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Putin's Missiles Misfire, Kill Iranian Sheep

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Unnamed U.S. Defense Department officials are telling U.S. cable news outlet CNN that at least four of the twenty-six Russian Kalibr NK cruise missiles launched during yesterday’s attack on Syria crashed in Iran. The Russian Ministry of Defense immediately and strongly denied the Pentagon’s claims on its official Facebook page. It is not possible to independently verify either side’s claims.

That being said, it is not exactly that uncommon for cruise missiles to go astray—especially since Russia has never fired the Kalibr during actual combat operations until now. But Iranian defense officials, per Russian reports, said that the charges that the missiles fell short were “psychological war.” A Russian defense official stated that “all missiles launched from our ships have found their targets.” Yet before American officials had made the accusation, and before the Russians and Iranians had denied it, multiple local Iranian news sources had reported on crashes of unidentified aircraft in northwestern Iran—in other words, precisely where we’d expect Russian cruise missiles to be flying.

On Wednesday, Golan Saqqez reported on the crash of an unmanned aircraft near a village in Ziviyeh District, Saqqez County, Kurdistan Province, saying that the parts of the aircraft were taken to the local Revolutionary Guards for analysis. And earlier this morning, Takht News reported and published photos related to the crash of an “unidentified flying object” close to a village in Takab County, West Azerbaijan Province—in other words, within the county just north of the other reported crash site. This crash was reportedly accompanied by an explosion that injured two villagers, broke most of the windows in the village, and killed, according to another source, four sheep. The explosion could apparently be heard in other villages nearby. As with the other case, security forces took away debris; photographs showed only a crater.

Both crashes were reported to have occurred at the same time: six in the morning on Wednesday. The local news outlets appeared to believe the aircraft were crashed drones, possibly Israeli ones. Yet the timing, and the massive explosion in Takab County, suggest that these were Russian missiles. If Russia’s defense ministry really does believe that all the missiles found their intended targets, those sheep must have been up to something. Or, perhaps, this was a Russian overture to GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, who takes a tough line on Putin—and on sheep.  

In any case, it should not come as a surprise that some number of Russian cruise missiles might have suffered from malfunctions. There are duds in every batch of advanced weapons and most systems—regardless of manufacturer or national origin—never actually perform as advertised in real world settings. In fact, a large number of Raytheon Tomahawks malfunctioned during the initial stages of Operation Desert Storm and later during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

During the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. Navy tried to launch 297 Tomahawks. Of those, according to naval analyst Norman Friedman, in his book Desert Victory - The War for Kuwait, 282 started off toward their targets successfully, but some didn’t make it. Nine Tomahawks failed to launch while a further six hit the water after leaving the missile tubes. The Iraqi defended shot down as many as six of the Tomahawks enroute to their targets. Later in 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, at least ten Tomahawk missiles malfunctioned and crashed in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Over the years since it was first used in combat, the Tomahawk has been greatly upgraded. Early versions of the missile did not have global positioning system (GPS) correction capability for their navigation system. The Tomahawk is primarily guided by inertial navigation, and prior to the advent of GPS, it used a terrain contour matching radar to correct its course. As such, during Desert Storm, those weapons actually overflew Iran—possibly with Tehran’s tacit consent—before turning back towards Baghdad, because the featureless Iraqi desert didn’t offer enough terrain data to perform course corrections. Later version of the Tomahawk added GPS course correction and even offer the ability to be retargeted in-flight. Overall Tomahawk success rates sit at roughly eighty percent or so.

The bottom line is that while it is not certain that some of Russia’s cruise missiles may have malfunctioned, it would not be surprising. There are duds amongst every type of weapon delivered to every country’s military on Earth, but Russia often does not test its weapons as rigorously as the Pentagon. That means that while Russian weapons might be delivered sooner, there are more bugs to work out after new hardware enters service.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

John Allen Gay, an associate managing editor at The National Interest. He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Peter Shanks


Cruise Missile Strikes in Syria: Russia's Big Ad Campaign?

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The Russian navy’s Caspian Sea flotilla launched a barrage of some twenty-six long-range cruise missiles against eleven targets more than 950 miles away in Syria yesterday. While it’s well known that Russia possesses long-range cruise missiles, the fact that the missiles were launched from relatively diminutive corvettes that caught some by surprise.

While the roughly 1,900-ton displacement Project 1166.1 Gepard-class frigate Dagestan led the Russian cruise missile strike, the rest of Moscow’s fleet consisted of tiny 950-ton Project 2163.1 Buyan-M-class corvettes. Three of these vessels, Grad Sviyazhsk, Uglich and Veliky Ustyug took part in the attack using long-range Novator 3M-14T Kalibr NK land attack cruise missiles.

The Kalibr NK has a range of about 1,500 miles, cruises about 150ft off the surface of the Earth and can hit a target within nine feet of its aim-point with its roughly 1000lbs warhead. The weapon is also purported to have a supersonic terminal phase. The missile is supposedly able to hit speeds of Mach 2.9—but concrete data is hard to come by and it is not certain every variant has that capability. The anti-ship version—called the SS-N-27 Sizzler by NATO—is particularly worrisome because it can pop-up from its usual sea-skimming flight path to drive nearly vertically onto a target, which makes it difficult to intercept.

The Kalibr NK affords even the relatively tiny Buyan-M-class corvettes the kind of long-range land attack punch usually only found on much larger warships. In fact, the Buyan-M’s eight Kalibr missiles give it a heavier long-range punch than the U.S. Navy’s now-retired Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate and certainly much more firepower than either version of the service’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS)—the surface warfare module for which is currently lacking anti-ship missile or any meaningful land-attack capability (it was designed to hunt small boats). A follow-on frigate version of the LCS will have more long-range firepower—but it’s not clear what its armament will look like.

