At least no war was started in 2017* and the only NATO country that descended into dictatorship was Turkey. My expectations for 2017 were worse on both counts.


*: Unless you count the conflict between the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds as a (new) war.


A different perspective on military combat aviation

There's a card game for children in which one vehicle, animal or whatever trumps another; it's called Trumpf cards. You win a small victory against the other player if you have the faster, heavier, better motorised or bigger thing on your card, and you choose what metric of the card you want to play.
It's an utterly infantile way of comparing different items - seemingly objective metrics.

Discussions about combat aircraft have a very similar impression on me; they're about range, g limits or turn rates, payload, radars, stealth. Those people who appear to be more knowledgeable do quite the same, just at greater level of detail. They also tend to neglect the importance of fleet efficiency; there's no point in comparing aircraft 1-on-1 if you have the choice between 100 F-15s and 200 F-16s at a given budget.

I'll present a different was of looking at combat aviation, and I'll use the extreme and interesting case of West Germany in the 1970's as the example.

Back in the early 70's we had two kinds of combat aircraft (F-104G Starfighter and G.91), later reinforced by a third kind (Sparrow missile-less F-4F Phantom II).

Now that I've mentioned you can actually pretty much forget about the hardware itself already. 

What was the mission?
The constitutional mission was defence, but the actual primary mission was to help avoid World War 3 by deterring the Warsaw Pact.

Well, how do you deter the Warsaw Pact?
Two ways are possible: To impress them with your ability to fight a nuclear war after having been attacked, and to impress them with your ability to fight a non-nuclear war after having been attacked.

The first West German minister of defence was apparently focused on nuclear warfare. He opted for the F-104G, an aircraft that was good for little but photo recce, lobbing nuclear bombs at targets and surprise kills in ground radar-assisted sneak attacks on enemy aircraft. Many hundred nuclear-capable Starfighters were available to lob nukes on Warsaw Pact mechanised forces, airbases and bridges.

West German F-104G
The G.91 was a budget solution of little importance; a little subsonic fighter-bomber for close air support. It was numerous, but not really prominent in the air war concept of the 70's.

Later on the F-4F Phantom II joined the club, but it was a VERY different aircraft. Bigger, better range, two man crew, much more effort required for purchase and operation per aircraft. The one saving grace was that it had a much more impressive conventional warload than either Starfighter and G.91, none of which exceeded WW2 propeller fighter-bombers' conventional ground attack capabilities. The F-4F carried approx. twice the bombload of a typical medium WW2 bomber when used as a fighter-bomber, but much of its employment would have been in fighter and photo recce roles instead.

The range and payload combination enabled the Phantom IIs to reach even Oder bridges from West German airbases, albeit this was at best at the limit of their practical abilities.

Still, this skill was important because of one fundamental consideration: 
The West German (FRG) government claimed to represent all Germans and did not recognize East Germany as anything but a Soviet-occupied part of the Federal Republic of Germany. War plans that required us or allies to nuke East Germany or even only Warsaw Pact ground forces that invaded West Germany were unacceptable in the event of actual WW3. Thus anyone who considered deterrence no safe bet would naturally be worried about the harm done to the own nation in the event of WW3.
A different equipment strategy (than the Starfighter/Gina force) would make sense -  one that enables the Luftwaffe to deal with Warsaw Pact mechanised forces, airbases and bridges and other targets without nuking our own people. The F-4F provided a little bit of capability in this regard, and the MRCA that became the Tornado IDS offered an approach that seemed realistic and thus deterring:

British Tornado IDS

The Tornado IDS would exploit good range (with droptanks), high subsonic speed at very low level and the terrain following radar to approach the targets very low (avoiding air defences and the ubiquitous MiG-21 fighters), destroy the target with their large conventional payload and try to return unscathed. (The MiG-23's and later MiG-29's look down radars as well as the few Soviet AEW aircraft were the Tornado crews' nightmares.) Additionally, they were capable of the very same things as the Starfighter, minus the rapid climbing.

This was an effective, both deterring and potentially defending, air war component that might have averted nuking German cities on the Oder (bridges tend to be at cities) and small towns (the Soviets built their airbases right next to towns, not spaced by multiple kilometres like NATO).

