All posts in “USAF”

POW/MIA: Of “Thuds,” ROLLING THUNDER and an Airman From Red Wing – 1965

By 1965, the US participation in Vietnam was reaching a juncture where it could choose to disengage (and thus concede the loss of South Vietnam to the Communist juggernaut – which then would then sweep across the rest of the SE Asia landscape).  It could “stay the course,” with a limited ground role using advisers to the ARVN and provide tactical and strategic air support from remote airbases and carriers – not entirely acceptable because to date, that process hadn’t produced the results envisioned and if projected to a defeat of South Vietnamese forces, a subsequent loss of face and faith in America’s abilities to defend other friends and allies in the region (notably Thailand and by extension, South Korea, Japan and Australia).  A third choice involved a larger commitment of US forces – ground, naval and air to bring pressure on the North Vietnamese and compel their withdrawal from actions against the South.  Knowing full well the costs in dollars and personnel of committing a large ground force to the war, air power was looked upon as an area of particular advantage to the US with McGeorge Bundy (Johnson’s National Security adviser) noting “Yet measured against the costs of defeat in Vietnam, this program seems cheap. And even if it fails to turn the tide—as it may—the value of the effort seems to us to exceed its cost.” The measure of that endeavor would soon be taken, beginning in March 1965 with Operation Rolling Thunder… SJS

The official press release:

“Air Force Pilot Missing From Vietnam War Identified
   The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
   Air Force Major Thomas E. Reitmann of Red Wing, Minn., will be buried on Sept. 8 in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1965, Reitmann was assigned to the 334th Tactical Fighter Squadron deployed out of Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., to Takhli Air Base, Thailand. On Dec 1, 1965, he was flying a strike mission as the number three aircraft in a flight of four F-105D Thunderchiefs as part of Operation Rolling Thunder. His target was a railroad bridge located about 45 nautical miles northeast of Hanoi. As the aircrew approached the target area, they encountered extremely heavy and accurate anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). While attempting to acquire his target and release his ordnance, Reitmann received a direct AAA hit and crashed in Lang Son Province, North Vietnam. Other pilots in the flight observed no parachute, and no signals or emergency beepers were heard. Due to the intense enemy fire in the area a search-and-rescue team was not able to survey the site and a two-day electronic search found no sign of the aircraft or Reitmann.
   In 1988, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (S.R.V.) repatriated remains to the United States believed to be those of Reitmann. The remains were later identified as those of another American pilot who went missing in the area on the same day as Reitmann.
   Between 1991 and 2009, joint U.S.-S.R.V. teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), analyzed numerous leads, interviewed villagers, and attempted to locate the aircraft. Although no evidence of the crash site was found, in 2009 and 2011 a local farmer turned over remains and a metal button he claimed to have found in his corn field.
   Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used mitochondrial DNA – which matched that of his brother — in the identification of Reitmann’s remains.”

But wait – there’s more…
In February, 1958 a dark-haired 28 year old reported to Greenville AFB, Mississippi as student officer in the Aviation Cadet program. Born in 1930 in Red Wing , Minnesota, a small city (pop. 10,000) hard on the banks of the Mississippi River, he’d graduated from Red Wing High in 1948 and enlisted in the Navy, and subsequently saw service during the Korean War in England and French Morocco. Leaving the Navy in 1952, he returned to Red Wing holding down a variety of jobs, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in Red Wing.  Joining the Air Force, and following his graduation from the flight program and receiving his wings, he eventually reported to the famous 334th Fighter Squadron in 1958, then flying the F-100 Super Saber. The 334th traced its lineage back to the dark days of early WWII where it was incorporated as No 71 Sqdn of the RAF – an Eagle squadron of American volunteers. Along with the 335th and 336th, it formed the core of the VII Fighter Command, 4th Group which was the first Army Air Force unit activated in the European Theater of Operations. Flying Spitfires, P-47 Thunderbolts and then, until the end of the war, the P-51 Mustang, 334th pilots were credited with 395 kills against the Luftwaffe. In Korea, they were credited with 142 kills and tallied six aces in their membership. Relocating from Korea in 1957, the 334th was home-based out of Seymour Johnson from which detachments would deploy to Incirlik, Turkey and other locations as required. In 1958 it was re-designated as the 334th Tactical Fighter Squadron and in keeping with the re-designation, in 1959, the 334th transitioned to the F-105 Thunderchief.

