Tac Air Feels the Squeeze

Oct. 1, 1982

Washington, D.C., Sept. 1—Matching US global strategy as defined by the Administration would require a force strength of fifty-four wings, each consisting of seventy-two fighters, on the part of USAF’s tactical airpower, according to the most recent assessment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the current total is only 34½ wings, with strong prospects that Congress will reduce that total by one wing next year, according to Gen. W.L. Creech, Commander of Tactical Air Command.

Soviet tactical airpower, by contrast, consists of the equivalent of 108 tactical fighter wings and is being modernized at a far more rapid rate than is US airpower.

In a recent breakfast meeting with several Pentagon correspondents, General Creech pointed out that the Air Force determined in 1973—when it mustered a force of thirty-three tactical fighter wings—that there was a clear-cut need to build up to a level of forty wings by FY ’81. That buildup, for a variety of reasons, was halted, with the result that over the intervening nine years the Air Force was able to gain only an additional wing and a half, of which, in the near future, TAC a likely to lose one wing by congressional fiat.

The principal reason for this stagnation, according to General Creech, is that “we are trying to modernize the three legs of the strategic triad all at the same time.” This involves building Trident SSBNs and D-5 SLBMs, the B-1B, and MX, while at the same time “building toward a 600-ship Navy, and in the [resultant] budget squeeze there isn’t enough money for [expansion and modernization of tactical air],” TAC’s Commander explained.

The current Air Force growth goal is to build toward forty wings—scaled back from the forty-four wings proposed when moves toward a defense buildup were gathering steam about two years ago—by the end of this decade, according to General Creech. But the rate at which the Air Force is acquiring new aircraft would seem to relegate that goal to never-never land. The Air Force’s rule of thumb is that to offset attrition and force ageing it takes “6.5 times the number of tactical fighter wings [in the inventory] in order to determine how many fighters must be bought each year to maintain that force,” General Creech said.

In the case of a forty-wing force, for instance, it would take an annual fighter buy of about 360 aircraft just to sustain that force level. If the objective is to increase the force by one wing a year, an additional 100 aircraft (seventy-two inventory aircraft plus training units) are required, the TAC Commander pointed out.

The Air Force’s buy rate lags grossly behind these requirements. In FY ’82, the Air Force’s buy of tactical fighters is held to a total of 176 aircraft, of which thirty-six are earmarked for strategic air defense, leaving 140 units for the tactical air forces. This figure is significantly less than half the number required for attainment of the forty-wing force goal by FY ’89. With totals in FY ’83 and FY ’84 fixed at 180 acquisitions each, General Creech remarked wryly, “It doesn’t look terribly promising for our goal.” The Soviets, on the other hand, are building more than 1,300 tactical fighters each year, of which between 850 and 900 units go to Soviet forces. The remainder are for export, according to General Creech.

Asked about the Administration’s plan to boost strategic air defense forces substantially as part of the five-pronged strategic force modernization program, the TAC Commander, who has oversight over these forces, said that “there is no proposal at present to increase significantly the number of [air defense] fighters. There is some talk of decreasing [them]. We have the equivalent of 3.75 fighter wings for strategic air defense, or fifteen eighteen-ship squadrons.”

Explaining that this total is down from 105 squadrons in the 1950s, he said that in his judgment the Air Force is “at rock bottom” in terms of its ability to carry out “peacetime air sovereignty and the limited warfighting we are responsible for. We have to maintain twenty-six alert sites around the United States with two aircraft on five-minute alert just to maintain air sovereignty.”

Stressing that the Air Defense Master Plan adopted by the Administration was being implemented, he said the Air Force is beginning to replace the F-106s—which average an age of twenty-three years—with F-15s: “We have equipped the first squadron at Langley with F-15s already and will soon begin [modernizing the squadron at] McChord AFB.” These two squadrons, he added, will have to “double in brass” by being assigned also to the ASAT (antisatellite attack) mission.

