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: