Joint Base Charleston serves two factions of the US military: the Air Force and the Navy. Before 2010, the Charleston Air Force Base and the Navy Naval Support Activity Charleston had separate facilities. This Joint Base is the result of their merging. However, jurisdiction for the base lies with the Air Force. Located near Charleston, South Carolina, Joint Base Charleston also shares runways with Charleston International Airport.
All Hail the 437th Airlift Wing
The 437th Airlift Wing controls the premier active-duty flying wing at the base, flying and maintaining a large fleet of C-17 aircraft, one of the largest in the entire Air Force. That gives Joint Base Charleston a pretty important role, as the fleet provides a significant chunk of Air Mobility Command’s Global Reach airlift capability. They are tasked with providing safe, reliable, and precise airlift to anywhere in the world.
C-17s Are Out There Making the World Better
Their C-17 fleet contains roughly 41 aircraft. The fleet’s value rings in at about $9.2 billion. Each aircraft is with $212 million alone. Every three minutes day or night, one of the aircraft from the 437th Airlift Wing is either taking off or landing somewhere around the globe. These aircraft typically carry humanitarian supplies, war supplies, troops, or medical personnel. If there is trouble or conflict, Charleston’s planes are often the ones called upon to go and help out in some way.
An Aircraft to Write Home About
The C-17 fleet is so capable that it can carry many types of bulk cargo. It can fit two big buses, one large Army tank, or three helicopters, for reference. That means these aircraft are simply enormous, so big it’s hard to truly imagine without seeing it with your own eyes. The tail of one of these planes is more than 55 feet tall, the cockpit is around 20 feet tall, and its wingspan reaches nearly 170 feet.
At full capacity, a C-17 can hold about 600,000 pounds on the ground with a maximum load of 170,900 pounds. It can land in precarious spots as well, on runways as short as 3,000 feet, even with a full load. Now that is one impressive machine. Operating these the 437th Airlift Wing is a workforce of 1,300 personnel, some military and some civilian. They all support the Department of Defense tactical airdrop, aeromedical evacuation support, and worldwide airlift.
In August of 2018, Iran’s HESA Kowsar fighter plane took its first flight. The Islamic Republic was particularly happy to highlight this achievement because this jet, it said, was “100% percent indigenously made.”
Except that it really wasn’t indigenously made. While the HESA Kowsar might have been 100% made in Iran, the design for the fighter is actually based on the Northrop F-5, a plane that has been continuously in use somewhere in the world since 1962.
The F-5, like the Kowsar, is a supersonic light fighter. It is designed for air superiority but is also capable of close-air support roles. The F-5 served the United States Air Force well and even played the role of aggressor aircraft in training exercises. It served in the Air Force until 1990, and the U.S. Navy still flies them as aggressor aircraft in training.
In a way, this is bad news for the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, because U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy pilots have been training to kill the F-5 and its Kowsar variant for decades. But that idea either didn’t occur to Iran, it wasn’t enough to deter Iran or the Kowsar has a trick or two up its sleeve – which could be the case.
At the same time it launched the first Kowsar fighter, Iran also happily announced the platform carried advanced, fourth-generation avionics and an advanced fire control system, completely designed in Iran.
Iran’s longtime enemy, Israel, had no compunction about criticizing the Islamic Republic’s fighter. A spokesman for then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement about Iran’s Kowsar:
“The Iranian regime unveils the Kowsar plane and claims that it is ‘the first 100% locally-manufactured Iranian fighter jet,’” the statement read. “It boasts about its offensive capabilities. But I immediately noticed that this is a very old American warplane.”
The Israelis are likely right to be unconcerned about the Kowsar. The light attack aircraft is primarily used for close-air support and as a training plane. If the Iranians ever really fielded the plane against an Israeli attack, the Israel Defence Forces is flying the latest F-35 Lightning II — the match wouldn’t last long.
In short, the Kowsar would be much better suited to air shows than to actual air-to-air combat with the latest generation of fighter aircraft. If they are used in combat, there’s a much better chance of them being used to support Iranian-backed militias in Iraq or Syria than launching an attack outside of Iran’s sphere of influence.
The Islamic Republic actually could end up acknowledging that its design was based on the F-5. Whatever it is, Iran actually has buyers lined up for it. Russia, China and Indonesia have all reportedly ordered the aircraft.
What the Kowsar could mean for Iran (outside of combat aircraft) is a chance to rebuild the Iranian Air Force into a formidable fighting force. The Iranians were once some of the deadliest pilots in the air. A new generation of pilots learning to fly a reasonably advanced supersonic attack aircraft could bring back some of its glory days.
Iran may not be under the weight of crushing sanctions forever, and when it could finally get its hands on fifth-generation or even more advanced aircraft (depending on when those sanctions might end), technology alone won’t do the job. Those advanced planes will still need skilled pilots to fly them.
F-22A Raptor Demonstration Team aircraft maintainers prepare to launch out Maj. Paul "Max" Moga, the first F-22A Raptor demonstration team pilot, July 13. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christopher L. Ingersoll).
The U.S Air Force has two air superiority fighters in their stable in the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle, but when looking to bolster the fleet with purchases of a new (old) jet for the job, it was the Eagle, not the famed Raptor, to get a second lease on life. That really begs the question: if America can buy new F-15s, a design that’s nearly 50 years old, why isn’t it looking to build new F-22s instead?
By most accounting, the F-22 Raptor remains the most capable air superiority fighter on the planet, with its competition in China’s J-20B beginning to shape up and Russia’s Su-57 still lagging a bit behind. The F-22 really is still at the top of its game… but that doesn’t mean building more actually makes good sense.
The F-22 and F-35 are fighters with two very different jobs
While the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is widely seen as the most technologically advanced fighter in the sky, it was designed as a sort of continuation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s multi-purpose architecture, with an emphasis placed on conducting air-to-ground operations. The older F-22 Raptor was intended to serve as a replacement instead for the legendary F-15 Eagle, as the nation’s top-of-the-line dogfighter.
While both the F-22 and F-35 are 5th generation jets that leverage stealth to enable mission accomplishment and both are able to conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground combat operations, they each specialize in a different aspect of air combat and were intended to serve in very different roles. Unlike the F-22, the U.S. continues to receive new F-35s, though comments made by senior defense officials over the past year have placed the Joint Strike Fighter’s future into some question. America will undoubtedly be flying F-35s for decades to come, but it’s beginning to seem less and less likely that the F-35 will replace the F-16 as the Air Force’s workhorse platform.
The F-22 was canceled because America didn’t need a stealth air superiority fighter for the War on Terror
The Air Force originally intended to purchase 750 F-22s to develop a robust fleet of stealth interceptors for the 21st Century. But as the United States found itself further entrenched in counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations against technologically inferior opponents, the need for advanced dogfighters became far less pressing. With ongoing combat operations in multiple theaters to fund, the F-22 program was shut down in December of 2011 with just 186 fighters delivered. Today, nearly a decade later, the F-22 exists in precious few numbers, despite its fearsome reputation.
Now, the United States faces concerns about its dwindling fleet of F-22 Raptors that were once intended to replace the F-15 outright. Only around 130 of those 186 delivered F-22s were ever operational, and today the number of combat-ready F-22s is likely in the double digits. With no new Raptors to replenish the fleet as older jets age out, each hour an F-22 flies anywhere in the world is now one hour closer to the world’s best dogfighter’s retirement.
