China Nears Deal to Acquire Russia's Lethal Su-35 Fighter

The Buzz

If reports prove accurate, Russia is set to finally close a deal many years in the making—selling China one its most advanced fighter jets.

According to a report in the WantChinaTimes citing work done by China’s GlobalTimes, Beijing will soon be in possession of twenty-four Russian Su-35 fighter jets.

“We are holding talks with our Chinese partners on agreeing a draft contract for the supply of fighter jets,” explained Ivan Goncharenko, first deputy director general of Russia's arms exporter Rosoboronexport.

A sale of the Su-35, considered by many defense officials to be one of the best fighter jets in the world, would be significant for a number of reasons.

For starters, the fighter is highly advanced and would be a strong upgrade for China’s air force.

“It’s a great airplane and very dangerous, especially if they make a lot of them,” said one senior U.S. military official to The National Interest back in December. “I think even an AESA [active electronically scanned array-radar equipped F-15C] Eagle and [Boeing F/A-18E/F] Super Hornet would both have their hands full.”

A U.S. Navy Super Hornet pilot—a graduate of that service’s elite TOPGUN school—offered his own analysis on the plane: “When taken as a singular platform, I like the Su-35’s chances against most of our platforms, with perhaps the exception of the F-22 and F-15C,” the naval aviator said.

Beijing, besides getting its hands on one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets would also get access to the planes advanced suite of technology—some of Russia’s best—at a time when China is attempting to develop its own aviation industry and become as self-sufficient as possible.

Additionally, Beijing would also be able to get an up-close-and-personal look at the advanced engines that power the Su-35. Presumably, China could learn a great deal from the latest in Russian aircraft engine design—an ongoing weakness in Beijing’s own fighter aircraft development programs.

“Large powerful engines, the ability to supercruise for a long time and very good avionics make this a tough platform on paper,” said one highly experienced F-22 pilot to TNI, also back in December.

But Will It Happen?

The deal itself has been the subject of rumor and speculation for a number of years now. History shows that even with signs that an agreement is close to be finalized, there is the strong possibility it could fall through again.

The biggest reason: Russia may get cold feet.

As I have explained on a number of different occasions, Russia has multiple reasons to hold off selling one of its most capable pieces of military hardware to China.

Moscow's last big jet sale to China, the Su-27, should give Moscow some serious reason to pause or scrap the deal altogether. When Russia’s defense industry was on its back in 1992 after the death of the Soviet Union, China purchased $1 billion worth of the then-advanced fighter. Future Sino-Russo military sales seemed to have a bright future. Plans were laid for an expansion of the agreement for the sale of up to two hundred jets, with huge quantities to be assembled in China. The deal would, however, collapse after the first hundred or so jets were delivered when Moscow accused Beijing of replicating the jet and prepping it for resale under the names J-11 and J-11B.

Chinese officials denied the allegations quite strongly. According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal back in 2010, Zhang Xinguo, deputy president of AVIC, claimed the jets were not a copy.

“You cannot say it’s just a copy,” Zhang boldly asserted. “Even if it looks the same, everything inside cannot be the same.”

However, with oil prices dropping and Moscow looking to lock in strong ties with Beijing as tensions in Ukraine continue to simmer, Russia might consider the sale of the advanced fighter a small price to pay towards a longer-term partnership. Stay tuned, this could all get very interesting. 

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest. He is the co-author and editor of the recent Center for the National Interest report: Tackling Asia’s Greatest Challenges - A U.S. Japan-Vietnam Trilateral Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula and on Linkedin.

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope

This Is How China and Russia Plan to Crush America's Stealth Aircraft

The Buzz

Both China and Russia appear to be building unmanned aerial vehicles designed to negate America’s advantages in stealth aircraft.

Earlier this year, photos first emerged of a new High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) UAV termed the Divine Eagle that foreign observers believe is designed to detect and eliminate stealth enemy aircraft far from the Chinese mainland.

As Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer wrote back in May:

“[The Divine Eagle’s] long range anti-stealth capabilities can be used against both aircraft, like the B-2 bomber, and warships such as the DDG-1000 destroyer. Using the Divine Eagle as a picket, the Chinese air force could quickly intercept stealthy enemy aircraft, missiles and ships well before they come in range of the Mainland. Flying high, the Divine Eagle could also detect anti-ship missile trucks and air defenses on land, in preparation for offensive Chinese action.”

Russia appears to be designing a similar system, according to Flight Global.

While at the MAKS show in Moscow this week, Flight Global spoke with Vladimir Mikheev, the first deputy chief executive officer of the electronic systems producer KRET, about a new UAV being shown at the show, which KRET is a subcontractor on. During the interview, Mikheev said the new (thus far, unnamed UAV) is similar to China’s Divine Eagle in that it uses low frequency radars to detect low-observable stealth aircraft like the F-35, F-22 and B-2 bomber. Most stealth aircraft are created to evade high-frequency radar systems.

The Russian UAV goes a step further by integrating a sophisticated electronic warfare suite onto the aircraft. According to Flight Global, “Mikheev says KRET is providing a deeply-integrated electronic warfare system that not only provides a protective electromagnetic sphere around the aircraft to counter air-to-air missiles, but also cloaks it from radars.” Thus, if true, Russia’s new UAV would be able to detect America’s stealth aircraft without itself being detected. That could be a deadly combination.

Some in the U.S. military are already planning for a day in which stealth becomes mostly obsolete. As The National Interest previously noted, when discussing what America’s sixth generation fighter jet might look like back in February, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that stealth may be overrated.

“You can only go so fast, and you know that stealth may be overrated.... Let's face it, if something moves fast through the air, disrupts molecules and puts out heat—I don't care how cool the engine can be, it's going to be detectable. You get my point."

It was not the first time that Greenert had questioned the long-term viability of stealth technology. In a 2012 paper, for instance, he said that better computing power would ultimately greatly undermine the value of stealth.

"Those developments do not herald the end of stealth, but they do show the limits of stealth design in getting platforms close enough to use short-range weapons," Greenert wrote at the time, according to the Navy Times.

"It is time to consider shifting our focus from platforms that rely solely on stealth to also include concepts for operating farther from adversaries using standoff weapons and unmanned systems — or employing electronic-warfare payloads to confuse or jam threat sensors rather than trying to hide from them."

Dave Majumdar has also observed on The National Interest that, “Russia and China are already working on new networked air defenses coupled with new radars operating in the UHF and VHF-bands that threaten to neutralize America’s massive investment in fifth-generation fighters. Fighter-sized stealth aircraft are only optimized to perform against high-frequency fire control band radars operating in the Ku, X, C and portions of the S-band.”

Not everyone completely agrees, however. For example, in response to Greenert’s comments about the stealth capabilities of America’s future 6th Generation fighter, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, said that stealth will continue to be "hugely important."

“Stealth is wonderful, but you have to have more than stealth," Carlisle said, according to the Air Force Times. "You have to have fusion, you have to have different capabilities across the spectrum. It will be incredibly important. It won't be the only key attribute, and it isn't today."

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

TopicsSecurity RegionsAmericas

The U.S. Air Force's Lethal Master Plan to Dominate the Skies

The Buzz

Much has been written about the transformation of the United States Air Force between the Vietnam War and Operation DESERT STORM. In his classic book Sierra Hotel, C.R. Anderegg documented the revolution in training that occurred at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base during this era, led by the so-called “Fighter Mafia” of Air Force legends such as John Jumper, Ron Keys and Moody Suter. Steve Davies opened the door to the secret MiG program known as “Constant Peg” that occurred during the same time period in his book Red Eagles, while former Red Eagles Squadron Commander Gail “Evil” Peck gave his unique perspective on this historically significant squadron in his book America’s Secret MiG Squadron.

