05 June 2019

How Should We Protect Long Range Aircraft Without Air To Air Combat Capabilities?

A recent incident calls attention to a potential gap in U.S. capabilities, even as other capabilities of the U.S. military are grossly excessive to the need.
A P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft experienced an "unsafe" and "irresponsible" intercept by a Russian fighter jet over international waters on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Navy
The P-8A was intercepted by a Russian SU-35 "three times over the course of 175 minutes" over the Mediterranean Sea, the Navy's Sixth Fleet said in a statement. While "the first and third interactions were deemed safe" the second "was determined to be unsafe due to the SU-35 conducting a high-speed pass directly in front of the mission aircraft, which put our pilots and crew at risk." 
The P-8A crew reported traveling through wake turbulence caused by the Russian fighter flying in the path of the Navy aircraft. 
The Navy's statement said its aircraft was operating "consistent with international law and did not provoke this Russian activity." The intercept was estimated to have lasted 28 minutes.
According to a June 5, 2019 report from ABC News.

The U.S. military has many fairly long range aircraft with little air to air combat capabilities. The C-5 and C-17 transport planes, myriad kinds of tanker aircraft, the P-3 and P-8 naval patrol aircraft, the B-1, B-2, the B-52 bombers, the E-4B command post, the C-32A executive air lifter and the Navy’s E-6B command post, the C-2 Greyhound aircraft carrier delivery aircraft (if they are still in service), as well as a variety of small VIP transport planes.

There are also all sorts of long range commercial aircraft that could sometimes need protection from potentially hostile military or terrorist controlled aircraft.

But, none of the fighter aircraft outfitted for serious air to air combat duties, the F-15, the F-16, the F-18, the F-22 and the F-35, have particularly long ranges and all have very high hourly operational costs. So, for those aircraft to escort long range aircraft without much in the way of air to air combat capabilities, one must either add tanker aircraft to the aerial caravan to refuel the escorting fighter aircraft along the way (adding yet more cost per hour), or one must hand off duties from one or more fighters serving as escorts to the next, based from aircraft carriers or land based air force bases along the way, which may prove problematic if there aren't enough friendly bases available (not really a problem in the Mediterranean where this incident occurred, but potentially a problem elsewhere).

Now, their ranges aren't all that short. F-15 (1,221 miles), F-16 (2,002 miles), F-18 (1,466 miles), F-22 (1,839 miles), F-35A and F-35C (basic and carrier versions 1,380 miles), F-35B (STVL version 1,035 miles). 

But, fighter aircraft ranges are extrapolations based upon traveling at full cruising speed (very fast) times the number of hours it can remain aloft with a load of fuel. Also, the more heavily armed a fighter is, the shorter its range. Also, those ranges are cut in half if the fighter has to leave from and return to the same base be it an air force base on land, or an aircraft carrier.

Another problem is that long range aircraft typically fly more slowly for far more hours. 

An F-35 is going to have considerably fewer hours aloft that aircraft often thought of as long range, because its range is partially related to its 1200 mile per hour maximum speed. But, while a P-8A has a range of 1,380 miles, about the same as an F-35, a P-8A has a cruising speed of 509 miles per hour and a maximum speed of 564 miles per hour. So, it can stay aloft for four hours at a time if that fits its mission, while a typical fighter aircraft probably can't. Similarly, a C-17 has a cruising speed of 518 miles per hour, and a range with a normal cargo load of 2,785 miles, double the range of most available fighters, with a number of hours aloft relative to the fighter aircraft that is even greater.

But, an effective escort aircraft needs to stay close to the aircraft it is escorting at all times. Burst of speed could be useful for an escort aircraft, but ideally, it could cruise very efficiently at speeds similar to those of the aircraft it is escorting.

The most simple expedient is to mount external fuel tanks on fighters where air to ground bombs would otherwise be attached to expand their range at the cost of the stealth that is a key feature of the F-22 and F-35. 

But, the question is whether there is a need in our fleet of jet fighters for a purpose built, long range air to air combat aircraft designed to escort other aircraft without those capabilities.

Closely related is the question of how important supersonic aircraft speed is in 21st century air to air combat. Historically, "dog fighting" as air to air combat is known, often involved one plane shooting another down at short range with slug throwers (i.e. big bullets) or very short range unguided missiles, neither of which could very meaningfully track of target. So, an ability to maneuver with agility and to be faster than opposing fighters was critical to getting in position to make a shot and to staying out of the cross-hairs of an opponent.

But, these days, air to air combat is designed on the assumption that fighters fire long range guided missiles to shoot down enemy aircraft. The paradigm is one shot, one kill, with the first fighter to see its opponent taking it down, ambush style, with a long range missile that destroys the enemy aircraft just moments before that aircraft knows that air to air combat is underway. 

As a result, many countries with limited budgets for their air forces have decided to mount state of the art avionics and long range guided missiles on aircraft that aren't supersonic and aren't particularly agile either, but the speed and agility drive up the cost of a fighter aircraft tremendously (and also require far more skilled pilots who regularly engage in very expensive training), without adding proportionate capabilities when the idea its to fire a long range missile at an enemy aircraft as soon as it shows up on the fighter's long range sensors.

Even in the old days, one of the preferred tactics of fighter aces was to emerge out of cloud cover into a strike position and immediately destroy enemy aircraft just moments before it knows that a dog fight is in progress.

Then again, that kind of tactic isn't very well suited to the kind of situation mentioned in the most recent incident (which has happened quite a few times with Russian and Chinese aircraft in the last few years). In those cases, the enemy aircraft are intentionally menacing the U.S. or allied aircraft with the purpose of sending a message without actually firing a shot in anger.

Ideally, a long range escort fighter could be effective in that kind of setting, warding off the enemy fighter that gets too close, without actually having to fire a shot in most cases. In this situation, stealth is counterproductive (potentially making external fuel tanks less problematic), but traditional dog fighting capabilities of maneuverability and speed might be valuable after all.

Another thought that comes to mind is how drones could be used to address this need. Drones should generally be able to secure greater range with otherwise comparable capabilities since they don't have to carry a pilot and related life support equipment. A drone in an escort situation can have  some level of direction from the escorted aircraft. Drones can more easily use suicidal tactics without the accompanying loss of life if necessary (e.g. ramming an enemy aircraft rather than firing upon it). And, one can also imagine a much shorter range drone or squadron of drones that rides piggy back on the escorted aircraft until called to duty for a short engagement when actually needed, before returning to a mounted position if the engagement ends successfully.

Yet another option would be to fit these long range aircraft that aren't designed for air to air combat with upgraded avionics and long term missiles so that they can defend themselves, perhaps not with the agility of a purpose built fighter, but sufficiently to make them more than sitting ducks when engaging with enemy fighter aircraft. If they had this capability, enemy fighter aircraft might afford these long distance planes more respect.

It is likely that one of these general approaches is much better than the others in the situations they would be trying to address on some of the key metrics for evaluating the options. But, determining that in an unbiased fashion would as a practical matter be very difficult when internal defense department and Congressional politics are in play.

Then again, maybe too much investment in air to air combat capabilities doesn't make sense. This is a very expensive capability for something that has actually happened only twice, in incidents involving the U.S. mlitary, in the last twenty years. Maybe our military should devote more resources to frequently needed capabilities and less to capabilities like air to air combat, blue sea naval warfare, and amphibious assaults, that almost never actually happen.

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