Saturday, July 27, 2013

Maybe We Shouldn't Put All our Eggs in One Aerial Basket

Britain did something profoundly stupid in the early 30s.  It invested a huge amount of its air force budget in twin-engine, light bombers.   These designs were easily capable of out-running fighter aircraft of the day like the Hawker Fury and the Gloster Gladiator.  That meant bombers could range independently, in daylight, with very little defensive armament or armour plate protection and simply outrun enemy fighters if they showed up.  Or so the thinking went.

A decade later the air combat world had been stood on its head.  Fast, agile and heavily-armed fighters like the Hurricane, Spitfire and ME-109 ruled the air and all those bombers were just easy meat.   The Luftwaffe forced the British bombers to operate in the relative safety of night skies where they had a hell of a time getting their bombs anywhere near the target.  It took two critical years for the Brits just to begin to dig themselves out of that hole.

The lesson we should have learned is that, in aerial warfare, it doesn't take much to knock you off your game and risking all on a potentially brittle technology can, and usually will, come back to haunt you.   Which, it can be argued, is what we're doing today with our obsession for beta-version stealth warplanes, notably the Lockheed F-35.

This is illustrated by an article, "Warming Trend", published in the July 8 edition of Aviation Week.  It looks at the rapid development in infrared sensors and IR, heat-seeking missiles currently underway.   Why the focus on infrared?   Easy.  Stealth is designed to defeat radar detection but it's not effective against infrared detection.  In fact, the F-35 is said to have an enormous heat signature.  From an infrared perspective, it's akin to the torch on the Statue of Liberty on a moonless night.

So, if it emits heat you can see it.  The trick is to develop sensors and weapons that can see it and track it reliably at long-range.  That is what everyone seems to be building right now.   There's talk that they can get infrared weapon range comparable to the standard range of modern radar-guided missiles.

"The threat that is driving (the shift to infrared)   ...has not been identified, but China analyst Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Stragegy Center points to Chinese advances in X-band active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, which are able to be used as very powerful jammers.

Britain's Typhoon fighter uses "Pirate" IRST (infrared search and track) technology and advanced  heat-seeking missiles.

"The updated Pirate is believed to have shown its ability to detect the F-22 at significant ranges in 2010, when four of the stealth fighters were deployed to Lakenheath AFB in the U.K."

The F-35 we're about to buy is far less stealthy than its F-22 big brother.  If the Brits can spot the F-22 on infrared, they'll have no problem picking up the hot section of the F-35.  What that means they can force the F-35 to maneuver and, once it's not flying in a straight line, there's no radar stealth either.

"The Super Hornet IRST mates a new processor to the sensor of the AAS-42 which was developed in the 1980s for the Grumnan F-14D.  It has already been supplied to export F-15 operators, including South Korea and Singapore, and is under contract for Saudi Arabia's new and upgraded F-15s."

One aircraft that is going to have IRST is Russia's stealth counter-stealth fighter, the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA.  If you haven't seen it, here's a look:


Purple library guy said...

At this rate maybe we need to mount missiles on a prop plane. One with pontoons that can land on a lake. Hey, it wouldn't be fast, but I bet the heat signature would be way smaller than a jet's.

Anonymous said...

My father told me of a mission he flew over Germany. He released his bomb load over people he did not know and did not hate, although it was labelled as an industrial target. He and his crew were then attacked by fighters, Focke Wolfe 190s. They shot out two of their engines, and most of their rudder and aileraons. They were thankful to land safely.

But, really, what is this insanity that we impose on one another?

The Mound of Sound said...

@ PLG - we need a coherent defence policy setting out specific roles for our air force before we even consider the F-35 light attack bomber or anything else.

@ Anon. Horrible as it was, especially with the Dresden and Hamburg firestorm raids, the defeat of Hitler's Nazis was justification enough for this madness. Most crews didn't hate the people they were bombing but, then again, WWII bombing was a fairly detached business. Fortunately for your father (and you) his aircraft was a "heavy" and able to withstand the loss of two engines and the control surfaces.

Anonymous said...

'WWII bombing was a fairly detached business". Really? Are you serious?

WWII bombing was a very personal and devastating business. Take that back.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I forgot to add, you pompous ass ;)

The Mound of Sound said...

Anon, I hope you've had a chance to get your emotions under control. Yes it was a detached business in the context of the airmen and the people they bombed, unseen, two or three miles below.

As I have written here extensively in the past it took a horrible toll on the crews, especially in the first two years of the war when survival rates were less than half that of a trench soldier in WWI. My uncle flew in those early days when surviving to complete two full tours was a one in fifty prospect. He was one of the lucky ones - shot down, twice, and captured and eventually escaped back into France.

I'll write it off to abject ignorance that you call me, from the obscurity of anonymity, a pompous ass.

The Mound of Sound said...

By the way, anon, before you make a complete fool of yourself, you should read this:

Anonymous said...

Mound, I asked my father, when I was kid, what it felt like when he was dropping bombs that could have killed innocent people. He said that he felt he had a duty to defeat Nazism. And he said he felt horror doing it.

Al said...

There simply hasn't been any meaningful conversation in Canada about our military policy. Are we defensive, offensive, rescue, independent, subservient to US, northern presence, etc? The current purchase plans are suspiciously to the advantage of the American military industrial corporate complex and their supportive economic/political plans.

The Mound of Sound said...

That's precisely the point, Al. We haven't had that conversation and,apparently, we won't. This is vitally important when we don't have a lot of defence bucks to throw around, we can only afford a miniscule fleet and we're likely to be stuck with our choice for thirty to (by the government's estimate) fifty years.

Yes, the F-35 does fill the Pentagon's agenda for what it wants its supporting cast to operate but it doesn't explain how it meets Canada's needs.

Like it or not, the Russians are heavily militarizing the Arctic. Are we to meet that challenge and, if so, how? Surely we need something with bags of payload, range and speed if we're to cover our vast northern territory with a few dozen warplanes. The F-35 doesn't have the range for the job and, unlike its potential adversaries, it's incapable of supercruise which leaves it limited in intercept and at a potentially mortal disadvantage if it finds itself needing to elude pursuers. Couple that with the lack of twin-engine redundancy and the F-35 is uniquely unsuitable for northern operations. The CF-18 history of bird-strike engine-out incidents speaks for itself. You have a decent chance of returning to base if you still have one engine. If you only have a single engine and it gets knocked out - you walk home - if you're lucky.

Anonymous said...

If Steve wants to run around playing Mr. Dressup in a flight jacket with wings attached, it don't matter much to us. We already know the guy is an asshole.

And if the Harperites want to lie about the F-35s, well that don't matter much to us either.

But they do realise that their time is coming to an end, don't they? And they do realise that their pathetic escapades will be written as history. don't they?

Anyong said...

My father told me and my siblings about an incident which haunted him until his death. Upon reaching Germany from Belgium during WWII, he was filling a water container when he heard click. He turned around firing and killed a very young German who was in uniform. The German's gun was wet and couldn't fire but my dad didn't know that. My dad was petrified when the Korean War began that he would be inlisted due to his wealth of knowledge. His reason, he didn't want to kill anyone ever again.