In order to bolster strategic air defense, the Air Force is deploying OTHB (Over-The-Horizon Backscatter) radars on both the East and West Coasts. These radars detect approaching Soviet bombers over long distances. At the same time, coordination with Canadian Air Defense forces is increasing, and there is the prospect of the Air Force’s buying additional numbers of E-3A AWACS to strengthen strategic defense. There are also plans to upgrade the Reserve Forces—which perform about two-thirds of the strategic air mission—with F-16s equipped with the high-performance AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) after the latter enters the inventory in either 1987 or 1988.

Pointing out that the present deficiencies in tactical airpower are a matter of “numbers and sustainability,” he explained that these conditions ensued from the prolonged underfunding of the 1970s. Nevertheless, he said, “we have a substantial warfighting capability in place [and] would do very well” against Soviet airpower, “provided we get the missiles and part to do the fighting.” He warned, however, that Congress is trying to cut back in the funding of spares and other elements essential for readiness and sustainability.

While the US has no advanced fighters in development—and USAF’s Advanced Tactical Fighter program is in limbo—the Soviet Union is bringing four new designs into its inventory, according to the TAC Commander. Limited numbers of a fighter version of the MiG-25 reconnaissance aircraft, codenamed Foxhound, have been deployed. (Other sources indicate that this aircraft is also known as the MiG-31.) This aircraft, termed the world’s fastest, highest-flying, fastest-accelerating fighter by General Creech, is equipped with a “very sophisticated radar [and] a new, sophisticated air-to-air capability.” As a result, the Mach 3-plus Foxhound has a first-look, first-shoot advantage over the F-15. Foxhound, he said, is “faster, flies farter, and out-accelerates the F-15” while carrying similar armament “so far as radar and infrared guided missiles are concerned.”

The F-15, on the other hand, “has it all its way” in the case of turning engagements. This advantage, he acknowledged, may not always be decisive since Soviet doctrine and training stress “shoot-and-run” operations. Soviet look-down, shoot-down capabilities probably are not yet on a par with those of the F-15, but “they are moving closer and close” to US technology levels.

The Soviets, he added, “now have matched us in radar plus some.” The Soviet radars have greater range than the US systems. Also, the new Soviet radar missiles have greater reach than the AIM-7, General Creech said. In addition, there is evidence that the Soviets have developed, although not yet operationally deployed, “an all-aspect IR missile.” Soviet technology in the tactical arena is not moving “much more rapidly than ours, but [they are] putting their technology in the field so much more rapidly than we do.”

The Soviets, in addition to the Foxhound, have three other new fighters in or close to production, according to General Creech. The Su-25, codenamed “Frogfoot” by NATO, is a “super A-10” and has two and a half times the latter’s thrust. The Su-27, which as yet has not been given a NATO code name, is entering production. This aircraft, he said, resembles the F-15, but is “slightly larger and, we believe, will have a longer-range radar with look-down, shoot-down” features. This aircraft, too, is thought to have a first-look, first-shoot advantage over the F-15. The MiG-29 Fulcrum, another entirely new aircraft, is expected to go into production soon. This aircraft, General Creech said, is slightly larger than the F-18 and also includes look-down, shoot-down capabilities.

Lastly, the Soviets are expected to deploy a SU-AWACS (a Soviet version of the US E-3A AWACS) derived from the II-67 Candid transport. While stressing that the US lacks details about the state of Soviet look-down plus Doppler technology, he said there is “ample reason to believe that it will be similar to the E-3A which, after all, represents fifteen-year-old technology.”

The US response to the burgeoning Soviet tactical air threat, General Creech emphasized, should center on full funding of all relevant programmed improvements. Equally important: “We should start development of the Advanced Tactical Fighter right away,” especially since for the moment only “seed money” is required. The current antitechnology atmosphere, he charged, has been a factor in delaying this program to develop a new fighter for the 1990s and beyond. He underscored the urgency of initiating the Advanced Tactical Fighter program by pointing out that “the F-15 … is [already] a ten-year-old aircraft.” He added that the Air Force frequently is being accused of “having an insatiable appetite for high technology.” In fact, he said, an objective review of the F-15 design approach makes clear that it used state-of-the-art technology across the board, including a “hand-me-down gun and … armament of the F-4.”

