR sensors. During 1989 war in Afghanistan, Mujahedeen used Stinger shoulder-launched missiles to destroy Soviet aircraft when taking off or landing.
Length of runway drives force size required to guard it: 2 kilometer long runway requires 12 kilometers worth of perimeter at bare minimum. Infantry company can occupy 1.500 – 2.000 meters of open terrain. Thus 640 to 1800 men are required to defend the runway. But in reality, a standoff range of 12.000 meters is required, for total perimeter length of 100.000 meters, which results in 4.000 – 15.000 troops just to guard a single runway. Mortars can have range of 7 kilometers and artillery range of 30-40 kilometers – and this is without counting cruise and ballistic missiles, which means that even this set-up is only useful for COIN ops. To secure air base against artillery, 324 kilometer perimeter is required, resulting in 13.000 – 49.000 infantry requirement, between 1 and 5 infantry divisions, for a single air base, at bare minimum – in reality, secondary perimeter is also required to stop leakers, and that one has to be far enough to at least prevent use of RPGs, which adds further 1.000 – 3.000 troops, for 14.000 – 52.000 troops in total. This vulnerability can be removed or at least reduced if aircraft can be forward-based along with ground units or based in underground air bases – but latter is not an option if no such bases are present close to battlefield, and they cannot be built quickly.
Missiles with submunition warheads can easily destroy exposed aircraft parked in easily-visible air bases and disable runway for extended periods. Several cruise missiles can cover all aircraft positions seen in the photo, which, assuming that 1/4 of fighters is airborne, results in 45 fighters lost.
It must be realized that every air force looks to neutralize enemy air power on the ground. Even underground air hangars are not safe; while aircraft inside them are indeed safe from the attack, hangar itself can be taken out of action for some time by destroying easily-visible entrances, and possibly jamming doors. As for surface air bases, 100-million USD worth of missiles with submunition warheads can, assuming standard US parking procedures, destroy 12-14 fighter aircraft, with total cost of 2,4 – 2,8 billion USD if these are F-35A, or 216 – 252 million USD if these are YF-16 II. With small forces of highly-complex fighters, such attacks can easily shift balance of power.
Single-role aircraft can be designed, unlike majority of multi-role fighters, to be small and light enough to operate from dirt strips or simply from any flat, hard – or even not-so-hard – surface. This allows them to stay mobile, removing most vulnerabilities of fixed air bases, especially vulnerability to large-scale ground or precision munitions attacks. Alternatively, small, camouflaged single-fighter underground shelters can be designed. Further, larger number of aircraft means that effort required to destroy enemy ballistic missiles will have less negative impact on force’s ability to generate sorties, as there are more aircraft that are easier to maintain even when not taking into account increased tempo of operations. Such cheap and small aircraft could easily be provided along with their own containers, to be transported quickly where needed; container can be armored and camouflaged so as to make aircraft less vulnerable when on the ground, and container along with aicraft can be dug into hillside, providing at least some measure of protection when static. These measures are required as even very austere modern fighters won’t be easy to replace, and mobility is best defense against precision weapons.
Both CAS and air-superiority aircraft that are this mobile can be deployed relatively near ground forces they support, providing very large number of sorties. They can also generate more sorties than equally-maintainable aircraft that are deployed from fixed air bases. In urban areas and on highways, they – and support mechanisms – can be sheltered under overpasses and operated from roads. Zero Length Launch mechanisms can further completely eliminate light aircraft’s dependance on takeoff area. JATO can be used to reduce that dependance, but STOVL is not an option: it comes at too high performance cost – Harrier II is unsurvivable failure as CAS aircraft, proving that by its 3 times as high loss rate as A-10, and is only slightly more expensive than Gripen because it doesn’t use anywhere close to amount of Gripen’s technology.
This is important as aircraft that require runways are exceedingly vulnerable: in Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, many Super Sabres remained intact in shelters; but because IAF has cratered concrete air strips they required for operation, they never flew a single sortie.
Same goes for aircraft carriers: they can easily be converted from tankers and cargo ships, but aircraft that are lost with them cannot be replaced so easily. Neither can so-called “fleet” carriers operating too heavy do-everything-do-nothing F-18E/Fs.
While some say that UAVs can replace – and even outperform – manned aircraft, and that, being cheaper, can be produced in greater numbers, that is not true. But that question is outside of scope of this article, and will be adressed in later article. Fact is, however, that high-technology high-cost addicts that currently rule Western weapons procurement with blessing from capitalists that are hidden rulers of Western world are destroying Western military capability due to sheer profiteerism. Larger budgets are buying smaller, less capable forces that are more suited for parades than for war; that has to stop.