In fact, the only operational U.S. Navy surface combatants that pack that kind of firepower are the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers—which are, of course, much larger and many times more expensive. Those ships carry the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile but only some of them are equipped with the shorter-range Harpoon anti-ship missile. But even with that armament, in recent years, it has become clear that the U.S. Navy has underinvested in anti-ship missiles. The result is that American warships are dangerously “out-sticked” by Russian and Chinese vessels. The U.S. Navy expects to address the problem with the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW)/Increment 2 anti-ship missile while the Tomahawk will also eventually be replaced with a next-generation cruise missile. 

Why the Russians chose to use the Caspian Sea flotilla to launch the attack is unclear. Another mystery is why the lake-based fleet packs so much long-range land attack firepower—who were the Russians expecting to fight? Many will point out that the Project 1164 Atlant Slava-class missile cruiser Moskva is sitting off the Syrian coast along with a number of other vessels. Superficially, Moskva is a more logical choice for attacking Syrian-based targets. But the while the massive 11,000-ton cruiser possesses formidable anti-ship and anti-aircraft capabilities with its sixteen P-500 Bazalt long-range anti-ship missiles and battery of sixty-four S-300 surface-to-air missiles, it does not have much in the way of land-attack capability. The Soviets designed the Slava-class cruisers to attack American aircraft carrier battle groups out in the open ocean rather than to strike land targets (However, the other vessels in Moskva’s task force might be equipped with land-attack cruise missiles). So the Caspian Sea flotilla might have been the closest assets with the right weapons for the job at hand.

While Russia might or might not have had valid military reasons for using the Caspian Sea flotilla against its enemies in Syria, there is an added benefit for Moscow. The cruise missile attack showcases the formidable capabilities of the Kalibr NK—shorter-range versions of which are available for export. Russia also demonstrated that one does not need to own a missile cruiser or destroyer to own a very formidable warship. As this raid amply demonstrated, the Buyan-M offers excellent capability at low cost. The ship is available for export—which buyers who need potent naval capabilities but don’t have a large budget are certain to notice.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.


How Russia Could Win the Battle for Syria

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Some analysts expect that the Russian air strikes in Syria may be more effective than the U.S.-led air campaign for a simple reason, which is that Moscow enjoys close cooperation with the Syrian regime’s ground forces. “The Western campaign against ISIS has failed because there is no human intelligence there,” Royal United Services Institute analyst Kamal Alam said, speaking at an event held at the Center for the National Interest—which is the Washington D.C., foreign policy think-tank that publishes TNI—on Oct. 7. “The Russians are going to be more embedded with the Syrians.”

The lack of ground forces to identify ground targets has palpably bedeviled the U.S. air campaign for over a year since it started in mid-2014. While the U.S. military has a variety of means to gather intelligence in Iraq and Syria—which includes satellites, airborne and other technical means for collecting of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data—precise targeting in densely populated areas with civilians present often poses enormous challenges for analysts trying to differentiate between friend and foe. It’s often a challenge compounded by the fact that U.S. intelligence assets have been stretched thin in recent years as demand far outstrips supply. But it must be noted that Moscow’s forces have not shown  much regard for minimizing collateral damage in previous years—so it may not be as serious an issue for the Russian military.

Meanwhile, Iranian forces have been embedding themselves ever deeper with the Assad’s forces, said American Enterprise Institute fellow Matthew McInnis, who also spoke at the event. Iranian forces provide much of the strategic leadership, tactical guidance and intelligence for the Syrian army even if they don’t fight on the frontlines, he noted. It is unclear if the Iranians will help with coordinating Russian air strikes with the Syrians. The Syrian forces seem to resent Iranian control, McInnis said. Indeed, Russia’s intervention might serve to undermine Iran’s efforts even if they share similar goals for now, he said.

Last November during a visit to the U.S. Air Force’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va., intelligence analysts described the challenges they face working without help from having U.S. boots on the ground. One analyst told me that in places like Syria and Iraq, it is very difficult to tell an ISIS militant apart from a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter or a member of an allied Iraqi or Syrian militia. “Ultimately, that’s where additional intelligence comes in,” she told reporters.

480th ISR Wing Commander Col. Tim Haugh noted that during the occupation of Iraq, U.S. Army units would have been in the area providing on-the-ground reports—and more. “The other things we get in addition to human intelligence is just the presence on the ground,” he said. “So if we were looking at something on a street corner, and we were not sure what that was, there was a possibility at that time that there would have been an Army unit that had gone through that neighborhood.”

With no ground units available, Air Force analysts typically rely on the local U.S. embassy in a targeted country. However, in Syria, there is no U.S. diplomatic presence in Syria to speak of while the U.S. embassy in Iraq is located in Baghdad—far away from ISIS-occupied territory. “You could have a dialogue with them to get context,” Haugh said. “There is no [Army or Marine] captain on the ground to talk to.”

There is no evidence that Russian special operations forces are on the ground providing targeting data, said Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, who also spoke at the event. Instead, the Russian air force seems to be relying on Syrian troops for intelligence.

For the Russians, the cooperation with Syrian ground force helps with their targeting, but it also means that Russian forces are likely to engage immediate threats to the Assad’s army first. “What they are saying is that they are unique because they have been invited by the Syrian government,” Saunders said. “They think that their airstrikes are going to be more effective because they are coordinating with Syrian forces on the ground.” Overall, the Russians appear to be positioning themselves to influence a negotiated end to the Syrian conflict once they are assured their interests are taken into account. “The Russian government is not going to commit enough forces to decide the conflict,” Saunders said.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Wikicommon/Vitaly Kuzmin

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle EastRussia

Russia's Secret Weapon against ISIS: Electronic Spies in Syria

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Russia’s electronic spies have become a key part of Moscow’s surge into Syria. The signal spooks are searching for targets and following up on air strikes.