The downside of this was the susceptibility of the concept to modern pulse doppler look down radars (the approach was highly questionable by the time the Tornado IDS became operational in large numbers) and the immense expenses. A Tornado IDS had two engines with each 40.5 kN dry thrust and 71.2 kN thrust with afterburners. There was a two-man crew and the avionics were very sophisticated for their time, including two radars and commonly carried jamming pods.

The difference between a Tornado IDS and a F-4F or F-104G went well beyond metrics; it was about an altogether different way of risk mitigation. MoD Strauß (F-104G proponent) did not care much about the effects of dropping nukes all over the own country. MoD Schmidt (Tornado IDS proponent) did, and pursued an approach to air war that was meant to first keep the peace by deterring a Warsaw Pact attack and as a backup plan giving the own people a chance to survive by avoiding or at least delaying a nuclear inferno at home.

- - - - -

Meanwhile, the USAF was coined by its experience over North Vietnam where sophisticated strike packages pushed through defences and finally relearned the old lesson that precision guided bombs are extremely effective against fixed target structures. The USAF kept investing in Wild Weasels, anti-radar misisles and finally introduced the F-15E, which was less well-suited for Tornado IDS-like mission profiles but equipped with laser-guided bombs. The USAF thus had yet another concept for air war; one in which strike packages push through air defences and MiGs to knock out targets with PGMs. This concept eventually superseded the terrain following approach that was de facto doomed by look down/shoot down fighter radars and AEW. It also developed the stealth bomber infiltration concept for strategic (B-2) and tactical (F-117) bombers. These two USAF offensive air war concepts are still dominant for conventional warfare, but both of them are extremely expensive and above-average dependent on technological superiority.

- - - - -

Other approaches could have been sensible in the 70's and 80's as well. A focus on fleet efficiency in conventional warfare for maximum deterrence, for example.

The F-5E was available a decade earlier than the Tornados. It had two engines of 15.5/22.2 kN each, was more capable of using grass strips as runways, clearly superior in daylight air combat compared to both Tornado and Starfighter and as a strike fighter he could have provided sterling service in CAS. Its avionics were simple and cheap, and its operation was cheap as well. Its small size served it well in air combat (almost invisible to the eye head-on) and enabled its users to hide the aircraft under foliage and in buildings alongside highways.
The Luftwaffe could have afforded almost a thousand F-5E/F Tiger IIs instead of 212 Tornado IDS. Those Tiger II's would have generated about eight times as many sorties per day (almost exclusively daytime missions).* Five 500 lbs bombs would have been a realistic payload for CAS missions, and a Tornado would struggle to match a daily delivery of 120 500 lbs bombs (F-5E) with its daily delivery of 36 1,000 lbs bombs. The even more crude F-5A version was already known for excellent bomb placement.
Furthermore, it would have been toast almost every time a MiG-23 got a jump on the Tornado, while fivefour Tiger IIs would have been vastly superior in air combat to a single MiG-23.

This approach would have yielded a thousand fighters with air combat characteristics superior to MiG-21s** and with double or triple the ground attack effectiveness of a G.91 at about the same procurement costs of the Tornado IDS; without substantial R&D expenses.

The Soviets would still have been deterred by NATO's (non-FRG) nuclear delivery capabilities (small 1-5 kt TNTeq nukes on precise 1,000 km missiles could have dealt with the difficult bridge and airfield targets that the Tornado IDS inventors were concerned about - the civilian casualties would have been rather limited, particularly if the civilians had 12 hrs time to flee from settlemetns close to such obvious targets).

So there were three ground attack strategy choices;
- to focus on participation in nuclear warfare, effectively planning a genocide on your own people
- to focus on conventional interception (long range ground attack) with sophisticated, specialised and expensive aircraft
- to focus on conventional CAS with many cheaper but more versatile aircraft, without dealing with the far away targets directly (or keeping a couple old Starfighters for that role)

- - - - -

A comparison of F-104G, Tornado IDS and F-5E in a West German 1970's context should thus not be about top speed, range, bombload on a single sortie, avionics or turn rates. It should (have) be(en) about what can be done, what concept for offensive air war is or was behind such choices.
I have observed the Jäger 90 / Eurofighter debates since the 1980's, and I have not seen any detailed tech discussions until the 90's and the public discussions never outgrew that infantile phase. To date we (Germans) have Typhoons with marginal land attack capabilities that are optimised for very high altitude air combat in a modest radius around paved runwyay airbases. Neither the remannts of the Tornado force nor the small Typhoon land attack capabilities would matter much in regard to close air support, and interdiction would de facto be limited to blowing up bridges. It just happens that blowing up bridges isn't all that important to NATO defense in Eastern Europe. The Bundeswehr's Luftwaffe appears to be drifting in regard to its appraoch to alliance defence air war, and there's not even a hint of a public discussion about this.
You can easily find people playing Trumpf cards about Su-35, Typhoon, Rafale, F-22 and F-35 on the internet, though.

