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By Norman Friedman, author, Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems
The Chinese bought the incomplete Russian aircraft carrier Varyag (sister ship Kuznetsov shown) in late July specifically to help enforce their claim to the Spratly Islands and their large oil reserves; the deal also included 22 Su-27K carrier aircraft.
Because the ship is incomplete, and because the Russian naval arms industry is in some disarray, it is not clear whether the ship will be completed in quite the same form as the Kuznetsov. The sale may explain the sudden agreement between Russia and Ukraine to operate the Black Sea Fleet jointly through 1995; the fate of the Varyag was the main issue of contention. Part of the proceeds of the sale w ill be used to finance Black Sea Fleet operations.
Chinese Buy Russian Carrier
Iranian Air Threat Emerging
In July, the Russian aircraft industry made its largest sale to date—a $2.5 billion deal with Iran. The sale included 12 Tu- 22M Backfires, the first of their kind to be exported anywhere, Plus examples of a new type of maritime reconnaissance aircraft, a variant of the An-72. The package also included 24 MiG-31 interceptors (with 2 Mainstay airborne radar-control aircraft), 48 MiG-29 air-superiority fighters, and 24 MiG-27 ground-attack fighters, plus a variety of surface-to-air missile batteries (long- range, fixed-site SA-5s and SA-11 and SA-13 mobile weapons). Unlike the bargain-basement prices described in an earlier column, these include post-sale service and spare parts. Even on that basis, the sale is still a considerable bargain.
The Russians have also agreed to help rehabilitate the large fleet of ex-Iraqi aircraft that fell into Iranian hands during the Gulf War. Moreover, the combination of SA-5 long-range missiles, interceptors, and airborne early-warning radar aircraft suggests that Iran is buying a Russ- 'an-style integrated air defense system, a package that would go considerably beyond the $2.5 billion.
Although not included in the announced package, the Backfire deal almost certainly includes AS-6 antiship missiles. They are the bomber’s standard armament; the alternative modular bomb- bay for gravity bombs seems a poor way to use s° expensive an airplane. After all, the Soviets Provided air-to-surface antiship missiles (AS-1 and AS-5) when they sold Badgers—the Backfire’s predecessor—to Egypt and Indonesia.
The only alternative to the Backfire/AS-6 package currently on offer is the Chinese B-6 (Bad- 8er)/C601 (Silkworm) combination. Thus far it fias been exported only to Iraq, and the aircraft involved were destroyed during the Gulf War. In any case, this combination falls far short of the fiackfire/AS-6 combination; the C601 is comparable to the U.S. Harpoon in range, though it caries a much larger warhead.
The AS-6 is a fast, steep-diving missile, that can be fired from well beyond a battle group’s antiaircraft envelope; it was in part responsible firr stimulating intense U.S. Navy interest in what came to be called the outer air battle. Given geography of the Persian Gulf, the AS-6 could be launched at a target anywhere in the Gulf by an Iranian Backfire flying in its own air space.
Gulf navy has anything remotely like the sort °f long-range defensive missile required to provide defense in depth against such a weapon. The only point defense missiles Currently in use in any Gulf navy are the French Crotale and Mistral.
. The An-72 radar-control variant aircraft adds a new twist. It ls intended to search electro-optically, and data-link its pictures down to a command center that would send in the Backfires. Such search techniques are limited in range, and weather can
negate them altogether. But they are passive, and thus do not alert the potential target. Perhaps the Mainstays are intended to provide initial target detection, using their big long-range radars, cuing the An-72s. Electro-optical searches can be quite accurate, but the searcher must know its position very precisely: the An-72s will have inertial navigation systems.
The Russian aircraft industry has long shown a flair for advertising and for export sales apparently lacking in the Russian naval industry. For example, it has exhibited its wares at the main Western air shows, Paris and Farnborough, and held its own big Moscow air show last month. As a consequence, Western understanding of Russian aircraft and air-launched missiles is substantially better than Western knowledge of the corresponding shipborne weapons.
All of this suggests that the Backfire/An-72/AS-6 combination will be marketed aggressively. It will be attractive, if only because it promises Third World countries a way of countering
the favored U.S. means of power projection, the carrier battle group. The U.S. literature on carrier battle group air defense is itself a sort of advertisement for this product.
U.S. readers should remember that most Third World regimes are now unhappily aware that there is no longer any counterbalance to U.S. military pressure. U.S. professions of totally peaceful intent, or policy statements limiting us to working within the United Nations, will not affect this perception. To most
r°ceedings / September 1992
regimes, the United States is a profoundly subversive force, pressing upon them the terrifying concept of democracy. In the past, the Russians provided such regimes with two means of resisting U.S. political pressure. One was to side with the United States against the Russians, and thus to receive support. The other was to side with the Russians, and thus receive direct military insurance (albeit at a high cost in local political control).
Now both possibilities have melted away. The crushing defeat of Iraq showed clearly that even before their Union dissolved, the Russians no longer had the heart to protect their former client states. With the Cold War buried, strategic position had lost much of its attraction. The Russians are most unlikely to recover quickly enough to provide one, whatever the future of their current revolution.
