Does the F-35 Have a Fatal Flaw?

The Buzz

I read Australian MP Dennis Jensen’s article ‘Time to remember the Vietnam air war lesson’ in yesterday’s West Australian with interest. In essence, Dr. Jensen paraphrases the US Air Force experience in Vietnam as placing too high an emphasis on the technological promise of air-to-air missiles in the early stages, only to be brutally dragged back to the ‘fundamentals’ of close-in air combat in the form of maneuverability and bringing a gun to the fight.

Taken at face value, that narrative seems to suggest that the design of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is badly conceived, and that it ignores a vital lesson from history. If that analysis were true, it would indeed be a damning indictment on an aircraft Australia is about to spend well over $10 billion on. But there are two reasons to doubt Dr. Jensen’s conclusion. The first is that it’s not at all clear why a technological lesson from over 40 years ago tells us what to expect today. A look at pretty much any other modern electronics-based system compared to its ancestor from that time shows why. It’s a bit like studying copper wire telephony and drawing conclusions about the capabilities of smart phones.

The early air-to-air missiles were crude forerunners of today’s, were much more limited in their ability to lock onto a target anywhere but straight ahead, and were more prone to losing contact after launch. That might seem to suggest that a gun might be just as good, since you had to maneuver around to get a lock on in any case. But even so the missiles did pretty well, and they were progressively improved as the war went on. When they were introduced in 1972, later G-model Sidewinder heat seeking missiles substantially improved the ability to target off-axis and increased the hit rate compared to the ones first deployed into theatre in the 1960s.

As I wrote here recently, today’s air-to-air missiles are capable of being launched at a target from a much wider range of angles still. To a fair approximation, if you can see the other guy you can get a missile lock and launch. Modern within visual range air-to-air warfare isn’t a case of the best flyer in the most agile plane wins—it’s much more likely that everyone loses.

But the second reason to doubt the applicability to modern air combat of the Vietnam air war experience is that it seems to be mostly myth. To see why, look at the data in this table. It shows the kills by weapon type, including the later model Phantoms which had been fitted with an internal gun after lobbying from fighter pilots. (Earlier models had an external gun pod as an optional fit.) It’s true that the proportion of gun kills went up from 12% to 24%, but they were still well out-numbered by missile kills.

And if we need more evidence, the US Navy’s F-8 Crusader went to war with both internal guns and missiles—so there was no period where its pilot wanted a gun but didn’t have one—and still scored 80% of its successes with missiles. So the Vietnam evidence, based as it is on pretty primitive air-to-air missiles compared to today’s, is that the missile was the preferred weapon even then. The Crusader was dubbed ‘the last of the gunfighters’ and there was a good reason for that. The time of the gun in air combat had passed.

Those inconvenient truths shouldn’t be construed as a complete defense of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The development of that aircraft has seen a series of design compromises made that have undoubtedly reduced the potential effectiveness of the technologies that have been brought together. Trying to make it all things to all services has seen the development drag on for a decade longer than planned, and the rest of the world hasn’t been sitting still. When the F-35’s fielded, the environment will be a lot tougher than it was when the aircraft was conceived, and its stealth and electronic warfare capabilities will both face some significant challenges. But whatever other problems it faces, the lack of a gun in close-in combat won’t be near the top of the list.

Sources and further reading:

Source data: USAF Air-to-air encounters in Southeast Asia (large PDF)

Books: Vietnam Air War Debrief and F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War (see also the list of kills here).

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

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Revealed: How to Wage War Against the Islamic State Online

The Buzz

The media frenzy surrounding the rise of the Islamic State (IS) focuses heavily on the United States’ military strategy. But since IS’ influence transcends the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, it is equally important that the United States develop a coherent strategy to counter the group’s social media reach. The twenty-four-hour news cycle and the Internet plaster IS’ horrific beheading videos everywhere. President Obama’s July 6 speech at the Pentagon on his strategy to combat IS, as one example, enjoyed only a fraction of the media coverage IS beheadings have received.

In his remarks, Obama stressed the importance of a strategy to counter IS’ ideology that goes beyond a military strategy. However, the administration still hasn’t announced concrete measures to counter IS’ social media campaign.

The European Union has attempted to address this weakness through a new task force. But the so-called European Union Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) will not make any real progress in its online efforts against IS because the unit’s objectives are misplaced. Europol Director Rob Wainwright stated that the aim of the EU IRU was to track and remove IS-affiliated online content. Rather than working with social media companies to create a counter narrative online, an area in which governments are particularly ill equipped, the EU plans to play a futile game of whack-a-mole, trying to take down the ringleaders of 90,000 IS-affiliated Twitter accounts.

How to Fight IS Online

Although it is tempting to take down the websites and social media accounts of those spreading IS ideology it is impossible to stop these ideas from cropping back up with new accounts. The nature of the Internet has fostered a new kind of guerilla warfare, one in which IS can recruit people from all over the globe. It is clear there is no simple solution, but here are two ways the EU and the United States could combat IS through social media:

First, take advantage of open-source intelligence. The EU should not take down IS-affiliated accounts or posts but instead work with the private sector, specifically social media companies, to use IS’ own posts against them. Using social media as a tracking device and window into the organization could be more harmful to IS than they anticipate. Even if it were possible, attempting to take down every tweet or “selfie” would prevent the US military and its allies from exploiting IS’ mistakes just as US warplanes did in June when they took out a command-and-control building a day after its location was revealed in a social media posting.

Meticulous analysis of the content, timing, and frequency of postings could help illuminate or even predict locations, movement, deaths, and other patterns that would be invaluable to the forces fighting IS on the ground. The Atlantic Council’s report “Hiding in Plain Sight,” where experts used geotagging to pinpoint the location of Russian troops and weapons in Ukraine, showcased the enormous value of meticulous open-source intelligence. Geotagging and other techniques, coupled with big data analytics, could reveal decisive information such as what role online ringleaders play in the organization offline, or clues to future IS attacks. 

Plenty of attention and personnel and large budget are devoted to the military strategy to take on IS. The EU IRU will only have fifteen experts working on social media. The EU should devote more resources to this unit and realign its objectives to track and study the motivations and modus operandi of the ringleaders they find on the web. And the United States would be wise to follow suit, allocating more manpower and leveraging open-source social media analysis that private social media companies have already mastered.

Second, rather than reactively taking down accounts with the help of private social media companies, use their expertise to construct a social media counter narrative campaign. US intelligence agencies should devote their energies to identifying and monitoring potential foreign fighters or homegrown terrorists, but the United States and its allies equally need to focus on educating the larger portion of the population that ostracizes the potential terrorists. The United States should spend more time and money promoting understanding and acceptance of Muslim communities. 

IS propaganda will continue to draw a limited number of recruits. But the best way to stop foreign fighters from ever leaving their home country or coming back from the battlefields to plan attacks at home is to create an environment that is more accepting than the rhetoric they see online. This, at the very least, should be at the top of the agenda when policymakers discuss how to stop IS’ long-term goals. 

It’s not enough to have the media’s incessant reminders of the horrors that is IS. We need to shed light on the positive aspects of the Muslim community and other minorities in our countries. Social media is the best avenue through which to start that pursuit.

Alexa Lipke is an intern in the Transatlantic Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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Russia's Stealthy New Nuclear Bomber Is in Big Trouble

The Buzz

Russia is delaying production of its new fifth-generation PAK DA strategic bomber, a senior Russian defense official has announced.

Speaking at the Samara-based Kuznetsov Plant of the United Engine Corporation, a Russian defense company, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov told reporters that production of the PAK DA has been delayed in order to resume producing Tupolev Tu-160M2 bomber.

“According to the plans, serial production of the [Tu-160] aircraft new version [the Tu-160M2] is to be implemented starting from 2023,” Borisov said.

When asked whether this would shift the timeframe of the PAK DA strategic bomber, Borisov confirmed that it would. “The PAK DA project will be somewhat shifted beyond [2023, when it is currently to begin entering service], otherwise there is no sense in it,” Borisov said.

