Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Air Power Australia, F/A 18F and the RAAF, a reformed smokers view...

The title says it. The most horrible, dreaded, despicable entity on gods Green earth, a REFORMED SMOKER! Is there anyone more loathsome to pink and black lungs alike? Well that's me, not in the tobacco sense of the word, well actually that's inaccurate, as of last January but that's beside the point. I was once addicted to Carlo Kopp's sweet intellectual smoke, however I have seen the light so to speak and like the good boy I should have all ways been I'm now trying save others from a similar fate. Well, maybe that's a tad melodramatic, I may be off Carlo's band wagon but I'm hardly joining the anti cancer council. My intention isn't to launch a crusade against Air Power Australia and Carlo Kopp, the fact is that he is arguably Australia's most distinguished defense journalist, academic and many of his arguments and pieces of analysis are logical, well balanced and very persuasive. Unfortunately an atmosphere of 'your either with us or against us' has developed throughout defence circles on this issue, which has the effect of stifling constructive criticism of the RAAF future platform choices. This polarization of the issue has occurred on both sides and only shows signs of getting worse. Therefore I'm sure many will jump to the conclusion that this article is all for the "government" and against APA, well that is not its intent. The fact is that much of Air Power Australia's analysis misses a large and vital part of the argument, therefore the conclusions of said analysis can not be balanced. My intent today is to explain the illusive missing element in terms a layman would understand.

Air Power Australia

The website and analytical group Air Power Australia has been a driving force behind much of the controversy surrounding the RAAF's planed future platform acquisitions including an appearance on the 4 Corners program that aired on the ABC network "Flying Blind". All though the website itself has a wide variety of Dr Kopp's work including pieces on Soviet Maritime strike as an example, its primary aim is to promote Dr Kopp's argument regarding the RAAF's platform acquisitions and the supremacy of evolved SU 30 "Flanker" variants over said platforms. This is clearly evident by the pre-eminence of all the articles relating to this discussion, with focus on Su-30, F-35, F-22A and F/A-18E/F analysis. I will summarize Dr Kopp's argument about the survivability and feasibility of the F-18E/F Super Hornet because this is a blog with limited space, the article as a whole can be found in the link provided. According to APA, the significant advantages that evolved "Flanker" variants enjoy over the Super Hornet in kinematic performance (speed and acceleration) and supersonic and sub-sonic maneuverability, outweigh the avionics and missile advantage held by the Super Hornet , even though a fighters radar/missile combination is the dominating factor in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) combat, because of the evolving Russian radar systems:

"In conclusion, the Flanker in all current variants kinematically outclasses Super Hornet in all flight regimes. The only near term advantage the latest super hornets have over legacy flankers variants is the APG79 AESA radar and signature reduction features, an advantage which will not last long given the highly active and ongoing Russian development in these area's"

Air Power Australia

This conclusion makes a number of assumptions that are at odds with the reality of international radar development. The AN/APG 79 AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar is widely regarded as one of the most capable fighter sized radars on the planet, with only the AN/APG77 AESA that equips the F/A 22 being comparable at the moment. This 2nd generation AESA (3rd gen ESA) is in full production and operational. Russian AESA radar technology is still in early development phase and is behind European efforts. The Su 30MKI's N011M BARS PESA (Passive Electronically Scanned Array) radar, as capable as it is, due to the limitations of Passive arrays is significantly less capable than the APG 79. The Russian ZHUK-AE AESA radar is being offered with its MiG 35 for India's MRCA competition, however only a mock up has been put in an airframe as yet, therefore it is still in very early development. Currently US AESA development is 2 generations ahead of the rest of the world, and enjoys the higher funding than all of its competitors. To argue, as Dr Kopp does above, that Russian's will produce an AESA radar that is more capable than the APG 79 before a more advanced American model is produced, considering they do not even have a fighter sized test bed working, is dubious to say the least. In order to achieve that the Russians would have to effectively leapfrog several steps in that systems evolution, so several eureka moments would be needed, and personally I dont believe in miracles. In addition to this, F/A-18E/F block 3 is in early development, and is liable to be well into production before a comparable Russian AESA is produced, which you would be safe to assume would be in the order of a decade away. For the Russians to make this "radar lead" good they would effectively have to make up 10 years of development on the Americans with less funding, while Raytheon halted all AESA development.