During this period the Air Force also invested heavily in weapons system modernization, highlighted by the development of the F-117, masterfully portrayed in Ben Rich’s Skunk Works. This period is again the subject of academic analysis, this time by United States Northern Command deputy command historian Brian Laslie in The Air Force Way of War. Laslie agrees with previous studies that the revolution in Air Force training, including the integration of training against real MiGs, and the development of new aircraft and weapons all played a major role in the improvement in Air Force employment in the post-Vietnam period. However, Laslie breaks with previous analysis when he identifies the development of the Red Flag exercise as the single most important improvement of that era. He argues Red Flag provided realistic training to aircrews, led to the development of airpower tactics that helped the Air Force dominate the skies above Iraq in DESERT STORM, and proved the viability of new technologies such as the F-117.

Laslie begins his examination of the Air Force’s changes after Vietnam by recapping the poor performance of the service during that air war. Through comprehensive research and analysis, the author provides a host of reasons for the Air Force’s disappointing performance, but he contends that the root cause was unsatisfactory aircrew training. “The single greatest problem faced by USAF pilots…was poor combat training prior to employment. This poor training reinforced poor tactics and doctrine during combat” (p. 29). Laslie argues that aircrews were unprepared to face newly produced MiGs and surface-to-air missiles deployed in Vietnam, and the inevitable result was the loss of hundreds of aircraft and aircrews.

The author argues that many combat veterans returned to the States after their deployments and were disgusted with the level of training they received prior to combat, and were determined to change what they saw as unacceptable preparation. Laslie discusses many of the same Air Force officers that were introduced in Anderegg’s Sierra Hotel. Both authors describe the environment of Nellis at the time, and the group of supremely gifted fighter pilots who plied their craft at the service’s tactical center of excellence.

During this era, then-Majors John Jumper and Ron Keys revolutionized aircrew training with their “building block approach” to training fighter pilots. The idea of a dedicated adversary force flying dissimilar aircraft from the ubiquitous F-4 spawned the development of the Aggressors. A highly classified program to fly and maintain Russian-built MiGs was beginning to take hold and expand, and a brilliant fighter pilot named Moody Suter nurtured the idea for a realistic large force exercise that would prepare fighter pilots for war. However, Anderegg and Laslie differ on one critical point: the influence of the contemporary general officer corps on these initiatives.

Anderegg gives the bulk of the credit for these programs to the determined effort of the so-called Fighter Mafia, often portrayed as fighting senior leadership to persuade them of the necessity of training improvements. Laslie agrees that these young officers were guiding forces behind the training revolution, but he differs from Anderegg in the role of senior Air Force leaders at the time. Anderegg portrays the Generals as risk-averse and indifferent at best, openly hostile at worst to proposed changes in Air Force training. Laslie uses a multitude of examples to show the senior officers that were instrumental in the improvements in Air Force employment and the development of these advanced training programs. Of note, the author discusses the vital role played by General William Creech, who pushed the envelope at Tactical Air Command in improving Air Force tactical employment and training.

“Creech’s importance cannot be overstated. Tactical doctrinal changes, more flying hours for pilots…and improvements to Red Flag were all hallmarks of his tenure as TAC commander” (p. 71). General Creech has been criticized in various texts in the last decade, and a generation of Air Force officers who have read and re-read Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War have developed a hostile impression of General Creech, who was often at odds with the intractable John Boyd. Laslie’s text plays a crucial counterpoint to Anderegg and Coram, and gives readers a new understanding of the hard-nosed general who was determined to improve the quality of Air Force training and employment.

The real star of the book is Red Flag, a revolutionary training exercise that began in 1975. Reports on combat losses in Vietnam identified the initial 10 combat sorties as the most likely time a pilot would be shot down. Moody Suter believed that those first 10 “combat sorties” could be flown in a realistic combat training exercise, minimizing the risk and maximizing the lethality of inexperienced pilots. Laslie delves into the development and the rapid growth of the exercise in more detail than has been found in any previous examination of this period. The author identifies when and why new mission types were added (i.e. Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses [SEAD] and Combat Search and Rescue [CSAR]), and when new aircraft types were integrated into the Red Flag force.