(Recommended: The Soviet Union's Insane Plan to Crush NATO in Battle)

As The National Interest previously noted, back in May Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia had decided to resume production of the Soviet-era Tu-160 nuclear bomber, which NATO refers to as Blackjack.

Russia later revealed that the decision to restart production of the Blackjack bomber was made directly by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The supreme commander [president of Russia] and the Russian defense minister have taken a decision on reviving production of the Tu-160M aircraft,” Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev, the commander-in-chief of Russia’s Air Force, said in late May.

The decision to restart production on the Tu-160 was made in part because of production delays in the PAK DA.

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However, Bondarev previously denied that the decision to restart production of the Tu-160s would delay delivery of the fifth-generation PAK DA bombers, as both would be produced simultaneously. "Of course, we have no right to do it otherwise," he said in response to a question about whether the two planes could be produced at the same time.

Borisov’s comments last week seem to directly contradict that, as the PAK DA bomber program will experience more delays in direct relation to the decision to restart the Tu-160 bomber production.

Borisov also recently told Vladimir Putin that other aspects of Russia’s military modernization program will experience delays as a result of international sanctions. “The objective reasons for the failure to meet state defense procurement orders include restrictions on the supply of imported parts and materials in connection with sanctions, discontinuation of production and the loss of an array of technologies, insufficient production facilities," Borisov told Putin by phone, according to a transcript made available by the Kremlin.

The Moscow Times reported that the programs that have experienced a delay as a result of sanctions include: “production of Navy guard ships, Beriyev Be-200 amphibious aircraft, Vikhr anti-tank missiles, remote control and radio monitoring equipment for Igla surface-to-air missiles, and weapon launch systems for Tupolev-160 strategic bomber planes.”

It’s also possible that the PAK DA strategic bomber will never seen the light of day. After all, the newly produced Tu-160 strategic bombers will incorporate a number of upgrades that will give them some of the capabilities envisioned for the PAK DA.

The new Blackjacks are also expected to have a service life of around 40 years, which will give Russia some breathing room with regards to the aerial leg of its nuclear triad. Amid tightening budgets, its possible Russia could scrap the whole PAK DA program in general in order to make room for other more pressing defense needs. At this time, however, this all remains speculation.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rob Schleiffert/CC by-sa 2.0

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How to Stop the North Korea Nightmare Dead in Its Tracks

The Buzz

North Korea is making headlines again. And this time, Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview has nothing to do with it.

Recent news reports have emerged of a North Korean defector who alleges that Kim Jong-un tested chemical and biological weapons on his own people. The defector, whom we know only as “Mr. Lee,” says he has the evidence on a storage device that he will present to the European Parliament in the next few weeks. “Mr. Lee” is not the first to come forward in an attempt to expose the Kim regime’s unethical weapons testing on humans. Over the years, there have been several accounts of Kim’s testing on the disabled, including children.

Does this sound familiar? Inhumane testing of chemical and biological weapons on the innocent and disabled? It should. It’s what Adolf Hitler did during World War II. If this seems like a radical assertion, well, it’s not. During WWII, many (including some in the United States) did not believe—and really could not fathom, as it was so atrocious and then unprecedented—that Hitler was committing such heinous and gruesome crimes in the concentration camps. How many more defectors are going to need to come forward before we take these allegations seriously, and do something to intervene? After all, defectors like “Mr. Lee” are not pleading with Beijing to come help them out, they are making a run for the EU to plead for help.

In addition to testing such devastating weapons on his own people, Kim has some of the traits of another brutal, authoritative leader: Joseph Stalin. Kim’s leadership purges are textbook-Stalin. In fact, Stalin was so paranoid about his own commanders, it is said that the former Soviet leader did not like it when his subordinates stood behind him in a room; he wanted to be able to see them all at all times, in front of him. Kim suffers from a similar paranoia—one that leads him to mistrust everyone close to him, including his own family members, and so he kills them off preemptively to avoid being overthrown.

So what can the international community do? Well, for starters, we should not ignore or fluff off reports of Kim’s chemical and biological weapons testing.