The F-105 (aka “Thud” – among several, less complimentary nicknames) the F-105 was designed to be a fast, low altitude fighter-bomber with a mission to deliver a nuclear weapon, concealed in an internal bomb-bay. It was a very clean design, and with lessons applied from the F-102 (notably the area-rule or “coke bottle” fuselage) and a huge (for the time) after-burning Pratt & Whitney J-75, the F-105 could flat out move on the deck — in 1959 an F-105B set a world record of 1,216.48 miles per hour (1,958 km/h) over a 62 miles (100 km) circuit. The F-105D that the 334th was flying was the latest and largest production batch, that had markedly improved avionics and an internal gun as well as provisions for carrying external stores. In fact, a single F-105 could haul up to 14,000 lbs of ordnance, from dumb bombs to AGM-12 Air-to-surface missiles and AIM-9 Sidewinders.

Republic F-105D-5-RE (S/N 59-1719) in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)(From a 1950's release) "A test pilot lines up with the Air Force's newest supersonic jet, the Republic F-105, and an assortment of the armamnet said to give the one man fighter-bomber as much destructive power as an entire big bomber formation of World War II. External stores displayed are (foreground) 2.75 in. rockets; Vulcan cannon (directly behind pilot) which can fire 6,000 rounds per minute of 20mm ammunition shown on either side. Boxes directly behind contain electronic equipment. Left side (L-R): first row: rocket launcher; air-to-air missiles with launcher; second row: fire bomb; chaff dispenser; 450 gallon wing fuel tank; "buddy" refueling tank; third row: fire bomb; two 750 pound bombs; 1000 pound bomb; bomb-carrying pylons; (extreme top left) flare dispenser. Right side next to plane (top to bottom) nuclear weapon bombing trainer; secret nuclear weapons; next vertical row: practice bombs; bomb bay fuel tank. (Note: all other items, including the pylons behind the practice bombs, are duplicates.) The F-105 carries nuclear wepons externally of internally. the "half shell" object to the left of the nose is the center fuselage nuclear bomb-carrying pylon." (U.S. Air Force photo) Republic F-105D-30-RE (S/N 62-4234) in flight with full bomb load. (U.S. Air Force photo)

From the start of ROLLING THUNDER it was apparent more aircraft were required – and not just to cover the mounting losses from AAA and a new threat, the SA-2 surface-to-air missile. The size of the target set was growing as the decision makers back in Washington planed a graduated and sustained air campaign to influence North Vietnam’s behavior. In September, after having traded their two-seat F-105Fs for single seat F-105Ds, the 334th departed its temporary location at Homestead (Seymour Johnson’s runway was being repaved) for Takhli Royal Thai AFB by way of Hickam AFB. Positioned in central Thailand, Takhli was equidistant to North and South Vietnam, but the F-105s were destined for sorties to the far more treacherous North. Arriving on September 2nd, the 334th would be assigned to the 355th TFW which was permanently re-located from McConnell AFB.

Takhli RTAFB, ca. 1965
Following the model developed in WWII and employed in Korea, tactical air forces were assigned transportation infrastructure to target. Rail yards, transportation centers and key choke-points – like bridges, were prominently featured on the target list. Around Hanoi, there were several such vital rail bridges, one of the most (in)famous being the Paul Doumer bridge southwest of Hanoi. To the north lay the the bridge at Cao nung that served the rail line between North Vietnam and China. It like so many other key facilities in and around Hanoi was guarded by heavy AAA, including 37mm, 57mm, 85 and even 100mm weapons. In early 1965 it was estimated there were on the order of about a thousand in North Vietnam – by the end of the year it had grown to over 2,000 spread across 400 key sites and supported by SA-2s and MiG-17s. It was a lethal mix that the Thuds were headed into, given early testimony by the first two attacks on the Thanh Hoa bridge  and subsequent attacks against SAM sites in the Hanoi region were to prove. One of the earliest casualties for the 334th was the CO, LtCol Killian, shotdown by an SA-2 while on a strike against the road and railroad bridge at Ninh Binh on 30 Sep 1965. On December 1, 1965, just a few days shy of his 35th Birthday, Capt Ted Reitmann climbed aboard his F-105D-25-RE (s/n 61-0182) as part of a strike package set against the Cao nung railroad bridge. During the ingress to the target, his aircraft was struck by AAA causing it to go out of control and crash two miles from the target – about 50 miles NE of Hanoi. No ejection was noted.

