2008/02/11

Uncertainty and stealth

War is about uncertainty.
(Yeah, at least one smart phrase per post!)

Well, there's lots of chatter about what seems to be a USAF campaign to get more than just 87 F-22. They want more of these fighters and get beaten for it.
"Fighter mafia", "irrelevant in 4GW", "irrelevant in COIN", "not a single plane over Iraq or Afghanistan", "irrelevant to our wars", "no adversary in sight who would make it necessary" - well, that's the general direction.

I'm not so sure about the conventional war / 4GW thing. The price tag wouldn't be justified even if it was a COIN war winner. COIN happens abroad - and is therefore irrelevant to our sovereignty. COIN is a very poor justification for spending resources - I know, that's the fashion, but it's still pointless. You hurt yourself economically and socially and the gain is marginal at best.

I'm much more interested in the usefulness of the F-22 in conventional war. Defending their nation's (and allies') sovereignty and wealth is after all the primary and well-justified mission of air forces. The F-22 needs to be cost-effective just like Typhoon, Gripen and Rafale in conventional war.

I have a long-time suspicion about stealth and its military relevance. It was a good idea in the 70's (and in the 1940's when German submarine snorkels were probably the first objects to be modified for radar stealth) and still in the 80's. Even the 90's might easily have been the decade for stealth. But stealth in 2020?

Stealth can only be relevant in 2020 if adversaries failed to develop a countermeasure for about four decades. That's very implausible.
A very effective and obvious innovation calls for a very effective countermeasure. It's been like that for thousands of years. Offense-defense-offense...it's a perpetual cycle. There's no such thing like an offense that ends all defense. The only thing that came close were the nuclear weapons - and they were their own counterforce.

I've had an idea today for the "there's no way how to beat stealth fighters...invisible...blah...kill them before they see our fighter...blah" crowd.

My ingredients are 90's and 2000's technology:
- UAVs demonstrated autonomous mid-air refueling
- free-flying drones for use as decoys like MALD

The primary weapon of the F-22 to exploit its low observability status and supercruise is the AIM-120 AMRAAM and in the future probably a faster, longer-reaching successor. But the principle is most likely still a BVR (beyond visual range) missile with small active radar by 2020.

Such a radar is not active all the way - the missile flies on an intercept course with updates by radio till the radar can find and track the target. This means that its hit chance depends entirely on the radar. There's no secondary infrared, ultra-violet or visual/low light visual sensor aboard. That maybe on board in the future, but most likely not by 2020.

Now imagine an enemy aircraft - not necessarily a fighter, but rather a small transport plane. It has a swarm of semi-autonomous drones around it which have an ECM system aboard. These drones confuse the AMRAAM - and once the ECM becomes too strong the AMRAAM probably to home-on-jam and aims at a drone instead of at the plane.
Other drones carry short- or medium-range missiles.
The drones can be refueled in mid-air and eventually recovered at a home base to increase their cost-effectiveness.

The F-22 would stay at BVR distance if possible because it's not very strong in close combat (large and easily visible, rather unimpressive agility demonstrations on air shows despite thrust vector control, small numbers, likely not much superior fire control and missile quality at short range).
This means that the drone-swarmed opponent can push the F-22 out of the battlefield, into SAM traps and generally - push it around.

It's not necessary to kill a stealth fighter to ruin its usefulness. It's enough if you can survive it and deny it the battlefield.

This is only one of many possible scenarios how to counter stealth planes. The USAF fixation on stealth is dangerous for its abilities. It is unrealistic that possible "near peer" adversaries who allegedly justify the F-22 expenses would be unable to come up with some countermeasure to its strengths after decades of forewarning.
The only ones whom you could defeat with F-22's are allies - as they don't feel threatened by the technology yet and do not prepare to counter it.

I agree with the critics that additional F-22 spending would be a waste, but I see very different reasons for that. The F-22 does not lack "near peers", its stealth concept lacks a surprise effect.

S O

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