On Sept. 30, Russian fighter-bombers and ground attackers began launching aerial attacks across the embattled country. On Oct. 7, the Kremlin announced that four warships in the Caspian Sea had lobbed nearly 30 cruise missiles—which zipped through Iranian and Iraqi airspace to reach their final destinations—as part of the ongoing offensive.

And since the beginning, the Kremlin’s spy planes and other intelligence gathering systems appear to have been keeping watch.

“Earlier featured footage of #ISIS vehicles destruction is now confirmed by militants radio talks and other reconnaissance sources,” reads the caption of an official Russian Ministry of Defense video showing an Su-24M Fencer carrying out a strike—seen below—uploaded to YouTube on Oct. 5. “Near Kafar Aouid two Su-25 engaged an ISIS field camp, where radio recon proved presence of foreign militants,” Russian authorities posted on Twitter the next day.

While Moscow has not identified its reconnaissance platforms, pictures of Russian Il-20M Coots flying over the battlefield have popped up on social media. Based on the Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop airliner, these four-engined planes are rough equivalents to the U.S. Air Force’s family of RC-135 aerial spies.

David Cenciotti, an independent journalist, noted the deployment and explained some of the Il-20’s capabilities on his blog The Aviationist before the Russian strikes actually kicked off:

Along with the 28 combat planes that have arrived at al-Assad International Airport via Iran hiding under Il-76 cargo planes last week, the Russian Air Force has deployed at least one Il-20 Coot surveillance plane to Syria.Even though satellite imagery has not yet unveiled its presence on an apron at the airfield near Latakia, an Il-20 Coot spyplane has already arrived in Syria to reinforce the Russian contingent, according to one of our sources.

The Il-20 is an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) platform: it is equipped with a wide array of antennas, IR (Infrared) and Optical sensors, a SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and satellite communication equipment for real-time data sharing, the aircraft is Russian Air Force’s premiere spyplane.

Cenciotti pointed out that the Coots have a habit of flying with their transponders off over the Baltic Sea. This has led to a number of close encounters with civilian planes, and similar habits could be equally dangerous in Syria’s increasingly congested skies.

But flying spooks aren’t the only spy gear Russia is sending to the region. Earlier in October, a number of Russian media outlets reported that the spy ship Vasiliy Nikititch Tatischev was on its way to help in Syria.

Damascus’ official Syrian Arab News Agency eventually picked up on the story:

A Russian military source said that the Russian ship Vasily Tatishchev left the Baltic Sea heading towards the eastern side of the Mediterranean.

The military source told reporters in the city of Kaliningrad on Monday that the ship headed towards the Syrian coast where it will join a group of ships in the eastern side of the Mediterranean to enhance capacities in accordance with their specialized tasks.

The ship’s crew will observe the situation and monitor its details in the Syrian airspace as well as in the spaces of all the surrounding countries and regional water, the source added.

The source stressed that such a trip by ships from the Baltic Sea Fleet is a normal routine mission for monitoring and observing, pointing out that those ships once successfully monitored the war in Yugoslavia.

Despite these assurances, Vasiliy Nikititch Tatischev‘s appearance in the area seems anything but routine. Built for the Soviet navy in the 1980s, the seven Project 864 Vishnya-class vessels are purpose-built to scoop up radio chatter and other electronic information. With Moscow highlighting the use of signals intelligence, it’s unlikely the 3,400-ton ships are there to simply monitor the situation.

Russia has a long history of supporting the Syrian government with signals snooping. In October 2014, the Free Syrian Army fighters uploaded a video to YouTube claiming to show them in control of a shared Russian-Syrian intelligence facility identified as “Center S.”

The Oyrx Blog, an independent entity that monitors and analyzes social media postings relating to the conflict, dug into the video:

On the 5th of October 2014, the Free Syrian Army captured the … Center S SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) facility … jointly operated by the Russian Osnaz GRU radio electronic intelligence agency and one of the Syrian Intelligence Agencies … Situated near al-Hara, the facility was of vital importance for the Assad regime as it was responsible for recording and decrypting radio communications from every rebel group operating inside Syria, making it likely the Russian-gathered information at this facility was at least partially responsible for the series of killings of rebel leaders by airstrikes.

Translation from 3:08; “A directive issued by the surveillance office on May 31 to eavesdrop and record all radio communications of the terrorist groups, directive signed by Brig. Gen. Nazir Fuddah, commander of the first center.”

The facility was recently upgraded and expanded by Russia to provide Syria and Iran with situational awareness of the Middle East. After the upgrade, which took from January to mid-February, it reportedly covered the whole of Israel and Jordan and a large part of Saudi Arabia. According to the report, the upgrade was a reaction to Iranian concern of the facility being too much focused on the Syrian Civil War, neglecting espionage on Israel. New equipment and additional personnel was thus added to the base. As only static and worn out looking sensors were captured, the more modern equipment and Russian personnel were undoubtedly evecuated [sic] days or weeks before.

The Kremlin’s deployment of the Coots and the Vasiliy Nikititch Tatischev will perhaps make up for the loss of land-based outposts. Whatever the case, Moscow’s electronic spies will no doubt be busy for the foreseeable future.

Joseph Trevithick is a contributing author for War Is Boring.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on War Is Boring. You can find it here.

Image: Flickr/Dmitri Terekhov


Why China's Nuclear Subs Are Subpar

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Over the past two decades, the People’s Republic of China has made great advances in its military capabilities. However, it still lags woefully behind in developing nuclear-powered submarines. The problem for the Chinese is that they lack the necessary quieting and propulsion technologies to build anything remotely comparable to an American or Russian nuclear submarine.

Even the newest Chinese Jin-class ballistic nuclear missile submarines and improved Shang-class nuclear attack submarines are louder than 1970s-era Soviet-built Victor III-class attack submarine or the Delta III-class boomer, according to the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence. In fact, even China’s forthcoming Type 95 will be louder than the Soviet Union’s Project 971 Shchuka-B-class submarines—better know by its NATO reporting name Akula I. Nor is it likely that the Type 96 nuclear-power ballistic missile submarine will be any better. Chinese diesel submarines are, of course, another matter entirely.

