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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Big, The Fat And The Ugly: Logistic Assets That Make America A Superpower

This week we will examine the often forgotten logistical assets that enable combat units to preform effectively. 

Image 1: F-22A Raptor formation. 

The core characteristic that elevates a great power to superpower status is its ability to project hard power (military force) across the entire planet. The term superpower is often synonymous with vast fleets of ships, lethal stealth aircraft, or armies of well trained combat units. Few associate the term with mundane old tanker aircraft, cargo ships, etc. The reality is very different. The United States maintains its superpower status through an extensive network of logistic assets. Without these assets, the ability for the United States to project power abroad would be greatly diminished. Although the quality, training, and level of technological sophistication contribute to America's overall military strength, none of the aforementioned qualities necessarily makes America a superpower. The real strength of America's military lies in its ability to deploy more manpower, more materiel, and more firepower to any combat zone when compared to any potential aggressor. Some of the key logistic assets that enable U.S. forces to project power abroad will be examined: fleet replenishment oilers, aerial refueling aircraft, and strategic airlift assets.   

Fleet Replenishment Oilers 

Image 2: Henery J. Kaiser oiler refueling a Ticonderoga class cruiser. (Image Credit: USN) 

The carrier strike group is a key component of America's ability to project power abroad. With the exception of the Nimitz class supercarrier, the US Navy's surface ships utilize conventional diesel electric engines. Despite the considerable amount of fuel many U.S ships carry on board, the scale and duration of global deployments will inevitably result in fuel shortages for non-nuclear powered vessels. The Henry J. Kaiser class fleet replenishment oilers greatly supplement the range of non-nuclear powered naval assets like destroyers, cruisers, transports, etc. The U.S Navy operates a total of 15 Kaiser class oilers (Source 1). The Kaiser class can deliver 900,000 gallons of diesel to two vessels simultaneously within an hour or 540,000 gallons of jet fuel. The Kaiser class vessels also can store additional food for the fleet if needed. 

A telltale sign of a mature well funded navy is its ratio of oilers (and support ships) to standard combat vessels. The current Chinese Navy owns only handful of oilers to refuel its rapidly growing navy. The new Type 903 class replenishment ships will be more of a game changer for the PLAAN than the Liaoning carrier over the next decade. 

"Prior to the introduction of the new Type 903s, the PLA Navy possessed just a handful of smaller oilers, including refurbished Soviet vessels and two of an earlier version of the Qiandaohu class: just five tankers in total to support a combat fleet numbering no fewer than 75 major warships, including frigates, destroyers, amphibious assault ships and the lone carrier. The U.S., by contrast, possesses more than 30 underway replenishment ships — all of them larger than China’s oilers — to support around 130 large surface warships." - David Axe, 2013

The PLANN is not true blue water navy in many aspects. The current doctrine of the PLAAN revolves around an anti-access strategy with regional power projection rather than global deployment. For example, it would be tremendously difficult for the PLANN to sustain a large force of ships near Hawaii for an extended period of time. The limited scope of PLANN operations is partially due to its deficiency of replenishment and sufficient support vessels. 

By the latter half of the current decade, China will likely be able to project and sustain a modest-sized force, perhaps several battalions of ground forces or a naval flotilla of up to a dozen ships, in low-intensity operations far from China. This evolution will lay the foundation for a force able to accomplish a broader set of regional and global objectives. However, it is unlikely that China will be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China prior to 2020." - Department of Defense 2011

This is not to say the PLAAN is no threat to the United States Navy. The PLAAN is becoming increasingly adept at operating vessels up to the second island chain in the western pacific (Japan, Guam, etc.) However, China is not a superpower due to its inability to project power far beyond its shores. 

Tanker Aircraft 

Image 3: USAF KC-10 tankers

The most recent military campaigns waged by Western forces, Unified Protector (Libya) and Operation Serval (Mali), have both demonstrated the key role of aerial refueling aircraft. Collectively, the NATO participants of Unified Protector were heavily dependent on the U.S tanker fleet. David Cenciotti of the Aviationist noted: "without American tankers, there would not be any NATO air campaign." The Italian, French, UK, Swedish and Canadian Air Forces provided limited tanker support but it was not nearly enough to sustain the rest of the collation aircraft. In ongoing operations over Mali, the French have had to make use of American KC-135 tanker support in order to sustain combat operations. Three U.S. KC-135 tankers based in the UK have provided assistance to the French. (Cenciotti, 2013)

Aerial refueling aircraft greatly expand the range and flexibility of direct combat aircraft. Armed strike aircraft can stay on station above an area and wait for hours with the assistance of tankers as opposed to loitering for only ten minutes before having to returning to base. The total number of aircraft that can be deployed to a distant combat zone is also determined by the number of available tanker aircraft. For example, in the what would an Israeli strike against Iran accomplish article, the effect of the Israeli Air Force's limited tanker fleet is discussed. The IAF would only be able to operate a few dozen aircraft over Iran at a time. The deficiency in tanker aircraft could jeopardize the IAF's ability to destroy Iranian nuclear sites. 

