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Sunday, June 12, 2016
Current Affairs ... Technology ...

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed building plastic models from Revel kits. Most of the stuff I built was military in nature, because military stuff seemed a lot more technically interesting than the civilian stuff. E.g., a Navy ship had a lot more do-dads than a cabin cruiser or even an ocean freighter ship. And military planes were a lot more zippy than a Cessna or a Boeing 707. I especially like fighter jets. I had my own air force in my room, ready day and night to take on any 1/48 or 1/72 scale enemies of liberty!

So, despite my general opposition to war, I’ve always stayed up on the doings of the US Air Force, especially with regard to its fighter fleet. I have a post from a few years back reflecting on the new multi-service F-35 Lightening 2 jet, and all the troubles it was running into. Well, it’s now 5 years later, and although the F-35 is finally taking to the air in the cause of defending freedom, its troubles have not gone away. In fact, the US House has ordered the Air Force to study the option of building more of the F-22 Raptor fighters, which the F-35 was supposed to more-or-less supersede. (The F-22 is mostly an air-superiority fighter, whereas the F-35 is supposed to do it all, from close ground combat support to bomber interception. However, it is now feared that a jack-of-all trades plane like the F-35 could be vulnerable to the increasingly lethal stealth fighters that Russia and China are now developing, including the T-50 PAK-FK and the J-31.)

Because of financial considerations, most observers do not expect the F-22 to be revived. The F-22 is allegedly a good high-end interceptor and dog-fighter jet, but reviving a very high-tech production line after wrapping up the program back in 2010 would soak up a big chunk of the USAF budget, and cut into its many other procurement priorities (F-35, B21, KC46/KC-Y, C130J, T-X trainer, Minuteman replacement, etc.). But given the increasingly sophisticated fighters that Russia and China are now building, there is legitimate concern that the handful of existing F-22s (186) might not be able to adequately protect the more flexible but more vulnerable F-35 fleet that the USAF, US Navy and Marine Corp hope to acquire (over 2,000 total). Technology is changing more and more rapidly, and most any military hardware that you build today can become a sitting duck in just a few years.

Given how that reality is already manifesting itself with the F-35, you’ve got to wonder if and how the USAF can address the future. Are they going to stick with the same mind-set of designing and building ever more high-tech, sophisticated (and extremely expensive) manned fighters, or are they going to try to “think outside the box” in looking for the best way to face the battles of the future? (I honestly wish that all of the 21st Century’s technology was turning the world into a closely inter-dependent place where high-tech military battles were becoming unnecessary anachronisms; but China and Russia are sticking with the expansive warrior ideals that their cultures embraced in earlier times, and Iran and the Middle Eastern states remain locked in a never-ending Islamic civil war between Sunni and Shia factions, along with their mutual hostility for Israel; and don’t forget the organized terrorist forces that spawn and grow in their backyards, and that nuclear nuthouse in the east known as North Korea. So, we haven’t seen the last of big war by any means.)

Interestingly, there are encouraging signs that the Air Force is learning to venture beyond its historical box. It recently released a public version of a report entitled “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan” The report itself is not edifying reading for the lay person; it’s chock full of military acronyms and generic “mil-speak”, e.g.

A mix of capabilities to penetrate the highly contested environment as well as deliver effects from stand-off ranges offers a balanced approach to counter the A2/AD strategy. There are several key concepts for kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities in this area, including: 1. Stand Off Arsenal Plane. For this capability development, the Air Force will continue to partner with the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) on concepts utilizing long-range mission effects chains. 2. PCA. In addition to F2TA capabilities above, the penetrating capabilities of PCA will allow the stand-in application of kinetic and non-kinetic effects from the air domain.

OR . . .

