Close air support aircraft must be survivable if they are to contribute to the AirLand Battle. Today’s Army theater commander plans to use CAS aircraft against a broad spectrum of targets, both along and behind enemy lines.
Under this employment concept, CAS aircraft must attack and survive an enemy who’s ready to use a sophisticated array of weapons. Near the front lines, CAS aircraft will encounter improved surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft artillery, and small-arms fire as the primary threat. For targets deeper into the battlefield, they’ll face higher concentrations of SAW and AAA, along with the added threat of enemy interceptor aircraft.
On top of that, the Soviets’ newer air defense systems have longer ranges and lower altitude engagement capability than those of the past.
Air Force experience and studies show that survivability in that environment boils down to five factors: speed, maneuverability, electronic countermeasures, force packaging, and hit tolerance.
All five are important, but speed is the most critical factor. The faster an aircraft can fly, the less time it spends in enemy detection and acquisition zones. Even if the aircraft is detected and acquired, speed greatly complicates the enemy’s tracking problem. Just as it’s easier to shoot a slow-moving duck than a fast-moving one, the angular tracking solution of an enemy missile, gun, or aircraft is significantly complicated by a faster target.
If shot at, a fast-moving aircraft has the best chance of defeating the threat when the advantage of maneuverability is added.
Maneuverability, the second survival factor, is defined in simple terms as an aircraft’s ability to generate high turn rates. A pilot uses the combination of speed and maneuverability to create as much “miss distance” as possible and defeat the effects of missiles or bullets.
Turning Isn’t Enough
Continuing the duck analogy, a “sitting duck” is very maneuverable—it can turn instantly—but it isn’t moving and therefore is easily tracked. As a result, it’s not very survivable. Only when the duck combines speed with maneuverability does it become more difficult to shoot.
This is true of our modern fighters as well. As shown in Figure I, the faster F-16 greatly outturns and travels much farther than the A-b. The F- 16 makes a 180-degree turn in just under ten seconds; the slower A-10 turns only slightly more than half that amount in the same period.
Fighter pilots often use maximum turn rates to put the threat at the best relative position or to cause a miss by a heat-seeking missile homing on the aircraft’s tail pipe. Figure II compares the F-16 and the A-b and demonstrates a significant F-16 advantage: the ability to turn engine exhaust completely away from a threat in less than ten seconds. This maneuverability translates into hit avoidance capability.
The CAS fighter must be able to use the third factor—on-board electronic countermeasures, or ECM—to survive in a high-threat arena. Current ECM equipment can locate, identify, and jam or deceive a wide variety of Soviet systems.
“Expendables,” such as chaff and flares, act as decoys against enemy missiles and guns, further complicating enemy efforts to shoot down aircraft. Imagine our duck with a “hunter detector” and releasable decoys. This would certainly increase its survivability.
Force packaging is another critical factor in survivability, especially when the Army theater commander uses CAS aircraft against time-sensitive targets in the enemy’s follow-on echelons. This translates to CAS aircraft flying with F-15s that will defend against enemy fighters, F-4G “Wild Weasels” to suppress or destroy enemy SAM and AAA sites, and EF-111s for jamming enemy threat radars.
All these aircraft team up to penetrate high-threat areas en route to the target, sharing information about the battlefield situation and providing mutual support to fight back if the enemy tries to stop them.
For the force package to be effective, all the aircraft must be compatible in speed and maneuverability. Similarly, a flock of ducks must be able to fly together at the same speed. If not compatible, slow ones would be left behind to fend for themselves. The faster ducks could reduce their speed, but this would sacrifice their most important survivability factors, speed and maneuverability, putting the whole flock in jeopardy.
The fifth and final aspect of survivability that bears examination is hit tolerance—the ability to take hits and still fly home. Today, more than ever before, aircraft are built with this in mind.
For example, modern aircraft have what are called “redundant structural load paths” to allow for major battle damage without catastrophic failures of key parts needed to keep the aircraft airworthy. Today’s aircraft have several different structural paths, each independently capable of keeping the aircraft in one piece.
We also have “smart” flight control systems. These systems are computer-controlled and allow the pilot to keep flying the aircraft even when major portions of the flight control surfaces are damaged or missing.
Figures III and IV are just two examples of situations in which pilots have flown severely damaged aircraft home safely thanks to this built-in durability.
The F-16 in Figure III lost large portions of its wing and tail in a midair collision, but recovered enough to perform an uneventful landing. Even more impressive is the F-15 in Figure IV, which lost an entire wing and still recovered safely. Stronger materials, foresight in design, and smart flight controls built into our new fighters give them the ability to take hits and continue flying. If our duck could fly home on one wing, then it would indeed become a very survivable flying machine.
The AirLand Battle doctrine depends on a survivable attack force from the Air Force. A fast, maneuverable aircraft, capable of using ECM and compatible with force packaging, will give us the greatest chance of destroying any target that the Army identifies—on the front line or deeper within enemy territory.
Gen. Robert D. Russ is the Commander of Tactical Air Command. A command pilot with more than 5,000 flying hours, he is a distinguished graduate of the Air Command and Staff College. General Russ previously served as the Special Assistant to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force and as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development, and Acquisition.