somewhat similar non-mainstream thoughts on military aviation:


*: The realistic asumptions here are Tornado IDS three sorties with each 12 x 1,000 lbs bombs for CAS (CAS because of using similar mission radius for a fair comparison), F-5E/F six sorties with each five 500 lbs bombs. Four F-5E/F could be afforded instead of one Tornado IDS taking into account Tornado development costs and assuming F-5 license production in the FRG. Both Tornado and Tiger II were capable of a few more daily sorties for a few days, but not for a week or more.

I shouldn't have mentioned so much hardware while trying to bring across an abstract thought. The main point was how hardware choices reflected fundamentally different approaches to (offensive) air warfare, as well as deterrence. The F-5 thing was meant to be peripheral only - it was meant to make the secondary point about fleet efficiency more forceful.


Comment on European investments in air power

I wrote before about reasons to be skeptical of air power (platforms) in land warfare, and this time I'll explore one particular problem in greater detail.

A casual look at aerial imagery of Fliegerhorst Nörvenich (a Typhoon air base of the German air force) shows roughly two dozen hardened aircraft shelters and several other usual locations where one might suspect Typhoons. The main maintenance hangar of such an airbase usually has 1-4 aircraft at all times, for example. Or, well, that's how remember it.


So there's a total of about 30 very likely locations for Typhoon aircraft for a nominal strength of about 35 Typhoons. The Luftwaffe has a total of six tactical air wings (equipped with either Typhoons or Tornado), and I suppose there are a total of 200-230 very likely locations for the Typhoon and Tornado aircraft in peacetime, particularly at nighttime and on weekends. We can add roughly 20 more for hangars of the aviation industry where aircraft are for major maintenance and upgrades.
Air defence units' radar vehicle storage locations and other super high value target locations would easily add up to 50 more locations of great interest.

Now let's think about the cruise missile threat: Cruise missiles launched from ships (could be containerised in 40 ft ISO containers on cargo ships) have enough reliability and accuracy that one might expect about 80-90% of the locations hit with effect (including through hardened shelters - those things are not really hardened against direct hits of dedicated munitions) if each two missiles were ordered to be launched for every location.

That's less than 500 cruise missiles. The average price of a cruise missile in quantity production doesn't vary very much with size or range because the electronics and engine are the cost drivers. American cruise missiles cost anywhere between USD 0.5 and 1.6 million depending on type, order size and year. It's a safe bet that four cruise missile with 40 ft ISO launch container would cost less than USD 8 million. Let's set the likely lower prices of Russian cruise missiles aside for a moment; the capability to launch 500 cruise missiles would cost well less than USD 300 million, including chartering a couple small container ships and manning them for a couple months.

That's less than the price of three Eurofighter/Typhoon aircraft.

That salvo of 500 cruise missiles could - if surprise is achieved - take out well over 100 Typhoon and Tornado tactical aircraft, with Typhoons priced around USD 100 million.

So essentially a proper aggressor who would seek strategic surprise and be prepared to exploit such a surprise effect could knock out maybe half, maybe three fourths of the Luftwaffe at the price of way less than 5% of its Typhoon inventory. And piling up more aircraft is no viable strategy to counter this, nor is better hardening of shelters a reasonable strategy.

On the one hand the hardened shelter approach that became so dominant after the 1967 Six Days War has been devalued by conventional cruise missiles (and likely also conventional ballistic missiles, but those are rare). There's no real alternative in use during peacetime, even though saturation fo airbases with dozens of additional sabotage- and somewhat blast/fragmentation-protected shelters would be possible.

On the other hand the extreme contrast between the expense for first strike munitions and their target platforms calls into question the entire idea of defence by (European) air power platforms. It's an 'all eggs in one basket' kind of problem.

