01 January 2012

Recent Military Developments

It has been a while since I've given military affairs extended coverage. There were two big developments in 2011. First, the military is finally coming to terms with the reality that its mission includes counterinsurgency missions and procuring technology accordingly. Secondly, drones are dramatically transforming the mix of U.S. military weapons systems squeezing out manned aircraft in particular, which have grown absurdly expensive.

Air Force Chooses COIN aircraft

[T]he Air Force has selected Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano as the Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft, better known as a counterinsurgency (COIN) plane.

The air service is buying 20 Super Ts . . . for $355 million. . . a couple of years ago the Air Force planned to buy dozens of cheap, turboprop-driven COIN aircraft that could be used to provide light air support and ISR for troops fighting insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The planes were supposed to take the burden for such unglamorous missions off of jet fighters like the F-16, which cost far more to operate. . . . shrinking defense budgets forced the air service to dramatically reduce the program. Now, the service will use the small fleet of turboprop planes to help build up the nascent Afghan air force, and “other nations.” . . . “The A-29 Super Tucano will be used to conduct advanced flight training, aerial reconnaissance and light air support operations,” . . . Hawker Becchcraft’s AT-6B, Embraer’s rival in the . . . contest, was booted from the competition . . . The only question was whether the service would even buy the little planes.

From here

At about $17 million each one can buy seven SuperTacanos for the cost of one F-35.

F-18 Claimed To Have Counterstealth Capability

China and Russia have both claimed that they are about to start producing stealth fighters similar to those of the U.S. military, and Japan is working on one to enter service in 2014-2015. But, the manufacturer of the F-18 claims that its F-18s "active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar — and it’s ability to jam enemy radars and electronic countermeasures — combined with the jet’s infrared search and track (IRST) system" can beat these stealth planes, a claim which has a whiff of credibility because "a Navy EA-18G Growler electronic attack jet did score a fake kill against a Raptor a couple of years ago." But, there is good reason to doubt that their claims related to planes that don't have full electronic warfare suites are more than marketing hype designed to try to convince Japan to buy these planes instead of F-22s or F-35s.

From here.

Japan, however, appears to have already decided to by F-35s instead to replace aging F-4s and F-15s. The F-18 and a European fighter design had competed for the contract.

China Launches A New Tank, But Who Cares?

China has unveiled its latest tank model. But, this development probably doesn't matter much. The tanks are no more capable of deploying rapidly to our allies in Japan or Taiwan or the Philippines. The tanks would have to cross North Korea and the DMZ (arguably no other border in the world has such effective man made anti-tank defenses) before they could arrive in South Korea. Would be insurgents in China are no more able to challenge the old tanks by force of arms than they will be able to challenge the new tanks. The small but contentious India-China border is too mountainous to use them, and even if China could seize some of Siberia from Russia with its tanks, it is hard to see how it could ever hold that territory for any length of time (or visa versa). The Vietnam War, if it proved anything, established that the jungles of Southeast Asia are ill suited for heavy tank warfare.

As a comment to the post at Defense Tech suitable asked:

The question here that begs asking is why?

Who are the potential foes that China expects to use there vehicles against?

These are not anti tank vehicles that could match up with Russian T-90's very well or even Vietnamese T-72's. China doesn't have the amphibious capacity to move them to Taiwan where they would me greeted by US M-60's.

It would see that the only place such a vehicle could be used is in civil unrest with in China's borders. These vehicles are a strong indicator that China still fears internal unrest more the any external threats. These vehicle would fit well into the TO&E of the PAP.

Byron Skinner

Mongolia and North Korea probably have more to fear from this development than anyone else, and neither of them could have mounted a credible threat to China, which so towers over each of them in scale.

North Korea used to be a client state of China that saw China's military might as backup to its own military capabilities against Western threats, but in recent years, Kim Jong Il alienated himself from an increasingly reformed China as well and it isn't clear what will happen to North Korea's relations with China now that he's gone.