The F-105, like the Navy’s A-4 Skyhawk, was a workhorse in the early air war over North Vietnam. Between the first loss (written off for damage incurred over Laos in Aug 1964) until the last loss (Sep 1970 over Laos), the F-105D suffered 335 total losses of which 283 were directly attributable to combat. The F-105F/G added an additional 47/37 respectively. Like the A-4, it had been designed for a different war, to be fought in a different manner but it and the crews that flew the Thud answered the call and gave their best. A tough aircraft it still brought a number of its crews home (the running joke was Republic had planned to build the Thud out of concrete – until it found that steel was heavier…), but as both the Air Force and Navy were learning, a modern, integrated air defense system, like the one emerging over the key areas of the North required different aircraft, different weapons, and different training and tactics.
It was a lesson that was being written daily in the sacrifices of those like Capt Reitmann.

Major Reitmann USAF will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in his final resting place on 8 September 2011 – forty-six years after his arrival in Thailand. By all accounts, he is the last of Red Wing’s casualties from the conflict – a total of 14 altogether.   He is survived by his wife, Carol Reitmann Sumner of Honolulu, Hawaii; daughter Kimberly Lorigan of Apollo Beach, Fla.; son Thomas Reitmann II of Eugene, Ore.; son Michael Reitmann of Clayton, Calif.; daughter Karen Mutobe of Ewa Beach, Hawaii; brother, Ed Reitmann of Excelsior, Minn.; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Assigned to the 4th Operations Group, the 334th is today designated the 334th Expeditionary fighter Squadron flying the F-15E Strike Eagle flying missions in the CENTAF AOR.

Republic F-105D-5-RE (S/N 58-1173) in flight with full bomb load. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Godspeed Major Reitmann – and rest easy.  You are home now.

Many sources were used in preparing this post, but the most noteworthy were Find a Grave, Together We Served (of which YHS is a member on the Navy side), the always helpful Virtual Wall and POW NET and the National Museum of the Air Force, source of most of the photos (mouse over for source citation)

USAF Releases FY2010 Force Structure Plans


In a nutshell:

  • Nuclear Deterrence mission: “Back-to-basics”, increase by 2,000 number of nuclear support personel, add a 4th B-52 sqdn
  • TACAIR: Accelerate retirement of 254 F-15, F-16 and A-10 a/c, validate remaining service life of residual legacy TACAIR a/c
  • Space: Field new satellites including the Global Positioning Satellite Block IIF, Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), and Space Based Surveillance System (SBSS)
  • Cyber-warfare: Standing-up Twenty Fourth Air Force (24AF) under Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) to better develop and integratecyberspace capabilities into the joint cyberspace structure
  • Unmanned Air Systems (UAS): FY10 PB continues major investments in unmanned aircraft to increase UAS Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) to reach goal of 50 CAPs by the end of FY11
  • State-by-state breakdown of plus-ups/decreases – with a list of all Congressmen and Senators for the affected state.

See for yourself (yes, of course – it is in PPT…):

Airborne HTK – Back From the Precipice?


April 2015.  Over a landscape made all the more surreal by the dim light of a waning moon, an F-22 continues its patrol, the sensors embedded in its skin alive, searching.  Across the night sky digital datalinks reach out, carrying their payload of data – a threat radar to the east – a Navy EA-18G is taking the matter into it’s own  hands, a flight of F-35s inbound to strike a suspected WMD facility, more warnings of hostile aircraft to the north as the AWACS silently passes data on a pair of Flankers attempting to launch – that will be taken care of by another flight of F-22s.  Tonight this F-22 is hunting different prey as it and several others are awaiting the possible launch of a mobile IRBM.  Netted with relatives of the now long departed Predator and a Navy BAMS UAS, all tied together in the afloat JFACC, they wait in silence for their cue.  This night, strapped to a special carriage is a modified Terminal  High Altitude Area Defense missile – THAAD it is commonly called.  And tonight, they are hunting the big game…

Far-fetched?  Not if you believe recent reports of the possible revival of the Air Launched Hit-to-Kill program:

“The Air Force wants to look at arming fighter jets to shoot down ballistic missiles, according to a letter from Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz to the head of the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency. The June 2 letter from Schwartz, addressed to the MDA director, Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, called for a study of arming F-15s and F-16s, and possibly F-22s and F-35s, with specialized munitions under a concept dubbed Air Launched Hit-to-Kill. Schwartz said a 2008 war game, based in the European theater in 2020, piqued the interest of the Air Force to study the ALHK concept.

The ALHK strategy would have roving packs of fighters, along with a support network of tankers and reconnaissance and radar aircraft to intercept missiles in rapidly established protection zones.

For high atmospheric interception, the paper suggested the Air Force consider a modified Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile, a 1,500-pound version of an Army ground-based missile.

For use lower in the atmosphere, the paper suggested using an Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile designed to intercept shorter-range ballistic missiles. The missiles, according to the developer, Raytheon Co., would fit into any AMRAAM-capable fighter with minimum modifications.”