Laslie uses interviews with fighter pilots of the time to describe the revolution that was Red Flag. “Word of Red Flag spread like fire through the fighter community. The response from participating crews was overwhelmingly positive. Pilots said it was the ‘most valuable training ever’ and the ‘most realistic since actual combat’” (p. 64). Previous accounts of the era have discussed the development of Red Flag, but none has captured its importance with the vibrant tone that Laslie has.

The author examines small-scale Air Force operations in the 1980s and concludes that the revolution in training had taken hold, and the service was much more effective in the conduct of air operations. But the true proving ground for the new training programs was DESERT STORM, which turned out to be the confluence of Air Force doctrine, training, and technical improvements. The tremendously successful air campaign would forever change the face of warfare; the conduct of the air war was shocking in its speed and effectiveness. U.S. and coalition losses were minuscule compared to air combat of the past. Laslie contends the revolution in Air Force training, in particular Red Flag, was the reason for the U.S.’s rout of Iraqi forces. “The pilots who fought during Desert Storm were by and large not veterans of combat…However, the group and squadron commanders, flight leads, and other pilots were far better prepared for their first combat missions than their superiors had been when they entered combat in the 1960s and 1970s” (p. 132).

Red Flag had allowed these combat rookies to operate like seasoned combat veterans. As a result, the once vaunted Iraqi air and air defense forces were systematically isolated and destroyed. New U.S. fighter aircraft and weapons, in particular the F-117, performed splendidly and received the preponderance of media coverage and praise during and after the war. However, it was the people that flew the aircraft, guided the weapons, and made decisions during the fog and friction of war that made the difference in DESERT STORM. “In the end, it was not technology that beat Saddam Hussein’s forces…The deciding factor was that U.S. pilots were simply better trained and better prepared to meet the threat that lay before them” (p. 150–1). The air war over Iraq validated the development and modernization of training programs such as the Fighter Weapons School, the Aggressors, Constant Peg and Red Flag.

Laslie tackles a period of Air Force history that has been skillfully examined by several air power experts. Yet the author is able to explore new ground, and truly provide the reader with a significant analysis of the importance of these revolutionary training events, in particular the Red Flag exercise. The Air Force Way of War should be considered required reading for air power historians and analysts, combat veterans and active duty Air Force operators. Laslie’s enthralling text makes it clear why Red Flag is still thriving as it approaches its 40th birthday.

Tyson Wetzel is is an Air Force officer and a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School, of which he was also an instructor. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This piece first appeared in the Strategy Bridge here


Oshkosh Wins Contract to Build the U.S. Military's Next 'Humvee'

The Buzz

The U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps have chosen their supplier for Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs), their replacement for Humvees, and supplement to MRAP All Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs). For now, and presumably the next decade, that supplier is Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Truck. The stakes were high, as the JLTV contract may be the last large military truck contract in North American for at least a decade. But if Oshkosh can keep its pencils sharp—and that’s a meaningful if—it may hold that franchise for a few decades after that.

As the Washington PostNational Defense magazine, and everyone else reported, the initial contract awards $6.7 billion for 17,000 vehicles over seven years. Low-rate initial production will begin late this year, and get rolling in about ten months. The Army’s first unit to receive JLTVs should fill its motor pool by 2018. The franchise may not be quite large as that of the Humvee, but probably as long-lasting. The USMC will have bought its lot of 5,500 by 2021, but the Army foresees buying 49,000 trucks over many years to come. With repeated rebuilds—an exercise in which Oshkosh excels—those vehicles could be in service until 2040, and the entire program could be worth some $30 billion. That’s not a Joint Strike Fighter, but it’s noticeable around Lake Winnebago. Champagne corks were likely popping, and over coffee in the morning, the news may even outrank talk of next weekend’s preseason Packers game.

