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

The Buzz

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.

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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. 

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

The Buzz

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. 

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

The Buzz

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?

The Buzz

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