It has been said quantity is a quality of its own – that is usually the case where offense is concerned.  Seems like a good idea for missile defense too, given the growth rate in numbers and capability of fielded BMDs now and as projected in the near future…

Flightdeck Friday: MIA Edition – Vietnam War Era Pilot Identified

435th TFS

First, the official release:

Pilot Missing in Action From The Vietnam War is Identified

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing in action from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
He is Capt. Lorenza Conner, U.S. Air Force, of Cartersville, Ga. He will be buried Oct. 25 in Cartersville.
On Oct. 27, 1967, Conner and his copilot flew an F-4D Phantom II fighter jet in a flight of four on a combat air patrol mission over North Vietnam where the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Tuyen Quang Province, North Vietnam. The copilot ejected safely, was captured and later released by Vietnamese forces, but Conner could not eject from the aircraft before it crashed.
In 1992, Vietnamese citizens told U.S. officials that they had information concerning the remains of missing U.S. servicemen and they turned over Conner’s identification tag.
Between 1992 and 2003, several joint U.S./Socialist Republic of Vietnam (S.R.V.) teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), investigated this incident, interviewed witnesses and surveyed the crash site. At the crash site, teams found aircrew-related equipment and aircraft wreckage consistent with an F-4 Phantom II.
In 2007, another joint team excavated the site and recovered human remains.
Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC also used dental comparisons in the identification of Conner’s remains.

And the rest of the story:

8th TFW F-4D

1967.  The air war over North Vietnam is heating up and the squadrons of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Ubon, Thailand are in the thick of it.  Led by the legendary Robin Olds, their presence was already being felt in the skies over the North.  Earlier that year, in a masterful piece of operational deception,(Operation BOLO) Olds had lured the North Vietnamese into a trap, resulting in 7 air-to-air kills in one day alone.  But air-to-air wasn’t their only skill in trade — using the latest version of the F-4, the F-4D, received that summer which substantially improved the F-4’s ground attack capability.  One of those aircraft, s/n 7531, was equipped with the Westinghouse AN/ASQ-152(V)-2 Pave Spike laser target designator .  The  Pave Spike laser designator pod was mounted inside one of the Sparrow missile wells on the fuselage underside and used TV optics, which made it daylight-capable only, but included the ability to launch the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile.

1967.  He was young and talented – and a study in contrasts.  A star quarterback for the Cartersville, GA football team, he also had a penchant for reading, voraciously.  At one time he strck up a deal with the school librarian to set aside the new issues of Time and Saturday Evening Post so he could read them first.  A graduate of Tuskeegee he was in the thick of the air war as a pilot on the 435th TFS, part of the legendary 8th TFW, the Wolf Pack  – adding to the legacy of his Red Tail forebears.

And so, now, a late October morning in 1967 finds 1Lt Conner and his backseater, Capt John Black as part of a flight of four F-4Ds (c/s FORD) over the Hanoi Railroad and Highway Bridge in the Tuyen Quang province, hunting for MiGs.  The mission was a ROLLING THUNDER mission and part of the campaign against NVAF airfelds.  Hunting was good – yesterday, October 26th racked up four more MiGs on the 8th’s talley board and with this vital bridge over the Red River as a target, prospects were good they’d have company.

Down below NVA gunners watched and tracked the flight of four.  Opening up with deadly 57mm AAA (single and the mobile ZSU-57-2 twin 57mm) the sky was suddenly filled with deadly AAA fire.  Jinking madly to throw the gunner’s am off, FORD 04 with Conner at the controls is hit in the left engine and a catastrophic fire results.  At this low altitude, time is precious and measured in micro-seconds.  Ejection sequence is initiated and the back-seater is out, but before he can eject, the mortally wounded Phantom crashes through the forest below.  No parachute seen – no survivor witnessed on the ground.   Black is capture and taken as a POW.

Now the long wait begins for family and friends back home.  Since the crash occured deep in enemy territory, there is no chance to go to the site of the wreck and try to recover remains.  The wholly unsatisfying determination of missing, presumed dead is listed as Lorenza’s status.

“We still had hope that maybe one day, you know, he would find his way back home,” said one of Conner’s cousins, Terri Durrah, in Cartersville

Fifteen years later, Vietnamese officials contact the US government with word that they had information on the crash, passing Lorenza’s dog tags.  Recovery teams form the US and Vietnam visit the site twice in an attempt to locate any remains, any identifying items that could be used to determine the final status.