Despite the rapid advancements made by the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF), it still lags behind the United States by 20-30 years in some respects. The PLAAF operates a total of 10 outdated tanker aircraft (modified bombers for refueling missions) with a planned eight tankers on order from Russia (Source 3). In comparison  the United States Air Force operates a total of  508 tankers (USAF, 2012). Once again, the ratio between combat aircraft and tankers is important. 

PLAAF: 1,452 combat aircraft, 18 tankers, 80.6 ratio 
USAF: 2,218 combat aircraft, 508 tankers, 4.36 ratio 

The PLAAF ability to project power is greatly limited with only 18 tanker aircraft. The addition of external fuel tanks will augment the PLAAF's range but at the cost of reduced weapon capacity. 

Strategic Airlift Capability

Image 4: C-17 Globemaster III formation.

Few leaders realize a direct combat platform cannot strike a target if it does not have the required fuel necessary to reach its target. In some cases, the range of direct combat assets cannot be feasibly augmented enough for it to reach an area on its own. In many cases, assets must transported via strategic airlift. Many heavy assets such as main battle tanks must be airlifted to countries thousands of miles away. Without transport, an entire fleet of multi-million dollar tanks is rendered effectively useless unless it can reach the combat zone. Heavy military cargo aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy allow the United States to move combat units around the world as needed. The importance of strategic airlift capabilities has been recently demonstrated in Operation Serval. The French were largely unable to deploy their own ground forces to Mali without allied support.

Currently, the United States maintains a dominant lead in strategic airlift capabilities. The Russian Air Force maintains a distant second place while China largely lacks robust strategic airlift capabilities. The graph below examines total airlift capacity in pounds for the USAF, Russian Air Force, and PLAAF by 2020. Specific figures used can be found in the notes section.

China recently unveiled its domestically produced Y-20 transport. By 2020, it is likely that the Y-20 will compliment the PLAAF's IL-76 transports from Russia. The current Y-20 features Russian engines and can likely carry up to 60 tonnes (The Diplomat, 2013). It is unclear how many Y-20 transports China intends to produce or if a heavier transport design will supplement the Y-20. If the Y-20 is produced in significant numbers, it will greatly aid China's power projection abilities provided the transports have a safe landing zone. The United States ability to project power is greatly augmented by its large number of oversea bases capable of receiving cargo aircraft. China lacks a comparable network of oversea bases.

Image 5: Y-20 transport

All too often shiny high tech fighter aircraft are the sole object of a government's attention when it comes to procuring military equipment.  The old and mundane logistic assets enable a force to operate at its full strength. The United States can effectively project power across the globe in part due to its extensive network of logistic assets. China is a long ways away from being able to project power on the level of the United States. A true testament to the logistic capability of the U.S military is the following figure from Flight International: the United States military operates 18% of the world’s combat aircraft but operates a disproportionately large 35% of the world’s tanker and cargo aircraft. No other entity has masted logistics to the degree of the United States Military.




Determining the exact airlift capacity for the following air forces was a daunting task. Each type of aircraft had many variants of the same aircraft each with their own payload specifications. Hence, the figures might not be exact but they should be within reasonable parameters. Medium transport planes were not included (e.g. C-130).

Total USAF Strategic Airlift Capacity 2020: 65,192,700 lb
C-5M: 52 * 285,000 = 14,820,000 
C-5B: 32 * 270,000 lb = 8,640,000 lb
C-5A: 35 * 220,000 lb = 7,040,000
C-17 III: 203 * 170,900 = 34,692,700

Russia 2020 Strategic Airlift Capacity: 30,511,065 lb
IL-76-90MD: 110231.13 * 39 = 4,299,015
IL-76: 88185 * 210 = 18,518,850
AN-22: 99,200* 21 = 2,083,200
AN-124 = 330000 * 17 = 5,610,000

 China 2020 Strategic Airlift Capacity: 12,774,806.5 lb
50 IL-76MD: 5,511,556.5
Y-20: ~50 * 132,277 = 6,613,850

The PLAAF figure will be largely dependent upon how many Y-20 transports China plans to acquire. The plane uses Russian engines as domestic engine production remains challenging. There are no exact figures for the maximum payload of the Y-20 but 60 tonnes seems reasonable given the weight of Chinese MBT's.

Image 6: Two 69 ton Abrams tanks on board a C-5M Super Galaxy 

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