Mongolia had been more under the Soviet Union's wing than China's and has Westernized more than the various "'stans" in the post-Soviet era. Mongolia isn't a threat to China and would buy it a new and capable insurgency, but it isn't clear that there is any nation in the world, the United States included, that would be willing and able to enter into armed conflict with China to defend Mongolia's sovereign prerogatives.

China's first aircraft carrier has entered service, works, and is somewhat more of a concern. China has claimed it will be used mostly for disaster relief and aid missions, but military speculation

China may also have twice as many nuclear missiles as previously estimated in underground bunkers.

On the other hand, China's economy is gradually become a more market based one, its relations with Taiwan are thawing, it has liberalized its political system to allow for free non-partisan elections at the local level in many places, and it is significantly curtailing its use of the death penalty which it uses more heavily than any non-Islamic country in the world.

F-35s cost $130 million each in early phase mass production

he Pentagon just gave Lockheed Martin a $4 billion contract for 30 early production model F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The batch of planes . . . was originally supposed to include 35 jets. However, the Pentagon cut the deal to 30 aircraft due to cost increases and delays in the fighter’s development program. The Air Force gets 21 F-35As, the Navy gets six F-35C carrier variant jets and the Marines will get three F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) jets.

When Congress approved the F-35 program, the projected price was about $35 million a plane and the low cost of the proposed F-35 relative to the F-22 was one of its main selling points. Now, the F-35 will cost almost as much per plane as they F-22 did, particularly relative to its late phase production marginal costs.

At a full run of 187 planes the F-22 ended up costing $332 million each, including $153 million each in production costs as opposed to R&D costs, and they cost $44,000 per hour to fly compared to $30,000 per hour for an F-15 and nearly twice the cost of an F-16. A new round of upgrades for the six year old planes will cost $39 million each. No F-22s were used in Libya, despite the fact that the mission there was the one it was designed for, they have not been used in any meaningful frequency in Iraq or Afghanistan, and a few have crashed in non-combat operations, temporarily shutting down the fleet at times. The original plan had been to buy 750 of them. The F-35s will be cheaper to maintain than F-22s due to a different stealth technology, but the cost of maintaining F-35s is still unclear and it will clearly be much more than the cost of maintaining armed drone aircraft that are also more expendable.

From here

New Drones Enter The Ranks

The U.S. Army has three drone spy helicopters in Afghanistan. The U.S. Marine Corps is using drone cargo helicopters called K-MAX to resupply troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army is about to deploy four drone ground vehicles on a trial in Afghanistan as well:

Lockheed’s robo jeep, the Squad Mission Support System. The Army plans to test out how well the little trucks — that, like the K-MAX, can accommodate a human driver if needed — can haul troops heaviest gear for them on foot patrols. The 11-foot trucks can carry half a ton of supplies for 125-miles. They even fit inside a CH-53 and CH-47 helos, allowing them to be airlifted to the most remote patrol bases. This could be the first step toward a fleet of unmanned trucks that ferry supplies along dangerous routes.

They are better described as six wheeled drone ATVs than jeeps, and are a later version of the unmanned ground vehicle called the mule, which aptly captures its mission. Early reports are that noise problems have been a deal breaker for troops asked to deploy it for its intended use as a patrol support vehicle.

The U.S. Navy has come up with a way to launch an aerial Army drone from the trash chute of one of its submarines.

The U.S. Air Force is testing and new and improved armed drone aircraft similar to the ones that have been used by the CIA to launch missile strikes in Pakistan until several dozen Pakistani soldiers in Pakistan were recently killed by a U.S. airstrike.

Drones are not invulnerable, however, and Iran captured a U.S. flying wing model RQ-170 spy drone late last year. The development lacked the punch of a Russian capture of a U.S. U-2 spy plane during the early years of the Cold War, proof again, of the emotional and political benefits of drone warfare, in addition to any military capabilities that they might add. Drones don't give rise to hostage dramas.

