The Buzz

America's Mighty M-1 Abrams Tank vs. Russia's Lethal T-90: Who Wins?

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Developed in the 1970s, the Abrams main battle tank has been the mainstay of the U.S. Army’s armored forces for 35 years. In the decades since the M1 entered service, the tank has been upgraded many times—receiving a new 120mm gun to replace the original 105mm weapon and ever-improving armor. Internally, the tank is barely recognizable as the latest M1A2 SEP v.2 machines are completely digital and networked. The U.S. Army is also eventually planning to develop a new variant called the M1A3 that will greatly improve the venerable tank and try to decrease its ever-increasing weight—a consequence of the many upgrades.

Meanwhile, tank development has not stood still in other parts of the world. The Soviet Union may be long gone and there is no longer the threat of a massive Red Army onslaught coming through the Fulda Gap in Germany, but Russia has continued to develop its tanks—the latest operational incarnation is the formidable T-90 main battle tank. Nonetheless, main battle tanks aren’t really the priority they used to be for most Western powers.

The T-90 is a development of the older T-72, which the Russian government decided to settle on after the more sophisticated T-80 proved to be a disaster during the wars in Chechnya. The T-90 is essentially a T-72 upgraded with the more advanced systems found on the T-80U, but ditches the T-80’s troublesome gas turbine engine. Instead, the most common version of the T-90 uses a 1000hp diesel engine—which gives it a somewhat less than ideal power-to-weight ratio. The T-90 adds a new laminated armor package, explosive reactive armor and an electronic countermeasures suite. It retains the standard 125mm gun. Overall, it’s a pretty formidable tank—a significant improvement over previous Russian tanks.

On a one-for-one basis, the M1A2 is still a superior design—but it’s also a lot more expensive. U.S. armor doctrine places a premium on seeing the enemy first and getting the first shot to ensure victory—a result of decades worth of analysis. The Abrams is designed around that concept.  

In a tank-versus-tank fight, the M1’s advantages lie in its advanced sensor and fire-control suite, ever-improving depleted uranium armor matrix and the hitting power of its M829 sabot rounds. The latest and much improved M829E4 entered into production this July. This latest iteration of the M829—which is often credited with the ease the U.S. Army chewed through Iraqi armor in the first Gulf War—greatly increases the lethality of the Abrams’ M256 120mm cannon.

The M1A2 SEP v.2 is continually being improved—research and development work is focused on networking, mobility and protection according to Army’s FY16 budget submission.

Meanwhile, full-scale development of the M1A3 is expected to start in a few years and will improve almost every aspect of the Abrams. The new Abrams derivative should be significantly lighter and more mobile while also increasing its armor protection. It will also feature much improved computer systems and sensors.

It should be noted that replacing or even developing a new M1A3 variant is not a high priority for the U.S. Army. The Army is being drawn down after the U.S. ground forces were pulled from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the focus on the Pacific theatre, the service is looking for ways to carve out its niche. Even with Russia’s actions in Ukraine, no one seriously expects the United States to engage in another large conventional land war in the foreseeable future. Thus, the most likely scenario for U.S. forces to run into something like a T-90 might be in some kind of hybrid war and there might be more cost effective ways to deal with isolated pockets of enemy armor.

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

Russia's Su-35 Fighter vs. America's F-16 Fighting Falcon: Who Wins?

The Buzz

The Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon has been the mainstay of the U.S. and allied air forces for decades. Over the years, the aircraft has evolved from a lightweight visual range dogfighter into a potent multirole warplane that flies the gamut of missions ranging from the suppression of enemy air defenses to air superiority. Though it has been operational since 1980, the “Viper” continues to evolve and will remain in service with the U.S. Air Force and other militaries for decades to come. But while the F-16 remains a potent fighter, potential adversaries have caught up—the latest Russian aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-35 can match or exceed the Viper in many respects.

While the Su-35 is more of an analogue to the Boeing F-15 Eagle, Russia is selling many more Flankers than MiG-29 Fulcrum derivatives around the world. Indeed, the U.S. Air Force usually has its  “red air” aggressors replicate Flanker variants (usually the Flanker-G) rather than the MiG-29 or its derivatives during large force exercises like Red Flag or Red Flag Alaska. That’s because derivatives of the massive twin-engine Russian jet are amongst the most likely aerial adversaries American pilots might face.

The Su-35 is not the most common Flanker derivative, but it is the most capable version built to date. In the right hands—with properly trained pilots and support from ground controllers or an AWACS—the Su-35 is an extremely formidable threat to every Western fighter save for the F-22 Raptor. The F-35 would probably be ok too—if the pilots used its stealth, sensors and networking to their advantage—tactics and training makes all the difference.

What about the workhorse fleet of F-16s? The Viper doesn’t have the latest upgraded F-15C’s massive active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar nor can the F-16 usually lob the AIM-120 missile from the speeds and altitudes that the Eagle can attain. But then the F-15C was built as a dedicated air superiority fighter. Most in-service F-16s don’t have an AESA installed at all. The UAE’s advanced F-16E/Fs have the APG-80 AESA—which has excellent capability—but that’s a tiny fleet of aircraft. U.S. Air Force F-16s are not currently fitted with an AESA and are at a severe disadvantage versus the Su-35 or other advanced Flanker derivatives.

The U.S. Air Force is keenly aware of the problem. The service had intended to retrofit 300 or so F-16s with an upgrade called the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES), but that program was cancelled because of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Nonetheless, the Air Force knows it needs to urgently retrofit the F-16 fleet with new radars sooner rather than later.

Earlier this year, the Air National Guard issued an urgent operational need statement calling for an AESA to be installed in their F-16s performing the homeland defense mission. The radars are needed to track cruise missiles and other small, hard to detect targets. The active Air Force is also aware of the problem and issued a request for information for a new radar for the F-16 fleet in March. That same month, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the House Armed Services Committee, “We need to develop an AESA upgrade plan for the entire fleet.”

The U.S. Air Force does not use the F-16 primarily as an air superiority fighter—the air-to-air mission is secondary—the AESA is needed to keep the venerable jet relevant. With an AESA, the F-16 could probably hold its own against the Su-35 at longer ranges—but it would still be a challenge.

At shorter ranges, it comes down to pilot skill and the performance of each jet’s high off-boresight missiles. The advent of missiles like the R-73 and AIM-9X have turned visual range fights into mutually assured destruction scenarios. Mutual kills are not uncommon during training sorties. While the Su-35’s thrust vectoring gives it an edge at very low speeds (mind you, low speeds mean a low energy state), it’s not an insurmountable problem for an expert F-16 pilot—who knows how to exploit his or her aircraft to the fullest—to overcome.

The bottom line is that the Su-35 and the other advanced Flankers are extremely capable aircraft. The Pentagon’s fourth-generation fighter fleet no longer enjoys a massive technological advantage as they did in years past. The United States must invest in next-generation fighters to replace the existing fleet as soon as possible.   

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

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s Greatest Foe (And Its Not China or Russia)

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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be the most technically advanced fighter jet in the world—and one of the most expensive. If we want to be sure we’re getting our money’s worth, it’s important to understand the factors that determine jet fighter costs.

The most recent US Air Force budget estimates a flyaway unit cost for the F-35A of US$92.3 million (2014 dollars) by 2018. Assuming that price to be roughly accurate, the F-35 would still be the second most expensive fighter jet anyone has ever produced—after the F-22, which was so expensive that production stopped after just 187 units out of a planned 750.

At present, Australia has committed to purchasing at least 72 of the air force variant of the F-35, with the first four aircraft due to be shipped to Australia in 2018. The A$12.4 billion project amounts to over A$175 million apiece, including spares, facilities and training for RAAF personnel.

Let’s compare that with Australia’s purchase of the F/A-18 Hornet, delivered between 1985 and 1990. The total project cost for 75 aircraft was A$8.62 billion (2014 dollars), or A$115 million each. The greater than 50% unit price increase is consistent with a trend that has seen jet fighter costs increase at an exponential rate over the years since the 1950s (see graph here).

There are a number of factors that contribute to the increasing cost of jet fighters, which interact in non-linear ways. But the cost climb has resulted in two consequential trends. First, the service life of fighter aircraft has steadily increased. For example, by the time Australia receives its first batch of F-35s, the most recent of our F/A-18s will be 28 years old. That compares with the 23 year service life of the Mirages they replaced, which in turn replaced Sabres that served for around 17 years. Second, the number of fighters being procured each year has decreased over time as budgets failed to grow as fast as unit costs.

One major factor in unit cost is the price of labor. Even if the manufacturing processes for jet aircraft were exactly the same today as they were in the 1950s, the labor would cost more per hour of work. Cheap labour in Asia has resulted in a great deal of manufacturing work moving to the region in recent years, but most of the aerospace industry remains concentrated in countries with higher labour costs. It’s unlikely that the US would ever outsource F-35 manufacturing to China, for obvious political reasons.

Material costs are also a factor, and not just for raw inputs. Titanium is a useful example: it’s lighter than steel but stronger than aluminium, and has other properties that make it useful in airframes. It’s already relatively expensive, but the same properties that make it useful can make it a more complicated material to work with. Synthetic and composite materials are also growing in use. Each has its own properties and manufacturing processes. A linear relationship between cost and material is nearly impossible to establish, because each added step in production requires additional engineering and labour that may or may not be affected by the specific material used.

Politics can play a role in increasing costs, too. In a rational market, manufacturing would be distributed to maximise efficiency. However, large military acquisitions can be good for domestic employment. The effect of production on jobs can be more newsworthy than efficiency. A RAND study into the costs to the UK MoD for domestic assembly of the F-35 showed a premium of up to 40%. The UK decided against this option, but Italy and Japan have committed to costly domestic assembly of the F-35. Australia’s decision to assemble the F/A-18 Hornet domestically resulted in a 17% premium.

Fifth-generation jet fighters like the F-35 and F-22 have incredibly complex avionics integrated into their systems. In addition to radar and sensor packages, the F-35 includes fly-by-wire, electronic warfare and high speed data-link technologies. These require additional computing power to manage and software to operate. The F-35 software supposedly comprises some 20-25 million lines of code—over 10 times more than the F-22—and roughly half the length of Windows XP. Software contributes zero additional weight to an aircraft, and yet the labour costs for the F-35 software are likely to be substantial.

Here I invoke the words of the immortal Norman Augustine: ‘The last 10 percent of performance generates one third of the cost and two thirds of the problems.’ In the F-35, it’s likely that we’re paying a huge premium for the capability edge we’re hoping for. It’s not clear how good a return on investment we can expect. The F-35 is so expensive, it’ll have to last until 2045 to be anywhere near as cost efficient as previous platforms. And there’s a big gamble in assuming that the strategic landscape of 2045 will even remotely resemble that of today.

Sources: US DoD Budget Requests, US Secretary of Defense Annual ReportsUSAF Historical Support Division Annual Stat DigestKnaack, MS 1978. Encyclopedia of US Air Force Aircraft and Missile Systems. Volume 1. Post-World War II Fighters 1945-1973 OFFICE OF AIR FORCE HISTORY WASHINGTONDC

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

How Long Can China Stay on the Sidelines in the War on ISIS?

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Recent news that a Chinese citizen has been taken hostage by ISIS shows that China is being drawn into the complex politics of the Middle East, and will need to re-evaluate its policy of non-interference. 

One of the foundations of China's foreign policy since Mao Zedong put forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence is non-interference in the domestic politics of other states. In the late 1990s China moved towards a 'New Security Order' emphasizing mutually beneficial economic relations between states. More recently Chinese foreign policy statement have emphasized China's 'peaceful rise' or 'peaceful development', promoting China as a responsible international actor and reassuring neighbors that its rise is not a threat. Yet through it all, non-intervention has remained a cornerstone of China's foreign policy. 

When it comes to the Middle East, China has adopted a two-pronged approach.

First, China is committed to promoting economic ties to ensure its own energy security. Second, China is committed to its policy of non-intervention. The tension between these two policies is reflected in two recent events. On the same day that the 2015 China-Arab States Expo (a platform to promote Sino-Arab ties) opened in Ningxia, ISIS released a video showing a Chinese national being held hostage. It was the first time a public ransom demand had been made for a Chinese national. 

China has extensive economic interests in the Middle East. Forty-three percent of China's oil imports come from Middle Eastern countries, with Saudi Arabia China's largest trading partner, providing 15% of China's annual oil imports. China has numerous other investments in the Middle East including in infrastructure, natural gas and direct investments. China's Silk Road initiative and the AIIB also seek to increase Chinese business investment in the region.

China has a large economic footprint in the Middle East, but when it comes to political conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fight against ISIS and the instability in Syria and Iraq, Beijing is largely absent.

The recent flood of refugees from Syria and Iraq has caused headaches for policy-makers in Europe, the U.S. and Australia. But the extent of Chinese involvement in the crisis is to 'take note' of the issue. A Foreign Ministry spokesman indicated that China was “willing to communicate and coordinate with the EU” but ultimately believed that the EU and relevant countries were able to rise to the challenge. These comments encapsulate China's response to political issues in the Middle East: the responsibility for 'solving' these issues is placed squarely on the shoulders of West. 

The notion that the West is responsible for solving problems in the Middle East is also reflected in the Chinese media. For instance, a Xinhua editorial places blame for the refugee crisis on the policies of the U.S., and writes that Washington is not doing enough to help, taking only 1500 refugees. When an op-ed in The New York Times called on China to do more to help with the flood of refugees from Syria, an editorial in the Global Times replied that since China did not create the current turmoil in Syria, it did not need to take responsibility for it. 

When two Japanese civilians were executed by ISIS in January, Chinese state media blamed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for their capture. A Global Times op-ed stated that the executions were evidence that Abe had placed Japan's relations with Washington over that of the safety of his citizens, and that it served as a warning to other Asian states not to entangle themselves in the conflict. China, content with its policy of non-interference, could not imagine that a similar event would occur with Chinese nationals. 

With a Chinese citizen now being held hostage, it seems the Chinese Government does not know how to react. There have only been two statements from the Foreign Ministry, neither of which gave any indication of how China will respond. The spokesman has only said that 'the Chinese side reiterated its firm opposition to any violence against innocent civilians' and that it has launched an 'emergency response mechanism.' There has been next to no coverage of this event in the Chinese media. 

While China prefers to remain on the sidelines when it comes to the fight against ISIS, the kidnapping of one of its citizens may prompt Beijing to seek a more proactive role in the Middle East. The incident could act as the impetus to change its longstanding policy of non-intervention. 

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Russia's Next Big Weapons Sale: Is the Lethal Su-30 Fighter Iran Bound?

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Iran is interested in acquiring Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 Flankers for its air force. An Iranian delegation discussed the matter with Russian officials at the MAKS airshow outside Moscow last month, according to Iranian state media.

“We are discussing the purchase of Sukhoi fighter planes,” Iranian defense minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan told the Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen news network according to Iran’s Press TV on Aug. 30.

Russian president Vladimir Putin was apparently present for the discussions as was Iranian vice president for science and technology affairs Sorena Sattari according to a report from the Iranian FARS News agency. It is not clear which version of the Su-30 Iran is interested in, but presumably it would be one of the advanced variants similar to the aircraft operated by India, Malaysia, Algeria and Russia itself.

However, it is also possible that Iran could opt for a variant of the more basic Su-30M2, which is also in service with the Russian Air Force. That variant is somewhat less expensive, which might make more sense considering Iran’s economic situation.