The future of the Air Force, as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown has plainly stated, doesn’t include the mighty Raptor. But America needs an air superiority fighter that can stand and swing with the best in the world, and as capable as the F-15EX Eagle II may be, it lacks the stealth it would need to survive an open war with a nation like China or Russia. With the NGAD program still years away from producing an operational fighter, America’s air superiority mission now runs the risk of not having the jets it needs for a high-end fight if one were to break out–as unlikely as that may be.
The production facilities and supply chain for the F-22 were cannibalized for the F-35
As simple as just building new F-22s may sound, the truth is, re-starting the F-22 production line would likely cost the same or potentially even more than simply developing an entirely new and potentially better fighter. Lockheed Martin cannibalized a great deal of the F-22’s production infrastructure to support the ongoing production of the F-35, meaning it wouldn’t be as simple as just re-opening the plants that had previously built Raptors.
In fact, Lockheed Martin would have to approach building new F-22s as though it was an entirely new enterprise, which is precisely why the United States didn’t look into purchasing new F-22s rather than the controversial new (old) F-15EX.
Boeing’s new F-15s are considered fourth-generation fighters that are sorely lacking in stealth when compared to advanced fighters like the F-22 and F-35, but the Air Force has agreed to purchase new F-15s at a per-unit price that even exceeds new F-35 orders. Why? There are a number of reasons, but chief among them are operational costs (the F-15 is far cheaper per flight hour than either the F-35 or the F-22), and immediate production capability. Boeing has already been building advanced F-15s for American allies in nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, so standing up a new production line for the United States comes with relatively little cost.
The F-22’s production line, on the other hand, hasn’t existed in nearly a decade. In a report submitted to Congress in 2017, it was estimated that restarting F-22 production would cost the United States $50 billion just to procure 194 more fighters. That breaks down to between $206 and $216 million per fighter, as compared to the F-35’s current price of around $80 million per airframe and the F-15EX’s per-unit price of approximately $88 million.
Does that mean it’s impossible to build new F-22s? Of course not. With enough money, anything is possible — but as estimated costs rise, the question becomes: Is it practical? And the answer to that question seems to be an emphatic no. The U.S. Air Force has invested a comparatively tiny $9 billion into its own Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program — aimed at developing a replacement for the F-22 — over the span of six years (2019-2025).
If the new NGAD fighter enters service on schedule, it may even get to fly alongside the F-22 before it heads out to pasture. So, while the Raptor’s reign as king of the skies may soon come to an end, it may not be before America has a new contender for the title.
The world’s vast oceans and seas offer seemingly endless spaces in which adversaries of the United States can maneuver undetected. The U.S. military deploys networks of manned and unmanned platforms and sensors to monitor adversary activity, but the scale of the task is daunting and hardware alone cannot meet every need in the dynamic marine environment. Sea life, however, offers a potential new advantage. Marine organisms are highly attuned to their surroundings — their survival depends on it — and a new program out of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office aims to tap into their natural sensing capabilities to detect and signal when activities of interest occur in strategic waters such as straits and littoral regions.
The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program, led by program manager Lori Adornato, will study natural and modified organisms to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles. PALS will investigate marine organisms’ responses to the presence of such vehicles, and characterize the resulting signals or behaviors so they can be captured, interpreted, and relayed by a network of hardware devices.
“The U.S. Navy’s current approach to detecting and monitoring underwater vehicles is hardware-centric and resource intensive. As a result, the capability is mostly used at the tactical level to protect high-value assets like aircraft carriers, and less so at the broader strategic level,” Adornato said. “If we can tap into the innate sensing capabilities of living organisms that are ubiquitous in the oceans, we can extend our ability to track adversary activity and do so discreetly, on a persistent basis, and with enough precision to characterize the size and type of adversary vehicles.”
Beyond sheer ubiquity, sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone. Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains. Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains — tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical, and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark.
However, evaluating the sensing capabilities of sea life is only one of the challenges for PALS researchers. Performer teams supporting DARPA will also have to develop hardware, software, and algorithms to translate organism behavior into actionable information and then communicate it to end users. Deployed hardware systems operating at a standoff distance of up to 500 meters must collect signals of interest from relevant species, process and distill them, and then relay them to remote end users. The complete sensing systems must also discriminate between target vehicles and other sources of stimuli, such as debris and other marine organisms, to limit the number of false positives.
Adornato is aiming to demonstrate the approach and its advantages in realistic environments to convey military utility.
“Our ideal scenario for PALS is to leverage a wide range of native marine organisms, with no need to train, house, or modify them in any way, which would open up this type of sensing to many locations,” Adornato said.
DARPA favors proposals that employ natural organisms, but proposers are able to suggest modifications. To the extent researchers do propose solutions that would tune organisms’ reporting mechanisms, the proposers will be responsible for developing appropriate environmental safeguards to support future deployment. However, at no point in the PALS program will DARPA test modified organisms outside of contained, biosecure facilities.
DARPA anticipates that PALS will be a four-year, fundamental research program requiring contributions in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, machine learning, analytics, oceanography, mechanical and electrical engineering, and weak signals detection.
The US Navy announced in May 2018, that it was restarting the 2nd Fleet to oversee the western Atlantic Ocean, including the North Atlantic and the US East Coast.
The decision comes after several years of tensions between NATO members and Russia — and several warnings from Western officials about growing Russian naval activity, including more sophisticated and more active submarines.
NATO has responded in kind, with a special focus on antisubmarine warfare — a capability that has waned among Western navies since the end of the Cold War.
For NATO members and other countries, augmenting antisubmarine abilities means not only adding ships but also advanced maritime-patrol aircraft to scour the sea. A number of aircraft on the market fill this role, but the US-made P-8A Poseidon is among the most sophisticated.
“What it can do from the air, and tracking submarines, is almost like Steven Spielberg,” Michael Fabey, author of the 2017 book “Crashback,” about China-US tensions in the Pacific, told Business Insider in early May 2018.
“I went up on a training flight,” he said, “and basically … they could read the insignia on a sailor’s hat from thousands of feet above.”
“It’s not the aircraft itself of course,” he added, but “all the goodies they put in there.”
‘The best ASW … platform in the fleet’
In 2004, the US Navy picked the P-8A Poseidon to succeed the P-3 Orion, which had been in operation since the 1960s. The first Poseidon entered service in 2013, and more than 60 are in service now.
The jet-powered P-8A is based on Boeing‘s 737 airliner, but it is specialized to withstand more strain, with aluminum skin that is 50% thicker than a commercial 737. Every surface is equipped for deicing.
A commercial 737 can be built in two weeks, but a P-8A takes roughly two months.
(U.S. Navy photo)
It has a ceiling of 41,000 feet, and, unlike the P-3, is designed to do most of its work at high altitude, where it has better fuel efficiency and its sensors are more effective. The Poseidon’s top speed of 564 mph is also 200 mph faster than the older Orion, allowing it to get to its station faster and reposition more quickly.
Among its sensors is the APY-10 radar, which can detect and identify ships on the surface and even pick up submarine periscopes. It can also provide long-distance imagery of ports or cities and perform surveillance along coasts or on land.
An electro-optical/infrared turret on the bottom of the plane offers a shorter-range search option and can carry up to seven sensors, including an image intensifier, a laser rangefinder, and infrared, which can detect heat from subs or from fires.
