American ground troops have not come under air attack since 1953 – for 60 years. This is because, with the partial exception of the Vietnam War, the US has always held air superiority, thus providing air cover for its ground troops and enabling offensive air strikes on its enemies. This era is now coming quickly to an end, unless the DOD and the Congress act quickly.
There are basically two kinds of threats to US air superiority, on which the entire US military is predicated and depends and without which it cannot function: enemy air defense systems and fighters.
Efforts to address these threats are greatly hampered by the mistaken, delusional belief held by many in the Department of Defense, on Capitol Hill, and in the think-tank world that Russian and Chinese air defense systems and fighters (and other weapons) are obsolete and decisively inferior to their American counterparts and weapons intended to counter them. This fallacious belief could not be further from the truth; it is built on decades-old assumptions that ceased to be true a long time ago (if they were ever true).
Let’s review these two kinds of threats.
Air defense systems consist of surface-to-air-missile (SAM) and anti-aircraft-artillery (AAA) batteries. There are also mixed systems (such as the Tunguska (SA-19 Grison), Tor-M1, and Pantsir-S1) which consist of short-range missiles and guns. The latter are usually used to defend small areas around key assets (structures, military equipment, etc.) from missiles and bombs; the former are used to defend entire areas from air attack.
The Russians and the Chinese have now fielded and widely exported potent systems of all three classes.
Even legacy Cold War era Soviet air defense systems such as the SA-2 Guideline, SA-3 Goa, SA-4 Gopher, SA-5 Gammon, and SA-6 Gainful can, if competently operated and sufficiently upgraded with modern technology, be very deadly to nonstealthy aircraft. An example of this was the massive attrition imposed by the North Vietnamese with primitive (by today’s standards) SA-2 systems on US aircraft fleets during the Vietnam War, when the US lost 8400 aircraft, including hundreds of F-4s, F-105s, and A-4s, and 17 B-52 bombers. This despite a massive use of jammers and AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation “SAM-killer” missiles – most of which failed to kill anything.
While US data cites SAMs as shooting down only 35% of US aircraft lost in that war and AAA being the lead cause of the losses, the fact is that Vietnamese SAM systems were indirectly responsible for these losses too – because they forced US pilots to fly at low altitudes and thus expose themselves to AAA. Had these SAMs been absent from the theater, US aircraft would’ve simply flown at high altitudes, outside AAA’s kill envelope.
By using both SAMs and AAA, in line with the Soviet air defense doctrine, North Vietnam created a dense, robust air defense systems whose components had different and complementary capabilities and kill envelopes. This presented US pilots and air campaign planners with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choice. Moreover, even though the SA-2 is not a very mobile system, the Vietnamese nevertheless tried to relocate it as often as possible, even though it took several hours a time.
Soviet air defense systems also took a deadly toll on Israel in the War of Attrition (1968-1970) and the Yom Kippur war – especially the latter. The Soviets, in fact, deployed an entire division of their anti-air defense troops in Egypt in the late 1960s, equipped with the newest Soviet AD systems: the SA-3, SA-4, SA-6, and SA-8. In line with Soviet doctrine, these systems were employed in a “hide, shoot, and scoot” manner – hiding in ambush, firing at unsuspecting Israeli pilots, and then immediately fleeing. These systems were manned by experienced, well-trained Soviet personnel, and inflicted high casualties on the IAF in both wars.
Israel had much better success against Syrian-operated Soviet AD systems in 1982. The same systems were used, yet Israel trashed them. Why? It wasn’t actually the quality of Israeli aircraft, jammers, or pilots; after all, they were massacred by the Soviets and the Egyptians in 1973.
The difference was the manner in which the Syrians used their systems: in a totally static manner. The Syrians never tried to hide, shoot, and scoot, which made their batteries easy targets. And there wasn’t much to relocate, because the SA-2, SA-5, and some variants of the SA-3 are static, not mobile. Thus, Israeli intelligence had many months to pinpoint their exact locations, including those of the radars. In warfare, if you’re static and seen, you’re a dead duck. Half of the difficulty of killing you is finding you, and only 50% (or less) is actually having the physical means to take you out once you’re located.
The Iraqis made the same mistake in 1991 and 2003, employing their obsolete air defense systems in a completely static manner.
Another factor was the low technological proficiency of Syrian and Iraqi ADS crews. The old Soviet systems they used require a good technical education and high proficiency to be used effectively. Modern Russian and Chinese ADSes do not, because they’re digital and highly automated.
But even when equipped with now-obsolete Soviet legacy systems, a country can frustrate the US. Serbia did that in 1999. The Serbians trained their SAM crews well, enforced discipline and teamwork, and and relocated these systems ceaselessly. Because of this, the vast majority of them survived the war and even inflicted some embarrassing losses on the US, shooting down an F-16 and an F-117 and damaging another F-117. NATO F-16s, EA-6Bs, and Tornados spent the entire OAF campaign trying to hunt down Serbian SAM systems, and NATO expended over 740 HARM anti-SAM-system missiles – largely to no avail.
If this is what an enemy equipped with even legacy ADSes can do, how much more can a competent enemy equipped with the world’s most modern ADSes (S-300, S-400, S-500, HQ-9) do if he hides, shoots, and scoots! Russia operates the first two systems, is developing the third, and has widely exported the first – to China, Venezuela, Belarus, Slovakia, Cyprus, and now also Syria. It has offered to export it to more countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. It has recently decided to export the S-400 to China – which also operates the S-300 and its indigenous modern ADS, the HQ-9.