Penetrating Counterair (PCA). Capability development efforts for PCA will focus on maximizing tradeoffs between range, payload, survivability, lethality, affordability, and supportability. While PCA capability will certainly have a role in targeting and engaging, it also has a significant role as a node in the network, providing data from its penetrating sensors to enable employment using either stand-off or stand-in weapons. As part of this effort, the Air Force should proceed with a formal AoA in 2017 for a PCA capability. Consistent with an agile acquisition mindset designed to deliver the right capability on the required timeline, this AoA will include options to leverage rapid development and prototyping in order to keep ahead of the threat.

WHAAAAA???? This PCA stuff has something to do with what the old-fashioned fighter jets like the F-106 or F-4 used to do (I had models of both). Today it’s a matter of “nodes” and “sensors” and “non-kinetic” assets and “agile mindsets” focusing on “required timelines”. The “new Air Force” seems to have gotten past the idea that they can build a super-duper new fighter jet and then zoom them into any hostile situation so as to ensure that we can drop our bombs or shoot our missiles wherever and whenever we want (and that the enemy won’t be able to do the same in the places that matter to us). Those days are gone. The Air Force has an “F-X” program for fighter plane development, but it may not result in a new 6th generation fighter being built.

And perhaps for good reason. Technology is just changing and progressing too fast now. The US spent a mint on developing the super-high tech F-35 fighter, and it’s already behind schedule and fighting off obsolescence against new Russian and Chinese radar and missiles and fighter planes. The new “Penetrating Counterair” asset will not necessarily be an F-35 successor (a 2013 article on the well-regarded “War Is Boring” site promised that there will be a “6th generation” manned fighter following the 35; but since 2013, much fatigue has set in over the whole F35 experience). It will probably be more of a “dim sum” thing, a mix of satellite observation capacity and high levels of network connections between every USAF plane in the sky and ground bases, along with better and more sensitive radars and other types of sensors (e.g. infra red), plenty of drones, and a set of manned aircraft that stay in a safety zone until the skies are made a bit less unfriendly by the unmanned drones and missiles (with planes like the F-35 and B-21 pushing forward to help to mop up once the enemy has been “degraded”).

The old distinction between what the bomber force does and what the fighter force does is also mostly gone in this report. The now-in-planning B-21 “LRS-B” long-range bomber will have a prominent role in intelligence gathering and pre-emptive strikes against ground-based air defense facilities, including radar sites, air-to-air missile bases, and the airports where hostile fighter jets are based. Even the old-fashioned B-52 will still be playing a role in 2030, possibly as the conceptual “arsenal plane”, i.e. a big plane converted into a platform to store and launch a whole mess of long-range air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles from a safer position in the rear of the battle zone.

Overall, the new “PCA” concept makes maximal use of sensing, networking and data exchange, such that all of the elements work together in the most efficient fashion with the least risk to humans (well, American humans anyway). David Axe, the defense editor for the Daily Beast, points out that the days of heroic fighter jocks flying into hostile airspace in order to seize control of it from dog-fighting opponents in similar planes (think back to the movie “Top Gun“) are on the way out. Under the new concept of battling for air superiority, the drone will be used for the high-risk first wave penetration missions. As Axe says,

Rivals have caught up to U.S. air power, and could soon make it impossible for American fighter jets—and their pilots—to survive over enemy terrain . . . For that reason, the Air Force is far more likely to simply replace fighters with drones. True, air shows and movies could get a lot more boring. But the fighter’s demise could keep U.S. pilots from throwing away their lives on aerial suicide missions.

Another changing-world concept that is recognized as part of the 2030 report is the notion that technology now changes and improves a whole lot faster than any nation could design, finance and build new manned airframes (i.e. new fighters or bombers). Given that, it seems better to keep whatever manned planes that you do build for a long time, but at the same time continually try to improve them years with technology upgrades, mostly better electronics, radar, light sensors, computers, communications equipment, etc. As such, the report indicates that much of the current jet fighter inventory, including the later versions of the F-15 and F-18 plus the F-22, will be still be in use in 15 years, despite the fact that these planes were initially designed over 20 and sometimes 30 years ago.