The Su-30M2 variant, which is built in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia’s Far East, is missing the Su-30SM’s canards, thrust vectoring nozzles and has a less comprehensive avionics suite. Either way, the addition of any Su-30 variant would greatly increase the capabilities of the Iranian air force, which is mostly equipped with an antiquated mix of U.S., Russian and Chinese-built hardware.

The most advanced aircraft Iran has are a handful of American-built Grumman F-14A Tomcats and MiG-29s acquired either from the Soviet Union or aircraft that defected from Iraq. The rest of its arsenal is composed of geriatric F-4 Phantom IIs, locally modified F-5 Freedom Fighters and Chinese-build F-6 and F-7 aircraft—derivatives of the MiG-19 and the MiG-21 respectively. Most of Iran’s “indigenous” aircraft developments have been modifications to the Northrop F-5 airframe or ridiculous papier-mâché mockups like the Qaher-313 farce.

The Iranian military is not particularly capable in a conventional fight. If the Iranians relied on anti-access/area denial strategies—sea mines, swarming boat attacks on U.S. Navy strike groups or missile attacks against U.S. bases in the region—it might be able to cause some problems for the U.S. military and its allies. Buying advanced surface-to-air missile systems the like the S-300 or Buk to bolster that strategy might be a better investment for Iran than a new fighter. Of course, it must be noted that the Iranians have tried to purchase the S-300—but Russia never delivered the weapons.  

The addition of a significant number of Su-30s would increase Iran’s air power capability; there is no doubt about that. But the overall balance would still remain in favor of U.S. allies in the Gulf. That’s especially true when one considers the fact that the United States will unavoidably be dragged into any conflict with between Iran and its neighbors. Iranian’s conventional forces stand no chance in a force on force encounter with the U.S. military with or without Su-30s flying on their side.

In short, the Iranian air force is completely outclassed by all of its Gulf neighbors who operated advanced F-15s, F-16s and Eurofighter Typhoons—Su-30s or not.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. 

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Is Iran's Strategy in Iraq Adrift?

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Russia may have thrown Iran a lifeline in Syria, but Putin’s aid only obscures larger problems for Tehran’s policies in the region. In particular, Iran’s policy in Iraq and its strategy against the Islamic State (ISIS) is under severe pressure. It is not clear the Islamic Republic has a good way forward.

Tehran’s activities and policies in Iraq and the Levant remain largely under Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani’s direction. Soleimaini had been riding high ever since the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014. His photographs spread over social media and he was lauded in Iranian and regional press for his role in leading a hybrid IRGC advisory and Shia militia force to fight ISIS in Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents in Syria.

This past spring, however, the commander began to disappear from view amid speculation of dissatisfaction in Tehran with his campaigns in both theaters. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reportedly promised Secretary of State John Kerry that concluding the nuclear agreement would allow Zarif to discuss regional issues, possibly mitigating Soleimani’s influence. Others speculated that retired former IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezaei donned his uniform again at the behest of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to keep an eye on Soleimani.

While there may be some truth to these points, Soleimani’s troubles are more linked to problems Iran is having navigating Iraqi domestic interests in general. Baghdad, like Damascus, recognizes its government would have fallen by now if not for Iran’s intervention. This does not keep most Iraqi leaders from resenting the heavy hand Tehran plays in their security and political decision-making.

In the midst of last summer’s revolt against then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s failed leadership and the loss of Mosul, Khamenei acquiesced to Maliki’s forced demotion to Vice President. Soleimani and other Iranian leaders expected his successor Haider al-Abadi to remain a pliable client. To Khamenei’s likely regret, this is turning out not to be the case.

Iraq’s Prime Minister demonstrates a willingness to stand up to Iran’s influence. Abadi is pursuing major political and anti-corruption reforms that would abolish the constitutional positions of vice presidents and check the power of the Maliki-aligned judiciary. Iraqi authorities began inspecting cargo on Iranian planes arriving in Baghdad last month. Abadi is even rumored to have kicked Soleimani out of a cabinet meeting—rebuking the Iranian for the presumption of attending and criticizing his reform plans.

Following Abadi’s August 9 decision to eliminate Nouri al-Maliki’s position as vice president (which still needs judicial approval), Maliki made a well-publicized visit to Iran, meeting with Supreme Leader Khamenei’s senior foreign policy advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati and other Iranian officials. The prime minister is rightly worried that Tehran is plotting a Maliki restoration, perhaps by using the Iranian-aligned Iraqi Shia militia groups under Soleimani, such as Khataib Hezbollah, that are deepening their grip on large parts of the Iraqi’s security forces amidst the government’s campaign against ISIS.

What Tehran did not count on is the broad support among Iraqi Shia and their religious leaders for reform--and for pushing back against Iranian influence. Abadi has cleverly tapped into this sentiment, first by gaining open support for his agenda from Shia Islam’s most influential leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and then by tacitly supporting the large public protests against corruption in Baghdad and elsewhere. (Sistani had already questioned Iranian policies in Iraq earlier in the year.) This political contest is far from over, but Iran’s options to force change at the top have become much more complicated.

