February 3, 2016

US 5th Generation and UCAV Fighter Issues - Fighting Chinese Hordes

If Su-35s (with long range air to air missiles) become widely available to the Russian and Chinese air forces they may cause headaches to the limited numbers of F-22s (but F-35s and 3rd/4th generation Western fighters will help). See much larger image.

In Comments for a January 2016 Submarine Matters article Anonymous provided a large number of links and comments January 27-30, 2016. I’ve selected parts and made the odd comment in [...] brackets:

For the F-22, the fact that it's available in only limited numbers will be a problem if we have to fight multiple wars simultaneously, or if we get into a conflict with a power such as China, which can field overwhelming numbers of aircraft. [however China has only modest numbers of modern jet fighters compared to the F-16s, F-15s and other 4th generation Western fighters and many F-35s on the way].

See http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2014/11/05/is_a_missile_truck_the_solution_to_one_of_the_scariest_wargames_ever__107528.html :

"[The RAND study] analyzed a U.S.-China air war over Taiwan made the bold  assumption that every air-to-air missile fired from a U.S. F-22 hit a  Chinese fighter (100 percent kill rate) and that every Chinese missile  missed the U.S. F-22s (0 percent kill rate). In their simulation, the  United States still lost the fight. The F-22s ran out of missiles and the  Chinese fighters were able to go after vulnerable tankers and command and  control aircraft. A far more detailed simulation the following year  showed the same results. Even though U.S. F-22s were pegged with a 27-to-1 qualitative advantage over Chinese fighters, their diminished numbers and  the fact that they had to fight from long range meant the Chinese had  vastly superior numbers and won the fight."

Hence, the interest in "missile trucks" which can provide fire support for the limited number of available F-22s. An early example of this concept was the proposed B-1R:

The shelved B-1R "missile truck" concept.

When it became clear the B-1R wasn't going to be built, the use of longer-ranged missiles on the existing B-1s was considered:

"One of the recommendations by RAND in its latest study on Chinese air power, is to arm the B-1 bomber with 20 or more Patriot or SM-2 missiles in air-to- air role to engage Chinese fighters during a conflict in Taiwan. This strategy will allow the USAF to engage a large number of Chinese  fighters beyond the range of their missiles and disengage before any survivors can react."

"As part of the Air-Sea Battle Concept, the LRS-B could act as a large  missile platform working in concert with the F-22 and F35. Both smaller  aircraft have limited internal bay capability and limited range. Upon  confronting enemy air defenses during interdiction and anti-fleet  operations, the smaller aircraft could act as spotters while a LRS-B  defeats the initial wave of interceptors with air-to-air missiles,  allowing the F-35 and F-22s to retain their weapons and carry a larger  amount of strike weaponry."

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) are also being considered for the missile truck role, especially by the Navy, since UCAVs can be launched fromcarriers, while the LRS-B cannot:

It all sounds nice. But there's a problem! That problem is; the proliferation of stealth technology.

In addition to the Indo-Russian Stealth fighter effort the Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans, and even the Turks are working on their own Stealth designs.

Some of these projects will implode when it's discovered just how difficult and expensive it is to build a stealth aircraft.

But eventually, air battles will increasingly feature stealth fighters on both sides, which will shorten detection ranges and increase the chance of a close-in dogfight. This will deny us the luxury of showering our foes with long range AMRAAM shots before they get close.

Once that happens, the F-35, with it's poor dogfight performance, will be in trouble, but then again, so will everyone else, since all these new fighters will have helmet-mounted sights linked to all-aspect InfraRed Air to Air Missiles (IR AAMs) with high off-boresight capability. This will cause loss rates to approach 1:1 no matter what kind of fancy stealth tech the fighters have.

Of course other technologies, such as lasers and AI, will also affect the situation, but it's too soon to determine exactly how.

As for the shape of future air battles, the only certainty is uncertainty.

An August 2015 youtube of the French Dassault Neuron UCAV. Competition for US X-47 project?

The following is all from Pete:

Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) 

"The Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) represents a more advanced and deadlier offshoot of the tried-and-true Unmanned Aerial Vehicle aircraft group." See examples.

The Northrop-Grumman X-47B may be the most developed multi-role UCAV so far, but much more development is required. A related project was the Boeing X-45 UCAV.

The General Atomics Reaper can be seen as the most developed and used ground attack UAV-UCAV. 

The Boeing X-37 "Spaceplane" can be seen as highly mobile "surprise" spy satellite and potentially a bomber.