For its part, the United States has very real reasons to want to be able to influence events in many Third World countries. It is most unlikely to undertake the democratic crusade some of its citizens favor (and many regimes fear), but the United States economy is inescapably tied to that of the Third World. Third World eruptions often affect this country directly, not least in creating waves of refugees.
There cannot be any legitimate restriction on sales of the Back- fire/AS-6 combination. The main effect of the collapse of Soviet ideology is that it will surely be offered on a nonideological basis. The total price of the Iranian deal suggests that the bombers went for well under $100 million each, an excellent price.
Such sales should change our own perception of the likely post-Cold War naval air threat. In the past, it was generally assumed that the attackers would be limited to short-range standoff missiles such as Exocet and Harpoon, so that they would have to come within the effective range of SM-2 missiles. It seemed that the outer air battle, the attempt to shoot down the bombers before they could drop their missiles, was almost an obsolete idea, limited to fighting the one least-likely enemy— the former Soviet Union. Because of this, not only was the F-14D cancelled, but also the program to develop a Phoenix successor—the advanced air-to-air missile (AAAM). The much shorter range F/A-18 and advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) combination seemed to offer enough range.
After all, who but the ex-Soviets would challenge us with exotica such as Backfires and long-range antiship missiles?
Now we have a possible answer. The Iranians may not consider our carriers the likely targets of their weapons, but it now seems clearer that they want to be able to dominate the Persian Gulf. The Backfires and the new Kilo-class submarines announce that intention. Moreover, the Backfire sale is likely to be repeated elsewhere.
Now it may seem rather premature to have dispensed with the outer air battle and its new air-to-air missile.
Europe Cuts Defense
The European follies continue. All of the European economies continue in recession, and with the decline of the Cold War, defense is the most attractive area in which to cut. Arguments that jobs must be saved run into the claim that money spent on defense produces far fewer jobs than money spent on the civilian side of the economy. The argument that defense research and development (R&D) is often a valuable driver for the economy as a whole, which certainly seems to have been valid in the United States, seems to have few advocates in Europe. That may be partly because European R&D budgets were often quite small—the United States did the bulk of fundamental R&D within NATO—and also partly because in Great Britain, the one country with very substantial fundamental defense R&D, the
government long sought to prevent any technology transfer to the civilian sector.
At the beginning of July, the Germans withdrew from the pro- j gram to develop a new European Fighter Aircraft (EFA). They | argued that the multinational program was far too expensive and EFA far too elaborate; surely something simpler and cheaper could be had. Behind the argument was the continued strain of meeting the costs of reclaiming the former East Germany. Moreover, with a constitution firmly rejecting any kind of overseas military operation, and with the threat from the East largely neutralized, many Germans question the sheer size of the current budget. Just how much is really needed in the way of sophisticated aircraft? Germany has already dropped plans to buy a new maritime patrol aircraft (which would have been a variant of the stillborn U.S. P-7 A) to replace its current Atlantiques. |
The EFA had other political resonances. It was a British-Ital- ian-Spanish-German program that excluded France, which had decided to build the Rafale, its own next-generation fighter. Within the European Community, however, France and Germany j have been close, both economically and militarily. For example, the two countries plan to field a mixed ground force by 1995, a plan apparently calculated to undermine NATO. At the same ' time that Germany withdrew from EFA, it saved a Franco-Ger- j man project, the supersonic antiship missile (ANS), by pouring money into it; and some of the money came from the EFA ac- j count. It would not be surprising if Germany decided to buy the Rafale as its next fighter.
The EFA itself was conceived as a follow-on to the Tornado fighter program. Such programs are notoriously expensive because they entail duplication of many facilities, including production and test lines, and because decisions are made so slowly. Because several countries shoulder the total burden of the program, however, they can be less expensive on a country-by-country basis. Backers have claimed, moreover, that without the EFA Europe as a whole will lose its ability to develop modern fighter aircraft, an ability that preserves its capacity for independent action.
This argument is unlikely to save the airplane. The British j Treasury, in the past an implacable enemy of the Royal Navy, would be glad to cut the EFA. Italy is in deep financial crisis, its government under intense pressure to cut spending and to pri- | vatize the many government-owned companies, which are often used for political patronage. Unless EFA has an enormous ex- ‘ port potential in the Third World, neither country is likely to recoup anything from a very large investment. The number of jobs involved is not enormous (the British figure, widely believed overstated, was 40,000). The Russians can already supply mod- j em aircraft far more cheaply, as in the case of Iran, and the EFA is not much more impressive than such current U.S. products as the F-16 and F/A-18. It will be completely outperformed by ' the F-22, which, however, may not be exportable.
British writers have argued that Britain is likely to maintain . its power-projection role, and will need a high-performance fighter to deal with possible Third World adversaries. To the extent that the Gulf War was a special case, however, future power projection is more likely to involve shipboard than land-based aircraft. That would suggest that a high-performance follow-on to the Sea Harrier, which Italy and Spain would also use, would be more valuable than EFA. After all, a really powerful con- j ventional fighter can probably already take off from the 12 ski jumps of an Invincible- or Principe de Asturias-class carrier; the Russians showed us how on the Kuznetzov, the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi's 6° ski jump is probably not adequate. The future European fighter, then, may be an advanced short takeoff-vertical landing (ASTOVL) aircraft, flying from a carrier that may or may not incorporate catapults.
Proceedings / September 1992