(US Navy photo by Chief Mass Comm. Specialist Keith DeVinney)
The Poseidon’s ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure acts as an electromagnetic sensor and can track radar emitters. Its Advanced Airborne Sensor can do 360-degree scans on land and water. Other electronic surveillance measures allow it to passively monitor a wide area without detection.
The original P-8A design did not include the Magnetic Anomaly Detector that the P-3 carried to detect the metal in sub’s hulls. The MAD’s exclusion was controversial, but the P-8A can deploy sonar buoys to track subs, and recent upgrades allow it to use new buoys that last longer and have a broader search range.
It also carries an acoustic sensor and a hydrocarbon sensor designed to pick up fuel vapor from subs. The P-8A’s cabin can have up to seven operator consoles, and onboard computers compile data for those operators and then distribute it to friendly forces.
(US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Kofonow)
The P-8A carries its own armaments, including Harpoon antiship missiles, depth charges, MK-54 torpedoes, and naval mines. It can also deploy defensive countermeasures, including a laser and metallic chaff to confuse incoming missiles.
A dry-bay fire system uses sensors to detect fires on board and extinguish them, a P-8A pilot told The War Zone in early 2017.
“The P-8 is the best ASW localize/track platform in the fleet, one of the best maritime [Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance] assets in the world, with the ability to identify and track hundreds of contacts, and complete the kill chain for both surface and subsurface contacts if necessary,” the pilot said.
‘The next front-line, high-end maritime-patrol aircraft’
(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney)
Russia’s submarine fleet is a fraction of its Cold War size, but its subs are more sophisticated and have been deployed as US and NATO attention has shifted away from antisubmarine efforts.
“We have found in the last two years we are very short of high-end antisubmarine-warfare hunters,” Royal Navy Vice Adm. Clive CC Johnstone, commander of NATO’s Allied Maritime Command, said in January 2018.
Along with interest in buying subs, “you see an increased focus on other types of antisubmarine, submarine-hunter platforms, so frigates and maritime-patrol aircraft and stuff like that,” Magnus Nordenman, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider earlier this year.
In 2016, the UK announced it would buy nine P-8As. In 2017, Norway announced it was buying five.
Those purchases are part of efforts by the US, UK, and Norway to reinvigorate the Cold War maritime-surveillance network covering the sea between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK, known as the GIUK gap, through which Russian subs are traveling more frequently between their Northern Fleet base and the Atlantic.
In June 2017, defense ministers from France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Turkey agreed to cooperate on “multinational maritime multimission aircraft capabilities.” The US Navy has increased its antisubmarine activities in Europe, leading with the P-8A.
The US’s 2018 defense budget included $14 million to refurbish hangers at Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland, where antisubmarine forces hunted German U-boats during World War II and patrols scoured northern latitudes during the Cold War.
The US Navy decided to leave Keflavik in 2006, but recent modifications would allow P-8As to be stationed there, though the Navy has said it doesn’t currently plan to reestablish a permanent presence.
(U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. Grade Matthew Skoglund)
Poseidons operate over the Black Sea to track the growing number of Russian subs there. P-8As based at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy have reportedly helped hunt Russian subs lurking near NATO warships and taken part in antisubmarine-warfare exercises around the Mediterranean.
“The Poseidon is becoming the next front-line, high-end maritime-patrol aircraft,” Nordenman said. “Not only for the US, but increasingly for our allies in Europe, too.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more US rotations to Keflavik and deeper cooperation between the US, the UK, and Norway on maritime-patrol-aircraft operations in the Atlantic,” he added. “I would say this is just a first step.”
‘There is a requirement need out here’
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Comm. Specialist 1st Class Jay M. Chu)
Like Russia, China has been investing in submarines, and its neighbors have growing interest in submarines and antisubmarine-warfare assets — including the P-8A.
India made its first purchase of the P-8I Neptune variant in 2009, buying eight that deployed in 2013. New Delhi bought four additional planes in 2016, and India’s navy chief said in January that the service was looking to buy more.
In early 2014, Australia agreed to buy eight P-8As for $3.6 billion. They are expected to arrive by 2021, and Canberra has the option to buy four more.
India and Australia are the only buyers in Asia so far, but others, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, are interested. South Korea said in February 2018, it would buy maritime-patrol aircraft from a foreign buyer — Boeing and Saab are reportedly competing for a contract worth $1.75 billion.
“There is a requirement need out here in the Asian region for P-8s,” Matt Carreon, Boeing’s head of sales for the P-8A, said in February 2018, pointing to the high volume of shipping, threat of piracy, and the “current political climate” as reasons for interest.
But overall sales have been underwhelming, likely in part because the Poseidon and its variants are relatively expensive, and their specialized features require a lengthy procurement process.
US Navy P-8As have also been more active around Asia, where their crews work with non-US military personnel, take part in search-and-rescue operations, and perform maritime surveillance over disputed areas, like the South China Sea, where they have monitored Chinese activity.
As in Europe, this can lead to dicey situations.
In August 2014, a P-8A operating 130 miles east of China’s Hainan Island had a close encounter with a Chinese J-11 fighter jet, which brought one of its wings within 20 feet of the P-8A and did a barrel roll over the patrol plane’s nose.
The jet also flew by the P-8A with its belly visible, “to make a point of showing its weapons,” the Pentagon said.
“I think the maritime mission is going to be as big as the land mission in the future, driven by Asian customers like Australia, India, Japan, Korea, and … other countries will certainly play a role,” Joseph Song, vice president for international strategic development at General Atomics Aeronautical, told Reuters.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
The challenges of the battlefield can forge the most ingenious solutions from available resources. One notable example is the German-repurposing of the deadly 88mm Flak anti-aircraft gun as an anti-tank gun with devastating effectiveness during WWII. In a 21st century twist, Indonesia plans to arm a boat with a tank gun.
Indonesia faces a unique threat envelope due to its location and geography. The island nation sits in Southeast Asia and Oceania between the Pacific and Indian oceans amidst heavily-transited commercial shipping lanes. As a result, Indonesia has 17,508 islands and 61,567 miles of coastline to patrol and defend from potential pirates and terrorists looking to make use of the waterways. To address this threat, Indonesia looks to employ the Antasena Tank Boat.
Aptly named, the Tank Boat is designed to bring heavy firepower to brown water coastal and riverine operations. It utilizes a catamaran design that gives it large internal volume, stability at sea, and a draft of just three feet. Capable of carrying 20 to 60 troops pending final specifications, the Tank Boat can sail right up to the beach to deliver them for amphibious landings. This capability is essential in the defense of Indonesia’s many islands.
Of course, the Tank Boat’s most eye-catching feature is its gun. The Cockerill 105mm High Pressure (NATO Standard) gun planned for the Tank Boat is currently used on the jointly developed Turko-Indonesian Kaplan/Hiramau tank. Capable of firing high explosive, canister, smoke, and anti-tank rounds, the gun is a deadly weapon for the coastal fighting that the Tank Boat is designed for. With an elevation of 42 degrees, it can be used in both direct and non-line-of-sight fire support. The gun is also capable of shooting the Falarick gun-launched missile which can engage targets out to three miles. A version with a 30mm autocannon is also planned and is currently in the evaluation phase. Both versions feature a remote-controlled .50 caliber or 7.62mm machine gun on the turret as well. 20,000 will be delivered.