Iran’s increasing tensions with Turkey over its policies towards Iraqi Kurdistan and escalating involvement in the Syrian civil war may also be crudely playing out on the streets Baghdad. An armed group using Shia slogans abducted eighteen Turkish workers in north Baghdad on September 2, claiming the action is in response to Turkish actions in Iraq. The assailants, using a previously unknown name, are likely members of an Iranian-backed Shia militia linked to Soleimani. Qais al-Khazali, the head of another Iraqi Shia militia (and Iranian proxy group) Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, denounced the kidnapping and denied involvement, but Khazali also condemned Turkey as Iran’s greatest enemy, and demanded Ankara stop the flow of militants from Turkey to Iraq, cut the flow of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, and order the lifting of a siege on two Shi’ite villages in northwest Syria. Two of the Turkish workers were found last week in Basra—and there are attempts at another ceasefire in those Syrian villages—but the whole incident only raises further alarm among Iraqis about Iran’s intentions and activities.

These political black eyes only compound Soleimani’s military challenges on the front lines. The campaign his militias and the regular Iraqi security forces are waging against ISIS is stalemated at best. The Quds Force commander may be reprioritizing the Syrian front as it becomes more desperate, even moving some of his Iraqi proxy units back to Syria to fight alongside Lebanese Hezbollah.

Soleimani is not sidelined, though. His recent trips to Moscow to apparently coordinate the new Russian military intervention in Syria and his reemergence in social media pictured with Khata’ib Hezbollah commander (and his de facto deputy in Iraq), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, testify to this. Soleimani’s strategies in Iraq appear, though, increasingly incoherent, impolitic, and ineffective, as well as out of line with the interests of our partners in Baghdad or the region.

This piece first appeared on AEI's website here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

American F-22s and B-2 Bombers vs. Russia's S-300 in Syria: Who Wins?

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Russia is deploying advanced air defense systems to Syria as part of its military build up inside the war-torn country. While it is currently deploying point defense missiles, it’s possible Russian forces could deploy more capable area air defense systems like the much-feared Almaz-Antey S-300 to the region. If Russia does deploy their latest surface-to-air missiles (SAM) to Syria, the areas protected by these systems would become no-go zones for most allied aircraft save for the F-22 Raptor and B-2 Spirit—and the F-35, if that warplane was genuinely operational.

Russian forces have already deployed two to three SA-22 Greyhound—more properly called the Pantsir-S1—point defense systems around their base in Latakia, Syria, along with as many as 28 fighters and strike aircraft. The highly mobile Pantsir-S1 is primarily designed to protect a small area against a threat with a pair of 2A38M 30mm cannons and a dozen 57E6 surface-to-air missiles. According to its manufacturer, it has a 12-mile range and can engage targets as high a 60,000ft.

But the Pantsir-S1 is just a point defense weapon. Russian integrated air defense systems are usually layered—similar to an onion or a matryoshka doll. The Pantsir is just one component. Systems like the mobile Almaz-Antey Buk-M2E—an older version of which downed the MH17 airliner over Ukraine—provide protection at longer ranges and are designed to accompany a mechanized force on a campaign. The Buk—which NATO designates as the SA-17 Grizzly—is designed to engage targets at ranges of 28 miles and altitudes of more than 82,000ft according to its manufacturer.

Weapons like the S-300 and S-400 form the top tier of Russian surface-to-air missile systems and are designed to protect strategically important areas. The S-300PMU-1 has a range of about 120 miles and can engage targets as high as 100,000ft. Each battery can attack more than half a dozen targets simultaneously.

While older generation strategic SAMs were fixed emplacements, the S-300 and its follow-on systems are highly mobile and can move with little notice—which makes them far more survivable and dangerous. During the Soviet-era, weapons like the S-300 were usually assigned to the Soviet air defense forces—the Voyska PVO—while medium-range systems like the Buk were assigned to the Soviet ground forces. Modern Russia maintains a similar structure, but the Voyska PVO has been folded into the Russian Air Force.

The S-300 and its follow-on systems are some of the most capable and dangerous air defenses an opposing air force could ever face. Not only are the missiles mobile, but the systems are networked together. One S-300 battery is a handful, but several such systems networked together into an integrated air defense system is a nearly insurmountable challenge for most fourth-generation fighters like the F-16 or F-15. As one senior U.S. Marine Corps aviator told me, the S-300 series is deadly. “A complete game changer for all fourth-gen aircraft [like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18]. That thing is a beast and you don’t want to get near it,” he said.

The best option to defeat an integrated air defense system is to use a stealth aircraft—like the F-22 Raptor and the B-2 stealth bomber. Since the F-22 became operational in 2005, Raptor crews have practiced a mission they call the “Global Strike Task Force”—which is a combined strike package of F-22s and B-2s.

The Raptors “kick down the door” using their unique combination of stealth, high altitude and blistering speed to target the nodes of the integrated air defense system so that the B-2s can proceed to their targets unmolested. It’s a mission the F-22s have only gotten better at with the Increment 3.1 upgrade that allows the jet to geo-locate emitters much more precisely than before. And that capability will continue to improve with the Raptor’s forthcoming Increment 3.2B upgrade.

