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Monday, October 26, 2015

PLAAF Fighter Modernization & J-20 Updates

Image 1: J-11A fighter aircraft.

As part of the "Countering Foreign 5th Generation Threats" series, this article will focus on broader trends within the PLAAF fighter force with respect to preparing for local wars under "informatization" conditions in the 2020 to 2030 time frame.

For information on specific types of PLAAF fighter aircraft and avionics, please refer to the following articles:

China's Anti Access Strategy Part II: Air Power
The Technological Maturity of Chinese AESA Technology & Strategic Impacts
Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters: Shenyang J-31 Part I
Threat Analysis of Foreign Stealth Fighters Part III: J-31 Part II

Equipment Modernization

The current composition of the PLAAF's fighter and interceptor fleet demonstrates both the progress and complexity of China's modernization effort since the 1990s. The current fleet contains approximately 1,200 fighter and interceptor aircraft of which 60% are third generation platforms such as the J-7 which is a domestic copy of the Mig-21 (Coredsman & Yarosh, 2012). While variants of the PLAAF's third generation aircraft incorporate significant upgrades, they are largely obsolete relative to Japanese and US fighter aircraft. Most of the PLAAF's third generation fighter force will be retired over the course of this decade and replaced by much more capable fourth generation aircraft such as the J-10 and J-11.

As of 2014, the PLAAF fields 200 J-10A aircraft and roughly 300 Flanker derivative aircraft including the J-11A, J-11B, Su-27SK, Su-27UBK, and Su-30MKK (Flight Global World Air Forces, 2014). Production of these fourth generation aircraft by Chengdu and Shenyang is likely to accelerate over this decade to facilitate the replacement of the J-7 and J-8. Chengdu is expected to produce 200 J-10 aircraft over the next five years with at least 30 of the more advanced J-10B variant being produced each year (Fisher, 2015). According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies report The Military Balance for the years 2012 and 2014, the PLAAF and PLANAF added an additional 88 J-11B aircraft to their fighter forces within a two year period. While most literature on the PLAAF acknowledges the shift from third generation to fourth generation platforms, the substantial performance disparity among the new fourth generation aircraft is frequently overlooked.

Image 2: Fighter Radar Specifications

By Western standards, much of the PLAAF's current fourth generation fleet is not modern. For example, the N001, N001VE, and Type 1493 mechanically scanned radars equipped on the PLAAF Flanker fleet is comparable to 1980s US systems. The major limitation of these older mechanically scanned arrays is the PLAAF cannot fully utilize its numerical superiority as its fighter radars are limited in their ability to simultaneously track and engage multiple targets and provide situational awareness. Modern active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars will enable 4.5 generation and fifth generation PLAAF fighters such as the J-10B, J-11D, J-16, and J-20 to fully utilize their large payload capacity for effective beyond visual range (BVR) missile salvos. The PRC has made significant progress in domestically produced BVR missile technology with the development of the PL-15. The PL-15 is powered by a ramjet which grants it an improved no escape zone and at least a 60 mile range; the missile also features an active seeker and two way data-link. Chief of Air Combat Command, General Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle indicated that fielding longer range missiles to out range the PL-15 is "an exceedingly high priority". General Carlisle's remarks are especially stark as it is not customary for USAF officials to publicly refer to specific systems developed by potential adversaries (Axe, 2015).

Image 3: Concept art of a FC-31/J-31 launching a PL-15.

In addition to modern AESA radars, PLAAF 4.5 and 5th generation aircraft will also field greatly improved electronic warfare and countermeasure systems. In March of 2015, Richard Fisher from IHS Jane's reported the addition of new missile approach warning systems (MAWS) on J-11A aircraft. The combination of both the PLAAF's willingness to acquire significant numbers of new fourth generation aircraft and upgrade its existing fourth generation fleet has significant implications on the number of fifth generation aircraft the PLAAF is likely to field over the next decade.

PLAAF 5th Generation Developments - J-20 & J-31

Image 4: Design alterations between the first and third J-20 airframes are clearly visible including the nose cone, diverterless supersonic inlets (DSI), and the possible inclusion of radar absorbent material coatings (RAM). The latest J-20 airframe designated 2016 includes an expanded fuselage towards the engines such that less of the unstealthy nozzles are exposed and an expansion of the DSI (Feng, Lin, & Singer, 2015).

Despite the recent media attention about China's stealth fighter programs, the bulk of China's air superiority capability will consist of non-stealthy 4th generation aircraft for at least another decade. The J-20 is expected to enter service between 2017 and 2018. Given the limited information within the public domain, the J-20 program appears to be progressing well as a total of seven prototype aircraft have been built since the initial debut in 2011 (Feng, 2015). The more recent J-20 airframes such as numbers 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016 show a progression towards a stealthier production aircraft equipped with a large AESA radar and EOTS-89 electro-optical targeting system (EOTS). While externally impressive, the photographs of the new prototypes do not reveal the extent in which Chinese firms involved in the production of the J-20's avionics been able to write software that will effectively fuse the J-20's sensors to provide enhanced situational awareness. As the US F-35 program has demonstrated, the development of internal systems and software has generally been a more daunting task than the development of a low observable airframe.

Three main theories exist among Western defense/aerospace publications with respect to the role of the J-20, each has different implications on the number of J-20 aircraft the PLAAF is likely to acquire. The first theory is strait forward, the PLAAF has a history of fielding both low-end and high-end fighter aircraft and it is likely the J-20 will fill the air superiority high-end role (Gary Li, 2012). Two issues hinder the J-20's current utility as a high-end air superiority fighter: (1) its lack of sufficiently powerful engines and (2) its exposed engine nozzles. Current prototypes use a pair of imported AL-31F engines from Russia which produce a maximum of 27,500 pounds of thrust each compared to the estimated 70,000 pound plus weight of the aircraft will a full load of fuel and munitions. Bill Sweetman argues the lack of rear aspect stealth is likely an intentional design choice based on the assumption that high speed stealth aircraft can tolerate a relatively higher aft radar cross section (rcs). Assuming the J-20 receives adequate engines, proponents of the high-end fighter theory argue the J-20's delta wing canard airframe will grant it exceptional maneuverability and high angle of attack capability. If the J-20 serves as the high-end component of the PLAAF fighter force, a final production run of at least a few hundred airframes is plausible.

Image 5: J-20 weapons bay door on the second prototype aircraft designated 2002. Along with the two side bar doors which can carry one IR guided missile each, the J-20 has the capacity to carry at least six air-to-air missiles.