So give the USAF credit for thinking about the future in a futuristic way. It’s kind of refreshing seeing a military organization not simply preparing to fight the last battle once again. Again, it’s too bad that any wars have to be fought at all in our “enlightened times”. But unfortunately, they will be; human motivations just don’t mature and progress as quickly as human technology. So, if we have to fight, it’s best that we prepare to win (and do so without bankrupting ourselves). So long as we don’t ourselves join the ranks of the aggressors. With such wonderful military technology, the temptation to cross the line from defense to offense is something to keep an eye on.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:13 pm      

  1. Jim, I have little to comment on for this post; so my comment will be a series of random tho’ts about this topic, as I really have nothing worthwhile to offer.

    Never once in my life as a young girl did I ever play with model airplanes (dolls didn’t suit me that much either; but I loved reading the encyclopedia); and as an adult I never really had much interest in planes (or cars) either, unless they didn’t want to stay up while I was on one. (And I did have that experience; but luckily the pilot managed to abort the landing, coming around again and we were safe. I’ll never forget that; I remember looking around at the other passengers and every. single. person. on the plane was thinking what I was thinking: This is the moment I am doing to die.) And that wasn’t even a F-22.

    A couple of things do stand out and got my attention in what it seems the military is doing. One “attention getter” is (if I’ve got this right): The military continues to put money into the F22 even tho it knows that it is not a plane that can protect the country; furthermore, it is putting money into the F35 even tho it knows the entire fleet is more vulnerable than the F22. And in addition: Both planes are now of no use for protection. This problem has me quoting you: WHAAAAA????

    The other point that stands out to me is: The 2nd paragraph of the “mil-speak” uses as many 3 or 4 syllable words* as possible to basically say, the PCA Capability has as its main interest figuring out the “tradeoffs” among the following: How far the plane can go with how many nuclear bombs it can carry; how liable it is that the American military involved will survive; how many people we can kill (read this as innocent citizens take your chances); and how much it will cost us to make and maintain such weaponry. Again, it boggles the mind.

    And here the answer seems so very simple to me: Empathy is missing; i.e., we don’t care about any other people in the world, just so Americans can win. (And somehow that has me thinking of Donald Trump who today I hear is maintaining that if the people in the club in Orlando, Florida, all had guns, then maybe more people would have survived. Can’t help but think, but perhaps everyone would have been killed in the cross fire; and there would have been NO survivors.)

    I find myself in my old age wondering why humans insist on guns and bolstering the military. What a very gray area. While, yes there’s always some crazy person (like say a Hitler) who has a need to take over the world and who poses a problem of how does a country defend itself? Yet having had a 19 year old cousin (brother to my very close cousin-buddy who was a girl) I also saw up close and personal the suffering of those who lose someone in a war. That has me thinking of all the innocents that inevitably get caught up in general warfare.

    Perhaps (and this may be contradictory to other things I’ve said here) doing what Obama did with bin Ladin would be a better approach and a better use of money even: Simply have a few people go in and “take him out”; such an approach may be more advantageous than anything else.

    I find myself wondering if just half the money spent on the military were taken to study the evolution of the human brain in positive ways might that be a more effective approach than what we have now. (We could say, e.g., put the “other half” of the money into studying empathy in the human being and a sense of how much more effective cooperation is than competition.) I wonder if we might get a better deal for our money than we are getting for the F22’s or the PCA “stuff”.

    Yet I do see the massive gray area: There ARE times in one’s life where a surgeon (military) is required instead of a doctor who dispenses pills (a much less “violent” approach to keeping people alive). Thus, at times the military is necessary, but my question is how that military money is used when ordinary people, using plain common sense, can’t help but say to themselves, “What’s wrong with this picture?” MCS

    *Here I think in terms of so much of graduate study: When one does not have very much to say or wants to “hide” what is rather “slim” study/research, a way of “bumping up” the importance of the topic is to use as many 3 or 4 syllable words as possible; thus, hiding the flaws in the topic.

    Comment by Mary S. — June 13, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

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