The other option to take down an integrated air defense system is to use a combination of standoff weapons like the JASSM and JASSM-ER cruise missiles together with electronic attacks from a platform like the EA-18G Growler. The Growler can not only jam the enemy’s radar, but can generate an ellipse to target the missile site. The problem there is precisely updating the cruise missile with current track data before the enemy moves during the incoming weapons’ time of flight.

This is all hypothetical in the event that something goes horribly wrong. It’s important to note, however, that U.S. forces in the Middle East are not trying to confront Russian forces—nobody wants a third world war. But the presence of Russian and American forces in such close proximity inside a war zone is bad news to say the least.

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

Image: Creative Commons/WikiCommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

The U.S. Army Plans for the War of the Future: Russia, Nukes and More

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The outgoing Secretary of the Army and the recently retired Chief of Staff of the Army published a new vision for the Army that calls for a wider focus to meet a broader range of demands. After previous wars, the Army has shrunk in size; but in today’s security environment the demand for forward American military presence has actually been higher than any other post war period. The Army Vision focuses on how the Army must innovate to meet today’s steady state demands and the challenges of conflict in the future.

To that end, The Bridge has been kind enough to host a series on the Army Vision and its impact on the changing landscape for land forces in the future. Emerging from over a decade of war and facing significant budgetary pressures, the Army is now focused on evolving and transforming itself to meet tomorrow’s challenges while addressing current demand.

With the changing of Army senior leadership and the recent release of General Dempsey’s National Military Strategy, there is both an opportunity and a need to examine the Army Vision and its inherent assumptions, including: Should the new Army Secretary and Chief of Staff continue down this path described by their predecessors? Are the unique roles of the Army defined in the Army Vision the only contributions of the Army to the Department of Defense? Do the characteristics in the Vision help the Army evolve enough to meet the demands of the future security environment?

Demand and the Security Environment

The key to identifying how the Army must change is to first understand what type of future security environment it will likely confront. Much like in the past, future challenges will run the gamut, from non-state actors that export terrorism and undermine existing states to regional powers that will exercise more traditional military force. However, due to the proliferation of technology, the widespread and effective use of social media, and the increasing inability of states to adequately govern, non-state actors are growing more powerful, acquiring state-like tools and blurring the line between conventional and irregular types of conflict.

On the other end of the spectrum, technologically advanced near-peer states such as Russia are demonstrating an increased willingness to use military force, in addition to other diplomatic, economic and communication tools, to intimidate and control the behavior of their neighbors. Furthermore, increased competition for food, water and energy within countries and regions with sprawling urban populations will likely result in greater instability and lower-level intra- and interstate conflicts. The impacts of climate change and severe weather patterns may lead to humanitarian crises, including the destabilization of countries, mass population migrations and disease epidemics. Lastly, the potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to rogue states or terrorist groups is an all-too-real possibility.

While in the past the Army has chosen to plan for a specific enemy or type of warfare, the envisioned future security environment will not allow that luxury. Unlike during the Cold War when the United States was able to focus almost exclusively on deterring and defeating the Soviet Union, and our recent history when our primary focus has been on stability and counterinsurgency threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the coming years there is no clear singular threat or demand. Instead, we face a complex future security environment with multiple unpredictable challenges and requirements. Technologically advanced adversaries, both states and non-state actors, will severely test our traditional military advantages while presenting new challenges, most notably in the cyber realm.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction since the end of the Cold War has made it increasingly likely Army expertise will be needed to rapidly deploy to seize weapons of mass destruction with little notice or information. Finally, future conflicts in which the United States is likely to be involved will take place in environments within which influencing populations will be both the most challenging and most important component for achieving our strategic goals, a role for which the Army is ideally suited. As the Nation’s primary military means to secure strategic gains on land, the Army will likely be deployed in more places, executing more missions than ever before.

While no one knows when or which of these challenges will arise — or if an entirely different threat will emerge — the Army must be ready to answer the Nation’s call. Responding to a diverse set of future challenges, however, will require transforming the Army in a manner that does not rely too heavily on past experiences or outdated processes. Instead, due to the complexity of the future environment and its potential demands, the future Army must be designed, trained, equipped and led to better enable an effective response to a broader range of threats and demands.

This will require building on the Army’s long history of adaptation and strong leadership to change and evolve the Army, including its people, organization, and culture. It will require both relearning high-intensity conflict skills that have atrophied in recent years — a definite focus of the new Army Chief of Staff — and retaining and building on those skills the Army has acquired in Iraq and Afghanistan to enhance our ability to execute operations within and among populations. Above all, the Army must ensure that no particular set of skills is overly prioritized or undervalued as a “lesser-included” subset of another, as a combination of these skills will likely be necessary to achieve victory.

To make this transformation, the military as a whole must increase the investment in people. In recruiting, training, and developing soldiers and civilians, the Army must ensure they are more agile in responding to changing circumstances, expert in their missions, and innovative in their solutions.

Changing will also require investing in and changing Army units. Interoperability must be increased with other services and government agencies, the Army must improve their capability to rapidly deploy and sustain operations globally, and they must enhance the ability to tailor forces for particular missions. Essential to all these changes is developing a versatile and balanced force that provides a broad range of capabilities across all of our components (Active Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard) to the President and the nation to meet emerging demand while balancing priorities.

