An enormous disparity exists between vocal critics and staunch supporters of the F-35, some of it is attributable to how the two parties assess the aircraft. As Bill Sweetman explains, there are several different schools of thought with regards to how best to employ fighter aircraft and which capabilities are most important to securing air superiority. A key issue that is not present in discussions that either praise or criticize the F-35 is pilot training and the air combat doctrines of the nation deploying the aircraft.
Many of the most vocal critics of the F-35 such as David Axe and Karlo Kopp do not adequately take into account pilot training and fighter deployment doctrines which effect the overall combat performance of the F-35; these critics focus solely upon performance based metrics and specifications. A typical critique of the F-35 from David Axe:
"...the F-35 is an inferior combatant, seriously outclassed by even older Russian and Chinese jets that can fly faster and farther and maneuver better. In a fast-moving aerial battle, the JSF 'is a dog … overweight and underpowered,' according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C. And future enemy planes, designed strictly with air combat in mind, could prove even deadlier to the compromised JSF."
Both praise and condemnation of the F-35 are inherently limited in scope when the discussion is limited to only certain performance based metrics vs. other performance based metrics e.g. sustained radius turn ability vs. thrust to weight ratio. A lot of research exists in the area of comparing F-35 performance specifications with those of other advanced aircraft, including my own. While these performance based metric comparisons certainly have value, without understanding how the F-35 is meant to be used as part of a broader integrated combined arms approach, one simply is not able to draw substantive conclusions as to the potential combat effectiveness of the F-35 and other models of fighter aircraft in general. The level of training and combat doctrines of the pilots operating the aircraft is largely inseparable from the performance based capabilities of the aircraft in terms of dictating actual operational effectiveness of a fighter force.
As Sweetman notes, there are multiple contradictory views as to best employ fighter aircraft among the prominent global military powers. A country's solution to how to best employ fighter aircraft varies significantly from country to country but is largely dependent upon the following three factors:
- Strengths and weakness of its defense industry - specialization, experience of aerospace firms, access to intellectual capital, etc.
- Constraints to military budget and existing support infrastructure for assets and personnel
- National security objectives: regional vs. global power projection, countering anti-access threats, etc.
This article will examine both the Russian and American solutions to maximize the effectiveness of their respective air forces given the variables listed above. From comparing these models, it becomes clear that each approach is uniquely tailored to the host country and calls to eliminate the JSF in favor of mass producing 4.5 generation aircraft, like the Russian model advocates, will be extremely detrimental to maintaining the technological and qualitative edge the USAF currently maintains over many of its competitors. A measure to replace the F-35 with existing 4.5 generation aircraft will not meet current American national security objectives, ignores the strengths and weakness of the American defense industry, and does not account for the robust pilot training programs and initiatives of the United States. Once pilot training, combat philosophies, and the broader combined arms approach is factored in, it becomes apparent that much of the criticism regarding the F-35 is unfounded.
The Russian Approach
Image 2: The Su-30 is a typical example of modern Russian fighter technology and is currently fielded by 13 air forces worldwide.
It is difficult to understand the Russian approach to fighter deployment without first understanding Russia's broader strategic situation. Without going into too much detail, the Russian model of fighter employment is tailored to the unique strengths and the weaknesses of the Russian defense industry and its national security objectives.
“Russian military programs are driven largely by Moscow's perception that the United States and NATO are Russia's principal strategic challenges and greatest potential threat. Russia's nuclear forces support deterrence and enhance Moscow's geopolitical clout. Its still-significant conventional military capabilities, oriented toward Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Far East, are intended to defend Russia's influence in these regions and serve as a 'safety belt' from where Russian forces can stage a defense of Russian territory...Moscow's wariness of the potential for Western involvement on its periphery, concern about conflicts and their escalation, and military disadvantages exacerbated by a drawn out crisis or conflict place a premium on quick and decisive action." - Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, 2011
Since 2008, the Russian military has undergone a massive series of reforms in an effort to produce a smaller, more mobile and better trained fighter force (Clapper, 2011). These reforms have been accelerated under Vladimir Putin who raised Russian defense spending by 60% since to 2010 to a total of $66.3 billion dollars in 2013 (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2013). Despite the recent increase in defense spending, there remains many key obstacles to implementing reform.