Getting here, though, the going has been rough. It has been three years since the Joint Program Office (JPO) awarded roughly $60 million development contracts to Oshkosh, Lockheed Martin, and AM General. It has been eight years since the Army’s initial intended in-service date back in 2007. And it has been a decade since the promise of the JLTV was held up at Army Materiel Command and Marine Corps Systems Command as an excuse for not buying MRAPs—actually on the shelf then—sooner and faster. (For more on that, see my dissertation forthcoming next year.)

Whether the JLTV will prove as robust as the toughest MRAP is an open question, though retired Major General John Urias, president of Oshkosh Defense, thinks it will come close. The JLTV will certainly be more strategically and tactically agile—with the “off-road mobility of a Baja racer,” as he put it today. At M-ATV prices—almost $400,000 each—the JLTVs won’t be cheap. While Rohlfs & Sullivan might disagree, I can easily argue that safeguarding the lives and limbs of the troops inside is worth that figure. What’s less clear is how many are really needed. If the entire U.S. military overbought its way to 28,000 MRAPs, then 54,500 (admittedly smaller) JLTVs might seem excessive in a future budget drill.

For Oshkosh, the win bears along another threat. According to Reuters, the contract does include the expected option for the government to buy the technical data rights to the vehicle. For the JPO, just figuring out how to score the offer should not have been simple. “The economics of intellectual property rights” in the JLTV competition, I wrote here in February 2014, constitute real “managerial challenge of military procurement”. For Oshkosh, pricing those rights was probably vexing as well. Should the government exercise that option, it will be able to release the data to any and all prospective contractors in 2022, and solicit build-to-print bids. That’s exactly what the Army did with the data it already owned on the cargo trucks of the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) some seven years ago. Oshkosh significantly underbid 17-year incumbent BAE Systems in 2009, and in the process, forced the closure of the old Stewart & Stevenson automotive enterprise outside Houston. (For a summary of my work on that issue, see my essay “Oshkosh, the FMTV, and the example of fixed-price contracting”, 28 October 2013.) 

Underbidding didn’t work out well for Oshkosh in the short run, but it certainly removed a competitor. This procurement decision, unless reversed on one of the protests that AM General and Lockheed Martin may already be readying, may similarly restructure the business. Lockheed made a serious commitment in transporting the remnants of BAE's truck operation lock, stock, and barrel to Arkansas. Whether it will keep the team intact long enough to challenge Oshkosh in the re-competition remains to be seen. Entry may be followed as surely as exit. Of late, AM General has won contract manufacturing business for R-class Mercedes sedans, and export Humvee orders with the Mexican Army and others. Indeed, CEO Charlie Hall has been working hard to diversify beyond the franchise Humvee business every since taking over at the start of 2011. But the company is yet to convince the world that it has the engineering capacity to design and bring to market wholly new vehicles. Private equity is not always patient capital, and the asset is now much easier to value.

Another asset, an intangible one, is similarly about to change in value, but positively. As I told Defense News recently, Oshkosh will now be “supplying heavy, medium and light trucks to both the US Army and the USMC. Troops will see Oshkosh bumpers wherever they look.” John Alic, late of the late Office of Technology Assessment, lamented in 2007 that “no one asks” the military’s truck drivers what they want in new trucks (Trillions for Military Technology, Palgrave, pp. 107–108). After the IED and MRAP experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, I doubt that’s any longer true. In my experience, you'll likely never find a Marine who’ll say anything negative about those almost ubiquitous Oshkosh trucks. And that “blanket of marketing” is soon to get all the more comprehensive.

This piece first appeared on the Atlantic Council's website here


Explained: Why Katrina was a Human-Made Disaster, Not a Natural One

The Buzz

The flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was a human-made disaster, not a natural one. The flood-protection system for the city had been poorly designed and maintained. It also turned out that a series of waterway engineering decisions to try to contain the flow of the Mississippi River and to facilitate river navigation to and from the Gulf of Mexico, were badly out of sync with the region’s ecosystem. In short, it was a failure of critical infrastructure at multiple levels that nearly doomed one of America’s major cities. Ten years later, what happened to New Orleans should serve as a forceful reminder of the costly consequences of hubris, denial, and neglect. Sadly, though, this attitude continues to characterize the relationship Americans have with their built and natural environments.