The year 2011 was the year that armed drone warfare took off:

Two months ago, the U.S. MQ-1 Predator UAV fleet hit a million hours in the air. Over 20 percent of those hours were flown this year. The Predator replacement, the MQ-9 Reaper, has flown nearly 250,000 hours so far. America's large UAVs (MQ-1, MQ-1C, MQ-9, RQ-4, and RQ-170) flew some 400,000 hours this year. That's compared to 300,000 hours last year, 185,000 hours in 2009, and 151,000 hours in 2008. It took 12 years of service (1995-2007, including development) for the MQ-1 Predator alone to reach its first 250,000 hours. It took another two years (2007-2009) to fly an additional 250,000 hours (500,000 total). It took less than a year to reach another 250,000 hour milestone (Spring 2010).

So far, between the air force and CIA (a major operator of UAVs over Pakistan and other places) there are 500 MQ-1 and MQ-9s built or on order. Some 20 percent of these have been lost to accidents. Fourteen were lost that way this year. . . . The U.S. Air Force has ordered nearly fifty MQ-9 Reaper UAVs this year. Each of the new MQ-9s will cost about $6.2 million each. The price more than doubles as sensors, fire control, and communications gear is added. . . . The air force has over 70 MQ-9s in service and the new orders will take about a year to complete. The air force wants to buy another 200 before replacing the MQ-9 . . . The MQ-1 Predator is being replaced by the MQ-9 and the last USAF MQ-1 was built last year. The total USAF fleet of MQ-1s and MQ-9s consists of over 250 UAVs. By the end of the decade, the army and air force will have over a thousand of these large, armed, UAVs.

The MQ-1 Predator UAV has evolved into a family of three aircraft. The original Predator is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters (27 feet) long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters (49 feet). It has a hard point under each wing, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Each hard point can also carry a Stinger air-to-air missile. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 m (25,000 feet). Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour and max endurance is 15 hours. . . .

The U.S. Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle weighs 1.5 tons, carries 136 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227 kg of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Gray Eagle has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator).

The Navy is actively developing the X-47, an experimental flying wing stealth drone combat aircraft that can deploy from aircraft carriers and carrier takeoff landing and takeoff tests will continue in 2012. These would cost about $50 million each and could be financed with reduced buys of F-35s.

Israeli Covert Ops In Iran?

There were two massive explosions at Iranian nuclear facilities within two weeks of each other in Iran in late November and early December, and a leak from an Israeli intelligence officer to a British paper said that this was "no accident" and were, by implication, the work of saboteurs, either Israeli employed or simply saboteurs known to the Israelis via another intelligence agency. Then again, maybe Iran is just bad at maintain safety standards in its secret labs.

Missile Defense Tech

The U.S. is investing money in Israeli R&D efforts to build a successor anti-missile missile system to the Patriot anti-missile missile system used to dramatic effect in the Iraq War.

After sixteen years and $5 billion spent trying to develop a Boeing 747 based laser gun that could shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, the U.S. Air Force has shut down the project indefinitely because they couldn't make it work without technology that is too far off to make work right now. By default, this leaves the U.S. Navy, whose anti-missile missile tests have been more successful as the service responsible for developing a missile defense system for the United States.

Insurgency Persists In Russia

Insurgencies in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan within Russia are alive in well, have considerable popular support and are produce a thousand deaths a year. "When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 the population was over 25 percent larger and a third was" non-Muslim. "But two decades of violence, mainly in Chechnya, has driven the" non-Muslim "out." There are perhaps a thousand rebels in arms, but the insurgency has thus far managed to replace its losses with new recruits. Local autonomy provided after the break up of the Soviet Union was been largely revoked by the Russian government.

Larger M-4/M-16 Assault Rifle Bullet Developed

The U.S. is exploring the possibility of a 7.62mm bullet alternative to the current 5.56mm round used in the U.S. military's main assault rifle, the M-16, and its derivative carbine, the M-4. A previous experiment with a 6.8mm round didn't win enough support to be widely adopted and it isn't clear if this effort will go very far either despite widespread rank and file complaints that the current round doesn't pack enough punch.

