2016/07/05

Theses on future air war, future air forces

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These are the theses that I published (or implied) over the last nine years.


(1) Missiles such as Iskander, LORA et cetera can and should substitute and complement strike by combat aviation, particularly early in a conflict. They require much lower operating costs due to no flying hours required for training. At the same time they don't serve the officer corps' interests well because they're not 'sexy' like fighters and missile units require few officers.

(2) MEADS is overpriced nonsense. The IRIS-T-SL addition is actually interesting, but I greatly favoured the SAMP/T area air defence system (with by now substantial missile defence capability) as it could have been bought military off-the shelf after its introduction by France and Italy. VL MICA could have complemented it the way IRIS-T SL is a short(er) range missile component in MEADS.
MEADS has a ridiculous program cost: batteries planned for purchase ratio.
The CAMM ground variant may become another alternative if we regain senses and finally cancel MEADS after all.

(3) Air power will compete with ground forces for airlift capacity, particularly early on in an unplanned hot conflict. It will also be very busy with its counterpart and ground-based air defences early on, and likely possess little ability to decisively affect ground operations in the first days or weeks. I think air power fanbois such as British folks who point at the theoretical load carrying capacity of 18 Brimstones under a Typhoon - theoretically enough to wipe out a tank company - would be very disappointed if modern combat aircraft were ever used in the anti-tank role against a great power's army.

6x3 Brimstone missiles under a Typhoon
Actual airbases in German: Path dependency rules!
(4) The German Luftwaffe isn't a necessity for NATO or EU or even only Germany, but -if done well- it can be useful because it would be (a) barely at a safe distance to survive a  surprise attack and (b) barely still close enough to the Eastern frontier to help Poland and Lithuania from German airbases. The usefulness of airbases and auxiliary airfields in Eastern Germany is much higher than the West German ones'.

(5) It's still up for debate whether the next fighter generation will be manned, unmanned or optionally manned, but this is missing much of future air war anyway (in my opinion). Traditional air war is about growing aircraft flying high and fast, while in future much of the air war may or will be about small, low-flying and short-ranged drones that may even mimic birds. Thousands of these could be unleashed into an area for attack and/or reconnaissance. It's not apparent that ground forces have adapted to this with appropriate changes in battlefield air defences, but it's astonishing to me how Western air forces appear to ignore the entire possibility and thus cede this probably more decisive air power element to the ground forces. Current fighter types and designs certainly don't incorporate counters; the missiles in use cost 10-100x as much as a small drone needs to cost.

(6) Air combat will consume a terribly high quantity of expensive missiles. The kill probability will be terrible (AMRAAM has a 50% pk track record, and that was gained in very advantageous situations). We may need more than 30 air combat missiles in stocks to kill a single top quality fighter, which means we should purchase 40+ missiles per air combat kill expected to be necessary. Foreign powers that shall be deterred are likely aware of this, and they're likely aware that such munitions purchases have a low priority in air forces that stare on aircraft quantities and where the officer corps in control doesn't benefit from higher ammunition stocks directly.

(7) It should be obvious once again by now, but let's spell it out: I think of air forces as bureaucracies. The caste in control is the officer corps. The junior officers are typically fine, but beginning approx. at Lt.Col. the officer corps begins to follow the descriptions of the principal-agent problem when it comes to resources.
I moved my blaming for poor decisions from the industry profit motive to the principal-agent problem in the bureaucracy (and its political overseers) years ago already.

(8) The public is poorly informed about air power matters because important info isn't communicated (mostly for obvious reasons). We learn how many aircraft of a particular type were purchased and in service, but we rarely learn how many daily sorties they could generate, for example. The difference between two and eight daily sorties changes the utility of the aircraft in question by very much, of course. Higher sorties rates can be generated with aircraft meant for shorter ranges and of more simple technology - that is, aircraft that run against the actual procurement trends.

(9) Many mistakes have been made in procurement by air forces. There's no reason to trust the bureaucracy's expertise in future procurement projects, even though we don't learn about many important variables.

(10) The trend towards using air bases far away (much farther than 500 km) from the targets and the thus exaggerated need for tanker aircraft is worrying. NATO appears to be so lazy that it rather adds a 500 km transit than to move a wing or detachment to a less fully developed but much better located airfield.

(11) Equally disturbing is the obsession about bunker-busting. I suspect that many "bunker buster" munitions ace secretly meant to penetrate into reinforced concrete pillars of river bridges to blow them up from the inside, but even this enlargement of target options doesn't really justify the obsession with bunker busting. To penetrate aircraft bunkers on airfields would typically not even require a standard-sized bomb, much less a dedicated bunker penetration warhead as in the Taurus missile.

(12) Western air power military theory and campaign plans/command are utterly unimpressive. Strike choreography has been rather impressive since the 1960's, but the typical answer of air power to problems is still to throw more resources at the problem, to bomb more. I'm utterly unimpressed by supposed stars of air warfare theory, such as Warden whose theory is an utterly useless fig leaf for incompetence campaign ideas. I tried to criticize constructively, of course.

