Thursday, October 2, 2008

That RAND Corporation report, and my trip to Amberley

I’ve just returned from a fascinating day at RAAF Base Amberley where I and a number of other Australian specialist defence writers got a chance to update ourselves on aspects of the RAAF’s Super Hornet program. Boeing has brought its Super Hornet simulator to Amberley for the three-day Amberley Air Show which was due to start today (Friday); we all got the chance to fly it and experience something of what a modern fighter can do.

For security reasons the simulator represented the Block 1 version of the Super Hornet with the Raytheon APG-73 radar; however, Boeing also arranged for us to talk to a couple of Super Hornet pilots who currently fly the Block 2 version, equipped with Raytheon's APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Antenna (AESA) radar. This was an illuminating experience.

First, however, a bit of context – and for that I’m indebted to fellow-scribe Stephen Trimble of Flight International whose excellent ‘The DEW Line’ blog - - led me to the RAND Corporation air combat effectiveness study cited on my own blog a few days ago.

The RAND study canvases air combat statistics from 1945 to the present day, including the demonstrated Kill Probability (PK) of various air-air missiles since that time. It then examines the projected capabilities in about 2020 of the F-22A and Sukhoi Su-35M Flanker and their respective air-air weapons, in the case of the F-22A the AIM-120C AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder.

The context for this study is one of the most demanding scenarios the USAF could face: an all-out war against China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) over the Taiwan Strait.

The study is a ‘what if?'. The USAF has generally enjoyed total air superiority in recent conflicts thanks to a variety of things: secure bases close to the action, superior situational awareness and superior equipment – aircraft and weapons. Translated into 2020, the USAF’s air superiority concept has as its foundation secure bases close to the action (typically less than 500nm), 5th generation stealth, effective and superior Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles and a significant qualitative superiority over the adversary (aircraft, weapons, training, tactics, maintenance and other aspects).

But what if one of those elements is missing in future? RAND analysts John Stillion and Scott Perdue point out that USAF has just one base within 500nm of Taiwan – Kadena, in Japan; the next closest are around 800nm away in Korea and Japan, with Misawa a thumping1,400nm away. After that, the nearest is at Andersen AFB in Guam, 1,565nm away. The PLAAF, by contrast, has 27 bases within 500nm of the Taiwan Strait and many of these are also uncomfortably close to Japan and Korea.

Two scenarios are canvassed: in one, the F-22As are required to operate from Guam; in the other a mixed force of F-22As and F-35s are able to operate from Guam and Kadena and Misawa, both in Japan, with some F-35Cs operating from US Navy carriers.

In the former case the USAF can sustain just six aircraft at a time on combat air patrol over the Taiwan Strait – about 138 sorties a day, compared with the PLAAF’s 1,300 a day. In the worst-case scenario, if the PLAAF were to attack Taiwan with three regiments of Flankers (about 72 aircraft), six F-22As would be totally inadequate. Even if every AMRAAM and every Sidewinder fired by every F-22A destroyed its target, and not a single F-22A was lost in combat, they still wouldn’t have enough missiles to shoot down the invading force, which would also probably succeed in destroying the tankers and early warning aircraft supporting the F-22As.

In the second scenario RAND projects that the US would be able to place 26 fighters over the Taiwan Strait at a time. The worst case scenario would see all 26 shot down and about 10 Flankers breaking through to attack other aircraft such as early warning, tanker and surveillance UAVs.

However, neither scenario took into account the presence of Taiwanese (and other allied) fighters and ground-based air defence missiles; neither did they take into account the capabilities of Aegis-equipped US and allied destroyers. For that reason it was a narrow and incomplete examination of a specific scenario: it didn’t set out to appreciate a real situation; rather it situated a very narrow appreciation.

Stillion and Perdue cite Lanchester’s Square Law to ram home an important message. Dr FW Lanchester in 1916 proposed a law based on his own analysis of loss ratios on the Western Front; put simply, to stalemate a force which is three times (or N times) as numerous, you need to be nine times (or N squared times) as effective. This doesn’t necessarily hold true for BVR combat, where effectiveness is determined by things like stealth, sensor technologies, networking capabilities and so on, but is probably the best benchmark available for open source operators.

The RAND study estimates an effectiveness ratio of at least 12:1 in favour of the F-22A, based on the aircraft’s success in a number of increasingly testing air defence and air combat exercises. Stillion and Perdue’s message, as I’ve interpreted it, is this: in the absence of secure bases close to the action (which enable a high sortie rate and the aggregation of sheer numbers in response to a significant threat), stealth had better work, and BVR technology had better work. And the US and its allies need a plan to deal with the counter-stealth and counter-BVR technologies that are emerging in response to the US’s development of 5th generation aircraft.

The other message is that quantity has a quality all of its own: it doesn’t matter how good the F-22A might be – when it’s out outnumbered 12:1 it just hasn’t got enough missiles to shoot down all of its opponents. Furthermore, based on RAND’s figures the USAF needs more than the 180 F-22As it is currently slated to receive. And it needs all the tankers it can get.

This raises an interesting issue for Australian air power theorists: if the RAAF were to buy a small-ish force of F-22As and deploy it in small CAPs against incoming threats, how many aircraft should make up each CAP, how many such CAPS would it need to mount simultaneously (and would this be 24/7 or for a shorter period each day?), and therefore how many aircraft would be required to maintain an effective deterrent, or defence against direct attack in any sort of numbers?

I’d recommend interested readers have a look at the two air power presentation’s on Stephen Trimble’s blog page: they are fascinating reading!

So what does all this have to do with my trip to Amberley? Boeing was quite happy to let its customers do the talking: when asked directly whether the Super Hornet Bock 2 (a 4th generation fighter and so regarded as inferior to the 5th generation F-22Aand F-35A) would survive in combat against a Su-27/30, a US Navy and an RAAF pilot said without hesitation they would choose the Super Hornet every time. To cut a long story short, we were told the key to combat success (and survival) is to be able to get the first shot away – and the Super Hornet is designed to make that possible.

Even though it’s not designed as a stealthy aircraft, and even though the external carriage of weapons, sensors and fuel tanks degrades the Super Hornet’s radar and IR signatures, the operators reckon its low-observable characteristics make enough difference to be worthwhile. Furthermore, its AESA radar is a massive improvement over other sensors that are out there, while its nose pointing ability (which is distinct from but just as important as its sustained turn rate) is outstanding.

However, for the Super Hornet to deliver its full combat potential the RAAF needs its new A330-200 tankers, Wedgetail airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft and Vigilare air defence ground environment.