Today’s Army is the most highly trained, expert and professional force in the world and the greatest force in our proud, 240-year history. Change, however, is necessary and essential for the Army and for the safety and security of the Nation. The Army Vision 2015–2025: Strategic Advantage in a Complex World is the guidance for building the Army the nation needs today and in the future. If the United States fulfills this vision, I believe the Army will be able to continue to confidently and faithfully say:

This we’ll defend.

Leo Cruz, is a Partner with the Truman National Security Project, a former U.S. Naval Officer who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and a Defense Fellow in the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army and provided support in the drafting of the Army Vision, however the views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. military or the Department of Defense.

This piece first appeared in the Strategy Bridge here

Image: Flickr/The 621st Contingency Response Wing/CC by 2.0


A Battle for the Soul of the American Military

The Buzz

Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, who is now running for president, wants a bigger Army, a bigger Navy, and a bigger Marine Corps: 50 brigades, 300 to 350 ships, and 36 battalions. How would she pay for it? The debate at which she asserted those numbers provided little time for detail. Earlier, though, she had offered at least that she wouldn't replace thousands of retiring federal workers, in order to decrease “the weight, the power, the cost, the complexity, the ineptitude, and the corruption of the government.” In contrast, at the Common Defense (COMDEF) forum at the National Press Club earlier this month, former Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale repeated his oft-heard plea that federal workers get greater respect. Fiorina’s words weren’t likely what Hale had in mind, but he did agree that there should be fewer federal workers—just better ones. Much of the problem lies in finding them the right work to do.

This past Thursday at the Atlantic Council, Jamie Morin, director of the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, spoke on "Now How Much is Enough? The Contemporary Challenge of Cost and Program Analysis at the Pentagon”. The title was a conscious allusion to the famous book by Alain Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith of RAND; Enthoven served in the 1960s as the Pentagon’s first chief cost analyst. Back then was the heyday of systems analysis, when McNamara’s green-eyeshade Whiz Kids clashed with World War-veteran generals over how much of what to pile into the armed forces. The tension has persisted to this day, but despite the adversarial reputation and grudging respect Morin's office has garnered over the years, it’s still not firmly in charge, or able to analyze every dark corner of military spending.

In his talk, Morin's greatest wonkish enthusiasm was reserved for new trends in cost data file formats. (Seriously.) The Defense Department, he said, is “a generation behind industry” in automating business operations, but recently, at least in its supplier relationship management, modernity has been dawning. In the Joint Strike Fighter program, Lockheed Martin has been sending the Defense Department flex-file data dumps directly from its enterprise resource planning system, at once “giving [the government] dramatically more insight, and reducing the administrative burden on [the company] to compile and present the information in a traditional, legacy way.” One still needs the expensive labor of cost accountants to interpret it, but less of the expensive labor of auditors to fill out the forms. In short, bean-counting is requiring fewer bean-counters.

Trade unionists don’t like to hear it, but much of economic progress requires head-cutting—actually, a lot of it. This is entirely why Meg Whitman, the current CEO of Hewlett Packard, who is not running for president, plans to dismiss 33,300 staff over the next three years. The heads are mostly coming from the old Electronic Data Systems (EDS), acquired under CEO Mark Hurd in 2008 (see Robert McMillan, "H-P’s Job Cuts Reflect EDS Legacy,” Wall Street Journal, 16 September 2015). Why is this necessary? Two words: The Cloud. Cloud computing does not require legions of contractors to install and customize software at individual corporate data centers. The Cloud automates many of these functions, consolidating and standardizing business operations at offsite server farms. The Cloud scales flexibly when scale is needed. Amazon and Microsoft and others have been doing great business in this realm; HP, perhaps for its heritage, not so much.

For decades now, the trends have been alarming. By the analysis of the Defense Business Board, from fiscal year 1985 through 2000, American military spending fell 24 percent overall, but produced a military with 33 percent fewer troops and 48 percent fewer front-line units. Part of the problem is that the troops have gotten a lot more expensive, as the Congress has continued awarding them annual pay-raises and more costly free health care. In the process, one might say, the Pentagon has effectively replaced the all-volunteer military with an all-professional military. Most people joining the military today are at least thinking of making it a career, and that is very good for the development of human capital and organizational capability. The bigger problem lies in finding them the right roles over those careers.

Ponder for a moment the institutional overhead of the US Defense Department. The Office of the Secretary of Defense alone has 4,600 people, who collectively cost about $2 billion annually. The Joint Staff has another 4,600 people, at a similar cost. All the joint headquarters together have about 93,000 people, and the service-specific headquarters another 157,000. The average grade in all these operations is O-5.5, so the cost of a headquarters person is about three times that of one on the front line. As one strategist on the Army Staff confided to me, “we could do better work with one-quarter the people.” All that makes for some very expensive PowerPoint.

In contrast, in October 2013, after some protests and lawsuits, the Central Intelligence Agency hired Amazon Cloud Services to manage much of its digital information centrally, albeit onsite. The CIA’s CIO called the contract a "tremendous opportunity to sharpen our focus and to be very efficient” (see Frank Konnell, “The Details About the CIA's Deal With Amazon,” The Atlantic, July 2014.) John Pirc, CTO of NSS Labs, described the scalability of the solution as allowing American Intelligence “to spin up servers and add more [computing power] fast, and when you’re computing intelligence data, the more compute power you have, the faster you can react.” In the military as well, faster reaction is better; hiring out to the specialists means substituting cost-effective just-in-time for more costly just-in-case. Cloud computing is no panacea for bureaucratic sclerosis, but it’s a leading example of how modern management tools can streamline business operations in the military.