The second theory argues the J-20's design attributes such as its large internal fuel capacity, AESA radar, large internal weapons bay, and relatively small wings indicate the J-20 is optimized as a stealth supersonic interceptor. Karlo Kopp and Peter Goon of Air Power Australia argue the J-20's design traits would make it an ideal platform to target AWACS, C4ISR, electronic warfare, and tanker aircraft within the first and second island chains. Bill Sweetman also finds the stealth interceptor role convincing noting that,
The U.S. has committed its armed forces to concentrate much of their funding on tactical fighters with a combat radius of 600 mi., much less than the distance from their bases to targets on the Chinese mainland, and has persuaded its allies to do the same. As a result, operations are almost entirely dependent on two groups of aircraft: tankers and large intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft with long endurance. Under the 'distributed control' concept favored by U.S. Air Force commanders as a hedge against electronic warfare, including cyberattacks, the ISR aircraft also have a control-and-communications function. However, both tankers and ISR aircraft are vulnerable to attack, and maintaining a defensive combat air patrol (CAP) over them at long range is also difficult.
By targeting the enablers of US power projection in the Western Pacific, the J-20 would assist in denying the US the ability to sustain operations in the vicinity of China as part of a larger PRC A2/AD strategy. If the J-20 serves as a stealth interceptor, the niche role within the PLAAF would presumably require less aircraft than the high-end fighter role.

The third theory is that the aircraft is optimized as a air-to-ground strike aircraft given its large internal fuel and payload capacity. The J-20 would penetrate through US & Japanese air defenses and strike targets within the first and possibly second island chain. Propoents of the strike bomber theory argue that the J-20 would be a useful complement to the larger non-stealthy H-6. While the H-6 bomber has the range to strike targets within the first and second island chains, its large radar cross section would not enable it to deliver precision guided munitions in a highly contested environment; the H-6 would be forced to utilize stand-off weapons such as cruise missiles.

Of the three theories, the stealth interceptor role is the most plausible in the short-term given the lack of high performance domestically produced jet engines. Over the long-term, it is likely that domestic development of a high performance turbofan engine will enable the J-20 to become a formidable air superiority aircraft capable of fulfilling both the high-end and stealth interceptor roles in the PLAAF fighter force.

Image 6: FC-31 EORD-31 IRST sensor. Chinese media sources claim the EORD-31 can detect an F-22 at a range of 110 km (60 nm) and the B-2 at a range of 150 km (81 nm). These claims are highly suspect and are unlikely to be accurate given the verified performance figures of high-end IRST systems such as the Eurofighter's PIRATE IRST which has a range of approximately 50 km.

Since the first images of the J-31 became publicly available in 2012 until 2014, speculation has dwarfed known verified information regarding the aircraft's potential role as a low-end compliment to the J-20 or even as a carrier based aircraft. Since 2014 were the J-31 participated at the Zhuhai airshow, much more information on the aircraft has entered the public domain. It is now apparent the assumption that the J-31 would serve as a low-end compliment to the J-20 should be seriously questioned on the basis that it is unlikely the aircraft will enter domestic use within either the PLAAF or PLANAF. Shenyang consistently refers to the aircraft as the FC-31 which is an export only designation. The different public treatments between the J-20 and FC-31 by the PLAAF is indicative of their different roles:
What looks like a thoroughly modern stealth fighter is apparently not good enough to serve as China's next medium-weight combat aircraft...The J-20 was revealed in late 2010 and appears to have made its first flight in January 2011. It was not promoted at Zhuhai. And therein lies a key piece of evidence of the status of the J-31. The J-20 was not at Zhuhai because it is not for sale and because China does not want to reveal too much about it. It is intended for the Chinese air force. Conversely, because the J-31 was exhibited at Zhuhai and is promoted as an export product, the Chinese air force obviously does not want it.- Perrett, Hewson, Johnson, & Sweetman, 2014
The disparity in secrecy between the FC-31 and J-20 programs was clearly visible in September of 2015 when the F-31's performance data was leaked. Despite the inclusion of potentially sensitive information such as the jet's combat radius, Chinese internet censors did not deem the release of FC-31 performance specifications to be damaging enough to warrant action (Fisher, 2015). Given the extensive increase in fourth generation fighter production and substantial investments in new fourth generation upgrades, it is likely the PLAAF is content with its fourth generation aircraft serving as the low-end compliment to the J-20. Given the state of the PLAAF's current fighter inventory, the decision to adopt fourth generation aircraft as a low-end compliment to the J-20 rather than pursue a pure fifth generation fighter fleet is a prudent management of risk. Furthermore, the mass production of relatively inexpensive fourth generation aircraft is desperately needed by the PLAAF to facilitate the rapid retirement of the third generation J-7 and J-8.

Part III will discuss improvements to PLAAF training and tactics as well as PRC knowledge of American capabilities as a result of cyber espionage. Lastly, an analysis of PLAAF modernization challenges and current shortfalls will be presented. Part IV will discuss the growing importance and role of passive senors in a mixed fourth-fifth generation dogfight.

Sources (In Addition to Part I)

  1. J-20 Stealth Fighter Design Balances Speed And Agility, Bill Sweetman, 2014.                  
  2. Beijing tech show highlights advances in Chinese fighter sensors, Richard D Fisher Jr, 2015.
  3. Images suggest J-10Bs close to entering Chinese service, Richard D Fisher Jr, 2015.
  4. China showcases new weapon systems at 3 September parade, Richard D Fisher Jr, 2015.
  5. Images suggest upgrades to China's early series J-11s, Richard D Fisher Jr, 2015.
  6. USAF seeks ‘interim’ CHAMP, longer-range air-to-air missiles, James Drew, 2015.
  7. MAKS: Chinese firm unveils new sensors for J-20, J-31, Stephen Trimble, 2015. 
  8. PLA Air to Air Missiles, Karlo Kopp, 2012.                                                                         
  9. The New Chinese Missile That Has the U.S. Air Force Spooked, David Axe, 2015.
  10. CHINESE AIR-TO-AIR MISSILE HITS TARGETS, SPOOKS USAF GENERAL, P.W. Singer & Jeffry Lin, 2015.                                                                                                     
  11. 6TH J-20 STEALTH FIGHTER ROLLS OUT, MORE TO SOON FOLLOW, P.W. Singer & Jeffry Lin, 2015.
  13. China Developing a 2nd Stealth Fighter?, J. Michael Cole, 2012.                                        
  14. China's Expert Fighter Designer, Robert Beckhusen, 2015.
  15. Chengdu J-XX [J-20] Stealth Fighter Prototype A Preliminary Assessment, Karlo Kopp & Peter Goon, 2011. 
  17. Sky Searchers, 2014.
  18. Shenyang FC-31 fighter performance 'leaked' online, Richard D Fisher Jr, 2015. 
  19. J-20 and more thoughts on 5th generation projects, Feng, 2015.                                         

Friday, September 25, 2015

Countering Foreign 5th Generation Threats: Part I - PLAAF Objectives, Doctrines, and Capabilities

Author's Note/Disclaimer: The following is an educated guess as to plausible tactics, techniques, and procedures American fighter aircraft and other assets will utilize to combat foreign fifth generation fighter aircraft in air-to-air combat within a highly contested anti-access environment. Many of the capabilities capabilities of American aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 are highly classified and are not available within the public domain (e.g. cyber and electronic warfare). Similarly, detailed information on the capabilities of Russian and Chinese fifth generation aircraft is scarce. Thus, the article is based upon hints given by senior officials over the years via reputable aerospace & defense publications as well as my own estimations when the limits of publicly available information have been reached. Any conjecture on my part is clearly marked as to not confuse readers with confirmed/complete knowledge of capabilities and systems.