An artist’s conception of Boeing’s UCAV-UCLASS which could perhaps first be used in the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) role. (Courtesy US Naval Institute)
The US Naval Institute (Feb 2, 2016) reported a use for 6th generation UCAVs in a more immediate timeframe:

“The Navy’s [carrier launched UCAVs called] Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) effort is being retooled as primarily a carrier-based unmanned aerial refueling platform — one of several Pentagon directed naval aviation mandates in the service’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget submission.

The shift from UCLASS to the new Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) will be made alongside an additional buy of Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets over the next several years and accelerated purchases and development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).”

Developing the F-35s and introducing UCAVs is a big ask for the large but tight US defense budget. 

LRS-B or perhaps closer F-35 lead disposable UCAVs, such as the Predator C - Avengers (above) may be practicle in the late 2020s.  This is called "bot herding". Good for contested air space? 

Anonymous and Pete


Josh said...

Having a peer opponent deploy low RCS aircraft will change the equation, but so far they are making some progress on their first design while the US has retired a generation of stealth aircraft and arguably is on its 3rd generation.

If we get to the point where stealth aircraft have to close with each other and engage with WVR missiles its likely that the F-35s maneuverability won't be a major liability for two reasons.

First, if the competition is the J-20 or J-31, there is no reason to believe either of these platforms will be more maneuverable. The later is a very large aircraft that likely has an interceptor or fighter bomber role - it seems unlikely it can match the acceleration or maneuverability of F-35 even with Russian engines. The latter perhaps could be a capable fighter but currently PRC engine technology lags such that this is definitely not true in the case of the demostrator. This gap may close but from the get go PRC stealth aircraft start at a deficiency, not an advantage. PAK-FA likely is far more maneuverable, but its future seems somewhat in doubt and its avionics and RCS characteristics seem somewhat questionable at this time.

The second thing worth noting is that WVR fighting has become far more destructive. The shift from tail chasing IR to all aspect IR meant that a merge between two sets of aircraft aware of each other could easily end in heavy casualties on both sides in the first pass. We've now reached the point where helmet cued, high off boresite, 60G IIR missiles are capable of making most of the frontal 180 degrees of a fighter a no escape zone. The F-35 potentially takes this one step further with helmet cueing and DAS covering 360 degrees - potentially a AIM-9X block 2 missile could be datalink guided toward a target directly behind the aircraft and lock on after launch. The missile obviously pays penalties in range and maneuverability when it drastically diverges from the flight path, but never the less 'the merge' is likely to be a deadly place for any aircraft regardless of the degree of maneuverability. If WVR IR sensors and missiles perform anything like their manufacturers claim, it seems like a 'dogfight' will likely be a one turn affair or just a question of which aircraft locks on to the other more quickly in the first pass.

Its also worth pointing out it seems likely that airborne directed energy weapons will change air combat yet again before China or Russia can match the US in stealth fighter deployment:


Josh said...

I couldn't find a link to the original RAND study concerning the defense of Taiwan, but I think I've rad it and it made the assumption that Anderson AFB was the jump off point for the F-22 effort. This is indeed a completely unsustainable situation for the USAF - Guam is >1500 miles from Taiwan and sortie rates suffer accordingly. China on the other hand has two dozen air bases within 500 miles of Taiwan. Achieving air superiority would require the use of more local air bases or the use of CSGs inside or immediately outside the first island chain.

It is however worth noting that the PLA-AF is limited in where it can concentrate is large fighter strength. They largely lack tanking assets - an unknown number of H-6 (Tu-16 clone) have been converted to tankers, but their numbers seem in the couple dozen and their payload is far smaller than even the venerable KC-135 (on the order of 20k pounds). Compare this to USAF fighters which rarely sortie without tanking at least once. Then add in the organization necessary to make a large group of aircraft arrive at one point in time from bases of varying distance - call it a time on target exercise - and you can see that while the PRC might be able to keep a steady stream of aircraft over a particular point near its borders, its ability to focus a truly massive number of aircraft at one point in time and space is much more limited than what it appears on paper. This will ultimately change when the Y-20 tanker version enters service. No such prototype is known to exist but the need is there and the Y-20 is the only airframe in production that could fill the role.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if the Predator C is cheap enough to be considered disposable.

Remember that we've used disposable UAVs in the past:


They were used during Operation Desert Storm to "encourage" the Iraqis to light up their SAM site radars so that they could be attacked by anti-radar missiles.

Such decoy UAVs are still being produced:


Though, with the new MALDs, the Pentagon is going beyond just using them as decoys by fitting some of them out with jamming devices (see the above link for the details).

