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By Norman Friedman, Author, Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems
to point out that a pilot flying a ten or twenty-hour mission just might be less effective than one flying a three- or four-hour mission from a nearby carrier. It seems at least possible that the F-I1I lost in the Libyan strike fell victim, not to local defenses, but rather to the stresses of an over-long mission.
The Air Force argument has another aspect as well, an implicit one. The Air Force has always believed in precision bombing, i.e., that a very few weapons delivered against particular targets will be decisive. Hence its comparison between a single B-2 strike and a single carrier air wing sortie. The Navy view has tended more to skepticism. Targets may not be destroyed on the first pass, and it may be difficult to say just how much of a target has been destroyed. A nearby carrier can conduct bomb damage assessement (BDA). Because the distance to the target is relatively short, it can strike again and again. Some targets are not small points susceptible to single strikes. What is the single point target in a concentration of troops, or tanks?
This is much more than a theological argument. It decides just how carriers and bombers are to be compared, and that comparison in turn may well decide the post-glasnost shape of the Navy. Precision bombing is a very attractive idea. It promises the sort of surgical precision which plays well in press conferences, and it seems also to embody the sort of high technology in which the United States has invested so heavily.
Shades of 1949
As the post-glasnost defense debate heats up, the U.S. Air Force is increasingly trying to take over the Navy’s traditional power projection role. This year the Secretary of the Air Force claimed that one squadron of eight B-2 bombers could provide the same power projection firepower as a carrier air wing. Apparently the Air Force drew the conclusion that, from a projection point of view, the eight B-2s—however expensive they might be—were far less expensive than a full carrier battle group. It remains to be seen how well this rather bizarre claim will be accepted in Congress.
The Air Force’s argument assumes that power projection into the Third World can be measured in terms of bomb tonnage delivered in a 0 single sortie. That is naive in several ways. First, most of the time the
United States wishes to persuade—not kill—inhabitants of the Third World. The appropriate tool is presence, i.e., a latent rather than an executed threat. Presence in turn requires visible forces that can remain within striking range of potential targets, whatever the desires of the local government. That means ships, and it generally means ships carrying strike aircraft. Similarly, when a threat actually is executed, as in the strikes against Libya, what counts is not so much the targets actually destroyed as the demonstration that the attackers can come back to strike at will. Long range bombers can indeed reach anywhere in the world, but only at long intervals, and only at excruciating cost—measured in terms of tanker support. Readers may remember the heroic British Vulcan bomber sorties against the Falklands in 1982. After the war, the Royal Air Force made much of the extraordinary airmanship (not to mention the 18 tankers per sortie) involved, but tended to shy away from boasting about the results: a stick of 21 bombs, all of which missed the vital runway. Readers with longer memories may also recall that RAF heavy bombers like the Vulcan were advertised as viable alternatives to the British strike carriers, and that their presence was used to justify the end of the British carrier force.
The Air Force argument is not new. In the 1970s, the Air Force published a study showing that, given aerial refuelling, bombers like the F-lll could strike anywhere in the world from bases on American territory (including Guam), and thus carriers were redundant. The argument failed
The F-l 17 stealth “fighter” exemplifies the Air Force’s ideas. It carries a single 2000 lb laser-guided bomb, plus the appropriate designator; its main sensor is a forward-looking infrared sensor. In a sense, the use of the two F-l 17s in Panama was a rehearsal for the Air Force’s concept of power projection. The airplanes flew from the Continental United States, and thus (at least nominally) were independent of local bases. They hit their pinpoint targets, and then flew back. It was all dramatic, and it seemed to justify the very high cost—about $60 billion—of the F-l 17 program.
In April, it became clear that things had not quite worked as intended. One of the F-l 17s did indeed hit near its intended target, in a rather complicated attempt to stun Panamanian troops without killing most of them. The other hit a golf course a considerable distance away. It later turned out that the targets were switched several times while the two aircraft were in flight, and that one of the pilots did not receive all of the messages. Stealthy operation probably complicated matters, in that the airplanes did not acknowlege receipt of their messages (after all, communications, too, can compromise stealth). The second pilot bombed on the basis of the position of the first bomb, and missed badly.
It also became obvious that this sort of surgical attack is not always particularly effective. The Panamanians were not in their barracks when the bombs hit. The one that burst nearby did not have the intended effect. Single bombs often fail to do what their aimers intend, and post-attack evaluation is vital (though extremely difficult). A few conventional weapons, delivered at great range, cannot be very useful unless their targets are extremely well defined.
The problem is not limited to the Air Force, although the Air Force has been particularly forceful in its advocacy of precision attacks without collateral damage. Cruise missiles also have been sold largely on this basis, and they, too, are limited in their destructive power. After all, ever since 1945 there has been abundant evidence that a few thousand pounds of high explosives, however cleverly delivered, is not the equivalent of, say, a nuclear weapon. Somehow the lesson seems to have been lost.
The situation now recalls that in 1949, when the Air Force claimed that long-range nuclear bombers such as the B-36 could substitute for the very expensive carrier forces the Navy was then trying to build. The Air Force won that fight, only to have its argument disproved when the Korean War began (the Soviets and their Korean proxies turned out not to be deterred by the threat of the B-36 and its bomb). Now the Air Force is trying to win roughly the same fight with a much weaker argument, in. effect that a 2,000-pound laser-guided bomb delivered by a single subsonic fighter-bomber is the functional equivalent of a saturation strike.
Stealth Aircraft or Cruise Missiles?