Image 1: F-22A flying over Edwards AFB. Image Credit: Code One.

In 2005, the United States declared initial operational capability (IOC) for the world's first fifth generation fighter - the F-22A. At that time, the War on Terror preoccupied American strategic thinking and the development of new doctrines and technologies related to confronting near peer adversaries stalled. The Russian stealth fighter program was in its infancy and little credible information existed on Chinese fifth generation programs. A decade after the IOC of the F-22, the F-35B reached IOC and the United States faced a substantially different strategic reality; Russia and China are increasingly asserting their influence in Eurasia and have narrowed the performance gap in terms of low observable techniques and avionics with American aircraft. As the United States transitions from exclusively fixating on non-state actors, the US Navy (USN) and US Air Force (USAF) must recapitalize and expand upon proven on Cold War methods of operations as well as create entirely new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to reassert the US' position as the dominant global conventional military force. The USN and USAF must be able to complete power projection and all domain access operations with the following environment in mind:
  1. Due to F-35 program delays, the US will field a mixed 4th and 5th generation fighter force well info the late 2020s to early 2030s 
  2. The limited production run of the high-end air superiority F-22A with just 187 airframes delivered outside of test and evaluation roles, of which 143 are combat coded at any one time
  3. The emergence of high quality low cost DRFM jammers has significantly degraded beyond visual range radar guided missile performance 
  4. Advances in electronic and cyberwarfare have the potential to disrupt both friendly and enemy networks, severely limiting situational awareness and reducing the viability of network centric warfare 
  5. Poor cybersecurity and counter intelligence failures have allowed China to obtain detailed information on US weapon systems as well as methods of employment   
  6. The proliferation of sophisticated electronic & cyberwarfare weapons in conjunction with foreign stealth aircraft will mitigate the effectiveness of active detection systems such as radars meaning passive detection systems will become more widespread e.g. IRST systems 
  7. Use of passive systems and increasingly capable very high frequency (VHF) radars will degrade the effectiveness of X and S band optimized stealth aircraft into the late 2020s to 2030s which includes all current stealth fighters in development with the possible exception of the sixth generation F-X 
The article will discuss potential TTP the USN & USAF will produce with respect to the aforementioned issues. The focus of this article on Chinese A2/AD related threats rather than equivalent Russian systems stems from the significant conventional military modernization issues faced by the Russian military. Other than the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is likely to be only other nation to field hundreds of fifth generation aircraft:
"Russia has found it impossible, so far, to field numbers of fifth-generation fighters. 'The Russians can build one-off systems, can build small numbers of really capable stuff, but they have not yet achieved the industrial capacity to produce in huge volumes'...the Chinese are expected to produce large numbers of J-20s over time...'I absolutely believe they have the industrial capacity to build lots of them. That’s what worries me. I have no doubt they’ll get, they’re stealing stuff from us as fast as they can, so that will accelerate their technological path, and then their industrial capacity is impressive.'”- Former Air Force General Mike Hostage, 2014 
A brief overview of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) objectives, doctrines, and capabilities relevant to probable US countermeasures e.g. new TTP will be provided.  PRC knowledge of sensitive American capabilities, revealed as a result of the Snowden leak and cyber espionage, will also be discussed.

Author's Note: Given the complexity of the topics discussed, the author recommends the following publications for a more detailed examination of the PLA and PLAAF: "Chinese Military Modernization and Force Development A Western Perspective" by Anthony H. Cordesman, Ashley Hess, and Nicholas S. Yarosh as well as "People's Liberation Army Air Force 2010" by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.

PLAAF Objectives, Doctrines, and Capabilities

Image 2: J-20 prototype model "2011" featuring an electro optical targeting system system.


As a rising great power state, the PRC has a diverse range of national security objectives ranging from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintaining control over domestic media to suppression of Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang. For the purposes of this article, objectives and relevant doctrines related to the potential employment of PLAAF 5th generation aircraft against the United States will be discussed. Much of the literature discussing PRC strategic objectives related to a potential PRC-US conflict highlight the counter-intervention A2/AD strategy which would be employed between the first and second island chains; the first island chain covers the geographic region from the Ryukyu islands to the nine dash line in the South China Sea (SCS) and the second island chain extends outward from the first island chain toward Guam, the Marianas, and the Indonesia Sea (Global Security, 2011). As part of the A2/AD island chain strategy, the PLA would attempt to deny a foreign military force from intervening on behalf of Taiwan as well as the Philippines and Japan in the South China Sea and East China Sea respectively depending upon the contingency. The PLANAF and PLAAF would seek to establish regional air superiority, deny US sortie generation/basing, and destroy hostile surface vessels which would effectively limit US power projection in the region (RAND, 2008). As described below, the objective would be to execute a short decisive war within a limited in geographic scope.


Several PLA white papers discuss the growing need to fight a "local war under conditions of informatization" by achieving a state of information dominance over the enemy (DoD & Cordesman, 2015). In many respects, this doctrine mirrors aspects of the US doctrine of network centric warfare:
"The Local War under Conditions of Informatization (Local Wars) concept has been the official military doctrine of the PLA since 1993. This doctrine states that near-future warfare will be local geographically, primarily along China’s periphery; limited in scope, duration, and means; and conducted under 'conditions of informatization,' which the DOD describes as 'conditions in which modern military forces use advanced computer systems, information technology, and communication networks to gain operational advantage over an opponent'...Because of this extreme battlefield lethality, in combination with the limited geographic scope and objectives of Local Wars, the PLA expects to fight short wars in which the first campaign will be highly destructive at the military level and lead to a decision within the military sphere quickly. Moreover, the ability of military forces to communicate and coordinate rapidly through effective C4ISR networks means that, at the operational level, military forces in Local Wars will be agile, capable of high-tempo deep operations, resource-intensive, critically dependent on information, and present in all warfare domains." - Cordesman, 2015 
It remains to be seen if differing branches of the PLA can establish the level of cross service cooperation required to facilitate information dominance and effective employment of a networked A2/AD system given current institutional barriers (RAND, 2015). Furthermore, as PLA units gain greater cross service cooperation and improve their networked A2/AD capabilities, they become more susceptible to disruptive attacks against their C4ISR assets in a similar manner as the current vulnerability of American forces (Clark, 2014).

