War In Syria Highlights Why U.S. Needs Fifth-Gen Fighters

(FORBES 03 JUN 13) … Loren Thompson

The possibility that America and its allies might impose a no-fly zone over Syria just as they did during previous conflicts in Libya and Iraq is highlighting the importance of having survivable fifth-generation fighters in friendly air forces. Right now those forces consist mainly of older, non-stealthy fighters that Syrian surface-to-air missiles could shoot down in any battle for control of local airspace.

Such concerns have been on the backburner at the Pentagon over the last dozen years as the joint force fought unconventional foes such as the Taliban that lacked air forces and air defenses. Now, though, the focus of military planning is shifting to state-based adversaries that might field so-called integrated air defense networks like China, Iran and North Korea — with Syria looking like an early test case of whether U.S. fighters are up to the challenge.

Fighters — supersonic, highly maneuverable tactical aircraft — are the main weapons used by modern militaries to suppress enemy air defenses and establish command of the skies. Controlling hostile airspace is crucial to most other facets of warfighting, as the U.S. demonstrated in two successive wars against Iraq. But it has been a while since U.S. fighters faced enemies with state-of-the-art defenses, and the technology available to defenders has been advancing rapidly.

Worries that U.S. and allied fighters might incur heavy losses in establishing a no-fly zone were raised last week by reports that Syria will soon receive Russia’s most advanced surface-to-air missile and radar system, the S-300. The S-300 family of air defense systems has been around for decades, with the latest versions sporting refinements designed to counter traditional Western tactics. For example, an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies told Radio Free Europe last week that he doubted electronic jamming could be used to defeat the S-300.

It would also be hard to use unmanned aircraft or cruise missiles to take out the system, because it has been designed to track and target them even if they are flying close to the ground. Because the S-300 is highly mobile and only takes five minutes to set up, it would probably have to be taken out by manned aircraft receiving continuous target updates while conducting search-and-destroy missions. But such planes would have to be highly survivable, because the S-300 can track up to 100 targets at the same time from a hundred miles away, simultaneously targeting a dozen.

Which brings me to the subject of fifth-generation fighters. Over the years, U.S. fighters have gradually evolved to assimilate new technologies like smart bombs and digital flight controls that would keep them useful and survivable in a world of diverse threats. The latest, fifth generation is defined by advanced stealth features that make the aircraft very hard to detect; high maneuverability enabled by new propulsion technology and materials; fusion of on-board sensor collections; and high-capacity datalinks facilitating comprehensive situational awareness.

What these features mean when flying into hostile airspace is that friendly pilots can see the enemy, but the enemy can’t see them. The radar returns and other “signatures” such as heat and radio signals emitted by fifth-generation fighters are so faint that they typically can target defenders before their presence has even been detected. When you combine advanced stealth with the accuracy provided by precision-guided munitions and awareness afforded by fused sensors and secure datalinks, you have a prescription for suppressing enemy air defenses within days.

However, the only operational fifth-gen fighters in the world right now are 185 or so Air Force F-22s, a Lockheed-Boeing airframe equipped with two hyper-capable Pratt & Whitney engines. The plan is to fill out the Air Force fleet and equip other military services at home and abroad with the less expensive F-35 fighter, a Lockheed Martin-Northrop Grumman-BAE Systems airframe equipped with one Pratt & Whitney engine evolved from the F-22 powerplant (I should mention that all of these companies, and their competitors, give money to my think tank).

The F-35 would deliver fifth-generation survivability and awareness to the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps in an affordable package. Although it lacks some of the maneuverability of the F-22, it is a newer design than that top-of-the-line fighter, so in some respects its on-board electronics are more advanced. Problem is, the services do not expect the plane to be operational until 2015 or later, so if Syrian air defenses need to be suppressed anytime soon, it’s likely to be fourth-generation planes like Boeing’s F-15 and Lockheed’s F-16 that do much of the job.

The good news is that it looks like Syria won’t take delivery of the S-300 air defense system from Russia until early next year, and additional time will be required for local troops to train on it (although that may have already occurred to some degree by traveling to Russia). The bad news is that defensive technology of similar sophistication will start appearing in other unfriendly countries soon, either because it is exported from Russia or because China has copied the technology and passed it on to rogue states like North Korea.

The U.S. military, especially the Navy, has spent decades developing equipment and tactics that can help fourth-generation fighters deal with the threat posed by integrated air defenses. For instance, the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet built by Boeing and Northrop Grumman is equipped with some stealth (“low observable”) features, which when combined with stand-off jamming aircraft and imaginative tactics can make it reasonably survivable against today’s threats. Unfortunately, there is no way of making an older fighter as survivable as a fifth-gen aircraft.

The main reason why is that the airframe, on-board electronics and propulsion system all must be designed from their inception with survivability in mind to get optimum results, and many of the relevant technologies simply didn’t exist when the older planes were first conceived. So with scenarios like a Syrian no-fly zone now arising, Pentagon planners have to think hard about what their fighter investment strategy should be for the immediate future.

If they keep splitting their fighter buy between the fifth-generation F-35 and older, less survivable fighters then they run the risk of filling the force with hundreds of planes that can’t cope with tomorrow’s threats. They also undermine the economies of scale made possible by focusing all fighter investment on a single production line — a concentration of resources essential to reducing the cost of each fifth-generation fighter to a point where it is affordable for all overseas allies.

Some air-power enthusiasts think that the Air Force should have bought more twin-engine F-22s, but defense secretary Robert Gates ended that program in 2009 and the cost of revisiting his decision would be very high — especially if the goal were to buy just a few hundred more of them. So the practical choice comes down to buying nothing but F-35s, or continuing to purchase a mixed fleet for a few more years before production of fourth-generation fighters is due to cease.

In the near-term, the older planes look more affordable because they are mature aircraft that lack some of the F-35’s key features. The problem is that they will be increasingly challenged by overseas air defenses in places like Syria that exact a heavy cost in military engagements. Many planes could be lost, and some pilots too. The F-35 will cost more for the next few years until production ramps up and contractors move down the learning curve. But once you factor in survivability and combat effectiveness, it isn’t hard to see why three U.S. services and a dozen overseas allies are determined to stick with the F-35 as their future fighter.

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