The AN/APG 79 AESA radar

Dr Kopp also does not address the effect of having a more capable Radar/missile combination in BVR combat, and undoubtedly the combination of the APG 79 radar and the AIM 120D AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile) missile is more capable than the BARS/R77 combination utilized by evolved flankers, notably in detection, track and engagement radii, ECM (Electronic Counter-Measures) & ECCM (Electronic Counter Counter-Measures). The dominating factors in combat at such long ranges are 1) the ability to see your enemy and engage them (your radar/missile/networking combination), 2) Your Electronic Warfare suite, including ESM, EA, ECM & ECCM because of the effect they have on your and your enemy's radar/missile combination (number 1) & 3) Kinematics, the ability to move fast and set the pace of the engagement. F/A-18F has a clear lead in the first two, with Flanker holding the 3rd, and given the ongoing R&D by the US that is unlikely to change. The ability to detect first, track at further ranges, utilize LPI (Low Probability of Intercept) techniques and take longer ranged missile shots is a serious advantage Super Hornet holds over the most advanced Flankers. LPI renders legacy ESM useless and allows the APG 79 to operate with a very low chance enemy receivers would detect its emissions, in comparison to the BARS which would be detected by RWR (radar warning receivers) and ESM well outside of its own detection range. This in effect advertises to everyone in the battle space were and who you are. Perhaps the most interesting and useful additional function of the APG 79 is its EA (Electronic Attack) capability. The radar can focus its emissions onto a single target which in effect, given its power output, makes the radar system very powerful and precise jammer. According to the USN the radar is stated to have EA effects at "extremely significant ranges". This would allow the Super Hornet to blind incoming missiles and perhaps fry their delicate circuits at small enough ranges, degrade enemy radar performance and disrupt data links and communications at stand-off ranges. The EA capability would have a devastating effect on a target if combined with a missile launch. However the radar advantage is offset to an extent by the kinematic advantage that the flanker enjoys, in combination with its inferior but quite capable radar system. It can disengage, it has a smaller NEZ (no escape zone), gives more energy (therefore range) to its own missiles and can to an extent, if it detects the enemy platform before it has launched missiles, set the pace of the engagement. However to argue that this speed & energy advantage renders the super hornet uncompetitive on a one on one basis considering all of the electronic advantages the Super Hornet holds means taking a leap of logic I cant quite make. In my opinion a one on one comparison would indicate they are pretty evenly matched opponents, with the F/A-18F having the BVR advantage thanks to its radar and EW suite, and Su 30 having a small WVR (Within Visual Range) advantage due to its superior instantaneous turn rate. However a one on one comparison is totally unrealistic and therefore irrelevant, which is perhaps the largest flaw in Dr Kopp's analysis.

Left: A Russian Sukhoi SU-30 "Flanker"

Right: An USN F/A 18F Super Bug (Hornet)

Dr Kopp makes a similar argument regarding the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. Basically he argues that Russian development in ESM (Electronic Support Measures), IRST (Infra Red Search & Track) technology and IR guided BVR missiles, coupled with the Flankers superior kinematics will render the F35 uncompetitive due to its lack of comprehensive IR reduction. The F35 is an all aspect VLO (very stealthy) platform equipped with the AN/APG 81 AESA which should be comparable in all aspects to the AN/APG 79, arguably the most sophisticated EW/EWSP (electronic warfare/ EW self protection) suite used on a fighter with raw performance that is "equal or better" than the very agile F16. Effectively even with the advances outlined above, JSF will be able to use an excellent radar, compared to Flanker that will have to rely soley on an ESM cued IRST. Without delving into the details of the advantages of radar vs IRST, in general terms radars are significantly more capable in terms of range, even the most advanced IRST's can only manage a few 10's of kilometers, compared to AESA radars that are stated to have detection ranges in the hundreds of kilometers. IRST's can not see through cloud and they do not give range data which is vital for BVR missile shots. Also IRST's can not perform a volume search like a radar, they in effect have to be cued onto a target by another sensor, hence the need for ESM cuing. Given these inherent limitations of IR based systems, in a one on one encounter, AIM 120D equipped F35's will see first, shoot first and kill first, probably without being detected. However, as I stated earlier, a one on one comparison is irrelevant and unrealistic.

In all of these analysis and comparisons made by Dr Kopp and APA an extremely significant element is missing, and it is perhaps the greatest single factor in 21st century air combat. Information Dominance, a networked battle space and (for lack of a better term) Network Centric Warfare. This is the area which will determine the capability of future air combat, and it is an area were the RAAF is moving ahead in leaps and bounds.