New Orleans’s primary line of defense against the sea and the Mississippi River has long been a levee and floodwall system. Unfortunately, that system saw little investment in the half century prior to Hurricane Katrina. The city is like a fishbowl, with the water on the outside and a half a million homes on the inside. New Orleans has been sinking at a rate of three feet per century, so that it lies at an average of six feet below sea level, with some neighborhoods as low as eleven feet below. Without the levees and floodwalls, much of the city would be a shallow lake.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall it had hooked east, sparing the city its worst winds. But the waters from the storm found a ready path to assault the “Big Easy,” thanks to the construction of a 76-mile canal that was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1968. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), known locally as “Mr. Go”, was built to shorten the time and distance required for oceangoing vessels to transit from the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans waterfront. During Katrina this cement-sided waterway provided a ready path to funnel the storm surge originating from the Gulf of Mexico for a direct hit on New Orleans. As the hurricane came onshore, the water steamrolled down the MRGO on a collision course with the Industrial Canal, causing an 800-foot breach. Many of the communities to the east of New Orleans were victims of the overtopping of the MRGO. More than 80 percent of the city was flooded and nearly 250,000 residents were forced to flee; today the population is still nearly 100,000 below its pre-Katrina level.

Given its clear vulnerability to flooding, the haphazard management of New Orleans’ storm protection system prior to Hurricane Katrina is mystifying. Invading floodwaters not only put lives at risk, they created a toxic cauldron of debris that contaminated and scarred the urban landscape. Yet throughout the 1990s, federal funds that might have been used to repair and strengthen the city’s levees and flood walls and protect the pumping stations were bled off for other projects, such as widening the MRGO. In 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $22.5 million for storm protection projects for New Orleans. The Bush administration cut that budget request to $3.9 million and then dropped it to $3.0 million in 2005.

Sadly, the sense of denial and neglect of critical infrastructure that led to the near drowning of New Orleans in 2005 continues to endanger many U.S. cities today. Miami, Norfolk, New York, and Boston all face the twin risks of rising sea levels associated with climate change along with the likelihood of more frequent and intense hurricanes. Seattle sits astride the Cascadia subduction zone that belongs to the Pacific Rim’s seismically active “Ring of Fire,”and Los Angeles lies along the San Andreas Fault. In America’s heartland, cities such as St. Louis and Memphis could be devastated by an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault Line.

Across the nation, Americans have been taking for granted the critical infrastructure built with the sweat, ingenuity, and resources of earlier generations. Not only are we not upgrading it to keep pace with modern needs, Congress and state legislatures have been squandering this legacy by failing to adequately fund basic repairs and maintenance for roads, bridges, ports, wastewater and drinking water systems, dams, and levees, and the electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems. Even for “blue sky” days, our ongoing neglect of that infrastructure is a national disgrace. But as New Orleanians can attest, it translates into reckless endangerment when disasters strike.

For too long Americans have been pretending that disasters are rare and unknowable. Additionally, we have been resistant to making sensible investments in mitigation measures before storms occur, such as placing flood barriers around electrical substations or moving emergency generators out of basements to higher floors. Insanely, in the aftermath of disasters we have a national bad-habit of returning to “business as usual” by often allowing reconstruction in areas that will almost certainly be flooded again.

Hurricane Katrina, along with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, are reminders that the gravest source of danger for Americans derives not from acts of God or acts of terror but from our own negligence. The ongoing risk associated with disasters is far more knowable than we often assume and the means for mitigating their consequences are well within the reach of the most-advanced and wealthiest country in the world.

What has been in too short supply is the political will and leadership that will ensure our communities, metropolitan regions, and nation can better withstand, nimbly respond, recover, and adapt to the inevitable disasters heading our way. There are few more important imperatives that the next president will need to advance than bolstering national resilience.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Renewing America here.

TopicsEnvironment RegionsUnited States