All four systems have very long detection and missile ranges, high power radar and control system aperture, a high degree of digitalization and automation, and are very resistant (nigh proof) to jamming and highly mobile. They, and even the legacy late 1970s’ Soviet SA-11/17, can shoot just 5 minutes after stopping and flee just 5 minutes after shooting. They are, like the SA-6 and SA-8, designed from the start for “hide, shoot, and scoot” tactics.
This means that the US can no longer rely on a small fleet of stealthy aircraft to “punch holes” in enemy AD network and allow nonstealthy aircraft to operate. If a single enemy SAM battery is taken out, another one can quickly replace it; and besides, enemy ADSes will not be employed in a static manner standing always in the same position. They will relocate quickly – they’ll hide, shoot, and scoot.
Any airspace protected with the S-300/400/500, the HQ-9, or even upgraded mobile legacy systems like the SA-3, SA-4, SA-6, and SA-11/17, manned by competent crews employing hide-shoot-scoot tactics, is firmly closed to all nonstealthy and “economy stealth” aircraft, including the B-52, B-1, F-15, F-16, F/A-18, EA-6, EA-18, AV-8, F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, Gripen, and the Dassault Rafale.
The second threat to US air supremacy consists of the advanced 4+ and 5th generation fighters of Russia and China. The best known is the Flanker family (Su-27/30/33/35/J-11) of long-range fighters. These fully digital, high-speed, high-altitude, well-armed and very agile fighters is superior to all American fighters except the F-22 and the F-15, the latter barely holding parity with them.
Specs for the different models on both sides vary, and this writer has written extensively on the subject already. Suffice to say that the F-22 and F-15 can fly somewhat higher and faster (65,000 ft, Mach 2.35-2.5) and are slightly more agile (wing loadings of 375 and 358 kg/sq m, respectively), but the Flankers have better electronic attack capabilities, an IRST (which these fighters lack, although it could be installed), a better (30 mm) gun, and are almost equal in thrust/weight ratio while also carrying more and longer-ranged missiles. The Flankers are also much younger than the F-15, cheaper than the F-22, and exported widely around the world to China, Belarus, Venezuela, Vietnam, and many others. Furthermore, the Su-35 and the F-22 have supercruise capability; the F-15 does not.
Basically, the latest Flanker (the Su-35) is significantly better than the latest F-15, although still inferior to the F-22.
Russia’s response to the latter is the PAKFA 5th generation stealthy fighter, AKA the Raptorski. With thrust-vector control and supercruise capability and a powerful Irbis-E radar (which the Su-35 also has), but much better aerodynamic and kinematic capability than the Su-35 (a T/W ratio of 1.19:1, a ceiling of 65,000 ft, and a WL of 330 kg/sq m). Most importantly, the PAKFA is highly stealthy, in the -30 dBSM class, making it a Raptor peer and far superior to the F-35.
Like previous Russian fighters, it will likely be widely exported. India plans to buy hundreds; Vietnam will likely be the next customer.
China is developing two 5th generation stealthy fighters. Little is known about the smaller Shenyang J-31, but more is known about the larger Chengdu J-20. It is highly stealthy from all aspects and is larger than the F-22. It probably has a large enough fuel tank to operate unrefueled across the WestPac from Japan to Indonesia and the Philippines, and certainly has a large weapons bay. It will likely be powered by the same engines as the PAKFA – the AL-31F117 supercruise- and thrust-vectoring-capable engines (which Russia has already sold to China), enabling both aircraft to fly at supersonic speeds without resorting to fuel-gulping afterburners. No US aircraft except the F-22 has that capability.
The J-20 and the PAKFA have as much power as they weigh; fighting them in the vertical is a death sentence.
Any notion that legacy US aircraft (partially excepting the F-15) and the heavy, sluggish, “economy stealth” F-35 can defend the US and its allies against such fighters, let alone penetrate airspace defended by them and by the forementioned air defense systems, is quite absurd prima facie, based on an overwhelming amount of evidence. US legacy aircraft are now hopelessly obsolete, impotent, irrelevant, and useless. The F-35 is also obsolete and useless – already now, before it has entered service.
The emergence of the forementioned air defense systems and fighters has imposed an obsolescence on legacy US aircraft and the “economy stealth” F-35 in the same manner as that in which the battleship HMS Dreadnought, launched in 1906, imposed on all previous battleships.
The only Western (not just American, but WESTERN) aircraft which can penetrate airspace defended by such systems are the B-2 bomber and the F-22 fighter, of which the US has only 20 and 183, respectively. This is nowhere close to enough to defeat anyone except the smallest and most primitive enemy.
The only Western fighter that can defeat all forementioned Russian and Chinese fighters is the F-22 Raptor, or to be more precise, evolved and enhanced variants of this aircraft.
The F-15, Rafale, Typhoon, and Gripen can (if sufficiently upgraded) compete with the Flanker family but not with the PAKFA, J-20, or J-31.
The Super Bug is totally outclassed even by the oldest Flanker variants and the J-10 Sinocanard, as well as the legacy MiG-29.
The F-35 will be similarly so outclassed… assuming, of course, that this utterly failed project even progresses to any kind of large-scale production.
All other legacy Western aircraft and air defense systems will be outclassed and outperformed in like manner, and will be even more ineffective against the PAKFA, J-20, and J-31 than they are against the Flankers and the J-10.
Bottom line: America’s air supremacy monopoly is coming quickly to an end, unless the DOD and the Congress act quickly to reverse this trend.