In the tropics, nothing stays in stasis – vegetation growth is relentless and what was once a smoking, cratered clearing is closed over by dirt, mud and vegetation.  Lots of vegetation.  Buttry as it might, the jungle can’t hide everything.  Despite the violence of the crash remains and artifacts are found – fortunately enough to ascertain through 21st Century DNA techniques that this was indeed the site of Lorenza’s last flight – and now he was coming home.

“He was a smart young man,” said a childhood friend and classmate, Mary Alice Johnson. “He was always neatly dressed. And just memorable.”

Johnson and another Summer Hill H.S. graduate, Calvin Cooley, are involved in the Summer Hill Heritage Association, and help maintain a small museum at the location of the school. Locked inside the glass and wooden cabinets, among the yearbooks and sports trophies, they proudly display the Distinguished Flying Cross and citation that Conner was awarded posthumously, for his actions saving American lives during an air battle two days before he was killed.

“He was humble,” Johnson said. “If he had made it back from Vietnam, he would have done something for this community. Definitely so.”

And she’s sure Conner would have come back to Cartersville.

“Yes he would have, because he loved Cartersville.”

“I’m just waiting to see all the people come out and say, ‘Welcome home, Hero, you’re back on American soil, now.’ He died for our country.”

Indeed, welcome home and rest in peace, 1Lt Lorenza Conner, USAF.

Is the F-35 the Next DDG-1000? – UPDATED

UPDATED 13 Oct 08 – see below the “More” line… – SJS

No military service currently demonstrates that it has leaders that can create affordable procurement programs. Every service has, to some extent, mortgaged its future by failing to contain equipment costs, and by trading existing equipment and force elements for developing new system that it may never be able to procure in the numbers planned.
Instead of rigorous leadership at the level of Secretary and Chief of Staff, there is an ill-concealed struggle to solve the problems in a failed procurement system by either raising the defense budget or somehow getting more funding at the expense of other services and programs. The US defense procurement system has effectively become a liar‘s contest in terms of projected costs, risk, performance, and delivery schedules. Effective leadership is lacking in any of these areas. In both shipbuilding and military aircraft manufacturing, the services have become their own peer threats…

So begins a sharp report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, titled “America’s Self-Destroying Air Power – Becoming Your Own Peer Threat.”   And here’s your reading assignment – review the document below and the next few in the series of posts, “Of Wargames, JSFs and Baby Seals” that will follow later today (next in the series – “Stealth”) and be prepared to discuss the question posed above and its corollary, “Should the F-35 be cancelled?” later this week. Let’s make this an informed discussion and check emotions at the door.  This is every bit a concern for the future of US aviation – shore and sea-based, as the DDG-1000 is/was for the future of US naval forces.  We’ll shoot for Wednesday, Thursday at the latest to kick-off the discussion.

h/t: DEW Line

More docments/discussion/refutations for consideration (look below the fold):

Continue Reading…

Of Wargames, JSFs and Baby Seals (II)

“Be modest about what military force can accomplish, and what technology can accomplish. The advances in precision, sensor, information and satellite technology have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do…But also never neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of warfare, which is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain. Be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories, or doctrines that suggest otherwise. Look askance at idealized, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war…” – Robert M. Gates 29 Sept 2008.


To summarize – we are on the second of a series of posts that look into a recent RAND study on the future of air superiority in general, and as part of the exercise, address some of the open press reporting on the alleged shortcomings of the JSF as extracted from a slide in backup. The context for examination is within three areas that the US has held superiority, primarily in the post-Cold War period, namely (1) secure forward bases for operations; (2) stealth; and (3) BVR capabilities as balanced against a surfeit of numbers. This post will be part II.

Will stealth work as advertised?

Stealth, or more properly “low observable” (LO) is an attribute ascribed to a platform or tactics and techniques that reduce the observability of that platform to a defender and is usually considered to be of a passive nature, as opposed to active measures like chaff, IR decoys and jamming. Note that its purpose is to reduce observability, not render the platform invisible.

LO techniques have been around since the First World War. Since the primary means of detecting aircraft was the Mark 1/mod 0 eyeball, LO techniques included the use of camouflage patterns on upper surfaces to make the aircraft appear to blend in with the ground below and sky colored to blend in with the sky when observed from below. This technique is still employed today as most tactical aircraft carry are painted a low-visibility, non-specular (non-reflective) grey. An additional technique stemming from WWI, night operations, is still used today for some of the same reasons.