The short-term response to the Soviet first-look, first-shoot advantage, according to General Creech, is the expeditious development and deployment of AMRAAM. Even the older models of the Soviet MiG-123 Flogger can fire “four to six missiles against the F-16 and stay out of its range” so long as the latter is confined to heat-seeking missiles. This disadvantage is exacerbated by the fact that the Soviet airplanes can “outrun” the US fighters.

AMRAAM, he said, is “coming along well.” The new missile, scheduled for initial operational capability (IOC) late in the 1980s, is a launch-and-leave missile that “does the end game all by itself.” It eliminates the disadvantages of the AIM-7, which requires illumination of the target until impact and prevents the pilot from moving onto other bogeys during that time, according to the TAC Commander. AMRAAM also will provide higher reliability and greater Pk (probability of kill) than the AIM-7 Sparrow missile, he said.

Rising to the defense of the AGM-65 Maverick that has been under attack by some national media and in Congress for allegedly typifying the Air Force’s infatuation with high technology systems, General Creech pointed out that of all firings since Maverick was first introduced, “about eighty-five percent turned out to be direct hits. That is probably the most effective weapon we have ever developed.” The Israeli Air Force, he disclosed, found the electro-optically (TV) rate that it considered deploying the weapon without a warhead, relying instead on kinetic energy to disable tanks and other mobile targets. (The Israelis are wont to minimize damage to expensive enemy weapons with an eye on capturing, refurbishing, and reusing them.”

The Air Force needs and is developing a version of Maverick using imaging infrared (I2R) guidance that “has some advantage in daytime and will be very important to us at night as we develop a night [attack] capability with LANTIRN,” the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared at night system. The test program of the I2R represents a mature technology and because “we know that Maverick works” as a weapon system.

Turning to the lessons the Air Force gleaned from the recent war between England and Argentina as well as from the confrontation between the Soviet-equipped Syrian Air Force and the largely US-equipped Israelis in Lebanon, General Creech suggested that fundamental was the refutation of USAF’s critics who claim that sophisticated equipment won’t work in combat. US supplied AIM-9L all-aspect missiles turned the British Harrier “into a credible air-to-air performer … something that is not easy to do since [that aircraft] simply is not designed for that,” General Creech said.

The conflict in Lebanon, he pointed out, “proved again the reliability and effectiveness of American equipment, especially the newer equipment.” According to the latest information available to TAC, the Israelis shot down ninety-two Syrian aircraft, eighty-five in air-to-air combat and the remainder by ground fire. About forty of the Syrian MiG-23s and MiG-21s—about twenty each—were shot down by F-15s, giving that aircraft an overall combat score, counting Israeli kills in previous skirmishes, of fifty-eight to zero, according to General Creech. (Among the kills were two Soviet MiG-25 Foxbats.) The remaining Israeli kills were scored by F-16s, except for one F-4 victory, according to General Creech.

The Israelis have three F-16 squadrons numbering seventy-two aircraft and 1½ F-15 squadrons, with thirty-seven aircraft. According to information available to General Creech, the Israelis deliberately exposed all their units to combat in order to “give everybody a chance to participate.” It follows, he suggested, that the F-15 shot down a proportionately larger number of Syrian aircraft than did the F-16. He reported that less than seven percent of the Israelis’ kills were scored with guns. The bulk of the missile kills—involving AIM-9Ls in the case of the F-15—were by radar.