All of this firepower is packed onto a boat measuring just 59 feet long and 21 feet wide. Additionally, the Tank Boat’s two 1,200 horsepower MAN engines and two waterjets give it a top speed of 40 knots. For comparison, the Coast Guard’s Island-class patrol boats like the USCGC Adak are 110 feet long with a top speed of 29.5 knots.
As a specialized maritime asset, the Tank Boat looks to check all the boxes for the Indonesian military’s specific needs. So far, the Indonesian Ministry of Defense has purchased one Tank Boat from contractor PT Lundin with plans to buy more following favorable testing. The MoD claims that the Tank Boat could be operational as early as 2022.
In 1967, the Space Race was in full swing. The Soviet Union had made a number of historic firsts, but the United States was racing to catch up while making a few firsts of its own.
President Kennedy had challenged America to put a man on the moon within the decade. Long after his death, the memory of that challenge was fresh in the minds of everyone, especially those in the U.S. government who were working hard to make that happen. These include agencies such as NASA, the U.S. military and, not surprisingly, the Central Intelligence Agency.
But the United States wasn’t always so close to winning. In fact, for a time, it appeared to be behind — way behind. So far behind, in fact, the Americans were willing to do anything to catch up, even if that meant stealing the Soviet technology.
Declassified CIA documents describe their initial efforts to do just that. While they never conclusively stole Soviet space technology outright, they did have to make a huge effort to get some time alone with the tech.
Many people know about Sputnik, the first man-made satellite in orbit. Not many others know about Luna (sometimes called Lunik), the first man-made satellite to hit the moon’s surface. Both successful missions took place in 1959. And the Soviets did what any superpower looking to dunk on their Cold War rival would do: they took a victory lap.
The USSR sent Sputnik and Luna on a world tour that included stops in the United States. The U.S. was losing the Space Race because the Soviets had better booster and rocket technology than they did. So the CIA decided it would learn everything it could about Soviet space tech through the traveling showcase.
Specifically, the U.S. wanted a detailed look at the USSR’s upper stage. Most in the CIA assumed the Soviets weren’t bold enough to bring an actual Luna on a world tour for everyone to see, but there were some who realized the USSR really had brought the real thing. One night, after the traveling exhibition was closed, CIA operatives gained access to the room. They discovered it really was an actual Luna module and the lone Soviet guard had disappeared.
The CIA spent a full 24 hours with the Luna, taking what information they could with them, but they wanted more. They wanted to get inside of it. That’s when they concocted a complex, almost absurd scheme that would have been stupid – if it hadn’t worked.
That’s when they hatched a plan to steal Luna, get into it, and return the device before it could be found. They knew it usually had a large guard force posted as sentries at almost all times. They needed to get to it when the guard force was at its lowest number and find a way to get to it when no one would miss it.
The operatives discovered that the Luna went unguarded when moving by train. A guard checked its crate in at the platform, but he didn’t know what was in each of the crates and there was no expected delivery time for its arrival at the show’s next stop.
CIA agents arranged for the Luna to be on the last truck out of an exhibition. When it was on the way, other CIA operatives tailed the truck, looking for when the Soviet guards rejoined their precious cargo. But the Soviets never came. The CIA stopped the truck driver and “held him in a hotel overnight” (the documents don’t mention how he was enticed (booze, guns or prostitutes were likely involved).
With the driver safely dispatched, the truck was parked in a salvage yard and covered up. At the rail yard, the lone guard there didn’t even know the last truck was expected and he knocked off for the night, none the wiser. The CIA kept a tail on him too, just to make sure he didn’t come to work early.
Back at the truck, CIA officers dismantled and photographed the Luna in detail, working through the night to get everything documented so that the Soviet booster technology could be analyzed.
They sealed everything back together, closed the crate and put the original truck driver back on the job. When the rail yard guard checked the crate onto the train in the morning, he suspected nothing and the secret Soviet space technology was on its way to the next stop.
America’s troops have very awesome tactical gear, even through all the teething problems that systems like the F-35 Lightning II have had.
That said, all that gear can’t win a war unless you can come up with a good plan.
During a walk-through demonstration given by Lockheed Martin at the 2017 AirSpaceCyber expo held at National Harbor, Maryland, the company explained how the technology and capabilities of mission planning are set to take a huge step forward.
But what’s it like now?
The present state of integrating the air, land, maritime, space, and cyber components in the military was described as a series of stovepipes by Kim Ponders of Lockheed Martin’s famous Skunk Works.
Hiccups with this integration sometimes means that different components go after the same target.
In essence, a JDAM dropped from a F-35 could very well hit an SA-20 command vehicle that was already fried by a cyber attack, and the site then gets hits by Tomahawk cruise missiles, even though the missiles are useless without a command vehicle.
While there are times that overkill can help, there are circumstances — like a target-rich environment or when you are short of munitions — where overkill can be a problem.
In essence, this helps network 4th-generation fighters with the 5th-generation fighters without compromising the stealth of the F-22s and F-35s. During that exercise, the Einstein Box was placed on one of the early successes of the Skunk Works, the U-2 Dragon Lady.
This merging of systems ranging from the F-22 Raptor to destroyers and cruisers equipped with Aegis to the control system for the Tactical Tomahawk cruise missile to the Space-Based Infrared System will eventually make it a lot harder to the bad guys, largely because American (and Allied) troops will be able to pass information to each other much faster than before.
By being able to pass the information faster, American troops will be able to rapidly pair platforms with targets. This will help them make the most of their assets on the scene. Lockheed even has teamed up with Raytheon and SRC to design a new JSTARS that could carry out MDC2.
This means that in the future, the pilot of a F-35 could detect a radar emission, and other assets (either special operation forces on the ground or a satellite) could very quickly tell that pilot whether the emitter is real or a decoy, how far it is from the van, and the pilot can then address the threat, or be told that another asset will handle it. Rapidly getting that information to everyone will eventually help save the lives of American troops, and that’s a very good thing.
Ever since the first tank prototype rolled off the assembly line in 1915, armored vehicles have dominated enemy forces on the battlefields in which they deployed.
In modern warfare, the M1A1 Abrams is currently our tank of choice and weighs in close to 68-tons — equivalent to 29 Toyota Corollas.
The M1 series tank is equipped with a 1500 horsepower engine and houses a 105mm main gun (some come with a 120mm cannon) and three secondary machine guns. It takes a four-man crew to operate this battlefield beast and comes with a price tag of around $9 million.
If you think the Abrams is massive, wait until you’ve seen these next armored behemoths.
Rewinding to the first world war, the French developed the Char 2C, which comes featured in the “Battlefield: One” expansion pack. Although designed in 1917, the first unit wasn’t built until three years after the war ended.
At 69-metric tons, the Char 2C was slightly heavier than the M1A1 we use today. It featured a 75mm main cannon and came with four secondary machine guns placed on the front, in the back and the vehicle’s sides.
It stretched 33-feet long and 10-feet wide, and took a crew of 12-men to operate the machine fully.
The Germans constructed a tank that was so massive, it couldn’t be transported in one piece; it had to be broken down into six separate parts.
Known as the K Wagen, once this tank arrived by rail close to the battle front, the Germans had to quickly assemble the armored vehicle before fully deploying it.
The K Wagen weighed in twice the size of an Abrams at 120-metric tons and measure nearly 43-feet in length — just shy of the width of a regulation basketball court.
The weaponry was just as impressive as its size. The K Wagen had four 77mm fortress guns and seven MG08 machine guns mounted on the shell.