It wasn’t until WW2, however, that the non-visible spectrum came into use against aircraft that measures were sought to minimize the advantages those systems brought to bear. The usefulness of such means, primarily radar, was borne out in the employment of the CHAIN HOME radar system which provided not only early warning of approaching German formations, but also in combination with the fighter direction centers, proved key in massing the limited resources of the RAF against those same raids, acting as force multiplier. As the war drew on, the now familiar cat-and-mouse game of measure/counter-measure/counter-counter measure developed in the European and Pacific theaters. Chaff, jammers, deceptive repeaters were met by changes in frequencies, exploitation of other platform vulnerabilities (e.g., the use of ESM to detect Allied use of the H2S navigation radar and target the bomber streams accordingly). With the advent of the Cold War, and its regional hot war iterations (Vietnam, Middle East) and the introduction of the surface-to-air missile tied into an integrated air defense system, or IADS, it seemed that the tyranny of the cycle that demanded newer radar warning receivers and deception aids would continue to escalate in cost while demanding ever shorter development and production cycles. Still, even with improved onboard systems, off-board support was demanded in increasingly large numbers for both Navy and Air Force aircraft. For example, a typical Linebacker strike package going “downtown” during the Vietnam War demanded no less than 60-80% of the 52 aircraft composition providing strike support in the form of MiGCAP, ECM, chaff and Iron Hand packages. Even with this support, losses were high as North Vietnamese tactics changed to take advantage of other vulnerabilities in platforms or US tactics. Israel found the same in its efforts during the opening stages of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when it found 10% of its air force destroyed in a single day due to changes in Arab forces equipment (including the nasty surprise of very capable mobile SAMs, the SA-6, deployed with advancing armor units) and tactics.

Enter LO

Application of LO in the electromagnetic realm saw a few tangential attempts as early as 1940, but the science and technology of the time would not yet support such efforts. To be sure, it was thought that non-metallic surfaces would substantially reduce radar returns – what was less clearly understood were the subtleties and vulnerabilities of what lay beneath the skin that would also contribute to the signature. There were some desultory investigations post-war and the U-2 and SR-71 both attempted a degree of signature reduction, the former with a ferrite-impregnated paint (giving the U-2 its now characteristic black color) and the latter with radar absorptive material in wedges along its wing line as well as utilization of a blended wing/body.

Still, it wasn’t until the review of the work of a Russian radar scientist, Pyotr Ufimstev and his re-discovery of the how Maxwell’s equations may be applied to predict how electromagnetic waves would be reflected by certain shapes. This was an important breakthrough because of the follow-on ability to design an all aspect LO aircraft and gain an understanding of its specular behavior before actually cutting metal and resorting to a prolonged trial and error process. Engineers took these equations and applied the principles of optics to predict the what form the scattered field of EM would look like when an aircraft was illuminated by radar waves at various frequencies.


Through the mirror of my mind
Time after time
I see reflections of you and me

Reflections of
The way life used to be
Reflections of
The love you took from me
– Diana Ross, Reflections 1965

The challenge in designing an LO or VLO aircraft is reducing the radar cross section by reducing reflections. The radar cross section is defined as the area the radar “sees” in the form of reflected energy from the target and, is normally larger than the object itself. There are several elements to the reflected energy that constitute the RCS (which is measured in either square meters or decibels per square meter (dBSM)), the principal ones being:

•  Specular reflection: Specular reflection constitutes the majority of the returned radar energy so efforts here typically lend the greatest return (in reducing RCS). The primary determinant in this actor is the shape of the airframe and its major subcomponents. Vertical tail surfaces, large, open intakes – those and other features act like mirrors, reflecting the signal at an angle that corresponds to the direction it arrived. With due regard, this property can be turned to an advantage if the reflecting surface is angled to deflect the majority of the returning signal away from the receiving antenna. This is exactly what lay at the core of the F-117’s design and why Ufimstev’s work was so important in its design.
•  Diffraction: As specular reflection is reduced, other forms come into play. Diffraction occurs when an edge or corner is encountered. This is especially problematic when the object can contain and magnify the reflections – like an inlet duct, for example. A corollary is the reflection that causes a cat’s eye to appear to glow in the dark. A small ray of light enters the cavity of the eyeball and is bounced around the curved walls of the eye’s cavity, producing a flash or glow. As the airframe is adjusted to reduce specular reflection, care must also be given to ensure greater instances of diffraction don’t occur. Again, using the F-117 as an example, one way of controlling diffraction that originated in the inlet duct was to screen it with a mesh that permitted airflow, but would not permit transmitted energy into the inlet. Other applications would include curved inlets to the engine such that reflected energy is directed inward towards dispersion instead of being given a direct path to and from the engine.
•  Traveling waves: When an object is swept with energy, it transmits that energy along its surface as long as there is continuity in conductivity and surface. Where discontinuity is encountered (panel joints, access doors, fasteners) those waves tend to scatter, providing another opportunity for signal return to the receiver. Traveling waves can be managed either through absorption (requiring increasingly thick materials) or deflected. One example given in the latter case is a wing leading edge. The angle of the sweep can aid in deflecting the energy from returning to the source. Of course in so doing there are tradeoffs that may devolve to lessened maneuverability or economy of cruise.