Capabilities: IADS, C4ISR, and Fighter Aircraft 

For the purposes of this article, aspects of China's integrated air defense system (IADS) and C4ISR capabilities will be discussed as it is most relevant to fourth and fifth generation fighter operations. However, it is important to note that anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, conventional ballistic missiles, etc. all contribute towards China's A2/AD capabilities within the first two island chains. China's IADS includes ground radars, surface to air missiles, command and control (C2) sites, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets (ISR), and fighter aircraft.

Image 3: HQ-9 site near Beijing. Image Credit: Sean O'Connor, 2007.

The mainstay of the PLA's long range SAM forces consist of S-300 derivatives including the locally manufactured copy, the HQ-9 which features minor alterations including a redesigned rocket motor. The PLA fields:

  • Between 8 to 16 HQ-9 SAM batteries
  • 16 battalions of 150 km range S-300PMU1 SAMs 
  • At least 8 battalions of the more capable 200 km range S-300PMU2 SAMs 

Note: Each S-300 battalion consists of up to six batteries which features up to six transporter erector launchers equipped with four missiles  each (Global Security & Kopp, 2015).

In any potential US-China conflict, the main threat to US fighter forces would result from high concentrations of S-300 and HQ-9 batteries with maximum engagement ranges between 125-200 km augmented by scores of shorter range SAMs such as the HQ-12 and SA-15.

Wile the negotiation of the sale of the 400 km (215 nautical miles) range S-400 has frequently made news headlines, the S-400's strategic value to China in the near term has been greatly overestimated by most media outlets for two reasons: (1) the PLA's acquisition of S-400 systems will be limited to between four and six battalions and (2) the 400 km figure pertains to only one of many missile types employed by the S-400 system - the 40N6 missile. The majority of missiles employed by the S-400 system are composed of the 130 nautical mile (240.7 km) range Fakel 48N6E3/48N6DM missile while the more expensive 40N6 is reserved for high priority targets such as AWACS aircraft (Kopp, 2014).

The radars comprising the S-400 system, such as the 92N2E Grave Stone, are likely to have a greater strategic impact than the 40N6 missiles given their ability to network with other IADS assets. Furthermore, the opportunity to reverse engineer the S-400's advanced radars will almost certainly have long-term effects on the technological maturity of future PLA SAM systems. Long range ground based radars will remain the backbone of the PLA's long range network of sensors to provide targeting data to both surface to air and surface to surface missiles as China fields limited space based and airborne ISR systems.

Image 4: Long March 2C launch vehicle. In 2014, the PRC put 16 satellites in orbit compared to 23 for the United States and 34 for the Russian Federation (Clark, 2014).

In order to deny US power projection within the first and second island chains, China's A2/AD strategy relies upon ISR assets to provide over the horizon (OTH) targeting information to PLA conventional ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, ships, and aircraft. Large fixed targets such as US ground facilities in Japan would be comparatively easy to target given the locations of these targets are static and observable in peacetime conditions. However, mobile targets such as US carrier groups, AWACS aircraft, and tanker aircraft would require real time long range space based and airborne sensors to relay targeting information to PLA forces.

The PRC has made significant investments in reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites which could provide real time OTH information to PLA forces within the first and second island chains. Beidou 1 consists of five satellites positioned in geostationary positions between 70 to 140 degrees east longitude and 5 to 55 degrees north latitude; an additional 16 Beidou 2 navigation satellites are active (Gormley, Yuan & Erickson, 2014). China has also deployed multiple Jianbing-8 ocean surveillance satellites similar to the US' Naval Ocean Surveillance System (Barbosa, 2014). As China continues to heavily invest in space assets, the assumption that the US would be disproportionately affected in a future conflict with China in which both sides attempt to deny the use of space merits further analysis; without long range space based systems the effective range of China's A2/AD assets is confined well within the first island chain (Biddle & Oelrich, 2015).  A combination of kinetic and non-kinetic options are available for the US to target both Chinese surveillance and communication satellites.

Image 5: Chengdu's Tian Yi High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV. Note the uncanny resemblance to the Northrup Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk. A second derivative of the Tian Yi features two engines buried within the airframe along with additional stealth features.

As with PRC satellites, UAVs enable the PLA to cue long range conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. The DoD reported in May of 2015 that the PRC will field more than 40,000 sea and land based UAVs by 2023 at a total cost of $10.5 billion. The vast majority of future PRC UAVs will be shorter range miniature and tactical UAVs capable of operating only within the first island chain. However, the comparatively larger number of tactical UAVs such as the ASN-206 will make neutralizing the PLA's ISR capabilities much more difficult within the first island chain. Larger and more capable medium altitude long endurance (MALE) and HALE UAVs will provide substantial ISR capabilities within the second island chain but fewer of the more capable platforms such as the Divine Eagle will be available.

A large number of publications, such as Popular Science, have heralded the Shenyang Project 973 UAV as a game changer with its alleged anti-stealth capabilities and its role as an integral C4ISR node within China's larger A2/AD force:
"The Divine Eagle is planned to carry multiple Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, of the AMTI, SAR and GMTI varities. Airborne Moving Target Indicator (AMTI) radar types are used to track airborne targets, like enemy fighters and cruise missiles. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) provides high resolution of slow moving ground vehicles and enemy bases. Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) radars are ideal for identifying and tracking ships, such as aircraft carriers. X/UHF band radars, which include the 'F-22 killer' JY-26 that debuted at Zhuhai 2014, have raised concerns in the American military that they could track stealth aircraft like the F-35 fighter and B-2 bomber at long ranges." - Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer  
A great deal of skepticism is warranted when trying to assess the Divine Eagle given the spectacular performance claims made by many Chinese publications and defense forums. Early claims that the UAV itself was stealth are clearly refutable on the basis of its vertical tail surfaces. Furthermore, the active emission of signals from its AESAs would reveal its position to passive systems such as the ALR-94. Lastly, UHF/VHF radars do provide an ability to detect stealth aircraft at tactically significant ranges, but do not provide weapons quality track data which still requires S and X band arrays (Majumdar, 2014). All the aforementioned caveats do not imply the Divine Eagle does not have significant capabilities, but it is unlikely a "silver bullet" to combating stealth American aircraft. If the details on its avionics provided by Popular Science are correct, the Divine Eagle can still provide an early warning capability against X and S band optimized stealth aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.

Part II will discuss PLAAF and PLANAF fighter capabilities as well as PRC knowledge of American systems through the Snowden leaks and cyber espionage.