The other major European air forces are affected by this as well - 1,500 cruise missiles could knock out most of the Typhoon, Rafale, Tornado ECR and Mirage 2000-5 inventories, dozens of destroyers and frigates as well as hundreds of other high value targets.

- - - - -

I have noticed again and again that internet discussions on air power are focused on 1-vs-1 comparisons of fighters (and in case of Brit; and obsession with Brimstone) and overall nominal aircraft type quantity comparisons.

Many relevant factors don't get their due attention, such as:
  • fleet efficiency (sometimes one should rather discuss 3-vs-1 situations because the aircraft costs are so very different)
  • sortie rates
  • time on station for fighters
  • effect of datalinks
  • effect of missing AEW support
  • advantage of flying over friendly area air defences
  • ability to operate from improvised airfields
  • ability to repair airbases
  • ability to withstand surprise attacks
  • comparison of first week effect between aircraft-launched land attack missiles and container-launched land attack missiles
  • readiness rate
  • inventory of high quality PGMs (such as later AMRAAM versions)
  • dependence on tiny active radars in missiles for air superiority
  • loss of efficiency from strike packages compared to all-strike fighter missions
  • loss of time (sorties) from fighting for air superiority and attrition of air defences
  • often poor hit probabilities of air combat missiles

The aforementioned risk of major knockout blows by surprise cruise missile attacks is but one issue. Still, it's probably the most important issue that doesn't get due attention in regard to air power for Europe.*

- - - - -

I may sound utterly continental and German here, but in my opinion land power has the charm that it's not so terribly on the all-eggs-in-one-basket trip. An entire mid-sized navy could be ruined by two dozen cruise missiles. An entire mid-sized air force could be ruined by a few hundred cruise missiles. It takes many hundred cruise missiles to ruin a mid-sized army. You would at the very least need to knock out a major portion of MBTs and SPGs to consider it a major blow.

Fleets have been surprised and ruined in harbours for ages - Cadiz, Copenhagen, Taranto, Pearl Harbour. Air forces have been dealt terrible blows as well - Barbarossa and Six Days war come to mind. Land forces on the other hand were terribly surprised only if they were within few hours cruising speed of opposing land forces. That's not the situation of the German land forces as of now.

From this point of view the Heer looks incredibly much more robust and incredibly much more budget-efficient for deterrence and defence than the Luftwaffe ever could. (The Deutsche Marine is useless anyway.)

So once again I tried to explain why I don't really care much about major flying air power platforms. I'm not stupid enough to believe that a single fighter fanboi would be swayed by this, of course.


*: And no, the around 120 combat-coded F-22s (of a total 186) which may realistically generate 100...200 sorties per day would not save the day. They would become effective in Europe after several days only, and it's questionable if the USAF would want to operate them from airbases with already cracked shelters. Moreover, they could be reached by cruise missiles as well - especially once they're deployed to Europe. I see little reason to expect the Russians to pursue even only in theory a symmetrical strategy against the F-22s. That's what the F-22 has been optimised for at great expenses, after all.
Moreover, F-15C/D and F-16C/D don't look competitive with Su-3x threats unless the Russians badly slacked in the missile quality department. 

P.S:: In case you think that Western intelligence would reliably warn; a desensitization strategy could feature ships with such missile containers as replenishment ships of regular Russian navy exercises. It would also be most difficult to tell such preparations from ships being sent to export arms in containers. Moreover, an ordinary container ship may have about 150 40 ft ISO containers on the highest level of the stacked container load, which would suffice for roughly 600 cruise missiles.
Arsenal ship and SSGN concepts have always been idiotic warship-centric ideas. 


That stupid Little Cold War

So Erdogan visits neighbouring NATO ally Greece as first Turkish president in decades and they end up refreshing the Aegean islands sovereignty dispute in front of the cameras.

This is about the dumbest thing possible in the region. Greece has well-known economic and fiscal issues and had to reduce its military spending dramatically.

Turkey experienced a 15-year catch-up economic boom, but certain parts of the economy seem to be in a bubble and the government's turn towards authoritarian rule and away from rule of law has begun dragging the economy down.

A revival of the utterly nonsensical Little Cold War about to whom the or certain Aegean islands belong may become extremely wasteful.


I strongly propose to avoid such wasteful nonsense by giving a strong signal clarifying the situation:
The islands are internationally recognized as Greek, and Greece is a EU member, and in case of invasion would be defended and if need be liberated by Greek's EU allies.