A Networked Battle-space

The concept of "Net Centric Warfare" goes far beyond simply improving situational awareness. Buzz words like Information Dominance can be taken at face value, NCW is far more than the notion that it is good to know more than your enemy. The introduction of high speed, high capacity, unjamable data links like Link 16 are having a drastic effect on the way airborne warfare is waged. More than simply a way to share information, at the squadron level data links act like nerves transmitting information back and forth throughout various platforms. This in effect allows one platform to act as the 'eyes', the others as the 'claws', allowing a squadron to act as a single integrated system rather than a team of individuals. On single fighter level, networking allows the individual platform to detect, track, and fire a missile without ever using its radar, or transmitting a single radio wave. It achieves this by utilizing target information gathered by another platform, either another fighter or AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning & Control) radar aircraft to launch its missiles. The AMRAAM then utilities data linked updates generated from the AEW&C. This allows the AIM 120 AMRAAM to be used as a true "fire and forget" weapon. The AIM 120 family uses an data link update system to keep track of the target throughout its flight path until it gets within range were its small on board radar can take over, which for most ARH (Active Radar Homing) missile's including the R77 is ~20km for a fighter sized target. If the fighter uses its own radar to provide updates it has to continually track the target untill the missile gets close enough to go active which means it has to point its radar at the target which severely limits its options to maneuver. However a networked platform can launch and then turn directly away from the target at high speed, drastically reducing the BVR missile threat. This is in addition to the huge advantages of having an AEW&C platform in the battle space. The adage of seeing first, shooting first and killing first is applicable now more than ever.

Network Centric Warfare/Operations concept

The ADF has been making serious advances in the area of C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) and in terms of information dominance, the ADF as a whole and the RAAF in particular are without peer in the region, with the sole exception of Singapore. Improvement of information gathering and distribution has been improved drastically from the first like in the kill chain, early warning, to the last, the missile. Perhaps the most unique and significant achievement made by the Australian defense industry is the over-the-horizon radar network called JORN (Jindalee Operational Radar Network) which has the remarkable range of over 3500km. The system works by using low frequency radio waves (in the HF band) that bounce off the ionosphere, attaining ranges well beyond the horizon. There have been rumors of JORN detecting ballistic missile launches as far away as the middle east. Another project of real significance is the RAAF's Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft. This AEW&C platform utilities Northrop Grumman's revolutionary MESA (Multirole Electronically Scanned Array) radar. The huge AESA radar is stated to have an IFF capability in excess of 500km, an EA capability, very effective ECCM and a comprehensive ESM suite. The RAAF has purchased 6 of these very capable platforms which will become the nucleus of all future RAAF packages. At the platform level with the introduction of F/A-18F all combat platforms will be link 16 compatible, allowing realtime distribution of information and passive AIM 120D launch.

Left : E-737
Wedgetail AEW&C Aircraft
Jindalee Operational Radar Network

The kill chain being built by the ADF will enable the RAAF to dominate any engagement within its sensor footprint regardless of what platform we are facing. The JORN system will detect any single aircraft within a truly massive footprint across the whole Indonesian archipelago and beyond. This will allow the RAAF to always fight on our own terms, grant extended warning time for any inbound strike packages and detect maritime threats well beyond the Australian coastline. The next link in the kill chain down from JORN, Wedgetail will provide weapon targeting quality track data at stand off ranges, which will be distributed to the individual platform via Link 16 (either F18C/D HUG, F18F or F35A) which can make passive, maximum range missile launch at inbound targets. A networked squadron sized package means that the qualities of the individual fighter become less important. The fighter does not use its radar and is effectively a missile barge, which transport's AIM 120D's to launch points for the Wedgetail. The massive advantage this grants the RAAF against any opponent without a similar information gathering and distribution network will effectively mean that an equal force of F 18C HUG's will be able to decisively defeat an equal force of advanced Flanker variants, which on a one on one basis are much more capable, hence the irrelevance of one on one platform analysis. In fact one would be safe to assume that if an RAAF squadron was equipped with evolved Flanker variants, it would decisively defeat a comparable enemy formation of F/A 18F's without a similar integrated information distribution system. With other nations in the region pursuing a networked force structure with AEW&C, the importance of offensive Electronic Warfare, or the ability to disrupt enemy datalinks or degrade radar performance becomes vital. The sophisticated offensive EW capability of the FA/-18F Block 2 will give the RAAF an EW capability unmatched in the region. An interesting development of the F/A18F airframe is the EA 18G Growler kit that can be procured for the F18F airframe. The EA 18G is a dedicated EW platform which is significantly more capable in terms of electronic warfare than the baseline Super Bug Block 2. Fitted with the ALQ 99 EW system, this platform will allow the user to significantly degrade enemy radar performance and disrupt their network at very significant ranges, in addition to SEAD/DEAD (Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defense) work. Australian Aviation magazine published an article stating that the RAAF had shown interest in 8 EA-18G's in addition to a further 24 F/A-18F's. Whether or not this is the case there does seem to be a low level of interest in the system. The ability of the F/A 18F block 2 to disrupt enemy networks ensures the the huge lead the RAAF has in information dominance remains intact. The effectiveness of this integrated system including land based early warning, AEW&C, and platform will enjoy a quantum leap in capability once the F35 is introduced. When you add an LO platform into the mix you can achieve a passive, long range, undetected launch even withing the surveillance footprint of an enemy AEW&C platform. This will truly allow the RAAF to exploit it's lead in information dominance, by denying the enemy the use of their radar, and no amount of raw performance will make that deficit good.

