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The obsolence of nonstealthy, legacy aircraft

The Danger Room blog reports that:

“The first sign of the coming U.S. air raid was when the enemy radar and air-defense missile sites began exploding. The strikers were Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, flying unseen and faster than the speed of sound, 50,000 feet over the battlefield. Having emptied their weapons bays of super-accurate, 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs, the Raptors turned to engage enemy jet fighters rising in defense of their battered allies on the ground.

That’s when all hell broke loose. As the Raptors smashed the enemy jets with Amraam and Sidewinder missiles, nimble Air Force F-16s swooped in to reinforce the F-22s, launching their own air-to-air missiles and firing guns to add to the aerial carnage.

With enemy defenses collapsing, B-1 bombers struck. Several of the 150-ton, swing-wing warplanes, having flown 10 hours from their base in South Dakota, launched radar-evading Jassm cruise missiles that slammed into ground targets, pulverizing them with their 2,000-pound warheads. Its weapons expended, the strike force streaked away. Behind it, the enemy’s planes and ground forces lay in smoking ruin.

The devastating air strike on April 4 involved real warplanes launching a mix of real and computer-simulated weapons at mock targets scattered across the U.S. military’s vast Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex near Fort Yukon, a tiny former fur trading post, population 583. “Operation Chimichanga,” as the exercise was reportedly designated, was the first-ever test of a new Air Force long-range strike team combining upgraded Lockheed Martin F-22s and Boeing B-1s carrying the latest air-launched munitions, along with old-school fighters, tankers and radar planes for support.”

This is not yet a real-world scenario. This is actually an excerpt from the DR’s report on an Air Force exercise held in April 2012. In that exercise, a small “silver bullet” force of B-2s and F-22s eliminated enemy air defenses and the F-22s also dealt with the newest, most potent enemy fighters, clearing the way for F-16s to fly in and help them deal with the rest of enemy fighters and for nonstealthy B-1 bombers to fly in to unleash its vast payload, including its JASSM-ER cruise missiles, thus leaving the enemy’s military and its support facilities in ruins. This was supposed to be a practice of a strike on China.

But it’s fiction. If the purpose was to practice striking on China and validate this particular “silver bullet force” tactic of attacking hostile countries, it was evidently a failure, because, although the exercise was successful under the theoretical conditions and tactics devised for it, it is poorly suited to the real nature of the Chinese military threat, and as a consequence, so are the nonstealthy legacy aircraft used in that exercise.

Why? What is the cause of the disconnect between the exercise and reality?

Because real-world enemy air defense systems (ADS) are much more numerous and highly mobile, allowing the enemy to use “hide, shoot, and scoot tactics” with these, and thus ensuring that punching a small hole in enemy air defense systems is meaningless, because all enemy ADS batteries are highly mobile and constantly move around, and if an area suddenly loses its ADS, new ones can be brought in to replace it. E.g. if the mobile air defense systems around Beijing are knocked out, new ones (e.g. HQ-9s or S-300s) can be brought in in a short time.

Thus, the entire USAF strategy of using a small “silver bullet” force of just 20 B-2 bombers and 180 F-22 fighters to punch holes in enemy air defense systems and allow legacy, nonstealthy aircraft to operate safely collapses like a deck of cards.

This obsolete strategy is based on decades-old, obsolete experiences of using stealthy aircraft and other measures to punch holes in static enemy air defense systems (or ones which were mobile but which America’s enemies were too dumb to move and employ in a hide, shoot, and scoot fashion), thus paving the way for nonstealthy aircraft to operate safely. That strategy is now obsolete and will never again be viable.

Today, not only are all potential enemy countries (China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Syria) all covered from virtually all sides with air defense systems, most of these ADSes are highly mobile and can thus relocate in minutes rather than hours or days. Thus, they can be moved to areas where previous ADSes have been knocked out, or anywhere else and e.g. hide and wait in ambush for US and allied aircraft.

Thus, US and allied aircraft will be at risk from, and pilots should expect to encounter and be forced to evade or defeat, enemy air defense systems for the majority if not the entire duration of a campaign – be it against China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, or anyone else.

But all nonstealthy aircraft – the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, B-52, B-1, A-10, currently used drones, etc. – are very easy to detect for, and thus tragically vulnerable to, enemy air defense systems – even legacy systems like the SA-4 Ganef, SA-5 Gammon, and SA-6 Gainful, not to mention the newest systems such as the S-300, S-400, S-500, HQ-9, and the naval HQ-16.

These air defense systems mean that any airspace protected by them is firmly closed to all nonstealthy aircraft, and as a consequence, all nonstealthy aircraft are obsolete, useless, impotent, and irrelevant.

Even the Danger Room admits that on page 2 of its article:

“The B-1 is only moderately stealthy. “We’re about the size of an F-16 on radar,” says Col. David Been, commander of the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. “But we’re by no means low-observable.” That means the 1980s-vintage bomber needs to stay outside the range of China’s deadly surface-to-air missiles, such as the HQ-15.”

But the Danger Room wrongly suggests that the JASSM-ER cruise missile will nullify that weakness and be the most important weapon in confronting China: “But it’s the new Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, built by Lockheed, that could prove the most important in any future war against China. (…) The Jassm, which comes in 200-mile-range and 600-mile-range versions, can strike targets from farther away than the HQ-15 can defend. The B-1 can carry 24 of the cruise missiles, more than any other plane.”

But the JASSM-ER cruise missile has a pathetically short range of only 924 kms, meaning that it can only strike targets on or nearby China’s coast.

This is not enough to defeat China; not even close. To defeat China in any war, the US military needs to be able to strike deep into China; to strike where it will hurt China badly. For that, one needs an intercontinental bomber – and a stealthy one at that, given China’s dense, modern air defense system.

Thus, there is NO substitute for the Next Generation Bomber which the USAF is developing. It is essential to speed up its development to ensure that it enters service well before the currently planned timeframe of the mid-2020s.

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