Fortunately for allied forces, the war ended just before this massive piece of tech was battlefield tested.
When World War II began, the Germans designed the heaviest tank to-date — the Panzer VIII Maus. This monster weighed in at 188-metric tons. That’s 3.5 times larger than our standard Abrams. The tank featured a 128mm main gun capable of destroying any armored vehicle of that era from distances up to two miles away.
The skin was constructed of nearly 9-inches of tough armor.
Due to its massive size, the Panzer was limited as far as transportation as it commonly would cave in bridges and other structures it rode over.
Do you think that’s where this story of these monstrous tanks ends? Think again.
Personally approved by Adolf Hitler, the tank was intended to weigh 1,000-metric tons. 16 times heavier than our modern M1A1 Abrams.
Approximately 300-metric tons were dedicated for the tank’s ammunition alone. Reportedly, the plan was to make the Landkreuzer P.1000 Ratte 128-feet long — which is longer than the length of a basketball court.
Luckily, the tank never went into production as it was decided that it would make for a great target for enemy aircraft raids despite being armed with eight anti-aircraft guns.
Plenty of care and thought must go into manufacturing a standard-issue rifle to field with the fourth-largest standing army in the world. To find success, you must be concerned with the ease of mass production, reliability in the field, mobility and ease of use, and the lethality it offers the troops.
With that in mind, there’s only one benefit to the Type 88-2 variant of the AK-74 used by the North Korean Army: It’s cheap.
The AK-74 is the go-to weapon among former Soviet states and Eastern European nations because it can be easily produced and performs well in the hands of troops. North Korea created the Type 88-2 entirely within their own country and made plenty of useless tweaks to a proven design.
1. Ease of mass production
The Type 88-2 is cheap and it makes sense that a warmongering nation stuck with tech from over 60 years ago needs to cut corners when creating new stuff. The collapsible buttstock on the Type 88-2 is designed to fold over the top of the upper receiver. Folding stocks are common among many smaller-caliber SMGs, but on a fully-automatic carbine, it’s kinda worthless in both positions.
The collapsible buttstock is said to be small enough that the iron sights aren’t obstructed when collapsed. That alone is a terrible idea for accurate use while going full-auto. It also means that if the stock is extended, it wouldn’t have any support to handle the weapon as it fires.
2. Reliability in the field
At first glance of the Type 88-2, the most obvious “WTF?” is the helical magazine that is said to hold 150 5.45x39mm rounds*. Keep in mind, the PP-19 Bizon also uses as high-capacity, helical magazine and isn’t without its minor flaws, but it holds 64 9mm rounds.
At a slightly lower rate of fire and with much larger rounds, the Type 88-2 is likely much more prone to jamming and feed failures. The magazine extends almost to the muzzle and is also attached to the under-barrel rail. Magazine swaps would be a pain in the ass as you connect a heavy magazine at two spots.
3. Mobility and ease of use
Balance is important to maintaining accurate fire. The weight distribution must be even throughout a weapon to maintain tight shot grouping. The helical magazine of the Type 88-2 and the overall weight of 5.45x39mm rounds* will cause the center of balance shifts back slightly after each round is fired. Fully-automatic rifles naturally kick up during sustained fire. Improper weight distribution will send the kick higher.
The size of the magazine also prohibits any sort of forward grip. The only way this weapon would accurately fire is if the troop was in the prone position and could rest the rifle on the ground.
4. Actual power
Type 88-2s are unique to North Korea and not much is truly known about the weapon since it hasn’t left the Hermit Kingdom. Nearly everything known is a mix of speculation, reverse engineering from photographs, and knowledge of the standard AK-74.
That being said, everything about the design of the Type 88-2 just seems to have been done to cut every possible corner.
Writer’s Note: The article originally described the Type 88-2 as being chambered in 7.62mm when in reality it uses 5.45mm.
Feature image: Korean soldiers parading carrying the Type 68 variant, rather than the Type 88 (Wikimedia Commons)
The President of the United States is quite a title to hold. Great Americans have held the office since George Washington founded the nation. To stand out in this lineage of leaders is no small task. For all the history that Abraham Lincoln made as president, incredibly, he stands out as the only one to hold a patent.
Lincoln grew up on the American frontier. He learned flatboat river navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers as a teenager. At the age of 19, he made a flatboat journey all the way down to New Orleans.
A few years later, Lincoln made a second trip down to New Orleans. However, before Lincoln reached the Illinois River, the boat became stuck on a milldam at New Salem. Stranded on the Sangamon River, the boat started to take on water. Lincoln acquired an auger from New Salem and hurriedly returned to the boat. He unloaded part of the cargo to the right of the boat and proceeded to drill a hole in the bow. After enough water ran out, he plugged the hole and was able to free the boat and continue to New Orleans.
After completing the voyage to New Orleans, Lincoln returned to the small prairie town of New Salem. Interestingly, it was there that he met his first love and fiancé, Ann Rutledge. Lincoln also began his political career in New Salem.
In 1848, Lincoln served in the House of Representatives. On his way back to Illinois, the boat he was on beached on a sandbar. The captain ordered all hands to collect planks, barrels, and boxes, and force them under the sides of the boat. The items buoyed the vessel and eventually freed it from the sandbar. Along with his experience on the Sangamon, this event inspired Lincoln to invent something to help stranded boats.
Lincoln had a mechanically curious mind. While traveling the circuit as a lawyer, he would often find farm machines and tools to examine. He was fascinated with the intricacies and interactions of machinery. Combining this mechanical interest with his riverboat experiences, Lincoln set to work inventing a device to free beached vessels.
Lincoln called his invention “An Improved Method of Buoying Vessels Over Shoals.” His idea involved waterproof fabric bladders that could be inflated to, well, buoy stuck vessels over shoals. Accordion-shaped air chambers on the side of the boat would inflate the bladders when necessary. He built a scale model of a ship equipped with his invention to validate its design. However, it was never fitted to an actual ship.
On May 22, 1849, Congressman Abraham Lincoln became the holder of U.S. Patent No. 6,469. He remains the only U.S. President to be a patentee.
Feature image: Lincoln circa 1846 (Library of Congress)
The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom was the workhorse of the U.S. military during its operational lifetime. First introduced in 1961, it served the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force until the mid-1990s. There’s a reason the United States built more F-4s than any other supersonic aircraft.
F-4s were the go-to fighters over Vietnam, the only plane used by both the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels, and they’re still fighting – ISIS is just the latest victim of the F-4 Phantom.
It wasn’t the prettiest looking aircraft, a far cry from the sleek aerodynamic beauty possessed by the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Pilots and maintainers alike knew it was ugly, they even nicknamed it the “double ugly.” but those who flew the Phantom knew it was a reliable aircraft that could accelerate like nothing that came before it.
It was also easy to fly, according to many pilots. One problem for fighter pilots was its wide turning radius that could be a liability in a dogfight, but the Navy and the Air Force both gave instruction to pilots on how to beat enemy fighters that could make tighter turns, a testament to the ease of instruction.
For pilots and backseaters, the Phantom was designed to be less claustrophobic, using an improved canopy to increase in-flight visibility. It also had one of the most advanced radar systems available at the time.
It set an altitude record in 1959 when Navy Cmdr. Lawrence Flint Jr. managed to take it to 47,000 feet at Mach 2.5. He then climbed up at 45 degrees and shut down the engines to glide up to 98,557 feet. As he descended, he restarted the engines. That’s reliability.