But why are the Chinese lagging behind in nuclear submarines when they seem to be advancing in leaps and bounds in almost every other field? I asked several of the best U.S. naval experts why that’s the case.

Jerry Hendrix, a former Navy captain, director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security had this to say:

It’s a two-part answer. One, noise-quieting technologies is one area where we have been particularly careful not to let out. Still, the Russians have not made any prohibitions against sharing some particular technologies and their export Kilos are pretty quiet so that leads you to the second answer: The Chinese maritime manufacturing techniques are not yet adapted to submarines.  Their stuff is still pretty noisy. That’s all I can really go into.

Bryan McGrath is the deputy director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower and the managing director of the The FerryBridge Group naval consultancy. He’s also a retired Navy commander. He had this to say:

China's nuclear submarine program lags other areas of its naval prowess for two primary reasons. The first is that until twenty years ago, designing and building nuclear submarines simply was not a priority. The second reason is related to the first, and that is the fact that designing and building nuclear submarines is an extremely difficult technical undertaking. That they decided to feature nuclear submarines twenty years ago did not instantly result in the requisite skills to effectively and efficiently build them. These will take time, focus and very likely, a stepped-up industrial espionage program to attain.

Bryan Clark is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He was a special assistant to the chief of naval operations and was a Navy submarine officer. He offered his take:

Nuclear submarines have not been a priority for China, since the advantages they offer over diesel or air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines (greater endurance, speed, and capacity) are not as significant for the missions they have used their submarines to do, such as coastal defense against enemy surface ships and surveillance. Current Chinese diesel submarines like the Song are not as advanced as their European counterparts, but they are effective in this role and appear to be reliable enough for those missions; China's Kilo-class submarines are able to carry the very lethal SS-N-27 anti-ship cruise missile. China's newest AIP submarine, the Yuan, is reported to have modern combat systems and be able to deploy missiles, torpedoes, and mines as well. The recent increase in emphasis on nuclear submarines is coming as China attempts to increase its reach and role in geopolitical affairs. Today, they are developing an SSBN and a new class of nuclear attack submarine in line with their effort to deploy a “blue-water” Navy and desire to have a second strike nuclear capability on par with other great powers.

Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and frequent TNI contributor, summed it up succinctly: “One word: propulsion!”

“Submarines suitable for comprehensive blue water operations must be nuclear-powered, energy-dense, and quiet,” Erickson wrote recently for TNI. “China has struggled in these and related areas. And it can’t simply draw on its burgeoning civilian nuclear industry because the technologies and skill sets are so different.” China can’t use the lessons learnt on its civilian land-based high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs) because those systems lack the energy density for naval applications.


Russia's Half-Baked Air War in Syria

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Russian forces in Syria appear to be using a mix of precision-guided munitions (PGM) and “dumb” unguided weapons over that war-ravaged nation.

While U.S. officials say that the Russian forces are dropping unguided weapons, Russian footage and imagery from Syria shows that at least some of the weapons being dropped are precision-guided. While it is impossible to independently verify what kind of munitions the Russians are using short of being on the ground in Latakia, there may be an explanation for the diverging narratives.

The first Persian Gulf War in 1991 is often regarded as the first precision-guided munitions (PGM) conflict (though laser-guided bombs made their debut in Vietnam). People around the world watched footage of laser-guided bombs precisely hitting target as small as a window in downtown Baghdad on CNN from the comfort of their own homes. At the time, that was unprecedented, but these days, of course that’s commonplace.

What is less commonly known outside defense and national security circles is that only a tiny fraction of the weapons used during Operation Desert Storm were precision-guided weapons. The overwhelming majority of the weapons used during the Gulf War were simple unguided dumb bombs. Out of all the weapons dropped by U.S. forces, only about nine percent were precision-guided munitions according to the Pentagon’s Gulf War Airpower Survey.

More than half of the PGMs used during the Gulf War consisted of Tomahawk cruise missiles, B-52-launched AGM-86C Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCM), AGM-65 Mavericks, AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles and the AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles according to the document. Laser-guided bombs—which most people saw working their magic on T.V.—accounted for less than half of that total, yet they caused about three-quarters of the damage to the most important Iraqi targets.

In the years since then, U.S. forces have greatly increased the percentage of PGMs used during the various wars of the past twenty-five years—particularly since the introduction of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). The JDAM—which is a Boeing-built kit—enables U.S. forces to rapidly convert general-purpose bombs into all-weather PGMs at relative low cost. The JDAM—and other weapons like it—have enabled the Pentagon to move to a situation where more than eighty percent of the weapons dropped by U.S. forces are PGMs.

The Russian are might be in a situation where they only have a relatively small stock of PGMs available. Moreover, the Russians might not want or even be able to afford to use up their PGM stockpiles in Syria. Indeed, U.S. allies in Europe were running critically short of PGMs during the 2011 Libya campaign—which was a very limited campaign against a relatively primitive enemy. Even the U.S. military has run low on certain types of PGMs at times given the ridiculously high ops-tempo that the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps air arms have seen over the past two decades.

Thus while the Russian have been seen deploying weapons like the KAB-500 and KAB-250—which comes in laser, electro-optical and satellite-guided variants—on their Sukhoi Su-34 Fullbacks or the Kh-29 and Kh-25 on the Su-24 Fencer and Su-25 Frogfoot, the Russians might be using those weapons sparingly for reasons known only to them. Similarly, the air-superiority oriented Su-30SM Flankers have not been seen carrying the R-77 active radar-guided air-to-air missiles in Syria but rather the older less-capable R-27 missile.

But relying on unguided dumb bombs means that accuracy necessarily suffers and the risk to the pilots flying those missions increases. “The nice thing about precision weapons is you don’t have to be as good as with general purpose bombs/weapons,” a senior naval aviator told me. “Laser-guided bombs and GPS-enabled weapons make delivery much simpler.”