Also in April, and also connected with the budget war, the Air Force released the details of the F-l 17. It is difficult to avoid wondering just why the airplane was kept so secret for so long. The main secret was aPparently its anti-radar shape, consisting of a number of angled Oat Panels. A prospective adversary could not, however, merely copy the shape, because the airplane is inherently unflyable. It depends heavily on lts quadruplex ily-by-wire control system, which in turn depends on a ‘fcgree of computer sophistication probably unavailable to the Soviets. Almost certainly the real secret of the design was a software package capable of computing radar reflectivity from a complex shape. Comparing the F-l 17 to the later B-2, one would conclude that the B-2 shape is smooth because it was designed at a time when computers were fast enough to treat the shape more as a smooth surface rather than as a series °f discrete facets.
The faceting approach to reduced observability appeared on several Proposed missiles shown at the recent Navy League show in Washington, ^•C. The missile manufacturers are competing for both the long range conventional stand-off weapon (LRCSW) and the advanced interdiction Weapon system (A1WS) contracts. LRCSW is a heavy-payload nonnuclear successor to the non-nuclear land attack version of Tomahawk.
One would also have to draw a wider conclusion, that the high degree °f secrecy surrounding stealth owes much more to interservice politics 'han to any sense of reality. The F-l 17, for example, is a very expensive way to deliver 2,000 pounds of high explosive; a big cruise missile could have done the same job with ease and at far less cost.
The Air Force is the lead service for low-observables technology. It has sought to impose extremely stringent security requirements, and •hose limits have acted against the next-generation Navy attack aircraft, •he A-12. For some months now, the Navy has sought to declassify the A-12, in hopes of justifying the program to Congress which must, after ah, decide whether to pay for it. Reportedly the A-12 package would have been released on I April. The F-l 17 package emerged instead. If, as has been rumored, the A-12 does indeed carry a worthwhile payload, •hen it would have upstaged the diminutive F-l 17, and presumably the Air Force found that intolerable.
All of this begs the question of just how effective (or worth while) stealth is likely to be. Late last year there was speculation that future ■repulse (ultra wide band) radars might be an effective counter to stealth, hut the Air Force announced that its counter-stealth group had found otherwise. At the same time, however, retired Admiral William Crowe agreed that some lower-frequency radars, in current Soviet service, could indeed detect stealthy bombers, but that in a strategic attack these radars would be destroyed by precursor missiles. The radars are not particularly sophisticated, and may currently be in Third World service (the Chinese offer low-frequency air search sets for export). Of course, a strike in the Third World would include nuclear precursors. Certainly.
Satellite Launch by B-52 Significant
In April, a Pegasus rocket launched by a B-52 bomber successfully carried a small Navy satellite into orbit. It was the first such launching, and was significant as a demonstration of an alternative to the heavy satellite-launching rockets (and the Shuttle). The Pegasus, a commercial rocket, cannot carry the sheer tonnage that the larger vehicles carry, but it is much less expensive on a pound for pound basis, since its first stage (the B-52) is entirely re-usable.
This launching seems extremely significant from a military point of view. Space assets, both for communications and for tactical reconnaissance, are not so important that their loss would greatly reduce the effectiveness of any force, such as a deployed battle group. Yet anti-satellite attacks are not too difficult to conduct, and, as the United States has shown, they can be mounted by aircraft. That matters because, unlike heavy rockets, the aircraft are movable; the destruction of a single launching facility probably has little overall impact. Now the Pegasus launching shows that satellite launchers, too, can be made fully mobile. More importantly, a satellite launching facility presumably should now require nothing in the way of specialized ground support.
Hence no single enemy attack on a fixed facility could put the satellitelaunching capability out of action. The potential for such an attack has long been a serious national vulnerability.
One obvious consequence of the Pegasus launch, it would seem, would be that a carrier battle group could launch its own satellite using a high-performance fighter in a zoom maneuver (much like the current fighter-launched anti-satellite weapon). Such a launcher would have almost no impact on the battle group as a whole, since the fighter would revert to conventional status once it had lofted the satellite, and also since the satellite-carrying vehicle could be stowed in the most capacious place in the group, the carrier’s magazine. All of the sea-based alternatives, to fire the satellite from a vertical launching tube or from a submarine or from a specialized launching ship, entail either a serious loss of firepower (vertical launching tubes are limited in number) or a high-cost specialized ship.
The merit of a low-altitude—hence short lifetime—self-contained battle group satellite is that it puts space services directly under the control ol the battle group commander; other satellites are national assets, whose outputs may be assigned to the battle group but which may also be otherwise assigned. The satellites in turn are scarce largely because launching them is so expensive. The cheap aircraft-boosted launching technique should make short-lived satellites inexpensive and therefore practicable. On this basis a satellite dedicated to the near-term needs of a battle group commander becomes a very reasonable proposition.
Soviet Weapons in the Third World
The Soviets appeared at the international military show at Kuala Lumpur in March, displaying a range of land-based surface-to-air missiles, including the SA-16, the latest verison of their hand-held Strela. Previous Soviet military show appearances have been limited to aircraft. The Kuala Lumpur appearance is one more indicator that the Soviets hope to export more weapons into the Third World, not least as a way of making up for their lack of hard currency. From a U.S. point of view, Soviet exports will probably greatly increase the effectiveness of Third World air defense, and so will pose greater threats to any future U.S. carrier air strikes against such nations.
The new spirit of private enterprise has not been altogether well received in the Soviet Union. In December, the KGB intercepted a shipment of T-72 tanks at the Black Sea port of Novorossisk. The story was that they had been sold to France, and exported as fake agricultural machinery. The scandal was widely reported within the Soviet Union, and Prime Minister Ryzhkov was supposedly involved. Now it appears that the scandal was deliberately set up, in hopes of discrediting the new cooperative ventures (one of which was involved).