During his talk at the Council, Morin noted that his staff is working to figure out how to meet the Defense Department’s current target of reducing headquarters staff by 20 percent. That’s a good start, but he and his accountants should really be unleashed to go much further. Making half of those quarter-million headquarters people frontsoldaten would provide enough troops to build to a Fiorina force structure. Whether all that structure is necessary is a grand political question, but how the Pentagon moves its paper is a tractable business question that gets too little attention. Even better, over the long haul, where people sit on the organizational charts often affects where they stand on the issues. Shifting the balance of senior staff from high headquarters to operating units could improve the field’s voice in decision-making, so that next time, they go to war with the military they want, and not just the military they have.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, where this piece first appeared.


F/A-XX: The U.S. Navy's 6th Generation Strike 2035?

The Buzz

The U.S. Navy needs to start conducting an analysis of alternatives (AOA) this year if intends to field a successor to the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet by 2035. If one were to assume a best-case scenario, that would be the earliest a new clean sheet F/A-XX aircraft design could be developed and built, multiple industry sources agreed.

“2035, if you started right away, would be your best case IOC [initial operational capability],” one senior industry official said. “That means get this AOA started right away.”

The Navy is hoping to start an F/A-XX AOA this fall, but there is no set official start date yet, the industry source noted. The outgoing chief of naval operations, Adm. Jon Greenert has signed the F/A-XX initial capabilities document. But the document still has to clear the Joint Requirements Oversight Council and undergo a Materiel Development Decision (MDD) Defense Acquisitions Board (DAB) review before an AOA can formally kick-off. “The DAB has not been scheduled the last I heard,” the industry official said.

If the Navy managed to get a formal AOA underway this fall, then the service could enter into a Milestone A technology development phase somewhere between 2018 and 2019. Following an optimistic timeline, the F/A-XX program could reach a Milestone B source selection decision in 2025, one industry source said. Then, the engineering and manufacturing development phase would take about ten years.

That would allow for a 2035 entry into service date for the new aircraft. But, the industry source cautioned, that’s a best-case scenario. “That’s being optimistic,” the industry official said. “If you apply F-22 or F-35 timelines to that, it’s even worse.”

The problem for the Navy is that by 2035, the service’s existing Super Hornets will have burnt through most of their allotted 6000 hour airframe lives. The average age of the F/A-18E/F fleet will be more than 25 years old—ancient for a carrier-based strike aircraft.

The F-35C, assuming the Navy buys the its entire allotted number of aircraft, will only make up half the carrier air wing at that point. If the current trend continues, the Navy could end up being short by up to 12 fighter squadrons worth of tactical aircraft. That’s more than 140 aircraft.

The Navy expects to extend the service lives of the F/A-18E/F fleet to 9000 hours for the entire inventory. But the industry source notes that the Navy’s existing depot maintenance facilities were never intended to extend the lives of this many aircraft. Extending the life of the entire Super Hornet fleet is going to be expensive, and moreover, as the jets age they cost exponentially more to maintain per flight hour. “But even with a 9000 hour Super Hornet, you don’t make it to 2035 with enough of your inventory,” the official said. “There is a still a deficit there.”

There is already a massive backlog of jets that need servicing—but that’s a problem that mainly impacts the U.S. Marine Corps’ geriatric classic model Hornet fleet, Navy, Marine Corps and industry officials agreed. The industry official said that the Navy has avoided much of the backlog by converting fighter squadrons over to the Super Hornet without holding any F/A-18E/F airframes back as an attrition reserve.

The industry official said that the Navy should try to keep a hot production line for tactical fighter aircraft until the F/A-XX, enters production. “You don’t stop producing Super Hornets until you’re ready to produce F/A-XX,” the industry official said.  “You never go out of production on a type-model series till whatever is replacing it is ready to come into production. You certainly can’t take a 25-year gap in production and expect your inventory to survive that long.”

It’s too early to say what a potential future F/A-XX might look like—but it is likely to be a family of systems rather than a single aircraft, Navy and industry officials agreed. It will likely include a combination of networked standoff weapons, unmanned aircraft, manned or even an optionally manned aircraft, the industry official said.

What it likely won’t include is an ultra long-range, deep penetrating unmanned bomber, but it might include a handful of very long-range penetrating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to identify and provide targeting data to the rest of the fleet. “Maybe you build a new high-end UAV that can get in there and do targeting. Targeting is your biggest problem, not deep penetrating strike,” the industry official said. “Once you know the target and have a weapons quality track, you have lot of different options to hit it in an anti-access environment.”

But until the AOA is complete, exactly what form the F/A-XX will take is an open question.  The AOA won’t develop a fighter or even the requirements for the F/A-XX, it will however inform the capabilities development document from which the request for proposals to industry will be derived. “That just takes so much time,” the official said. “Best case scenario is a Milestone A in 2019, and if you at the Navy’s budgets that’s going to be a hard thing to do.”

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