When first introduced, the F-4 didn’t have mounted cannons, which, combined with some unreliable missiles, also made it difficult in air-to-air combat. But the F-4E variant was produced with a 20mm cannon on the chin of the aircraft, adding an extra dimension to the F-4’s capabilities in the air.
Even from the beginning, the F-4’s powerful J-79 engines meant it could produce 35,000 pounds of thrust, accelerating to twice the speed of sound even on its first flight. By 1962, it was setting time-to-climb records, flying to 29,500 feet in 61 seconds. In its first years of flight, the Navy and Air Force both set airspeed records – “Speed is life” became the motto of F-4 pilots.
Since it could be refueled mid-flight, it was used to fly across the United States in celebration for the 50th anniversary of naval aviation. Most of the Phantoms assigned to make the transcontinental flight made the trip in under three hours, but one made it in 2 hours and 47 minutes, earning the naval aviator and his radar intercept officer the coveted Bendix Trophy for transcontinental racing in 1961.
On April 9, 1965, the Navy scored the first F-4 aerial kill in combat against a Chinese-made MiG-17 over the skies of North Vietnam. The first aerial victory scored against an enemy fighter came on April 26, 1965, when an F-4 downed a North Vietnamese MiG-21. The U.S. military would be hooked on the Phantom for the next 30 years.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Kristin "BEO" Wolfe, F-35 Lightning II Demonstration Team commander and pilot, performs the "high-speed pass" maneuver at the 2020 Fort Lauderdale Air Show Nov. 22, 2020, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During this maneuver, the jet flies at approximately .95 mach, which is just below the speed of sound at approximately 728 miles per hour. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Kip Sumner).
As the United States reenters the realm of great power competition, America needs to maintain its technological edge in stealth, but would benefit from a renewed emphasis on speed in combat aviation… even at the expense of observability in some platforms.
For some, the above sentence will read like a ham-fisted oxymoron coming from a chump who doesn’t understand how air power works in the modern era. After all, the most potent threats on the horizon come from China and, to a lesser extent, Russia–both nations with advanced air defense capabilities that would make even the most capable fourth-generation fighters like the new F-15EX a pretty easy target.
The F-15EX is, quite literally, the fastest aircraft in Uncle Sam’s operational inventory, so one could argue that speed just isn’t what combat aviation is about anymore. In fact, that’s exactly what you’ll hear from most fighter pilots today. The F-35, for all its faults, is widely touted as perhaps the most capable tactical aircraft in history, despite being almost slow compared to Cold War powerhouses like the F-14 Tomcat. The F-35A can achieve speeds as high as Mach 1.6, while the F-35B and C are both limited to Mach 1.3–a speed they can only maintain for less than one minute. The long-retired Tomcat, on the other hand, could pass Mach 2.3 without breaking much of a sweat.
The truth of the matter is, in a high-end fight with a nation like China, the United States would be better off flying a fleet of slower F-35s than faster (and more easily targeted) F-14s… but that line of thinking isn’t accurate to the reality of America’s simmering conflict with China. Open and conventional war with China is extremely unlikely any time in the relative future, and while America needs to invest in the technology and a force structure that can deter such a fight even further, the Sino-American conflict is more likely to play out like a new Cold War in the decades to come. That means competing in the developing world, rather than in China’s backyard.
Finally, if a large-scale war were to break out, American pilots will need speed to effectively manage individual engagements as the conflict presses on. Sometimes, the best tactical decision a pilot can make is to “bug out,” or escape the area and an opponent’s advantage. That’s where speed, once again, becomes vital to survival.
Competition with China and Russia will take place in the developing world
Immediately after World War II, the United States and Soviet Union found themselves in a decades-long staring match that prompted huge investments in military capability across both nations. The goal was simple: build the platforms you’d need to win the third World War, and that alone may be enough deterrence to prevent it from starting. Both nations built fighters and bombers that could fly ever higher, ever faster, hoping to defeat burgeoning air defenses like the SR-71 could… by simply outrunning any missile you could shoot at it.
Let there be no doubt that this method of deterrence was effective, and in truth, the most potent weapon systems are those you never have to actually employ in order to achieve your geopolitical goals. But the unintentional side effect of developing more powerful nuclear weapons and more capable airpower platforms was an inability for American and Soviet forces to actually engage one another without bringing about the nuclear apocalypse.
In order to avoid that possibility, the United States and Soviet Union turned to partner nations and proxy forces, expanding influence and strategic leverage around the globe through overt diplomacy and covert military action and assistance. In some cases, partner or proxy forces supported by each respective nation would clash, leading to America’s involvement in conflicts like the Vietnam War. Terrible as these conflicts were, they were considered a tolerable alternative to nuclear winter as the world’s two superpowers tip-toed on the line of global conflict.
China, a nation that wields not only nuclear weapons but a vast amount of economic leverage and the largest naval force on the planet, is similarly positioned for a long and drawn-out staring contest with the United States. Not only would such a fight cripple both national militaries, but it would also neuter China’s ongoing plans for expanding its global influence, as well as create chaos throughout the global economy for decades to come.
China isn’t going to declare war on the United States any time soon… But China and the United States are going to continue to compete in practically every appreciable way, which includes establishing relationships in developing countries for the purposes of gaining access to strategic resources and ports. As luck (perhaps bad luck) would have it, the regions of the world that are most likely to have those very sorts of commodities on the market throughout the 21st century are often exactly where American and allied forces are already conducting counter violent extremists operations (Counter VEO): Africa and the Middle East.
But while America and its allies have been accumulating operational experience in these theaters, China hasn’t been sleeping. Despite China largely staying out of the Global War on Terror, it has been expanding its influence in these same regions via economic and infrastructure programs, including providing massive loans to developing nations that many suspect won’t be able to pay China back. China, it seems, would prefer they didn’t anyway–as the leverage defaulted loans would offer is more strategically valuable than paying interest on a loan could be.
“Right now you could say that any big project in African cities that is higher than three floors or roads that are longer than three kilometers are most likely being built and engineered by the Chinese. It is ubiquitous,” explained Daan Rogeveen, an author and expert on urbanization in China and Africa.
As a result, there’s an extremely high likelihood that the United States will find itself supporting proxy or partner forces in places like Africa and the Middle East. In fact, America already does. These forces will likely find themselves in direct competition with proxy or partner forces receiving support from China and Russia. The quagmire that is the ongoing conflict in Syria serves as a contemporary example of just how diverse foreign interests within a single nation can be, and just how dangerous operations in one can get.
America’s only dogfight in more than 20 years was in uncontested airspace against a 50-year-old jet
It’s worth noting that it was, in fact, over Syria that the United States scored its only air-to-air kill in literal decades in 2017, when a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet was forced to engage a Syrian Air Force Su-22 Fitter that was attacking partner forces on the ground.
This short fight also offered an important lesson about bridging the gap between longstanding airpower and the cutting-edge systems employed by the United States. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Tremel, the pilot in the Super Hornet, first locked onto the Soviet-era Su-22 with the one of the Navy’s latest and most advanced air-to-air weapons, the AIM-9X, but when he fired, the Fitter deployed flares and managed to fool what was previously considered to be the most capable air combat missile in service.
“It came off the rails quick,” Tremel said. “I lost the smoke trail and I had no idea what happened to the missile after that.”
Tremel then locked on once again with an older AIM-120 AMRAAM and fired, this time finding his target and turning the Su-22 into a fireball. While the Pentagon hasn’t offered an explanation as to why their newest missile failed to discern a real fighter from a bucket of flares, some experts have postulated that it may have been a result of the AIM-9X being too well-tuned to distinguish jets from the latest and most advanced flares employed by top-of-the-line 4th and 5th generation platforms. The Su-22 has been flying since 1966, and its dirty old flares weren’t something the AIM-9X expected to run into.
Sometimes, winning a fight isn’t about who fields the latest or most expensive technology. It’s about who fields the right technology for the right situation.
Detection isn’t a threat over the developing world. Distance is.
On October 4, 2017, a group of U.S. Army Green Berets and Nigerian soldiers was ambushed by fighters from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in Niger. The tragic firefight ended with four dead U.S. troops, five dead Nigerian soldiers, and some difficult questions about how the most highly trained warfighters in the world with support from the most powerful military in the world found themselves fighting through a tactical disadvantage without any air support close enough to make a difference.
In 2012, a coordinated attack against two separate U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya came with similarly painful lessons. When the dust settled, four Americans were dead, including two CIA contractors and the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. Like the ambush in Niger, air support for Americans in Libya was too far away to provide any meaningful assistance throughout the majority of the fight.
These two instances were outliers stretched across two decades worth of counter-extremist operations, but they both perfectly demonstrate the very real limitations of American airpower when it comes to distance. Public perception of American airpower is not always congruous with the realities of combat, an issue that extends all the way to partner forces. The assumption among most is that America has all-seeing aircraft flying overhead at all times… but that simply isn’t true.
“Unfortunately, public perception is driven sometimes by news coverage, but also by modern movies,” Dr. James Kiras explained about partner forces in a recent episode of The Irregular Warfare Podcast.
“And the idea that somehow we can’t maintain persistent coverage, that a cloud-for example-moving between you and a target could allow you to lose coverage for a critical period just seems completely inconceivable to them.”
The American people also tend to think that the United States has MQ-9 Reapers or armed F-15E Strike Eagles standing by within firing distance of every military operation–something that has been true to a large extent throughout the past two decades of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a “stack” of air support platforms are often standing by to engage the enemy. Now, however, as the U.S. repositions assets to better deter Chinese aggression, there will be fewer air platforms to go around in these regions.
At the same time, American special operations forces tasked with fighting or training proxy fighters for conflicts in Africa and the Middle East will be spread out further and operating with less support than ever before in the modern era. Without a new approach to air support, it’s a recipe for Niger or Benghazi-style disasters.
In order to provide real airpower where it’s needed, the United States doesn’t need a fleet of slow and stealthy F-35s standing by on airstrips across friendly African nations–it needs fast air platforms with great fuel range and loitering capabilities that can reach operators in need, provide air support as necessary, and still make it back to an airstrip.
America will also need less advanced platforms that can fly from austere airstrips and travel alongside special operations teams (the Armed Overwatch Program). There are no advanced air defenses to defeat or sneak past in places like Africa. The greatest challenge to overcome then is what’s commonly referred to as “the tyranny of distance.”
When isolated elements of American troops are caught at a disadvantage, waiting four hours or more to get an F-16 on station may require a miracle, but waiting more than twice that long for a slow-moving MQ-9 Reaper may be impossible. Worse still, once the fast-moving F-16 does reach the embattled troops, they usually only have about 30 minutes of fuel to burn before having to head back–once again leaving these isolated troops without air support.
Speed has already proven handy in combat in the uncontested airspaces of the Middle East. Two years ago, I interviewed Major “Coyote” Laney, a B-1B pilot instructor from the 28th Bomb Squadron, for Popular Mechanics. He told me a story about one air support mission he flew in which the supersonic bomber’s speed made all the difference.
“I remember in Afghanistan where troops needed help across the entire country and I could go 1.2 Mach all the way there and still have enough gas to hang out when I got there,” Laney explained.
“So you can take a platform that’s on the East side of Afghanistan and 15 or 20 minutes later, I’m showing up when there’s no one else for several hundred miles that could help.”
Of course, the B-1B Lancer is now slated for retirement, with the sub-sonic and stealthy B-21 Raider slated to replace it.
We need stealth to deter China, but we need speed and volume to counter them
We have a bad habit of treating these sorts of discussions like they’re all-or-nothing debates. When the Air Force requests funding for new F-15s, lawmakers and the public together cry foul at the idea of spending money on old jets that lack the stealth they’d need to survive a fight against China or Russia. Then, when the Air Force uses stealthy F-22s to conduct airstrikes against targets in uncontested airspace over places like Afghanistan, lawmakers and the public again cry foul over the high cost of using a stealth fighter for such a simple job. We can’t have it both ways, but we do need both jets.
America needs platforms like the F-35 and forthcoming Next Generation Air Dominance fighter to win the wars of tomorrow, and importantly, to deter them today, but we can’t let our American preference for only the newest and best platforms unduly influence the composition of our military forces. In a perfect world, the United States wouldn’t need any fighter jets. In an almost perfect world, the U.S. could afford to operate massive fleets of stealth fighters for each and every job. But in the decidedly imperfect world we live in, we’re often stuck choosing between capability and capacity. Do we want the best jets we can build or enough jets to meet our mission requirements?
While not exactly like the last Cold War, this new Sino-American Cold War possesses a similar capacity for proxy conflicts, and because these conflicts are likely to play out over the massive landmass of Africa as well as the Middle East, finding a way to get air support to far-flung troops quickly will undoubtedly save American lives.
But it won’t just be enough to field fast aircraft. They’ll also have to be cheap enough to be built in the sort of volume that would be required to overcome that tyranny of distance. With enough fast and cheap air support platforms spread throughout the continent, getting air support to special operations troops in Africa could shift from practically impossible to just another day at the office, or as close to that as one can come in combat.
Re-learning that dogfighting isn’t dead
While there’s a much higher likelihood that the United States will find itself supporting proxy or partner forces in the developing world with interests that run counter to China’s or Russia’s, there remains the possibility that this new “Cold War” could boil over into a hot one. The implications of such a conflict would be massive, and even attempting an analysis of just the air war that would unfold would take a book in itself–but as this discussion pertains to tactical aircraft and speed, this is another place the U.S. needs more power under the hood.
If you talk to most modern fighter pilots, they’ll tell you that the days of dogfighting are over, thanks to the development of over-the-horizon weapons and advanced sensor suites that will allow pilots in America’s most advanced jets to target inbound fighters before their pilots even know there’s trouble brewing.
Ward Carroll, famed journalist, author, and former U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) has heard the contemporary arguments about dogfights being a thing of the past and warns about making assumptions amid a decades-long era of uncontested flight operations, especially in aircraft that aren’t fast enough to escape a pursuing fighter.
“We get too liquored up on the technology and we start to forget what happens when it gets messy. You can run out of a squadron of F-35s in short order,” Carroll told Sandboxx News.
“I get F-35 guys who are like, ‘you just don’t get modern battles anymore.’ No, I think I do. I think you’re not remembering the lessons of serious roll your sleeves up, get your nose bloodied warfare.”
The idea that dogfighting is dead has been informed not only by two decades worth of counter-terror operations against enemy forces with no airpower, but it also carries an uncomfortable similarity to the line of thinking that dominated air war conversations leading into Vietnam. The U.S. believed the days of dogfighting in close quarters were over, so they fielded fast-moving F-4s armed with air-to-air missiles that weren’t nearly as effective as they were intended… and no guns for fighting in close quarters.