Indeed, as the Gulf War Airpower Survey notes, manual bombing without precision-guided weapons work best at altitudes below 10,000ft above ground level. But while accuracy is increased when flying below 10,000ft, aircraft operating at those altitudes are vulnerable to ground fire for guns—even small arms—and man-portable surface-to-air missiles. Above that, even at altitudes between 10,000ft and 15,000ft accuracy suffers greatly even as survivability is greatly increased as the Pentagon discovered. 

The Russians are likely facing that same dilemma in Syria. But then in previous years, Russian forces have not shown much concern about causing collateral damage even domestically inside Russia itself. Russian forces more or less flattened the city of Grozny during the various conflicts in Chechnya. It’s not likely that the Russians hold Syrians in higher regard.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Dmitriy Pichugin


Revealed: Japan's Secret Weapon to Destroy China's J-20 and J-31

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Japan is set to acquire four Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes airborne early warning aircraft that would nullify the threat of Chinese stealth fighters and afford it a potent missile defense capability. The new aircraft is equipped with a powerful hybrid mechanical/electronically scanned UHF-band radar that will be able to tie into the U.S. Navy’s state-of-the-art Naval Integrated Fire Control—Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network.

Japan’s purchase of the E-2D is significant because the capabilities of those two key features. The E-2D’s Lockheed Martin AN/APY-9 UHF-band radar is the central feature of the Advanced Hawkeye. Both friend and foe alike have touted UHF radars as an effective countermeasure to stealth technology. One early public example of that is a paper prepared by Arend Westra that appeared in the National Defense University’s Joint Forces Quarterly academic journal in the 4th quarter issue of 2009. “It is the physics of longer wavelength and resonance that enables VHF and UHF radar to detect stealth aircraft,” Westra wrote in his article titled Radar vs. Stealth.

UHF-band radars operate at frequencies between 300MHz and 1GHz, which results in wavelengths that are between 10 centimeters and one meter long. Typically, due to the physical characteristics of fighter-sized stealth aircraft, they must be optimized to defeat higher frequencies in the Ka, Ku, X, C and parts of the S-bands.

There is a resonance effect that occurs when a feature on an aircraft—such as a tail-fin tip— is less than eight times the size of a particular frequency wavelength. That omnidirectional resonance effect produces a “step change” in an aircraft’s radar cross-section. Effectively what that means is that small stealth aircraft that do not have the size or weight allowances for two feet or more of radar absorbent material coatings on every surface are forced to make trades as to which frequency bands they are optimized for.

That would include aircraft like the Chengdu J-20, Shenyang J-31, Sukhoi PAK-FA and indeed the United States’ own Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Only very large stealth aircraft without protruding empennage surfaces — like the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit or the forthcoming Long Range Strike-Bomber — can meet the requirement for geometrical optics regime scattering. Effectively, that means the E-2D’s AN/APY-9 radar can see stealth aircraft like the J-20 or J-31.

Pentagon and industry officials concede that low-frequency radars operating in the VHF and UHF bands can detect and even track low-observable aircraft—that’s just physics. But conventional wisdom has always held that such systems cannot generate a “weapons quality” track—or in other words, are unable to guide a missile onto a target. “Poor resolution in angle and range, however, has historically prevented these radars from providing accurate targeting and fire control,” Westra wrote.

However, electronic scanning and new signal processing techniques have mitigated those shortcomings to an extent. And there are other techniques in development, such as linking multiple low-frequency radars via high-speed datalinks, which might enable those radars to generate weapons quality tracks. But industry officials say those technologies are not ready for prime time.

Yet, the U.S. Navy and Lockheed may have already solved the problem. The service openly talks about the E-2D’s role as the central node of its NIFC-CA battle network to defeat enemy air and missile threats. Indeed, Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy’s director of air warfare, described the concept in detail to myself and my good friend Sam LaGrone at the U.S. Naval Institute just before Christmas in 2013.

Under the NIFC-CA ‘From the Air’ (FTA) construct, the APY-9 radar would act as a sensor to cue Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles for Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets fighters via the Link-16 datalink. Moreover, the APY-9 would also act as a sensor to guide Raytheon Standard SM-6 missiles launched from Aegis cruisers and destroyers against targets located beyond the ships’ SPY-1 radars’ horizon via the Cooperative Engagement Capability datalink under the NIFC-CA ‘From the Sea’ (FTS) construct. In fact, the Navy has demonstrated live-fire NIFC-CA missile shots using the E-2D’s radar to guide SM-6 missiles against over-the-horizon shots—which by definition means the APY-9 is generating a weapons quality track.

For Japan, it is the E-2D’s ability to facilitate over-the-horizon missile shots against supersonic anti-ship missiles, stealthy low-level cruise missiles and theatre ballistic missiles that are of great interest given the growing threat from China and North Korea. The ability to nullify China’s investment in the Chengdu J-20 and J-31 is likely just an added bonus—especially if Japan upgrades its F-15 Eagles and other fighters to take advantage of NIFC-CA.

Indeed, there is a possibility Japan plans to do just that. According to a recent Sept. 25, 2015, story that appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun—which is the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s favored news outlet—Japan is building two Aegis destroyers installed with NIFC-CA. “The Defense Ministry will introduce NIFC-CA capable E-2D airborne early warning aircraft and also plans to install the latest information-sharing system that supports NIFC-CA on two Aegis ships now being built,” the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.

U.S. Navy and Defense Department officials said they would have to defer comment to the Japanese defense ministry. “It's up to the Japanese to decide if they want to discuss numbers and delivery dates,” a Naval Air Systems Command spokesman told me. Nor is manufacturer Northrop Grumman able to comment on the Japanese sale. However, I have learnt that Japan plans to buy four aircraft, which are likely to be delivered in 2019. The Pentagon had notified Congress of a potential sale to Japan of the Advanced Hawkeye earlier this year in June.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.