7. If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.
Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.
Pro-Europeans, step forward and do something!

The Turkish politicians are aggressively loudmouthing and offensive against the German government and society anyway and the refugee issue has IMO to be dealt with through strategic demotivation (instead of by plugging one route after another), so there shouldn't be any real obstacle to clarifying the situation this way. Some Turkish politicians will spin and smoke, but that's what they do anyway.

Greece should after this clarification of the situation further reduce its military spending well below 2% GDP, avoiding the 'hollow forces' syndrome and being relaxed about Turkey.

further related:



Cooperation & solidarity vs. politics of aversions

Back in the 80's there was much talk about the competition between capitalism/democracy and planning economy/single party dictatorship. During the 90's many people believed the thesis that Western liberalism had won for good.

I suppose this idea of Western liberalism is largely misunderstood. Its divisions are so extremely divergent since the 80's and have so very hostile partisanship divide between their followers that by now we could proclaim a new system competition within the Western world, in addition to the harassment by the relatively unimaginative authoritarian oligarchy with great power mindset in Russia.

The divide in the West isn't really about progressives and conservatives; few people truly deserve either label all-round anyway. The divide is different.

Germany's current society was built on a foundation of "us". "We" act together to solve our problems and challenges. Cooperation/togetherness and solidarity are the basic building blocks for this. Not everyone adheres to this foundation, but I suppose about 60-80% of Germans do.

The competing concept was revived in the 80's by Reaganism/Thatcherism, and became ever more extreme and rabid, but also ever more dishonest in the U.S. during the 90's and especially the Obama years:

It's a world view of "me, me, me!", in which one doesn't want a dime of one's taxes spent on helping 'brown people'. The central motivation in such politics is not to solve problems together, but to marginalize if not outright subjugate and hurt 'others' - brown people mostly, but also political enemies.

One group after another was declared to be 'takers', 'enemies', 'them', 'foreign'. Over time, this affected African-Americans, Hispanics (the supportive Cubans mostly excluded), Asians, Europeans, 'Leftists', more or less all government agencies, lesbians, gays, transgender, unemployed people, single mothers, women who had an abortion, medical personnel and consultants associated with abortions, journalists (up to the few actual news people on Fox News), Jews (though they are usually not targeted by those in high positions), Puerto Ricans and even Hawaiians.
The opposing political forces became more adversarial and hateful as well as the political culture deteriorated badly since the mid-90's with politicians obviously putting party before country most of the time.

This adversarial concept for politics solved few problems (though it did sometimes cut back errors made by the political opponent). Today, the U.S. has an unsustainable fiscal situation, unsustainably low savings rate, unsustainably low investment rate including public infrastructure investments, excessive spending on healthcare and 'security'/'defense', cannot solve pressing problems such as obesity rates/environmental issues/drugs/gun crimes/minority poverty rates and is rapidly losing most long-time friends in the world.
Still, there are plenty people who think that Germany needs exactly that kind of thinking.

It's obvious to me that switching to such an altogether different perspective on how to run a society would cause great transition harm to Germany even if the perspective as such was leading to superior policies.

For this reason there's a system competition between the U.S., Hungary, Poland and to a lesser extent the UK* (as well as minority political parties) on the one side and the cooperation- and solidarity-minded Germany, Netherlands and Scandinavian countries (as well as no doubt a couple other countries) on the other side.

Sure, the more mainstream interpretation views Hungary, Poland, Trumpism and Russia in one block that's threatening the Western liberal system. But I think this misses the point; Putin is merely amplifying the strength of antisocial ideas. The real competition if not conflict was there by the 80's already, then covered-up by the dominant Cold War that made Westerners close the ranks.

I fully expect comments calling me 'interesting in military affairs, naive in politics' and similar. There's nothing in here that would convert followers of the politics of aversion into cooperation- and solidarity-minded people, after all. This was just a diagnosis of how I see the fundamental problem of our time.


P.S.: Years ago I wrote about current challenges to Germany. I did not think of this one yet. It's become much more obvious now. Three years ago the popular majorites of Germany and the United States still felt like real allies. That was before adversarial politics triumphed in the U.S. in 2016 and Germany had an political party that directed aversion against minorities (and the established order) and still mattered.

*: They're having particularly interesting politics now, with the left wing of the supposedly left party having become powerful and opposing a poorly-led right wing.