North Korea’s increasing nuclear weapons tests should also be cause for concern. As Tom Nichols has asserted, the fact that we cannot be sure who really runs the weapons show in a rogue state such as North Korea makes it difficult to negotiate with it. Secondly, if North Korea is conducting more nuclear weapons tests and indeed testing biological and chemical weapons, its arsenal would be greatly enhanced.

The only country that may still be able to exert influence on North Korea—China—does not seem to be enthusiastic about doing so, and is not particularly fond of the current regime. So what other options are there?

Some have called upon the United States to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and at least talk with its leaders one-on-one. And while the Six Party Talks between North Korea, the United States, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea are a good idea in theory, the conflicting national interests of all parties involved has made negotiating nearly impossible. It seems, then, that a trilateral dialogue between North Korea, the United States and China might be more effective, if for no other reason than it reduces the number of participants.

However, ideally, if we could trust China to follow through, without having to make any grand deals with Beijing as incentive, a bilateral dialogue between China and North Korea would probably be better, since North Korea doesn’t trust America or really any other Western nation for that matter, but it might still be willing to listen to China. So far, however, Pyongyang has remained intransigent. But if the Iran deal holds up, proving that “rogue states” can indeed be reasoned with, perhaps even more pressure can be exerted on North Korea as a nuclear holdout that needs to reform.

The ultimate challenge that the international community will face with regards to North Korea is how to convince the Kim regime to act better without pushing it to war. And we likely cannot do it without China. It’s unclear what strategy would be best for China to employ. Perhaps, taking a cue from Franco’s character in The Interview, Beijing could attempt to approach North Korea and say, “We are same-same...but different. But still same.” That is, China could appeal to North Korea as one “big” Asian power to another, acknowledging their different national-security interests, but asserting that both China and North Korea want a stable, safe Asia continent (regardless of how true this might be, it’s all about diplomacy) and in order to achieve that, both sides have to refrain from biological, chemical and nuclear-weapons testing.

Beijing is probably our only hope to stop Kim. Getting North Korea to play nice with everyone, including its own people, will involve getting China on board.

Rebecca M. Miller is the assistant managing editor and illustrator of the National Interest. Follow her on Twitter: @RebecMil.

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Explained: Why Walker and Bush are BOTH Right on Iran

The Buzz

Two of the Republican candidates for president, Gov. Scott Walker and Gov. Jeb Bush, are in an argument over how the United States can best get out of the Obama nuclear agreement. This argument has now become the subject of press comment too: for example, by Steve Hayes in an article entitled “Bush-Walker Dispute Catches Fire Over Iran Nuclear Deal” in The Weekly Standard, and by CFR’s own Max Boot in a Commentary blog post entitled “Can the Iran Deal be Reversed on Day One?”

In my view the argument is not much ado about nothing, because both men are making strong and valid observations. They are both right–just right about different aspects of the problem opponents of the Iran deal face.

The argument began when Gov. Walker said “We need to terminate the bad deal with Iran on the very first day in office.” Bush then commented that “At 12:01 on January, whatever it is, 19th [2017], I will not probably have a confirmed secretary of state; I will not have a confirmed national security team in place; I will not have consulted with our allies. I will not have had the intelligence briefings to have made a decision. If you’re running for president, I think it’s important to be mature and thoughtful about this.”

Both men have expanded on their views. Gov. Bush stated his opinion this way to Hayes:

"I have repeatedly said is a terrible deal. Congress should reject it and it would be best to do so before Iran is given more than $100 billion in sanctions relief that they can use to further destabilize the region. Should it be upheld, as President I would begin immediately to responsibly get us out of this deal, with a comprehensive strategy that is responsive to the conditions at the time and confronts Iran’s continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, its support for terrorism and instability, its ballistic missile proliferation, and its horrific human rights record. Such a strategy will require a new national security team that is committed to rebuilding our defenses and restoring our alliances, starting with our relationship with Israel. It will require sustained diplomatic efforts to put significant financial, diplomatic, and military pressure on Iran to change its behavior. And because of the massive sanctions relief provided by this terrible deal, the impact of unilateral U.S. sanctions will be limited and it will be important to work with our allies to reimpose multilateral sanctions and pressure."