Warning: Iran Could Already Be Gaming the Nuclear Deal

The Buzz

While the world focused on the escalating Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria, the continuing debate in Tehran over adopting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has gotten a little lost. But listening to the Iranian parliament argue whether the nuclear deal should be adopted—something the US Congress will not get a chance to do—provides great insight into how the leadership intends to implement the deal. Little of this insight is reassuring.

As we approach the deal’s October 19 Adoption Day anticipated by the United Nations Security Council, there is no indication that Iran is backing away from the JCPOA. That has not stopped Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei from letting the parliament and hardline critics have a go at the JCPOA’s flaws, especially if that helps check President Hassan Rouhani’s popular support. The special parliamentary commission established to review the JCPOA has frequently taken an adversarial stance towards the deal and the president over the past few weeks.

Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, a current ally of Rouhani, has rushed the commission’s review under a “double emergency plan” mechanism. The mechanism—which sounds awfully like something from Animal House—is most likely designed to minimize the bloodletting from a drawn out process. Parliamentarian and Commission Spokesman Hossein Naghavi Hosseini stated the final report will likely recommend a resolution that will neither “accept” nor “reject” the nuclear deal, but instead would “provisionally approve” the JCPOA. This gives the parliament its say without hampering the administration’s ability to maneuver.

Once the report is read in parliament, there will be plenty of spin designed to obscure the realities of the deal and appease domestic audiences. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi’s statement that Iran collected samples at the Parchin Military Complex in the absence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cast doubt on the integrity of inspections at the suspect site. It also showed the extent to which concerns of regime legitimacy continue to outweigh appearances in the minds of Iran’s leaders. Expect to see a litany of assertions about what the JCPOA does and does not compel Iran to do. Officials will argue the agreement does not restrict Iran’s missile activity, and that sanctions relief should be immediate per the Supreme Leader’s redlines.

Cherry-picking which parts of the deal will be considered legitimate is one element of a larger approach Tehran appears to be taking with the JCPOA. Supreme Leader Khamenei and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili have argued that because the P5+1 members are only “suspending” the sanction regime rather than removing it, Iran should handle its implementation of the deal in a similar manner. By merely “suspending” its nuclear program, Iran can keep it as reconstitutable as possible. This is easy with some program components, such as centrifuges. Other elements will be more difficult, especially the required reconfiguration of the Arak heavy water research reactor and the reduction of Iran’s uranium stockpile.

The P5+1 and Iran are still negotiating the details of the redesign for the Arak reactor, and Iranian officials have attempted to spin this issue as well. On July 27, Salehi argued that US Secretary of State John Kerry was “mistaken when he said that the Arak Reactor’s core will be removed and filled with concrete.” Salehi emphasized that while that the calandria will be removed, set aside, and filled with concrete—just as Kerry had noted—Iran would retain the option to “install a new reservoir in the place of the old one” should the nuclear deal fail. Regardless of Salehi’s spin, the JCPOA requires that the existing calandria “be made inoperable”. China is coordinating Arak-related talks between Iran and the P5+1, but these details must be worked out prior to Implementation Day, currently expected in early 2016.

Iran’s arrangements for the conversion or transfer of its excess uranium stockpile also remain to be determined. Iran’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA Board of Governors Reza Najafi explained on September 11 that it was “possible” Iran could transfer its excess stockpile to Russia, but noted that Iran was reviewing its “strategies, methods, and options.” He explained, “One existing option is changing and converting stockpiles, and another option is exporting products to other countries.” Recent reports from the sidelines of the September IAEA General Conference indicate that the Russian option is coalescing. Salehi met with Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s nuclear company Rosatom, and discussed the "issue of when, how, and in what manner" to transport enriched uranium to Russia.

It is a good bet that Russia will be the end buyer for the stockpile, just as it is likely that China will play a large role in the redesign of Arak. Iranian officials’ insistence on weighing their options could be seen as simply foot-dragging, or as a prelude to a more serious effort to game the terms of the JCPOA. The Iranian leadership also needs these public debates to prevent Tehran’s compliance with the deal from appearing as capitulation to the West.

Ultimately, Iranian officials will continue spinning statements for domestic audiences, emphasizing the reversibility of those aspects of the nuclear agreement that the P5+1 hoped would be the most irreversible.

J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Tara Beeny is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. This report was produced in cooperation with the Iran Team of the Critical Threats Project. It analyzes the most important Iran news events of the past week and provides an outlook of the regime’s strategic calculus.

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on AEIdeas blog. You can find it here.



Russia Could Fly 96 Sorties a Day over Syria

The Buzz

The Russian expeditionary force in Syria could generate as many as ninety-six fixed-wing combat aircraft sorties per day, assuming they have well-oiled logistics and properly trained maintenance crews. But that is a best-case scenario during a “combat surge”; more realistically, the thirty-two Russian jets at Latakia might be able to generate only twenty sorties per day.

“With thirty-two on the ramp, I think they'll probably be able to fly twenty-four jets per day,” one recently retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot told me. “Depending on sortie duration and whether they're flying at night, they may get between two and four sorties per jet, per day. So I think the range is probably between forty-eight and ninety-six sorties per day.”

But while the Russians might be able to generate as many as ninety-six sorties in a day during a surge, they might not be able to sustain that pace for long. “Whether or not they'll be able to sustain a pace like that will be interesting to watch,” stated the retired fighter pilot.

Another current U.S. Air Force official agreed with the assessment. “That's about right,” the second Air Force official said. “There are a lot of variables though—number of aircrew and maintainers, aerial refueling, distance from airfield to target and the amount of intel on deliberate targets. Some could be flying on-call CAPs [combat air patrols] waiting for targets and flying longer missions while others takeoff on deliberate missions where they take off with pre-designated targets.”