Longer ranges in gun fights in Afghanistan where the Afghans use Soviet era AK-47 rifles with 7.62mm rounds, when this is the only hot military conflict in which the U.S. is a party, now that it has left Iraq and the Libyan conflict is over, may also be playing a part in the decision. At longer ranges, superior U.S. marksmanship training and firearms quality has given U.S. an edge in firefights there, as is a general doctrinal shift in the training of U.S. soldiers to focus more on marksmanship at long ranges by a larger proportion of the force than specialized snipers alone. The declining relevance of NATO with the end of the Cold War may also be a factor. One of the important consideration that went into the adoption of the 5.56mm was conformity with the NATO standard, and another important factor was research that disclosed that most firefights with assault rifles actually took place at ranges of 100 meters or less despite their much longer ranges, due to ambush situations and limitations on identifying opposing individuals as enemies. Also, at the time the 5.56mm round was implemented, more NATO troops were conscripts with little experience for whom a greater kickback from a heavier round was a greater concern than it is now when the U.S. has no conscripts and its allies are moving towards more heavily volunteer and professionalized armed forces.

Russia Upgrades Nuclear Missile Submarines; Indonesia Gets Subs

Russia has successfully put into service a new class of nuclear missile submarines symbolically ending decades of stagnation in Russian Naval Procurement and overcoming the blow the Russian navy took to its confidence from several high profile deadly R&D stage accidents in its development.

South Korea is selling three of its homemade coastal diesel submarines to Indonesia. This is one of South Korea's first big ticket military system sales to a foreign country.

Sea King Mostly Retired

The Australian and U.S. Navies have retired the 1950s era UH-3H Sea King helicopter from their fleets, although the U.S. Marines still have a few. Its main missions had been anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue. Most have been replaced by the UH-60 Blackhawk designed to replace the contemporaneous UH-1 Huey, and its Navy counterpart.

France Played A Big Role In Libya

Self-absorbed Americans weren't very aware of it, but France played a major role in the Western military intervention in Libya, largely via the aircraft carrier it deployed to the theater, the Charles de Gaulle.

Old Strykers Phased Out

The Army is sending MRAPS that carry have as many people as old flat bottomed Strykers, are similarly armed and more resistant to IEDs to Afghanistan, because Strykers are too vulnerable to IEDs. The Army sees it as a stopgap until a mine resistant V shaped hull version of the Stryker can be produced in large enough numbers.

The U.S. Army is sending a Stryker brigade to Afghanistan without their Stryker armored vehicles. Instead of their 19 ton Strykers, that carry 11 troops, they will be using 15 ton M-ATV armored trucks, which carry up to five troops each. The reason for this is that the M-ATV provides more protection from roadside bombs. . . .

[E]ach Stryker and M-RAP has a single remotely controlled machine-gun turret atop it. . .

The M-ATV (MRAP-All Terrain Vehicle) is a 15 ton, 4x4 (with independent wheel suspension) armored vehicle. Payload is 1.8 tons, and it can carry five passengers (including a gunner). Top speed is 105 kilometers an hour, and range on internal fuel is 515 kilometers [about the same as a Stryker]. The M-ATV is slightly larger than a hummer. . . .

[A]ll other MRAPs are, after all, just heavy trucks. . . prone to flipping over easily. They are also large vehicles, causing maneuverability problems when going through narrow streets. . . . [are] underpowered for their size. And . . . are not very good at cross country movement . . . The M-ATV was designed to deal with all of these problems. Each M-ATV costs $1.4 million.

Each Stryker brigade has 332 Stryker vehicles. . . . most are the infantry carrier version. The current model Stryker costs about two million dollars each. . . . Stryker has a crew of two, a turret with a remotely controlled 12.7mm machine-gun and can carry nine troops. A 7.62mm machine-gun is also carried, and often another 12.7mm one as well.