Now DARPA wants to push the concept even farther, using "Gremlin" drones:


These would be cheaper and more expendable than Predator C.

They might even be deployed from flying Drone carriers:


USS Akron and USS Macon may be gone, but the "flying aircraft carrier" concept lives on! :)

Anonymous said...

The future may point to much bigger stealth fighters. Bigger fighters because you need bigger and much more powerful to detect another stealth fighters at longer range, because that is the only way you can carry many long range AAM inside the plane's belly and so you cannot be detected at long range by VHF radars that work in the 1-2 meters wavelength. Bigger so you can carry defensive weapons like laser, and bigger so you can cover great distances (in the Pacific theater). That points to a different future than an F-35 size fighter. Besides stealth materials do have a weight penalty so the plane cannot be too small or it suffers on the thrust to weight ratio as the F-35 does when compared with the F-22.
An alternative for even F-35 and 4th generation fighters is the stealthy external weapon pod that can carry 4 AMRAAMs inside. A Super Hornet with 3 such pods and conformal fuel tanks (to eliminate dead spots for the jammers) can be a viable solution near term.
Stealth also means long range IRST will become a must have capability and AAM seekers will likely evolve to dual modes, IR and active radar homing.
And there will be a proliferation of air launched decoys that can act as jammers, snifflers like the MALD-J with its 500nm range that can be carried by Super Hornets. The future will see MALD-J like UCAVs armed with AAMs.

Josh said...

Regarding the missile truck concept - I doubt a new aircraft will be developed for this role, even unmanned, for budgetary reasons. Two more convenient choices are 1). use legacy fighters with heavy AAM loads or 2). have some F-35s with the same. F-35/15/18 can carry as many as a dozen AAMs if drop tanks are sacrificed. F-35s in a 'clean' configuration can operate further forward to gather information and disrupting formations with their AAM fire, with the follow on external ordnance carriers engaging disrupted formations with degraded situational awareness.

Anonymous said...

Missile truck, meet Arsenal Plane:



"By integrating an arsenal ship into America’s air-to-air combat doctrine, larger
missiles with huge ranges, and many more missiles than what fighters can currently
carry into battle, along with persistent data-fusion can be attained. Just a single B-1
arsenal ship could drastically increase the situational awareness and especially the
magazine of a counter-air combat package."

Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous [4/2/16 3:11 PM]

Some spanners in the Arsenal Plane works are that the Arsenal Plane was ideal for the target rich, low contested, low concern for civilians situations 2001-2005 but far less since:

1. concern for the danger of civilian casaulties now means even smaller bombload jets, like Super Hornets, are increasingly not finding targets for their ordinance, over Syria, Iraq (Afghanistan?).

2. If its a more contested environment then Russia Forces (or Russia selling to China, Iran and others) has long-range SAMs that can shoot down Arsenal Planes

3. If B-52 or B-1 Arsenal Planes are viable is it just a political will to accept civilian casualties problem rather than ordinance-can-do?

4. Aren't Reaper UAVs, with JDAMs and Hellfires, de facto loitering Arsenal Planes?



Anonymous said...

In the conventional bombing role, B52 and B1 are already bomb trucks. In Iraq, B1 is becoming a darling for air support largely due to its persistence on station.

As a stand off missile truck, either for long range air to ground or air to air delivery, I do believe there is a place for an arsenal plane until bigger size 6th generation fighter (see Northrop concept) comes along. B52 are already missile trucks as so far as JASSM-ER and Tomahawks are concerned. These arsenal planes will launch their payloads beyond 400km which is the maximum range of the S-400 40N6 SAM.

An F15 with 16 AIM-120D or an F/A-18 with 12 AIM-120D is likely insufficient because the AIM-120D 200km reach is not far enough. Folks are talking about putting SM-6 into arsenal planes. An SM-6 launched from a Burke destroyer already has a range of 240km so when it is launched from 30000 feet, the range will likely be > 400km.

The weakness of an arsenal plane is that Russia can easily copy cat the same. They already have the 400km R-37 which they can load into their TU-160 White Swan. The TU-160 is supersonic so it clearly will provide better kinetic energy than say a B-1.

Peter Coates said...

Hi KQN [4/2/16 11:06PM]

All your points may be on the mark.

It makes sense for B1 "bomb trucks" to be utilised. This will also help justify the LRS-B program.

This looks interesting http://breakingdefense.com/2015/04/should-future-fighter-be-like-a-bomber-groundbreaking-csba-study/