But other U.S. Air Force officials are dubious—given the Russians’ relatively anemic logistical train and the diverse types of aircraft that they have fielded. “I think those numbers are really optimistic,” said a third senior U.S. Air Force official. “If I had thirty-two airplanes and they were all different I think we could—with good logistics—get a four-turn-four from the Su-24s, a four-turn-four from the Su-25s, and two-turn-twos from the Su-30s and Su-34s…. So that’s twenty-four sorties a day.”

Moreover, the Russian aircraft have not been observed flying at night—which cuts down on their sortie generation rate. That has led other Air Force and Marine officials to conclude that the Russians might be flying as few as 20 twenty sorties per day—mostly in pairs and with sporadic support from the four air superiority oriented Su-30SM Flankers. Only some Russian aircraft have been observed carrying KAB-500 satellite-guided bombs or Kh-29 laser-guided missiles. That means that most Russian aircraft have to flying during the day when dropping unguided munitions. “I don’t see them flying at night especially since they’re dropping dumb bombs,” the third official said.

However, the Su-25s might be able generate more sorties than the other aircraft types present at Latakia because they operate differently from typical fighter aircraft. “The Frogfoot would have a whole different operating construct – shorter sorties and ordnance loading requirements,” said a fourth senior U.S. Air Force official. “Perhaps seventy-five percent tail availability, three sorties per day is reasonable.”

U.S. forces are typically able to maintain about seventy percent mission availability during combat surges—but the Russians are not likely to be able to match that. One U.S. Air Force commander said that he was able to keep four F-15C Eagles aloft twenty-four hours a day with twelve deployed aircraft during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The F-15Cs had to fly for six hours per day during those sorties. “With hard work and good logistics, this was comfortable,” the U.S. Air Force official said. “Can the Russians do that? I don't know – their jets are rugged, but like I said, I'm skeptical about logistics.”

U.S. Navy officials offered similar assessments. “We recently took seven top-of-the-line Super Hornets to [Naval Air Station] Fallon [Nevada] for a det,” a senior naval aviator said. “You can safely assuming that a part of the time the seventh jet will be undergoing maintenance, so I suspect the Russians have eight to ten [out of each 12 aircraft detachment of Su-24s and Su-25s] available at any time.”

Like the Air Force officials, U.S. Navy officials questioned how many sorties the Russian forces would be able to fly. “We also flew a five-turn-five-turn-five schedule for fifteen sorties a day,” the naval aviator said. “This was relatively aggressive from a resource standpoint. We’re talking jets, but how many pilots did they bring? What is their maintenance footprint?”

The problem for the Russians is that they have not deployed overseas since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Russian logistics will probably be the long pole in the tent,” the fourth Air Force official said. It’s a problem further compounded by Russia’s use of conscript troops rather than professionals. “They are not used to this like we are. Our maintainers are smart… Not conscripts. They’re motivated and they know the business well,” the third official said. “I don’t think the Russians are dumb, but they’re not Americans.”

The difficulty in gauging the Russians’ sortie generation capability is complex because there are a lot of unknowns. Factors like maintenance efficiency, fuel and weapons availability, parts logistics reach back, and general pilot and maintainer proficiency during surge operations are just a few of the factors that can have a drastic effect impact on sortie generation. The U.S. Air Force has developed its methods after a lot of trial and error—and a lot of practice. “The USAF has a complex method of ensuring it has enough jets and pilots to maintain surge operations, and it relies on bringing enough of these things together in sufficient quantity with well trained operators to implement them,” said a fifth Air Force official. “That's what makes us so good. The synergy between man and machine to endure for the long haul.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Beltyukov


This Could 'Sink' the U.S. Navy's New Aircraft Carriers (And it’s Not China)

The Buzz

The Government Accountability Office has slammed the U.S. Navy for badly managing its plans to buy new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers. Too late to do anything about delays and soaring costs, the top government watchdog hopes the boondoggle will at least be a teachable moment.

In 2009, Newport News Shipbuilding started construction of the first ship in the class, the USS Gerald R. Ford, also known as CVN-78. Scheduled to enter service in May 2016, the vessel may not arrive with key gear and is already $2 billion over budget.

“Budgets set early in the Ford-class program were not realistically achievable and included optimistic delivery dates to the fleet,” Paul Francis, GAO’s managing director of acquisition and sourcing management, bluntly told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 1. “The consequences of this tension have been realized today … with promised levels of capability potentially compromised.”

Having warned of exactly this outcome two years before the Virginia-based shipbuilder laid down CVN-78’s hull, Francis could not help but slip in an “I told you so” up front in the GAO’s full report titled “Poor Outcomes Are the Predictable Consequences of the Prevalent Acquisition Culture.”

“In July 2007, we reported on weaknesses in the Navy’s business case for theFord-class aircraft carrier,” Francis noted to the assembled lawmakers. “Today, all of this has come to pass in the form of cost growth, testing delays and reduced capability – in other words, less for more.”

But at least according to the current requirements, Ford is already 92 percent complete. So, all the Pentagon can do is try to prevent these kind of messes with future members of the class and other big ticket items.

More than a decade ago, the Pentagon started considering replacements for the Navy’s venerable Nimitz-class carriers. In service since 1975, the sailing branch has progressively updated Nimitz and her sisters over the years.

Unfortunately, the basic design imposes significant limits on the scope of any changes. The Navy specifically wanted the Ford class to allow for more dramatic improvements.

Among other features, the new ships have an updated nuclear reactor, bigger flight decks, an electromagnetic catapult to launch aircraft, upgraded computer systems, more powerful radars and an advanced mechanism to help catch landing planes. In contrast, even the newest Nimitz-class vessels look particularly dated with their Cold War-era nuclear power plants, steam-powered catapults, spotty Internet connections and increasingly outdated electronics.

Unlike the previous modifications, these improvements centered in no small part on largely untested technologies that would take time to get working. In itsfirst report on the project eight years ago, GAO had zeroed in on these potential issues.