"Threats to the success of the State Armament Program include armaments orders that are mismatched to mission requirements; mismanagement, inefficiency, and technological backwardness in the defense industrial sector that causes failures in developing and delivering weapons; corruption; inflation in procurement prices; and the uncertainty of economic growth and sufficient budgets, as mentioned above. For instance, technological backwardness has stymied efforts to modernize command and control, according to many observers." - Jim Nichol, 2011
Image 3: Sukhoi PAK FA
The new gains in Russian military spending are parceled out between the competing services of its military. Even with the billions of dollars in PAK FA developmental assistance provided by India, the Russian Air Force cannot feasibly equip a pure 5th generation fighter force without sacrificing other key capabilities from the Russian Navy, Army, and strategic nuclear forces. The Russian Air Force's ambition to acquire 5th generation aircraft is met or exceeded by the ambitious procurement plans of the other armed services. The Russian Navy plans to restore much of its former maritime power with the addition of dozens of multibillion dollar nuclear attack submarines, destroyers, helicopter landing docks, etc. Investments pertaining to upgrading and maintain Russia's nuclear deterrent consumes a large portion of the defense budget e.g. RS-24 Yars ICBMs, Borei-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines, RSM-56 Bulava missiles, etc. As a result of other service purchases, the Russian Air Force plans to acquire only 250 fifth generation PAK FA aircraft, the vast majority of its fighter force will be comprised of much cheaper 4.5 generation aircraft such as the Su-30SM, Su-35S, and Mig-35 for the next two decades (Markov and Hull, 2010).
The decision of the Russian Air Force to opt for a largely 4.5 generation fighter force is not the result of a lack of faith in stealth technology as some have argued. Rather, it is a combination of the traditional evolutionary/incremental approach to new technology procurement, which Russia favors over the revolutionary approach of Western militaries, and the aforementioned financial restrictions (Zahainov, 2000). Budgeting priorities are often an indicator of what technologies/capabilities militaries deem to be important. Given the $10 billion dollars pledged to developing the PAK FA in conjunction with a number of other initiatives meant to develop "counter-stealth technologies" such as very high frequency (VHF) radars, improved IRST, and wing-mounted AESA radars (such as the Tikhomirov NIIP L-band radar) clearly indicates the Russian military takes stealth technology very seriously. However, as a result of the aforementioned financial restrictions, the Russian Air Force is limited to procuring mostly 4th generation fighter aircraft that maximize the combat effectiveness of their aircraft force given the cost, moderate to high level of technological sophistication, and moderate to poor quality of the Russian pilot training infrastructure.
The Russian aerospace industry specializes in producing low cost fighter aircraft in large numbers. The bulk of Russia's future fighter force is composed of 4.5 generation aircraft that cost between $35-$65 million dollars (Defense Industry Daily, 2013). The rough equivalent to Russian aircraft like the Su-35S within the US armed forces, the F/A-18E Super Hornet, costs the US Government $79.43 million dollars per unit (Department of Defense, 2012). The Russian Air Force takes full advantage of its aerospace industry's specialization in low cost aircraft and consequently fields a disproportionately large fighter force relative to its budget. The Russian military fields a total of 1,372 combat aircraft which is impressive since their budget is roughly one tenth of the US military which has 2,851 combat aircraft (Flightglobal, 2013). However, the aforementioned reform efforts have fallen short of their intended goals with regards to improving the quality of personnel within the air force.
Image 4: Su-34 production line
The current Russian model of fighter employment places an increased emphasis on procuring large numbers of fighter aircraft with the quality of each individual Russian pilot being comparatively less skilled than many Western air forces. One of the many indicators of pilot experience is the number of flight hours each pilot is allowed to fly each year. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the quality of Russian fighter pilot training suffered immensely and most pilots in training only received 40 to 50 hours of flight time before graduation (Lindberg, 2006).