As a result, American aviators took a serious pounding from dated Soviet aircraft with tighter turn radiuses and guns.
“That was the biggest mistake on the F-4,” John Chesire, who flew 197 combat missions in the Phantom during two tours in Vietnam, told Air & Space Magazine.
“Bullets are cheap and tend to go where you aim them. I needed a gun, and I really wished I had one.”
Winning a dogfight might take speed. Escaping one almost always does.
While American F-86 Sabre fighter pilots racked up a kill-to-loss ratio of 10:1 in the Korean war, American dogfighting performance, due largely to assumptions about how combat had changed, diminished dramatically in Vietnam. In the first half of the Vietnam war, American pilots could manage an average of only 2 kills for every U.S. fighter downed. Those losses directly led to the formation of the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program that most of us know today as Top Gun, where a renewed emphasis was placed on dogfighting tactics.
Now, after another multi-decade lull in air combat, America’s aviation corps is once again certain about the future of the fight, but history begs that we hedge those bets. Ward Carroll recently published a YouTube video called “Dogfighting 101” wherein he argues that dogfighting may be absent in today’s combat environment, but it’ll come back in a hurry if a near-peer conflict were to unfold. I’ll set the video to start at that portion, but it’s really worth watching Carroll’s analysis in full.
If you aren’t able to give the video a watch, here’s what Carroll had to say about dogfighting being dead:
“I’m going to submit that dogfighting is not dead, because if you’ve ever been in a major exercise, not to mention, an air-to-air war like Desert Storm, then you know that, in the heat of battle, there’s confusion, there’s all kinds of chaos, and ultimately a bandit is going to sneak through and you’ll find yourself basically engaged one-on-one with the bad guys in an old school kind of way.”
Carroll doesn’t argue that American fighters are going to go looking for a chance to get up close and personal with China’s thrust-vectoring, stealth J-20B like some imagine when they picture dogfights. Instead, he reasonably expects that in a large force-on-force situation, the chaos of warfare is going to create the circumstances for these kinds of one-on-one engagements to occur.
Carroll’s argument seems to hold true when you look at the breakdown of the early days of the air war of Desert Storm. The Coalition Forces brought a massive amount of airpower to bear over Iraq in those first days of the conflict, but despite the sheer volume of airframes in the fight, a number of small dogfights broke out and, had there not been plenty of support in the area, many more could have.
You can see exactly what Carroll predicts in this breakdown from The Operations Room. The value of speed and maneuverability when within visual range is also evident in the video. Once again, I’ll start the video at the pertinent point, but it’s worth watching this in its entirety:
What does all this have to do with speed? It’s certainly of use in a dogfight, but speed is also extremely important when it comes to getting out of a dogfight. Even the most advanced stealth platforms aren’t invisible, and if an F-35 found itself squaring off with a J-20B in a one-on-one situation, it’s feasible that the Chinese fighter could have the advantage through surprise or the roll of the combat dice.
In either regard, it would be in the F-35 pilot’s best interest to bug out and get away from that fight, or at least, to create enough separation to gain an advantage he or she could then press in turn. Unfortunately, the F-35 wouldn’t be fast enough to escape a J-20 if a pilot tried, so he or she would just be giving the Chinese jet a perfect opportunity. What’s worse is that, at this range, the F-35’s opponent wouldn’t even have to be a stealth aircraft itself.
“Stealth doesn’t work against bullets,” Carroll told Sandboxx News.
“We have multi-axis missiles now where I can shoot you behind my three-nine line [behind my aircraft]. Okay, but once you Winchester, meaning run out of those weapons, and you’re now in the visual arena, then none of your [stealth] defensives are working. And now you have an airplane that can barely go supersonic. So, welcome to getting shot down.”
When we’re talking about fighters squaring off with one another, stealth is extremely valuable, but in a large-scale fight with hundreds of jets in the area, speed clearly counts too.
How do you build a force that balances cost, speed, and technology?
The Air Force purchasing new F-15EXs isn’t going to solve this problem. Not only do these new fighters cost around as much as an F-35 to build (despite offering significantly more service life), the new (old) fighters the Air Force receives are already slated to replace existing F-15s that are aging out of service. While they do offer greater capability than their predecessors, each jet can still only be in one place at a time.
“We’ve got to refresh the F-15C fleet because I can’t afford to not have that capacity to do the job and the missions,” now-retired General David Goldfein said in 2019.
“That’s what this is all about. If we’re refreshing the F-15C fleet, as we’re building up the F-35 fleet, this is not about any kind of a trade.”
SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch program promises to alleviate some of this need by fielding a small and inexpensive aircraft that can provide ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and direct air support to special operators. These planes are expected to operate from austere airfields with support from a very small group of maintainers. Effectively, SOCOM wants a simple aircraft that can live with the troops in the vein of the OV-10 Bronco of Vietnam fame, but with advanced ISR capabilities usually only found in technological marvels that need airstrips and facilities to operate. It’s a tall order, but fielding such an aircraft would make the sorts of special operations skirmishes that are sure to litter the coming decades far more survivable.
Despite America’s massive military budget, resource and asset scarcity remains an ongoing challenge. The MQ-9 Reaper, for instance, is the most highly requested air asset among ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with only 280 of these remotely piloted aircraft to go around, the Air Force will have to choose between continuing to support the full breadth of combat operations in the Middle East or transitioning platforms to the Pacific where a more potent deterrent maritime force is increasingly necessary.
The truth is, even after the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, the U.S. military can’t completely withdraw from the Middle East and will likely need to place a larger emphasis on Africa moving forward. There are only so many air platforms to go around, especially at modern fighter jet prices of around $100 million per aircraft. In effect, America is going to be stuck fighting its old wars for some time, while adding new conflicts and new tensions elsewhere around the globe. In order to do it all, America needs more platforms without increasing defense spending in a massive way.
That may be feasible through attritable programs like Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie. The Valkyrie is a low-observable UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) capable of carrying two small diameter bombs and covering more than 2,000 miles before refueling. What makes the Valkyrie special isn’t its payload or range capabilities though, it’s the cost. At just $2-3 million per airframe, the XQ-58 costs only slightly more than a single Tomahawk cruise missile.
The Valkyrie lacks the speed that would be necessary to cover the vast distances between units that we can expect in Africa and the Middle East in the coming years, with a top end of around 650 miles per hour (Mach 0.85), but the attritable premise coupled with more power could prove to be just what the doctor ordered. Valkyries have already been launched from stationary platforms using rockets, which would mean that these types of drones could be deployed from places that don’t even have airstrips, and they’re cheap enough that losing a few in a fight won’t give a commander pause.
As for the high-end fight, America’s forthcoming NGAD program, under development with both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, is expected to produce a family of systems that can effectively counter the most advanced fighters on the planet like the J-20B or SU-57 without breaking a sweat. This platform will hopefully incorporate a return to emphasizing speed as well as stealth, with fuel range serving as yet another essential facet of military aviation America needs to address.
It’s going to take new platforms to counter the full spectrum of threats nations like China pose in the 21st century, and these planes can’t take decades to go from the drawing board to production as the F-35 has. In many places, they won’t need to be stealth, nor is there a requirement for a human on board, but one thing they will need to overcome the tyranny of distance and protect American lives is speed.