  1. People's Liberation Navy - Offshore Defense, Global Security, 2011. 
  2. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Project: Organizational Capacities and Operational Capabilities, Ian M. Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, 2013.
  3. China’s Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry, Kimberly Hsu, 2013.'s%20Military%20UAV%20Industry_14%20June%202013.pdf 
  4. Divine Eagle, China's Enormous Stealth Hunting Drone, Takes Shape., Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, 2015. 
  5. 2014’s launch tally highest in two decades, Stephen Clark, 2014. 
  6. Air Combat Past, Present and Future, John Stillion & Scott Perdue, 2008. 
  7. The HQ-9 SAM System: A Site Analysis, Sean O'Connor, 2007.
  8. China's Incomplete Military Transition, Michael S. Chase, Jeffrey Engstrom, Tai Ming Cheung, Kristen A. Gunness, Scott Warren Harold, Susan Puska, Samuel K. Berkowitz, 2015.
  9. Commanding the Seas A Plan to Reinvigorate US Navy Surface Warfare, Bryan Clark, 2014. 
  10. Long March 4B lofts Yaogan-21 in surprise launch,  Rui C. Barbosa, 2014. 
  11. A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions, Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, 2014. 
  12. Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: From Command of the Commons to Spheres of Influence, Stephen Biddle & Ivan Oelrich, 2015. 
  13. Chinese and Russian Radars On Track To See Through U.S. Stealth, Dave Majumdar, 2014.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Updates & Countering 5th Generation Threats [UPDATE: Article will be published on 9/25/15]

Image 1: F-35 & F/A-18F. Image Credit: Code One Magazine, 2015.

For the past several weeks I have been researching content for what is among the most difficult and technically complex articles I've written on the American Innovation Blog, "The American Approach Part IV: Future TTP -  Countering Foreign 5th Generation Threats". The article will seek to outline plausible tactics, techniques, and procedures American fighter aircraft and other assets will utilize to combat foreign fifth generation fighter aircraft in air-to-air combat within a highly contested anti-access environment. Many of the capabilities capabilities of American aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 are highly classified and are not available within the public domain (e.g. cyber and electronic warfare). Similarly, detailed and reliable information on the capabilities of Russian and Chinese fifth generation aircraft is scarce. Thus, the article is based upon hints given by senior officials over the years via reputable aerospace & defense publications as well as my own estimations when the limits of publicly available information have been reached. I have gone to great lengths to ensure that any conjecture on my part is clearly marked as to not confuse readers with confirmed/complete knowledge of capabilities and systems; all conjecture will be based in part in confirmed information. Expect to see the article published in the next couple weeks.

Additionally, the "Blog Articles By Topic" tab has finally been updated to account for articles published within the past year. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A New Age of Great Power Competition? - Russia Part II


Efficacy of the Current US Response

Image 1: "Dragon Ride" exercise across Europe, 2015. 

Key Points from Part I: 
  • Russia's main foreign policy objectives are (1) remain a nuclear power on equal footing to the United States (2) retain great power status in international politics, and (3) attain regional hegemony (Leon Arron, 2013). 
  • Russia's increased belligerence is not an indicator of Russian strength. The conventional Russian military faces substantial modernization challenges which are unlikely to be addressed in light of the country's bleak economic prospects
  • Given Russia's poor economic prospects, Russia is more likely to invest in its nuclear modernization program as a means to offset conventional US military advantages. Furthermore, Russia will invest in its asymmetric capabilities to coerce states below the Article 5 threshold as part of its strategy to attain regional hegemony in the near abroad. 
The principle US Military response to the Russian intervention in Ukraine has been "Operation Atlantic Resolve". Congress approved $1 billion towards funding Atlantic Resolve which facilitated substantial rotational deployment of US forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, prepositioning heavy equipment in six Eastern European countries, and large scale exercises between US and NATO partners. Unlike the US & EU sanctions which are intended to enact costs such that Putin will cease Russian support for Ukrainian separatists, the objective of Atlantic Resolve has been to deter Russian aggression into NATO states and reassure US allies. The short-term goal to reassure US allies and deter Russia has worked insofar as no Russian military incursions into the Baltics or Eastern Europe have occurred but the sanctions have largely been ineffective given the extent of Russian commitment to retain Ukraine within its sphere of influence. However, two major military policy issues remain unaddressed by Atlantic Resolve: (1) the large scale deployment of conventional military forces is ill-suited to counter Russian asymmetric forces - which are more likely to be used given the shortcomings of their conventional military and the greater geopolitical consequences of overt conflict, and (2) the NATO alliance continues to fade into irrelevance as a unified fighting force. Few European NATO members are capable of conducting both intensive military operations and are willing to use force to deter potential Russian aggression. NATO's shortcomings will be discussed followed by policy recommendations within a larger US foreign policy context in Part III.

The Hybrid Threat

Image 2: Pro-Russian separatists in Slavyansk. Image Credit: Roman Pilipey

Russia's use of unconventional forces poses significant challenges to conventional NATO forces, particularly in terms of response time. The speed at which Russian forces overwhelmed Crimea caught Western leaders off guard and underlined the inadequacy of the current 30 day mobilization period of conventional NATO units (Saunders, 2015).  Prior to the Ukraine crisis, NATO maintained a meager rapid response force of 5,000 troops with a response time of five to seven days; NATO now has plans to expand the rapid reaction force to 40,000 troops with a response time of 48 hours. While the expansion of the rapid reaction force is prudent, it is not wholly sufficient to counter Russian asymmetric capabilities in a potential conflict over the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

A great deal of literature acknowledges the shortcomings of conventional US & NATO forces in dealing with the various aspects of hybrid warfare including information operations, use of special forces, paramilitary forces, cyber attacks, etc. but much less is published on specific tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) US forces would utilize to counter hybrid threats. In order to create new TTP, the United States should continue to collect as much intelligence information on Russian capabilities as possible throughout the conflict. For example, the US Army has garnered useful information on the efficacy of counter-mortar radar units against hybrid forces and potential vulnerabilities of US & allied networks to Russian electronic warfare systems:
"The U.S. Army is working to glean intelligence on Russian military technology from the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, American generals said...'The lightweight counter-mortar radar, turns out, that it is a much better piece of equipment than we realized,' Hodges said. 'None of us have ever -- maybe one or two exceptions -- have ever been under a massive Russian artillery [attack] the way the Ukrainians have, and so we have learned a lot in the way that they have responded to that.'On the other hand, the conflict has exposed the potential for Russian electronic warfare technology to pierce U.S. and allied battlefield communications networks', Hodges and other U.S. generals said. Rostec, a Russian-owned arms and technology company, last year claimed it used 'complex radio-electronic' frequencies to hack into an MQ-5B Hunter drone that was flying over Crimea and belonged to the Army's 66th military intelligence brigade based in Germany." - Brendan McGarry, 2015

NATO's Growing Irrelevance

Image 3: NATO military spending by member states.
"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources ... to be serious and capable partners in their own defense..future U.S. political leaders, those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me, may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost,” - Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, 2011 [emphasis added] 
In recent years US diplomats and top Administration officials have lamented the continued perceived lack of defense spending among European partners. As the graph above shows, it immediately appears as if the United States is responsible for a disproportionate burden of defense responsibilities relative to European allies. In terms of the spending burden, two major factors must be kept in mind. A major caveat is the US economy is nearly equal to the combined total of the 28 European Union countries despite its much smaller population; the US has a population of 320 million and a GDPs of $17.45 trillion 2014 dollars compared to the EU's population of roughly 500 million and GDP of $18.48 trillion in 2014 dollars (IMF, 2015).Thus it is important to remember that given even a low percent of GDP allocated towards defense, the US is bound to significantly outspend any individual member of NATO.