What about RAM (Radar Absorbing Materials)? RAM has its place – but just like the above its use mandates tradeoffs. For example, in WWII the Germans came to use a carbon sandwiched rubber coating to cover the snorkels on their U-boats to absorb the radar used by Allied ASW aircraft. The employment of radar on ship- and shore-based fixed wing and lighter than air aircraft had an immediate and devastating impact on U-boat operations in the Atlantic, so in combination with other passive measures (like ESM gear tuned to look for the distinctive signal), they also tried using RAM. While it proved successful in lab tests, in sea trials and real world application it was significantly less so, due in no small part to its exposure to the elements (salt water especially). As the experience grows in working with the RAM on 1st and 2nd generation aircraft (and it imposes a significant demand signal on the maintainers), more durable solutions will be sought in materials development and application. In the meantime, RAM falls in line behind the other measures listed above insofar as LO/VLO aircraft design is concerned.

Fuzzballs, Pacmen and Bowties

No, not these are not the elements of a nightmare (unless you’re on the wrong side of the fight), but rather descriptions of the signature of your normal or LO/VLO aircraft. Fuzzball, Pacman and Bowtie are simplified symbols for basic patterns of radar signatures reduction at all frequencies and in turn, are used in mission planning.

The Fuzzball signature displays a reduction in signature from all aspects, all angles. It is the ideal signature reduction (short of total invisibility) and therefore one that probably wouldn’t be flyable unless it was a balloon. With this reduction, an LO/VLO could approach a target from any direction in assurance that it would not trip any defensive wires.

bowtie pacman

Reality, though, is something else and hence the Bowtie and Pacman shapes. Both represent a compromise of some sort to the LO/VLO application. The Bowtie reduces signature over vulnerable areas in the front and rear of the aircraft, giving a distinctive pinch in the middle, while the Pacman signature reduces frontal aspect. These are commonly found in conventional aircraft that have had LO/VLO measures applied – redesign of key structural elements, application of RAM, etc. The F/A-18E/F is a good example with redesigned inlets that seek to reduce its frontal signature.

The importance of this knowledge comes in mission planning. Knowing where and to what degree one’s vulnerable spots are helps map out an approach to a target area or needs particular care when facing opposing aircraft.

Finally, as previously noted, since RCS will vary with wavelength one needs to be careful in noting what the particular IADS element is that is to be avoided as well as its geographic position. All this brings us to the original question re. Stealth – will it work? And the answer is, it depends.

In the realm of radar, it depends on the type (band) of radar encountered. The current generation’s capability is optimized against X-band tracking and guidance fire control systems. Less well understood will be its capability against the likes of much lower band radars, especially those deployed in the VHF band. This is an issue because the waveforms are large enough in the lower frequencies to overcome many of the LO measures deployed. In times past, this was an acceptable situation because the systems then, while possibly detecting an LO aircraft, did not have a fire control-level of accuracy (ask an E-2 NFO sometime about radar bananas…). Primarily it is because of the design of low frequency antennas and the distance of the object from the radiating source, it would not be unusual to get a return that would measure out at a couple of miles in azimuth and range. Yes – there is “something” there, but absent a fire control system, there isn’t anything kinetically that can be done about it.

That is, until the advent of an AESA variant of VHF radar (1L119 Nebo SVU ), which the Russians are deploying to support their S-300 SAM systems.

Why VHF radar? Recall the relationship between LO/VLO and radar waves – the smaller the wavelength (higher frequency) the “easier” it is to develop/deploy LO/VLO countermeasures. Go in the other direction, however, and eventually just the sheer size of the aircraft will enable detection by the radar. The following image (via is germane –

For instance, let us consider the F-35 JSF in the 2 metre band favoured by Russian VHF radar designers. From a planform shaping perspective, it is immediately apparent that the nose, inlets, nozzle and junctions between fuselage, wing and stabs will present as Raleigh regime scattering centres, since the shaping features are smaller than a wavelength. Most of the straight edges are 1.5 to two wavelengths in size, putting them firmly in the resonance regime of scattering. Size simply precludes the possibility that this airframe can neatly reflect impinging 2 metre band radiation away in a well controlled fashion.