There is a new Stryker, with a V shaped hull. . . . to protect itself from bombs. Unfortunately there are only enough of the Stryker Vs for one brigade, and not enough for all the Stryker units needed in Afghanistan. There are about 20,000 MRAPs (including 6,500 M-ATVs) in Afghanistan.

From here.

The Stryker itself was a interim solution to the problem that the U.S. Army lacked adequate armored personnel carriers light enough and small enough to be carried by a C-130 transport plane. It is in some ways best viewed as a more mobile version of the M-2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. A C-130 transportable lighter multiple rocket launcher (HIMARS) was also developed at about the same time and about a thousand guided missiles from that system have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This was necessary because the Air Force has many hundreds (if not a few thousand) C-130s, but fewer than a hundred C-17s, the only Air Force plane capable of carrying tanks and Bradleys that can land on a field air strip. As a result, most heavier vehicles have to be delivered by boat or rail, and many non-U.S. rail and road bridges collapse under the weight of the heavier vehicles which also consume immense amount of fuel relative to a Stryker (about five or ten times as much per mile) that have to be delivered to forward bases as part of the military supply line.

The other issue is overkill. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops have faced troops with no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no self-propelled artillery, no armored personnel carriers, no large howitzers, no drones, no purpose built anti-aircraft guns, no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, few heavier anti-tank missiles, no man made bunkers, and in general, just about nothing so large that it can't be carried in a jeep and only a small proportion of insurgents who have high levels of military training. The capabilities of M-1 tanks and M-2 Bradleys that were designed to deal with "near peer" opponents like the Soviet Union that drive up their weight don't add much value against opponents who can't bring "near peer" capabilities to bear. U.S. troops mostly face assault rifles, larger scale machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombers and IEDs, and can call in air support or guided artillery strikes in longer duration engagements. Almost nothing the Afghan insurgents have, other than IEDs, can pierce an armored vehicle of any kind with any frequency. In that environment, mobility is more important than the capabilities of heavier vehicles most of the time.

Weapons Sales To Saudis Continue

This winter, U.S. firms were authorized to sell $30 billion of F-15s to Saudi Arabia despite the fact that the Arab Spring has increasingly left it as a nation less aligned with American goals for the region than any other nation in the region. We also sell them many top of the line tanks and other advanced weapons, although not our latest and greatest weapons technologies like the F-22 and F-35 and armed drones and missile defense systems.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute and totalitarian theocratic leaning hereditary monarchy (although succession rules are not as strike as those of European monarchies) that barely has rule of law, has executed witches as recently as this fall, doesn't let women drive, banned dog ownership until a few years ago, has to import massive amounts of foreign labor to function, has immense numbers of Islamic theology trained wealthy unemployed young men who were pivotal in the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the 9-11 attacks in the U.S., and maintains some levels of near slavery for servants. It has cooperated with U.S. officials in anti-terrorism efforts, and has assisted in brokering the departure of the Yemeni dictator.

Saudi Arabia provides a counterbalance to Iranian military power that could be deployed to keep the Persian Gulf oil tanker routes open. The value of a natural counterbalance to Iranian military forces in the Persian Gulf is more than hypothetical. There has been sword rattling from Iran about shutting down Gulf shipping as recently as this past week and they have missile boats, coastal submarines and land based missiles, as well as fighter aircraft that make that kind of threat credible, at least for a while. Iran has also managed to design a whole economy around evading international sanctions since 1979, so those are no longer very effective against it. For example, its nuclear program has involved a heavy contribution of North Korean scientists and engineers and technicians.

Of course, Saudi Arabia also has immense stockpiles of oil and sovereign wealth (although the oil production may start to decline before too long), has citizens who live lives far more luxurious than they earn due to immense welfare state spending who aren't materially taxed, and is home to the two most sacred cities of Islam which originated there as did the Arabic language.

