Naturally, U.S. weapons developers have been studying Russian and Chinese platforms with a specific mind to defending against them. However, American war planners also want to find ways to destroy them. These kinds of initiatives, senior Air Force leaders explain, can ensure that the service succeeds in engineering properly resilient weapon systems, designed in many cases to specifically counter adversary capability.
“If we don’t understand our adversary, we will show up with the wrong capability, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, competing on the wrong field,” General Charles Brown, Air Force Chief of Staff, said at the service’s 2020 Air Force Association Virtual, Air, Space & Cyber Conference.
Of course, many of the specific details regarding how enemy technologies may be countered may not be available for security reasons, Brown’s emphasis invites some interesting questions. For instance, which Russian and Chinese weapons will the United States most-focus on countering? In some cases, technical developments will focus on countering enemy “countermeasures” as part of an effort to stay in front of a collective modernization trajectory.
More specifically, it is not surprising that so many existing weapons systems are being upgraded with software, sensor and targeting adjustments. For example, the Air Force AIM-9X missile is now engineered with an off-boresight targeting technology, an advancement which enables the weapon to alter course in flight and destroy targets actually “behind” an aircraft.
The weapon can effectively change course or “course correct” to hit enemy targets approaching at various angles such as behind, below or to the side. Also, Raytheon’s AIM-9X is now being engineered with infrared sensing spectrum flexibility to find new operating frequencies to counter enemy jamming. In radio terms, this idea is often referred to as frequency hopping to avoid enemy jamming.
More prominent upgrades include the often-discussed F-35 continuous development program and the substantial software-driven weapons upgrades for the F-22. F-35 upgrades include the anticipated integration of Raytheon’s Stormbreaker, an air dropped weapon engineered with a “tri-mode” targeting all-weather seeker. Stormbreaker also utilizes a “two-way” data link, allowing the bomb to change course in flight as needed.
The guidance technology, which can help track enemy targets on the move from distances as far as forty miles, can use semi-active laser targeting, infrared imaging or all-weather millimeter wave technologies. The weapon, previously referred to as the Small Diameter Bomb II, is slated to arm the F-35 by 2023 and is also being integrated into a host of other aircraft such as the Air Force F-15. Raytheon developers recently completed a “captive carry” test of the emerging multi-mode seeker attached to an F-35 to assess and refine its ability to use the weapon.
Meanwhile, the Stormbreaker could be used against variety of targets, including fast-moving armored convoys or hidden targets under fog or sand cover that thwarts U.S. laser or electro-optical targeting systems. Should an enemy seek to obscure targets under bridges, beneath uneven terrain or turn lights off to complicate electro-optical camera tracking, a hardened infrared signature could adjust course to find an enemy vehicle’s heat signature. Newer targeting less dependent upon line-of-sight or more linear sensor angles can now become more vulnerable to U.S. Air Force air attack, essentially countering enemy countermeasures.
There is yet another indispensable area of focus, applicable to virtually all systems. That is cyber hardening. Not only does this mean securing targeting sensor networks, data links or video feeds, but also emphasizing what is called “information assurance” intended to safeguard the passage and storage of sensitive data as it transmits from platform to platform. Drone and satellite feeds, for example, which in some cases are more vulnerable than other connections to enemy interference or jamming, are being hardened through encryption, decoys, redundancy, EW technologies or other methods intended to disrupt or thwart enemy jamming.
As part of the broad effort, all services now build-in cyber resiliency early into the developmental process such as in the prototyping phase. This helps identify potential computer or networking vulnerabilities being built into the weapon, and in most cases engineering it to be upgradeable such that it can respond to emerging threats. Much of the Air Force effort to “bake in” cyber hardening is done through the services CROWS, for Cyber Resiliency Office for Weapons Systems. CROWS consistently hacks or jams emerging systems and attempts a full range of intrusions for the purpose of countering potential enemy cyberattacks. Once vulnerabilities are found, they then can be countered early in the engineering process. Interestingly, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett cited the purpose why CROWS exists at the AFA Conference September 15.
“The future of Air and Space technology will include aircraft, weapons and satellites which will be digitally engineered and virtually tested before ever taking physical form,” she told an audience at the Conference.
Perhaps of greatest significance in terms of anticipated combat impact, one must think of long-range, multi-frequency Electronic Warfare (EW). EW can, if engineered to operate at longer ranges, can find what’s called a “line-of-bearing” or enemy electronic signal such as radio communications, radar or weapons targeting systems. This is tactically quite significant because it enables a unit to defend itself by jamming or disrupting the sensors of an approaching weapon, throwing it off course. EW can also jam enemy radar, giving aircraft more operational flexibility over high-value target areas. EW can also give commanders the option to pursue a non-kinetic option to take out targets without causing an explosion potentially damaging to civilians in populated areas. Lastly, finding and destroying an enemy’s communications networks, it goes without saying, can bring more tactical advantages than could possibly be described.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.