The second major caveat is US forces are spread throughout six operational commands given the global national interests of the United States. A more apt comparison for peacetime aggregate defense spending would be US expenses related to the defense of Europe relative to NATO allies e.g. the costs associated with the forward deployed 65,000 US troops stationed in EURCOM. However, during wartime conditions in Europe forces from other operational commands would be allocated to USEUCOM e.g. surge forces from US. With these two factors in mind, the overwhelming extent to which the US provides funds for Europe's defense is somewhat reduced but remains substantial relative to other NATO members. Most importantly, the United States disproportionately provides the bulk of warfighting capabilities within the NATO alliance despite the aforementioned caveats with respect to US defense spending.

Image 4: Note the divide among member states between increasing expenditures among Eastern European members and cuts in Western European countries. Image Credit: Defense One, 2015.

The aggregate spending figures alone do not illustrate the full extent to which the US composes the alliance's warfighting capability. Defense spending is a means to produce warfighting capability and "bean counting" type of analysis's which look at total defense budget figures alone glaringly overlook how defense budgets translate into a fighting force's effectiveness. Defense budgets are generally divided into four categories: procurement, research & development, operations and maintenance, and personnel expenditures. The most troublesome trend among European allies in terms of defense budgets has not been the overall budget cuts of recent years. Rather, European militaries consistently spent upwards of 50% of their existing defense budgets on personnel expenditures such as benefits in conjunction with overall defense spending cuts. Given the higher proportion of personnel expenditures in European militaries, less new equipment can be purchased, existing vehicle and equipment are not as likely to be maintained, and more capable future systems will be delayed or not pursued. Thus, European defense budgets translate into substantially less warfighting capacity than the United States. It is worth noting that the DoD has also struggled in recent years with the onset of sequestration and the end of two wars to reign in personnel expenditures, but in percent terms these additional personnel costs do not approach many of the EU states below.

Image 5: EU member states proportion of defense spending allocated to personnel expenditures. Note: Austria, Cyprus, Malta, Sweden, Finland, and Ireland are not part of NATO.

Another worrisome trend within European militaries is the growing rift among Eastern and Western European NATO members in terms of their willingness to use force. Western European states face a less immediate threat from Russia as Eastern European states such as Poland and the Baltics. Unlike the Cold War, Western Europe has substantial economic ties with Russia and is incentivized to limit further economic damage from sanctions relating to Ukraine. The cohesion of the alliance has been disrupted further by the Snowden leaks which have drastically lowered US favorability in Europe, particularly in Germany. In an overt military conflict with Russia, these trends are unlikely to be as impactful as peacetime efforts against countering asymmetric Russian advances in Eastern Europe. Given the lack of immediate danger to themselves and economic incentives, Western European states are much less willing to confront Russia in Eastern Europe so long as Moscow refrains from overt military intervention. The combination of high personnel expenditures in the face of overall defense cuts coupled with the reduced willingness to use military force effectively erodes the extent in which European partners contribute to NATO's overall deterrence via providing substantial warfighting capabilities.

Image 6: Divisions among NATO member states in response to Russia. Image Credit: The Wall Street Journal, 2015.

Given Russian capabilities and NATO's growing irrelevance, Part III will discuss policy recommendations within the context of a larger US foreign policy perspective.

Sources (in addition to Part I) 

  1. Explainer: This Graph Shows How NATO’s Military Capability Has Evolved Since 1949, Janine Davidson, 2014. 
  2. NATO Members’ Defense Spending, in Two Charts, Kedar Pavgi, 2015. 
  3. International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook Database, 2015.
  4. World Europe U.S. pledges commandos and high-end equipment for new NATO force, Carol Williams, 2015.
  5. U.S. Consolidates Forces in Europe to Save Money, Helene Cooper, 2015. 
  6. National Defence Data 2013 of the 27 EDA Member States Brussels, Silvija GuzelytÄ—, 2015 
  7. Ukraine’s Army Slogs Through the Merciless Donbass, Robert Beckhusen, 2014. 
  8. Carter Says U.S. Will Contribute to New NATO Rapid-Action Force, David J Lynch & James G Neuger, 2015.

Friday, July 10, 2015

F-35 loss to F-16? Setting the Record Strait

Image 1: F-35. Image Credit: Liz Kasynski Code One, 2015.

Earlier in July David Axe from “War is Boring” published excerpts from a report made by an F-35 pilot upon the conclusion of basic fighter maneuvering (BFM) exercises which took place in January of 2015.  During the exercise, the clean configured F-35 was outmaneuvered by an F-16 with two drop tanks and was subsequently defeated. Axe argues the failure of the F-35 to defeat the aircraft it was intended to replace is the latest in a series of developments which ultimately demonstrate the F-35 is a waste of American tax payer dollars and the aircraft will be of little use on the battlefield against maneuverable fourth generation opponents. The article caused considerable public debate and even prompted an official response by the Joint Program Office (JPO) which oversees the development of the F-35. Upon reviewing the circumstances of the test within the broader context of the maturity of the F-35 program, it becomes apparent that the BFM testing in January does not provide conclusive results with respect to assessing the F-35’s potential dogfighting prowess.

First and foremost, the test aircraft utilized in the BFM exercise (AF-2) is among the oldest in the fleet and is optimized for flight sciences not dogfighting; AF-2 has neither radar absorbent material coatings nor the latest software configuration to enable HMD and full avionics functionality (Jennings, 2015). Thus, the F-35 was effectively deprived of its two most significant advantages over legacy aircraft, enhanced situational awareness and low observability. The combination of stealth and complete situational awareness enables the F-35 to effectively perform “stand-off” kills or beyond visual range engagements. The F-35 sharesthe fifth generation traits of stealth and situational awareness with the F-22which has already demonstrated their value- even when controlling for theF-22’s superior maneuverability performance

Image 2: F-35 AIM-120 test
“…the results of training exercises indicate the Raptor is highly capable in close range maneuvering fights but it is clearly not invincible. The results of close in maneuvering fights indicates supermaneuverability alone is not responsible for the Raptor's success, stealth and heightened situational awareness have contributed immensely to the Raptor's overall combat effectiveness exercises. All [simulated] instances of Raptors being shot down, with the possible exception of a case where an AIM-120 missile kill was achieved by an EA-18G, occurred at visual range in close in maneuvering fights. The F-35 shares stealth and heightened situational awareness with the Raptor and, given all the information that has been publicly released, there is no credible reason to conclude the F-35 is incapable of performing similar ‘stand-off kills’ utilizing stealth and situational awareness as described by Brown” - Matt, 2013
Without stealth and enhanced situational awareness, the F-35 utilized during the test was effectively a fourth generation fighter. But, the lack of stealth coatings and software upgrades were not important as the objective of the test was to determine the limits of – and ultimately improve – the aircraft’s maneuverability characteristics as per the pilot’s recommendations at the end of the report. Lockheed had initially framed the outcome of the test, prior to David Axe’s publication, as a positive outcome given that the F-35 can be “cleared for greater agility as a growth option” (Davies, 2015).