"During 1992 - 1994 of the 234 students who graduated from the VVAUL [basic training] 130 had not flown at all after having reported to their assigned air force units (27). In addition, the average flying time per cadet during training had dropped to 40 - 50 flying hours, which facilitates only the elementary pilot skills (26)...The reduction of the personnel and other resources has affected heavily the students. In 1998, 693 officers left pilot schools before they learned to fly, due to the shortage of kerosene...The stress and nature of work, bad conditions in training bases, like living accomodations in Yeisk, employment in Marinovsky and problems with food virtually everywhere, and poor chances to career advancement mean that the morale among flying instructors giving basic pilot training and respect towards them has dropped very low." - Jarmo Lindberg, 2006
Russian fighter pilot training has improved since the late 1990s as a consequence of increased funding but current Russian fighter pilots still only fly 100 hours per year (Dronov, 2012). This is compared to American fighter pilots who must log over 100 hours in jet trainers prior to graduation and fly between 250-300 hours per year once in active service (Source 15, Source 17).
Image 5: The Su-35S shown above is a typical example of the Russian approach to fighter design. The aircraft can carry a maximum of 12 high performance R-77 radar guided air to air missiles, is equipped with a high power ESA radar & IRST, and delivers excellent maneuverability performance at a relatively low cost of $65 million dollars.
For example, a Su-35S is equipped with a powerful Tikhomirov NIIP IRBIS-E radar which has a maximum range of 400 km, it can track up to 30 targets, and engage eight targets simultaneously (Defense News, 2013). When coupled with a full load of a dozen 50 nautical mile range plus R-77 missiles, the Su-35S allows each comparatively less skilled Russian pilot to be disproportionately effective at long range missile exchanges when compared to more extensively trained Western pilots equipped with 4th generation aircraft. Even a skilled pilot in an aircraft equipped with electronic countermeasures (ECM) will have immense difficulty dodging a salvo of three to four missiles.
Image 6: Su-30 launching R-77 radar guided missile
"The Russian paradigm of BVR combat has its origins in the Cold War period, when Soviet operational analysis indicated that the low kill probability of missile seekers and airframes, especially if degraded by countermeasures, would be a major impediment to success. By the 1970s the standard Soviet technique in a BVR missile launch was to salvo two rounds...why are Sukhoi Flanker variants equipped to carry between eight and twelve BVR missiles? The answer is a simple one - so they can fire more than one three or four round BVR missile salvo during the opening phases of an engagement. In this fashion the aircraft being targeted has a difficult problem as it must jam, decoy and/or outmanoeuvre three or four tightly spaced inbound missiles. Even if we assume a mediocre per round kill probability of 30 percent, a four round salvo still exceeds a total kill probability of 75 percent." - Kopp, 2012
Image 7: PK aircraft probability vs missile salvo size; APA Image. To give a point of reference, the standard AIM-120 has a demonstrated probability kill (pk) of 46% meaning it would be similar to the 50% green curve on the graph above (RAND, 2008).
The combination of high maneuverability, IRST, and ECM gives the Russian pilot some degree of protection in evading radar guided missile shots from afar but life expectancy for the individual pilot is low in an engagement against an adversary launching large missile salvos (as illustrated on the graph above). Russian fighters that manage to reach visual range against an enemy force would rely upon their superior maneuverability to better position themselves for an IR missile shot or gun kill.
"Russian tacticians also foresee complex long-range engagements—but as Bogdan pointed out at Paris , they also see combats decaying into low-speed knife fights where super-maneuverability may decide who gets the first shot." - Bill Sweetman, 2013
However, this theory is hampered by the limitations of Russian pilot training and experience. Overall, the Russian approach is an intelligent solution to maximize the effectiveness of the Russian Air Force given the constraints of their aerospace industry, size of their military budget, and their national security objectives. The Russian approach invests less into the training and fielding of each individual pilot and aircraft, but more pilots and more aircraft are capable of being fielded as a result on a lower budget. In essence, the Russian fighter doctrine is still an attrition tactic designed to inflict the maximum number of enemy casualties given a large but comparatively less well trained fighting force.
The American approach will be examined next week in Part II
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