Walker’s view was this:

"I believe that a president shouldn’t wait to act until they put a cabinet together or an extended period of time. I believe they should be prepared to act on the very first day they take office. It’s very possible – God forbid, but it’s very possible – that the next president could be called to take aggressive actions, including military action, on the first day in office. And I don’t want a president who is not prepared to act on day one. So, as far as me, as far as my position, I’m going to be prepared to be president on day one."

Bush’s argument is right in the sense that unraveling the agreement after 18 months, and against possible opposition from the British, French, and Germans (and other allies), will be complicated politically. If we intend to reimpose sanctions, we will want to let them know this and we will hope to get them on board (or at least mute their opposition). The new president will want to think about possible Iranian responses and how to blunt them as well. And Bush is right in saying that we need a comprehensive Iran strategy–something the Obama administration has lacked. Reversing the JCPOA is only part of that, and blunting Iran’s terror and aggression in the region are critical.

Some of the work needed can begin during the transition, which now starts after the nominating conventions–not, as was the case until 2012, after Election Day. Certainly, the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect can get full intelligence briefings, and these can be extended to the secretary of state-designate, national security adviser-designate, chief of staff-designate, and a few other top officials.

But it would be wrong to conduct an independent foreign policy during the transition. During the first part of it, in September and October, the candidate will only be a candidate–not President-Elect. And even when President-Elect, it’s wrong to act as if you’re president and start conducting your own foreign policy. Moreover, on “Day One” it is correct that the government will be manned by Obama holdovers in many key posts. The new secretary of state will just be arriving in his or her office on January 20th, and the assistant secretaries who must carry out the new policy will not usually be confirmed for weeks or months. (In 1981, I was confirmed as an assistant secretary of state in the new Reagan administration in mid-April. This was typical.) The National Security Council team can be selected during the transition and can be in place on January 21st, but will they have mastered their new responsibilities? Their own teams will consist almost entirely of Obama holdovers, likely for weeks or months. Because presidential records leave with the president, NSC file cabinets will be empty and it will be take time to figure out exactly who said what to whom when in the Obama years about Iran and the JCPOA. Moreover, won’t we want to talk with the Israelis and Arabs about all of this?

So Bush is right as a matter of governance. Gov. Walker is right in a different way: about international politics and psychology. Max Boot explained this well in his Commentary blog. It’s critical to send the strongest possible message that the JCPOA will not be a ten-year deal but an 18-month deal, because the United States will turn away from it under a Republican president. That message must come through loud and clear. European and other investors will start making calculations soon about how they will act next year, when sanctions are removed. Opponents of the deal want them to go slowly, figuring that they may be better off to wait until November, 2017 to see who is elected president. It’s true that the JCPOA, in one of the provisions most favorable and beneficial to Iran, grandfathers in contracts signed while the deal is in effect. But the reimposition of U.S. sanctions of various kinds can become very expensive for banks and companies, and the idea would be to tell them now that the United States will investigate and prosecute violations vigorously.

More generally, the goal is to affect everyone’s behavior: Iran, the Arabs and Israelis, investors and oil purchasers, and on and on. Here’s one example: switching to Iran as an oil supplier may seem less attractive if you’re not sure how easy it will be to purchase and ship the oil after January, 2017. But this is about more than sanctions: the goal is also to avoid defeatism by our friends in the Middle East. The danger is wide adoption of the view that Iran is the rising regional power now, the United States sees it as a partner, and countries had better just adapt. Gov. Walker is emphasizing the importance of sending a crystal-clear one-line message, that the deal and the policy it represents are dead if he is president.

In my view, both men are right–about the JCPOA, the difficulty of unraveling it, and the need both to do so and to say clearly now that we will do so. Because they are political opponents today, the differences between them are being stressed–and there are differences in emphasis, though also of style. But both Gov. Bush’s message and Gov. Walker’s carry serious points that were worth making.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Pressure Points here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East