The government watchdog highlighted seven unrealistic expectations the Navy had about the project. Most importantly, despite the fact that contractors were still developing many of the core systems, the sailing branch assumed that the overall shape and size of the carrier would remain essentially the same throughout construction.

With the hope that the final design would have a hull similar to the older carriers, the Navy assured the Pentagon the work could be done quickly and on the cheap compared to those ships. GAO and Newport News both disagreed.

“Specifically, we noted that the Navy’s cost estimate of $10.5 billion and two million fewer labor hours made the unprecedented assumption that the CVN 78 would take fewer labor hours than its more mature predecessor – the CVN 77 [USS George H.W. Bush],” Francis told senators. “The shipbuilder’s estimate – 22 percent higher in cost – was more in line with actual historical experience.”

The watchdog’s fears turned out to be well founded. Six years after publishing their initial criticisms, GAO released a second report stating that, as expected, new equipment such as the ship’s radar, and Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System and the Advanced Arresting Gear landing system were all running into trouble.

When construction of Ford began, the Navy had not built a single one of the radar units it expected to fit on the ship. Engineers had never tested the components they had built outside of a laboratory.

The sailing branch had started prototyping the EMALS and AAG gear, but on land. GAO found that both of these state-of-the-art systems were experiencing relatively normal teething problems.

The shipbuilders had to incorporate design changes into the vessel they were already building. Unsurprisingly, the new carrier was over-budget by 22 percent – perfectly in line with Newport News’ original estimates.

In January, the Pentagon’s top weapon tester pointed out continuing problems with various important systems, especially the EMALS and AAG gear. Four months later, the Navy finally tested throwing a weighed sled with the new catapult off the still in-progress Ford.

“Reliability for the catapult and arresting gear systems have not been reported on in over a year,” the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation wrote in its annual summary of the program. “Before the Navy stopped tracking/reporting on catapult and arresting gear performance, both systems were performing well below their projected target to achieve required reliability.”

Then there was the matter of shock testing CVN 78. The Navy routinely uses explosives to shake new ships to make sure they’re ready for dangerous, combat situations.

Despite initial plans for a so-called Full Ship Shock Trial, “the Navy unilaterally reneged on the approved strategy on June 18, 2012,” according to the Pentagon’s year overview. In August, Frank Kendall — the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics — sent a memo to Navy secretary Ray Mabus ordering him go ahead with the tests, according to a report from Bloomberg.

Beyond delays resulting from issues with the ship and its equipment, the Navy kept revising the number of sailors it will take to run the ship based on various design changes. “As manning requirements have been further developed, analysis indicates the present design has insufficient berthing for some ranks requiring re-designation/redesign of some spaces as a possible solution,” the Pentagon evaluators discovered.

The Pentagon figured the sailing branch will run into problems getting the Ford ready for its version of the troublesome F-35 stealth fighter. All told, GAO isn’t sure the Navy can meet its goal of having the ship fully operational less than five years from now.

“The timeframes for post-delivery testing, i.e. the period when the ship would demonstrate many of its capabilities, are being compressed by ongoing system delays,” Francis said. “This tight test schedule could result in deploying without fully tested systems if the Navy maintains the ship’s ready-to-deploy date in 2020.”

Perhaps even more problematic, the Navy’s failure to be realistic about the carriers from the start means the costs are likely to keep growing beyond the more reasonable estimates at the beginning from GAO or Newport News. Regardless of the final price tag, “the Navy’s approach … results in a more expensive, yet less complete and capable ship at delivery than initially planned,” Francis declared.

However, the wrangling over CVN 78’s cost is basically over. But Francis told senators he was worried about the same problems playing out with the second ship in the class, the John F. Kennedy – a.k.a. CVN 79.

As with the Ford, GAO accused the Navy of being overly optimistic about the up-front costs and fudging the numbers by planning to install key gear after getting the ship. If the sailing branch proceeded as planned, Francis explained the service would be accepting yet another carrier with the same flaws as the first one.

“I think what we’ve seen with the CVN 78 and the CVN 79 was optimism verging on delusion about what each carrier was going to cost,” Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, told War Is Boring after reviewing the watchdog’s report. “The Navy and the Pentagon knew that the true cost was politically untenable.”

Beyond that, both the Pentagon and lawmakers have refused to keep to their own budget caps with the new carriers. Congress has put caps in place to try and control the price point. The Navy had previously convinced lawmakers to loosen those rules as the Ford became more expensive.

Now, the Kennedy is already at its Congressional mandated $11.5 billion cap. Under existing plans, however, both the Pentagon’s own Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office and the Congressional Budget Office expect the ship’s final cost to go up.

According to Francis, the debacle has been the result of complacency on all sides and culture that promotes throwing money at problems. “In the commercial marketplace, investment in a new product represents an expense,” the managing director noted. But for the military, “new products represent a revenue, in the form of a budget line.”

In turn, the services offer overly optimistic assessments of their own projects to secure pieces of that increasingly shrinking budget. The Navy is already looking for money for CVN 80, despite clearly not having a real sense of how much the new carriers actually cost.

“The environment of Navy shipbuilding is unique as it is characterized by a symbiotic relationship between buyer [Navy] and builder,” Francis added. “Under such a scenario, the government has a limited ability to negotiate favorable contract terms in light of construction challenges and virtually no ability to walk away from the investment once it is underway.”

In his concluding remarks, Francis said that the only way to avoid bigger problems in the future is to have a serious conversation about how the Pentagon asks for and how Congress doles out money for large defense programs.

“I think it’s easy for the Pentagon and Congress to dismiss GAO’s warnings and predictions at the beginning,” Smithberger lamented. “It’s only when the chickens come home to roost that they start to pay attention.”

The most important point seems to be that everyone involved in the process needs to get real about their spending habits from the start.

This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here