(13) I don't like the assassination-by-drone campaign, but most of the time the country's government appears to have green-lighted it. Cruise missile diplomacy on the other hand is much worse; it's plain arrogance and aggression most of the time.

(14) Western air forces don't need bigger budgets. They should make better use of their budgets, oriented at (collective) defence and deterrence.

(15) Close air support is overrated because it was available in a much bigger ratio to ground forces in contact than this would be the case in Europe. In Europe, individual platoons wouldn't be heard by the air force; maybe individual reinforced battalion battlegroups would be heard. CAS was also exaggerated because air defences haven't distracted and impeded CAS after 1991 any more.

(16) I'm no fan of large airlift capacity. I understand that the Americans need it to deploy past the oceans quickly, but Germany doesn't need any military transport aircraft in my opinion. Most needs can be (and many are being) covered by chartered aviation, some can be eliminated by doctrine and others are merely imagined. The A400M project was an embarrassing de facto subsidy to a most ungrateful (and unexpectedly incompetent) industry.

(17) Long-range radar aircraft (E-3 and E-8 as examples) are impressive, but would likely be pushed back if facing modern Russian technology. Once pushed back by fighters and batteries with long-range missiles, they could look barely or not at all into 'hostile' territory any more, and thus wouldn't play their huge potential roles in attacks and offensive operations on the ground. A possible countermeasure would be supersonic businessjets turned into radar aircraft since these could survive 50-100 km farther forward, but no such businessjets ever seem to reach the prototype stage.
Electronic countermeasures add another big question mark behind the utility of air and ground surveillance radar aircraft.

(18) Maybe - contrary to Brimstone fanboyism et cetera - tactical air support of the future (CAS) will primarily be about detecting and identifying targets for ground forces' artillery that grew very much in range and precision during the last 20 years. This means that the old (since early 80's) Brevel/KZO or Aquila approach for an artillery spotter drone may still prove to be the way to go.

(19) Airspace deconfliction has gotten out of hand.


A list of 15 earlier theses is here.
More can be found if you use the "air force" label on the left.

S O
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4 comments:

  1. "think of air forces as bureaucracies."

    Just as you pointed out once that navies have a certain fetish aspect, it is useful to consider that in many ways air forces are essentially cults.

    High tech verging on magic, leadership by pilots (the enlightened few), huge ratio of non-fliers:aircrews, evangelism, Warden as prophet, the USAF's Christian thing, fanbois with received wisdom (press releases) and therefore immune to logic or argument, the general detachment from mundane reality, etc.

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    1. Well, there's no "Christian thing" in the Luftwaffe (maybe it's coming from the SAC's mission).

      Warden - he wasn't exactly established as a theorist inside the USAF, not sure how far his influence really goes. I think of him as a fig leaf - "See? Air power has theory as well!").

      The fanboi factor isn't really relevant to the top brass and thus not to the bureaucracy's decisionmaking. Fighter fanbois aren't more extreme than MBT fanbois anyway.

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  2. "(1) Missiles such as Iskander, LORA et cetera can and should substitute and complement strike by combat aviation, particularly early in a conflict. They require much lower operating costs due to no flying hours required for training. At the same time they don't serve the officer corps' interests well because they're not 'sexy' like fighters and missile units require few officers."

    "(10) The trend towards using air bases far away (much farther than 500 km) from the targets and the thus exaggerated need for tanker aircraft is worrying. NATO appears to be so lazy that it rather adds a 500 km transit than to move a wing or detachment to a less fully developed but much better located airfield."

    Theres an obvious link you appear to have missed between those two points.

    I think theres a pretty simple, if opaque, forumla that could be used to explain the fighter/missile conundrum.
    Expensive but reusable Fighters/Bombers or Cheap but none reusable SRQBMs.
    Whichever is more cost effective will depend upon how often you reuse your planes.

    https://dronewars.net/2016/07/05/british-air-strikes-in-iraq-and-syria-increase-by-85-uk-approaching-1000-strikes-milestone/
    The UK is nearing 1000 strikes in Syria/Iraq.
    A 4hr Tyhpoon flight to drop a paveway costs around £400,000, as £75,000*4hrs +£100,000.
    A ground launched missile costs about double that.

    If you are going to launch a lot of strikes, missiles are costly, if you are unlikely to ever fight a war, they make a great deal of sense.

    There are a variety of other issues, but they are all more or less along the same lines.

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    1. I studied economics at a university, the different variable and fixed costs shares sure didn't escape my attention. I just thought it was too obvious to mention.

      Exact calculations are possible with certain assumptions (attrition, munitions per sortie, failure rates), but that's misleading. Ground-launched missiles and air-dropped munitions are not perfect substitutes. We have maximised in favour of air-dropped munitions, and I think the optimum would rather be a mix - particularly because of the issues mentioned in the first link of this blog post.

      A simple calculation almost inevitably comes to the conclusion that one is cheaper (which depends on the assumption), and this closes the mind for the imperfection of the substitution. It's a beancounter's approach, not military theory approach.

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