Left: F35A Joint Strike Fighter
Right: EA 18G Growler EW Aircraft

The platform comparison championed by Dr Kopp seems to only take the capabilities of the individual platform into account, however the generic capabilities of the platform are only a small part of determining who wins. Only a system/organizational wide comparison is relevant because fighters will not act as single systems in the future, only a comparison of AEW&C, platform , EW capability and doctrine is applicable. Now considering that pretext, perhaps the best way of evaluating a platform should not be platform X's capability vs platform Y's capability, but what platform X brings to your order of battle that complements the whole system. In the case of F/A18F, the long range, versatility, huge ISR capabilities, integrated sensor suite, sophisticated weaponry and electronic warfare/electronic attack capability all perfectly complement the system the ADF is building.

In conclusion, the information gathering and distribution system being built for the ADF will allow the RAAF to defeat any realistic Flanker equipped threat with legacy F/A-18C/D HUG's, and with the introduction of F/A-18F and F-35A Australia's air dominance "edge" will be sharper than it has ever been. The RAAF's rapidly evolving EW capability will effectiveness disrupt and disable any enemy information distribution systems, and in conjunction with the introduction of a stealth fighter as its primary platform, information dominance over any conceivable threat is virtually ensured. When all the pieces of this air defense system are in place, which should be in the middle of 2010, the RAAF will be able to decisively defeat any conceivable threat within our massive sensor footprint, and unless the Russians market a comprehensive VLO fighter (which is very, very unlikely), the individual qualities of the threat platform will do nothing to change that fact. Therefore any notion that an F/A-18F which is part of the wider RAAF integrated air defense system will not be competitive with an evolved SU-30 Flanker is frankly at odds with the reality of 21st century aerial warfare.

Dr Kopp continually uses analogies with World War 2 and Vietnam in his analysis, including comparisons between the F35A and the F104 Thundercheif, or between the F-22A and P38. In my personal opinion I didn't find either of these apt comparisons for the current platforms and choices. Perhaps a more pertinent analogy from the past is the battle of the Philippine Sea. 375 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy were shot down for the loss of only only 41 USN fighters. The critical factor in perhaps the most lop sided and decisive victory in the history of air combat was not the qualities of the platforms or pilots involved, the Germans never suffered anything of that magnitude and they were flying obsolete ME-109's with inferior pilots. What led to the great "Marianas turkey shoot" was the fact that it occurred within the USN's radar footprint. Every single strike package was tracked then intercepted by fighters which thanks to radar control enjoyed the altitude and positional advantage. In effect the USN achieved complete information dominance, and that is precisely what the RAAF/ADF is doing right now.

I know this is at odds with what i have argued before. Those who are familiar with Defence Talk Forum would be well aware of that. As i stated earlier, I'm a reformed smoker so to speak. However when you have seen both sides of the argument, you tend to have a more balanced view on things, and given the polarization of this issue, a logical, balanced analysis without an agenda can be hard to find. I hope that's what I provided here.

Hi and thankyou

I just wanted to say thnkyou for taking the time to read my posts, I hope they were informative. However I think I should clarify a few things; I have never served in the military or a military related field and do not consider myself an expert, I am simply an informed citizen expressing my opinion. If I have made an error in a point of fact I would be gratefull if it was pointed out by someone more leaned than me.

Thanks Again

Ozzy Blizzard.