Image 3: F-35 canopy & HMD 

The F-35 test pilot concluded the aircraft had an insufficient pitch rate, suffered from an energy disadvantage (drop in speed after maneuvers), and poor rearward visibility. The pilot subsequently recommended increasing the pitch rate to enable the pilot to have greater options, increasing the alpha onset, increasing the beginning of the blended region to 30 degrees (angle of attack), increase pilot yaw authority, and fixing HMD/canopy issues. By following the pilot’s recommendations in addition to planned block upgrades, many of the deficiencies cited in the report will be either mitigated or disappear. For example, Block 6 improvements include both a canopy expansion and propulsion upgrade e.g. adaptive cycle engine with up to 10% increased thrust and 25%-30% range (Norris, 2015). However, some maneuverability challenges would remain such as high-wing loading which cannot easily be remedied as a result of upgrades. Its worth noting that maneuverability is determined by examining several metrics such as thrust to weight ratio, high subsonic acceleration, rate of climb, AOA, sustained radius turn ability, etc. As with prior generations of US fighter aircraft, inherent design considerations made as a result of trade-offs in capability will ensure an aircraft performs better in some maneuverability metrics over others.  

Ultimately, the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) by test and evaluation squadrons and the Weapon’s Test School will enable F-35 pilots to maximize the aircraft’s strengths while mitigating its weaknesses during engagements. This effort will include attempting to create dogfighting techniques at visual range which favor the F-35. The recent test is yet another reminder that the F-35 program is still in its infancy when compared to legacy systems and the development of TTP will likely take years. Former F-16 pilot C. W. Lemoine argues the BFM test in January means little as it will take a substantial period of time for F-35 pilots to accumulate proficiency in their aircraft and commentators aught to withhold judgement until F-35 pilots become proficient and new TTP are developed: 

Image 4: F-35 & F-16 over Luke AFB. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin 
"...a guy with maybe 100 hours in the F-35 versus a guy with 1,500+ Viper hours? I’ve seen thousand-hour F-16 guys in two-bag D-models beat up on brand new wingmen in clean, single-seat jets. It happens. It’s the reality of the amount of experience in your given cockpit...It’s way too early to declare the F-35 the 'worst fighter aircraft design ever imagined.' Please. Let’s see how it does when guys who are proficient in developed tactics do against guys with similar amounts of experience–the realm of the bros in the operational test or Weapons School environment." - C. W. Lemoine , 2015
Much of the debate regarding the F-35 has stagnated towards fixating on particular maneuverability characteristics or specific technical problems in isolation rather than evaluating the holistic potential of the aircraft based upon how it is likely to be used in combat under a combined arms approach with multiple assets and skilled pilots. With these additional factors in mind, ensuring the F-35 will be effective at visual range will become increasingly important over the next ten to fifteen years as both the proliferation of effective electronic warfare/countermeasure systems and foreign fifth generation fighters will challenge the efficacy of the F-35's ability to reliably achieve bvr kills. In summary, January's BFM tests provide few conclusive results other than the F-35 program is still relatively immature and further work is needed to fix teething problems in the airframe and to ensure F-35 pilots are able to accumulate the required experience to be proficient in their aircraft. 


Friday, July 3, 2015

Blog Update: F-35 Loss to F-16

News of the F-35's "loss" against an F-16 in basic fighter maneuvering testing has been widely discussed in defense/aerospace forums over the past week. I will post my own analysis of the implications and takeaways of the test next week. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

A New Age of Great Power Competition? - Russia Part I

Image 1: US carrier group crossing the Atlantic. Image Credit: US Navy.

The past few years have made it glaringly apparent that the United States does not have the luxury to focus its military exclusively against non-state actors and low intensity conflicts which ultimately bear little economic and geopolitical consequence for the United States. The rise of China and Russia's increasingly belligerent behavior constitute a substantial threat to the post-World War II liberal international order. The United States military is desperately seeking to reassert many of its capabilities which were systematically neglected during the 1990s and the War on Terror including: anti-submarine warfare, fleet air defense, all domain access, counter intelligence, offensive electronic warfare, and nuclear deterrence. As the DoD moves forward to confront new great power threats, the political leadership of the United States must recognize the distinct capabilities and intentions of Russia and China. Most importantly, Congress and the Obama Administration must not superficially judge Russian revanchism and saber rattling as indicators of Russia's strength. Rather, Russia's belligerent behavior is a consequence of Russia's status as a declining power attempting to reassert its traditional sphere of influence. While China's incremental and steady effort to challenge the United States rarely makes news headlines, it ultimately constitutes a far more serious long-term threat to global US primacy when compared to Russian revanchism. The distinct challenges from both Russia and China will be discussed in terms of objectives, capabilities, and the efficacy of the US' current response. A series of recommendations will subsequently be provided within the context of America's historical grand strategy towards great powers.

Russian Military Capabilities & Intentions

Image 2: T-14 Armata tanks preforming in the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade

Since the seizure of Crimea last year, many geopolitical commentators have heralded a new Cold War between the West and Russia. President Putin has resumed many of the hallmarks of Soviet brinkmanship including: a 50% increase in Russian submarine patrols, bomber patrols off the coast of California, Alaska, Guam, and the Gulf of Mexico, a surge in Russian espionage and intelligence collection activities against the West, etc. Washington has clearly taken notice and former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers announced last year that monitoring Russian revanchism is the greatest priority for the intelligence community behind monitoring the Civil War in Syria and Al Qaeda and its affiliates (note Vicker's remarks were made prior to the fall of Mosul to ISIL). In contrast, China appeared as the seventh and last priority discussed by Vickers (Clark, 2014). Russian objectives and methods will be assessed prior to determining an appropriate US foreign policy response.