The only viable mechanism for reducing the VHF band signature is therefore in materials, especially materials which can strongly attenuate the induced electrical currents in the skins and leading edges. The physics of the skin effect show that the skin depth is minimised by materials which have strong magnetic properties. The unclassified literature is replete with magnetic absorber materials which have reasonable attenuation performance at VHF band, but are very dense, and materials which require significant depth to be effective if lightweight. The problem the JSF has is that it cannot easily carry many hundreds of pounds of low band absorber materials in an airframe with borderline aerodynamic performance. Some technologies, such as laminated photonic surface structures might be viable for skins, but the experimental work shows best effect in the decimetric and centimetric bands. Thickness again becomes an issue.

The reality is that in conventional decimetric to centimetric radar band low observable design, shaping accounts for the first 10 to 100 fold reduction in signature, and materials are used to gain the remainder of the signature reduction effect. In the VHF band shaping in fighter sized aircraft is largely ineffective, requiring absorbent materials with 10 to 100 fold better performance than materials currently in use. In the world of materials, getting twice the performance out of a new material is considered good, getting fivefold performance exceptional, and getting 100 fold better performance requires some fundamental breakthrough in physics.

In the case of the 1L119 Nebo SVU as a VHF band acquisition and tracking radar, design elements of the antenna along with digital moving target indicators and probable space time adaptive processing, all within the realm of computational power using commercial off-the shelf (COTS) equipment brings into the realm of the possible the use of VHF-band radar for acquisition and tracking of LO/VLO aircraft and countering with late-generation SAMs. An illustration of just such a CONOP (also from AUS is seen here:

Note how the organic radar (NATO code-named FLAPLID) for the S-300 is used to provide guidance to the in-flight missile while the networked VHF radar provides a tracking feed.

Additionally, recall that LO isn’t just versus radar, but needs to incorporate IR as well. While earlier methods of shielding exhaust and other hot points are generally effective against shortwave IR, long wave IR is another matter. When incorporated in an IRS&T (Infra-Red Search & Track) system, and tied into a helmet mounted site, it will pick up the heat generated by the resistance to the aircraft through the air, especially at super cruise. Such a system is already deployed with the Su-27/-30/-35 family of fighters which are employed by China, India, Venezuela and others, in addition to Russia.

There is much more to this discussion than can be recounted here. The short answer to the question “Will Stealth Work” is still a “yes” – but unlike the early days when the F-117 was first employed with general impunity, the answer now is a qualified “yes.” And just as the earlier cycle of measure/counter-measure/counter-counter measure engaged a spiraling cost in treasure and effort in the active radar countermeasures field, so it appears we are now embarked on a similar path in the LO/VLO realm. Seventeen years ago saw the first large scale employment of combat operations with LO aircraft – what will the next seven bestow?

Part III will address the issue of BVR operations.

Of Wargames, JSFs and Baby Seals (Part I)

“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?)

Flightdeck Friday (III) – Red Flag ’08 Edition

Red Flag has always been a varsity exercise and in recent years, it has seen increased participation from allies and friends.  This year has been no exception with Brazil (F-5s), Sweden (JAS-39 Grippens), France (Rafales) and Turkey F-16s) among the many participants.  This was in addition to the usual USAF, USN and USMC participants.

Notable among the  invitees this year was the Indian Air Force whose marquee participants were the Sukhoi Su-30 Mk I (that’s “I” as in “Indian”) Flankers.  As expected, the Indian Flankers did not showcase their full capability, especially in the EW realm, for much the same reasons th US won’t in other venues with its most advanced aircraft.  Additionally, the Indians employ their Flankers in a different networked schema than the US that includes ground-based infrastructure not brought to Red Flag. Nevertheless, the IAF has apparently given a good accounting of itself,  to the extent the USAF has evidently asked them to be regular participants.  By most accounts, their participation has generally played well at home too.  Oh yes, there was another element of the Indian armed forces that made the trip, but to somewhat less public play too…

One other note – a not inconsiderable element to this was the fact that most of the candidate aircraft for India’s lucrative MRCA competition currently underway, were also participants in the exercise, availing the Indians a chance to assess operations with dissimilar aircraft.

As is usually the case with Red Flag, there is some compelling imagery for the sampling:

IAF Su-30 MkI Flankers at Red Flag

IAF Maintainers conduct post-flight checks.  Note the postions of the engine’s directional nozzles (USAF photo)

Flanker maintenance and flight preps

Keeping them flying is a ‘rond the clock operation, no matter the nationality (USAF photo)

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