“The federal opposition has dismissed new doubts about the capacity of the multi-billion dollar Joint Strike Fighter to perform against jets used by Russia and China.  The JSF jets, for which Australia is likely to pay $16 billion, were comprehensively beaten in highly classified simulated dogfights against Russian-built Sukhoi fighter aircraft, it has been reported.

“WA Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen said he had spoken to a third party with knowledge of the final classified test results who had claimed the JSF had been clubbed like baby seals by the simulated Sukhois, The West Australian reported.”

Earlier reports this month in the open press and blogsphere of a wargame at PACAF HQ have brought out both the lead service, manufacturer (and subs) and the RAND institute in defense of the F-35.  What seemed to generate the growing firestorm was a slide in the backups of a 90-slide presentation of a RAND study on Air Combat, particularly its assumed future when balanced against historical precedent.  And therein lies the problem with taking things out of context (especially backup slides) and extrapolating larger messages.  Unfortunately, overlooked in the furor are some of the very strong points made in the RAND presentation re. numbers, access and ability to engage a near-peer competitor who is rolling out substantial numbers of access denial weaponry that is also qualitatively challenging.

It bespeaks the same issue, albeit on a different plane, that bedevils the Navy today in trying to figure out its force structure for the 2015-2020 timeframe.  So we will examine the brief – and the F-35/baby seal meme, in some detail over the next few postings keeping this comparison in mind.

To begin – yes, the study is focused on a future combat with China over Taiwan.  Yes – there continues to be movement in the commercial, diplomatic and political spheres that may mitigate or render moot a military solution (one way or the other).  Still there is also movement on the military side in terms of short- and medium-range ballistic missile, late generation SAM, advanced fighter and air-to-air missile and surface and submarine procurement and deployment across the straits that underscores an intent to exercise air and maritime access denial.  The range and capabilities of these forces extend well beyond the straits, however and impute a larger air- and sea-control issue for partner nations in the region, as well as for US forces.

As one views the brief – albeit provided via a singular lens of air supremacy, some notable items spring to view.  It starts with an assertion that Russia, China, India and “others” observed US and coalition performance in Desert Storm and began to develop  concepts to counter our key air superiority elements by the mid- to late-1990s – and that said systems to support them are now at IOC and proliferating.  Note that while Syria, Iran and North Korea can be added to the list of observers, their application of the latter  lags the first three and can be said to fall into the proliferation range.  Still, of the former group, the one that stands out as “getting it” big time and doing the most to offset those elements is China.  To be sure, they also probably had the furthest to come as well…

So, what are these elements?  Secure bases,stealth and BVR (Beyond Visual Range) capabilities.  Key questions the study identified wrap back to these elements – namely:

1.Will we have access to secure, close bases?
2.Will stealth work as advertised?
3.Will BVR missiles work as advertised?
And the $64,000 question:
4.Can we fight outnumbered and win?

So, each in turn:

Will we have access to secure, close bases?

Bearing in mind the origin of the study (RAND) and their principal customer (USAF), the study is necessarily land-base centric.  Mention is made of carriers though – more later on that thought.  Suffice to say, post-Cold War we have been relatively blessed with easy access to bases close to the area of interest/conflict, save with noteworthy examples being the Eldorado Canyon strike against Libya (where the access denial factor was political) and the opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom.  By and large, the metric that is used for a favorable employment of air superiority forces is an operating  range of up to 500nm from the forward base. At ranges up to that point, sortie generations tend to be higher with shorter turnaround and transit times (especially if one is super-cruising to/from the AOI).  Longer ranges can be, and are, partially mitigated with inflight refueling, but until a way of re-arming in flight is developed, when one is ‘Winchester,’ one must recover at the operating base.

Which, of course, brings us to the base itself.  To be effective, bases must be as far forward as possible.  The downside, of course, is that their vulnerability is inherently increased.  Examples abound of forward air bases coming under attack or being overrun (or sunk), from Operation Baseplate to the attack on Tan Son Nhut Air Base during the 1968 Tet offensive.  Indeed, it was fully expected that the airbases in the Central Front in Europe would be pre-emptively struck with Spetznaz and other means, including with ballistic missiles, in the event of a Soviet invasion of western Europe.  However, the balance of the experience post WWII has been the ability to operate from secure, forward bases – Thailand during the Vietnam War, PSAB during Desert Storm, Aviano for ops over Serbia, and yes, carriers too.