This puts Israel and militarily weakened Iraq at greater risk, although the arms sales were initially calculated to buy Saudi Arabia's cooperation in Israeli-Arab peace together with Egypt which has also had strong ties to the U.S. military. The Saudis helped the local monarch put down Arab Spring uprisings in Bahrain despite the significant U.S. military basing in country there. Some of this policy is inertia, and some of it is a calculation that we have more influence by engaging with the Saudis than we would if we cut off relations with them and some other nation moved into that gap selling weapons and building diplomatic ties. U.S. policy makers are also concerned that the alternative to a monarchy with an immense royal family that has strong Western ties would be an extremely reactionary, aggressive, purely theocratic government that has no connections to the West.

Similar U.S. military ties with Egypt, which had a dictator for decades until last year, are similarly ambivalent. Buying their peace with Israel has a great deal of value militarily, and the U.S. encounters with the Egyptian military may have been decisive in convincing them to allow regime change to happen in the Arab Spring rather than putting down the rebellion brutally as Syria. A well functioning military has also arguably permitted the Egyptian state to continue to exist even in the face of regime change and a slow process of replacing the old regime, and the military is viewed as more secular and ethnically even-handed than some of the incipient political forces in the country. But, the Egyptian military has also been pivotal in maintaining a totalitarian dictatorship for decades, is deeply corrupt, and is dragging its feet on turning over power to elected civilians - it could easily depose a new civilian regime in a coup once democratic enthusiasm waned if it chose to do so, or to never turn over real power in the first place. Egypt is also much more deeply conservative on "social issues" than more democratic Islamic nations with which the U.S. has had sometimes fruitful diplomatic relations like Turkey, Pakistan, Kurdistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Indonesia, Jordan and for that matter the Palestinian Authority.

Insurgency In Nigeria

A violent anti-Christian, radical Islamist terrorist group in Northern Nigeria killed dozens at a Christmas Eve service last year in just one of a long string of large scale ethnic cleansing oriented attacks on non-Muslims and their sympathizers in Northern Nigeria (and simply those who prefer a more secular political and legal system) where political leaders elected in many of these states that form a geographic block have attempted to large replace secular law with Islamic religious law. Increasing aridity and an expanding Sahara are also putting pressure on Northern Nigerians to expand to the South beyond their traditional homelands. There have also been less intense Christian counterattacks and violence, and some rather ineffectual government attempts to suppress the violence. Religion coincides strongly with ethnicity and language as well in many of these cases, as is so often the case, so calling it a purely religious conflict as it is often cast, misses some of the point.

Nigeria has already fought one East-West civil war at its birth as a multinational independent nation, so the rest of the country isn't precisely united on a nation-state basis, and is at the national level, politically, more democratic than it has been at any time in recent memory. This could blow up into a full fledged North-South civil war at any time, and poses a classic question of democratic theory. What should a democracy do when the people use their power to vote to ask for a less democratic system of government? Given long standing corruption in Nigeria, the desire isn't necessarily irrational, either. It also doesn't help that Nigeria itself is a colonially imposed agglomeration that only a few of its constituent ethnicities and linguistic groups welcomed outside their colonially trained somewhat Westernized elites. Social contract theories of legitimacy work less well in a context where nobody consented to the existence of the state in the first place, it doesn't align naturally with one macrogrouping of ethnicities, and democratic leadership has been present for only brief intermissions of the last half century. The influence of foreign interests in its oil resources without much regard for Nigeria's own well being just adds one more element to an unstable stew.

While Nigeria has been more stable and less war torn than many of its sub-Saharan African neighbors in West Africa, Central Africa and the Great Lakes region of Africa, and has even played an active positive role in trying to end conflicts in many of those places, it is hardly a success story of the Continent either. But, there is no good road map to a more stable situation that doesn't just make things worse, and oil and uranium wealth although far more modest than in the Middle East, still provides a reason for parts of Nigeria that aren't home to those resources to stay in its union.


The U.S. has sent about a hundred special operations troops to Uganda to try to help that country neutralize the Lord's Resistance Army in October, 2011, a violent fundamentalist Christian insurgency group there.

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