A strong consensus exists among Russian foreign policy experts that President Putin seeks to maintain Russia's influence in Ukraine in the wake of the ousting of the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych (Gates, 2014). Ukraine is the most important state in the near abroad, a region encompassing former Soviet states where the Russian Federation is attempting to assert a new sphere of influence through economic and military coercion. Asserting regional hegemony is among the three greatest enduring Russian strategic priorities since the collapse of the Soviet Union:
"Much in Russian foreign policy today is based on a consensus that crystallized in the early 1990s. Emerging from the rubble of the Soviet collapse, this consensus ranges across the political spectrum — from pro-Western liberals to leftists and nationalists. It rests on three geostrategic imperatives: that Russia must remain a nuclear superpower, a great power in all facets of international activity, and the hegemon — the political, military, and economic leader — of its region. This consensus marks a line in the sand, beyond which Russia cannot retreat without losing its sense of pride or even national identity. It has proven remarkably resilient, surviving post-revolutionary turbulence and the change of political regimes from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin". - Leon Aron, 2013  [emphasis mine]
In order to maintain Russia's status as a nuclear power and attain regional hegemony, Vladimir Putin pledged in 2010 to spend $650 billion on a massive modernization program that would aim to replace 70% of the Russian military's old Soviet hardware through 2020 (Gady, 2015). However, it was apparent that Russia's defense industry would be unable to meet Putin's demands even during times of relative economic prosperity. Incompetent and corrupt state institutions, a weak commodity dependent economy, and the scale of obsolescence among much of Russia's equipment - e.g. the Russian Navy will nearly have to be rebuilt from the ground up - will force future Russian military to reassess its modernization effort.

Image 3: SU-24 equipped with civilian GPS unit fixed in place with a rubber band. More information available courtesy of Tyler Rogoway's Foxtrot Alpha article "Check Out The Walmart-Grade GPS Systems In These Russian Attack Jets"

There are already indications that Russia is scaling back its most modern equipment and is choosing to re-manufacture incremental improvements of Soviet era systems instead. For example, Russia cut the number of fifth generation T-50s it planned to produce by 2020 from 50 to just 12. Russia will continue to produce upgraded fourth generation aircraft such as the Su-35S, Su-30SM, and MIG-29 SMT. While these aircraft compare favorably to many Western fourth generation designs such as the F-16C and F-15C, they will be outclassed by the F-22 and F-35. Similarly, the new stealth PAK DA bomber will almost certainly be delayed if the T-50 program is any indication. The Russian Ministry of Defense recently announced their intent to re-manufacture 34 Tu-160 Blackjack bombers for a total fleet size of 50. Despite being Russia's most modern strategic bombers in service, the current 16 aircraft fleet has been plagued by maintenance and engine reliability issues (Johnson, 2013). This is not to say Russia's conventional military little threat to the United States, but the notion that Russia is producing vastly superior military equipment to the United States and NATO is detached from reality. The conventional Russian military is more than capable enough to threaten states in the near abroad, particularly those without NATO membership such as Ukraine and Georgia. Given the constraints of Russia's domestic arms industry and economic factors, Russia is producing equipment - when used under Russia's current force doctrines, has the highest "bank per buck" relative to the quality of their conventional military personnel, which suffers from significant systemic shortcomings.

The Russian Military fields 308,100 conscripts which each serve a minimum 12 month term (Global Security, 2015). Given the diverse security concerns across Russia's immense geographic borders, even with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, units are typically understaffed and only brought up to full strength during times of war:
"...the conventional Russian military continues to be influenced by the old Soviet structure of numerous under-manned units, pre-positioned with equipment to be brought up to full staffing levels during times of conflict. The drawbacks of this design were laid bare during the 2008 war with Georgia, where airborne units (VDV) were able to deploy faster from interior Russia than those units stationed in the Caucasus...Complementing plans to increase units to permanent readiness status have been efforts to increase the level of professional troops, kontrakniki. These efforts have fallen considerably short (the retention rate for kontrakniki remains unacceptably low, and recruitment targets are struggling to keep up with the attrition rate). Slightly increased housing, pay and status have remained unconvincing to most of Russian society. Efforts to recruit kontrakniki were also designed to create an NCO corps that the Russian military never had (not to mention never having a professional recruiting corps that has also limited the recruitment of professional soldiers). NCO roles in western armies are filled in the Russian military by lower level officers, contributing to a bloated officer corps."- Andrew S. Bowen, 2015 
In summary, the cost to modernize its conventional military force near Western standard as originally proposed would be disproportionately more expensive than nuclear modernization in concert with developing Russia's asymmetric capabilities; the bottom line is Russia's economy cannot sustain Putin's grandiose military aims. Russia will be able to much more easily meet its objective of asserting regional hegemony and its nuclear status through acquiring asymmetric capabilities and continuing its nuclear modernization program. The use of special forces, intelligence services, cyber attacks, and paramilitary units enables Russia to coerce nearby states below the Article 5 threshold - the point at which the US military would be obligated to respond. Both the efficacy of Russia's asymmetric capabilities and its willingness to employ them represent a far greater practical threat to US interests in Europe than Russian's conventional  military.

Image 4: "Green Men" from the seizure of Crimea, most likely members of the GRU 45th Spetsnaz Regiment.

Former NSA counterintelligence officer John R. Schindler describes the process of Russian forces coercing nearby states without overt conflict as "special war":
"'special war,' an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims...It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting." -  John R. Schindler, 2013
Despite Putin's initial failure to keep Yanukovych in power and cement economic ties with Ukraine, the GRU  skilfully carried the seizure of Crimea. Russian intelligence agencies continue to supply, equip, train, and advise separatists in eastern Ukraine. Eastern European NATO allies, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, are concerned Russia may use special war tactics within their own countries (Grady, 2015).

Part II will examine the efficacy of the current US response towards Russia and list a series of recommendations.

A New Age of Great Power Competition? - Russia Part II

  1. China and Russia vs. America: Great-Power Revisionism Is Back, Thomas Wright, 2015.
  2. The United States must resist a return to spheres of interest in the international system, Robert Kagan, 2015.
  3. Back to the Future: The U.S. Navy Confronts Great Power Challengers, Robert Farley, 2015.
  4. Bill Seeks Info on Russian Missile Sales, John T. Bennett, 2015.
  5. Russian Navy Chief: Submarine Patrols Up 50 Percent Over Last Year, Sam LaGrone, 2015.
  6. Stop calling Russia weak, Sergey Aleksashenko, 2015.
  8. US Army Eyes Ukraine Conflict for Intel on Russian Military Technology, Brendan McGarry, 2015.
  9. USDI Vickers’ Top Threats: Terrorists, Syria, Russian ‘Revanchism’, Colin Clark, 2015.
  10. Further delays for modernisation of Russian Air Force Tu-160 bombers, Reuben F Johnson, 2015.
  11. Overblown: Russia's empty nuclear sabre-rattling, Steven Pifer, 2015.
  12. Russia's Deceptively Weak Military, Andrew S. Bowen, 2015. 
  13. Russian Military Personnel, Global Security, 2015.
  14. A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia, Andrew Monaghan, 2015. 
  15. Russian and Chinese Assertiveness Poses New Foreign Policy Challenges, Robert Gates & Council on Foreign Relations, 2014. 
  16. An Assessment of Russian Defense Capabilities and Security Strategy, Paul N. Schwartz, Clark A Murdock, Andrew C. Kuchins, and Jeffrey A. Mankoff, 2014.