Looking into the out-years, a potential conflict with China would offer little promise of such an operational environment.  To wit, there is but one airbase that falls within the 500 nm metric to cover the Taiwan Straits, Kadena AB on Okinawa as compared to 27 bases that China has deployed on the mainland across the Straits. Unlike Kadena, most of these are significantly hardened, especially where POL and munitions storage and maintenance facilities are concerned.  Kadena, on the other hand, lies well within the range of the panoplay of China’s SRBMs.  Thirty-four submunition equipped missiles could, for example, effectively blanket and shut down the ramps and taxiways of Kadena and destroy or at least strand, up to 75% of the aircraft deployed.  That’s 75% of the forward deployed ASW assets (P-3s), for example, that would not be able to work the burgeoning ASW problem…75% of the fighters and strike fighters to be deployed in offensive air over the Straits – the picture begins to clarify.

And the carriers?  Indeed, CVN-based air will have a major role to play if the CSGs have the sea-room to maneuver based on the operating range of their embarked mixed wings of Super Hornets and JSFs.  Such room for maneuver will be required in the face of the ASW and missile threat – cruise and ballistic, they are expected to face.

So — will we have access to secure, forward bases?  Most likely – no.  China has observed our operations closely and undoubtedly has racked up as one of the prime lessons learned that secure forward bases cannot be permitted.  That the geography in this scenario is weighted to their advantage undoubetdly helps as well.  And while the example cited above of a strike of 34 SRBMs on Kadena may seem excessive, it is posible to effect a smaller strike – say aginst the POL infrastructure and still achieve a desired reslt of significant roll-back of operations from that base.  Likewise, the threat of unlocated subs (conventional and/or nuke-powered) could force the CSGs to operate from a further distance out and thereby exacerbate the distance factor in Hornet/JSF operations.  Loss of land-based ASW would further comlpicate the issue and if combined with the threat of ASBMs, could mitigate whatever beenfit might accrue from operations in somesort of sea-bastion arrangement that wold limit the approach of subs, but force the carrier to operate from a smaller, fixed locale.  It remains then that the most likely spot for secure operations, Andersen AFB on Guam, would become the primary hub for shore-based ops.  Still, even there it is subject to attack from an MRBM force that while numerically smaller, still poses a challenge given the smaller number of BMD assetts onhand in theater (Aegis BMD and presumably, for the timeframe in question, THAAD).  This neatly dovetails into the next two items for discussion, stealth and surety of BVR (Beyond Visiual Range) weapons.  Stealth, because if you are numbers limited to begin with (airframes and now, range limits impacting sortie generation) and BVR weapons so you can knock opposing forces down at extreme range, avoiding closure where stealth becomes less of an asset as well as staying out of opposing force’s SAM space.

We’ll see…

(Next: Will Stealth Work?  What about BVR?)

7 Comments

  1. claudio

    very nicely done. great topic. Wish we had a SCIF that served beer where we could discuss this. Maybe there was a reason, none of my bosses ever had combos/access to my SCIF.

    looking forward to your next installment.

  2. Steeljawscribe

    Claudio:
    Definitely re. the SCIF, especially as I’m working through the write up for part II this w/end…I can think of a number of folks I’d like to have sit in on the discussion.
    – SJS

  3. BDF

    The RAND paper is interesting though one point I don’t think I’d agree with is that in this scenario the Chinese seem to have carte blanche against military basing and infrastructure with MRBM/IMRBM and cruise missile attacks. I think it would be naïve to assume that if the US and Chinese did come to blows over Taiwan, the US wouldn’t use offensive assets against the Chinese homeland in the strait region. I’d imagine SSGNs, CALCM/JASSM-E, B-2 and possibly NavAir would be employed against similar Chinese targets to disrupt and degrade the local IADS so that conventional “legacy” fighters could operate more effectively and AWACS and tankers can be brought in closer.

    BDF

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