The Israeli Air Force’s success against Syria’s Soviet surface-to-air (SAM) missiles proved that “Soviet SAMs are not invincible,” General Creech suggested. The Israelis, he said, took out nineteen SAM sites, ten of them in the first ten minutes, using with some marginal differences the same tactics as the US Air Force: “You go in low, use terrain masking … antiradiation missiles … chaff and flares … standoff jamming … and drones.” While the Israeli drones garnered considerable press attention, “what really carried the day were jamming and antiradiation missiles,” such as the Standard ARM and Shrike, he said.

The Israelis lost only two aircraft and one helicopter to ground fire and SAMs. They encountered both older SA-6s and the more modern SA-8s. Although acknowledging that “we don’t have precise figures,” he suggested that the Syrians “probably fired more than 100 SAMs” for each of the three kills.

While the Soviets have developed yet newer and more capable SAMs—such as the SA-10 and SA-13—that USAF would have to contend with in case of a US-Soviet conflict, the Air Force has a number of systems for coping with advanced air defenses that were not available to the Israelis. These include the EF-111A Tactical Jamming System, the F-4G Wild Weasel, HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile), and Compass Call, a system to jam the enemy’s command and control network, according to General Creech. The Israeli success in overcoming Soviet SAMs, in concert with the synergism of USAF’s advanced weapons and tactics, caused the TAC Commander to predict that US tactical airpower would do very well against sophisticated Soviet air defenses, which he stressed “are formidable but not invincible.”

The Israeli experience in Lebanon, according to information made available to General Creech, underscored the high reliability of modern US weapons. Citing the case of the F-16, he stressed that all seventy-two aircraft in the Israeli Air Force’s inventory were in commission 100 percent “every morning.” The US Air Force, he said, can maintain equally high readiness rates “because the equipment is very reliable,” provided sufficient spares are available. The Israelis, he added, “were smart enough” to maintain an adequate supply of spares.

In his overall assessment of the airpower lessons of the Israeli-Syrian conflict, he cautioned that “I am not saying that we could get an eighty-five to zero score against the Soviets, but we could do very well if we don’t turn our backs on modern American equipment as some would have us do.”

Washington Observations

  • Rockwell International, the B-1B’s prime contractor, has developed a concept for a “Long-Range Counter-Air” derivative of the Air Force’s new strategic bomber that could carry as many as thirty 985-pound AIM-54C Phoenix air-to-air missiles. Potential missions for the proposed Long-Range Counter-Air B-1 derivative that Rockwell officials are discussing with congressional staffers include support of the Rapid Deployment Force, maritime defense augmentation, interception of Soviet airlift channels on a global scale, strategic air defense intercept up into the polar region without need of refueling, and combat escort in nuclear war, conventional war, and during crises. Pentagon analysts believe that the Soviets are working toward battlefield laser weapons designed to blind ground troops and air crews. These weapons presumably would sweep in searchlight fashion across the FEBA (forward edge of the battle area) and the airspace above. The psychological effect of risking blindness just by looking toward the enemy, these analysts fear, would be horrendous.
  • At this writing the Air Force has just completed its in-depth review of a permanent basing mode for MX and concluded that closely spaced basing (CSB) works. This basing arrangement maximizes the so-called fratricide effects of nuclear weapons on one another by placing superhard silos closely together. The objective is for a large percentage of the incoming Soviet warheads to kill each other rather than their targets. The principal hurdle yet to be cleared: various assumptions about how soon and to what degree the Soviets might find ways to counter CSB and what US options are available to negate Soviet countermeasures.

    The Administration is obligated to present its plan for a permanent basing mode to Congress no later than December 1 of this year. The White House is understood to oppose release of the basing mode decision before the November elections to avoid unnecessary political entanglements. Opponents of the MX in Congress will presumably exploit the fact that the Administration is asking for the appropriation of funds for a weapon system whose most critical aspect—how it is to be based to assure resilience against a first strike—has not yet been announced. While the positive conclusions reached by a host of experts concerning the effectiveness of CSB justify a degree of guarded optimism, it will take a concerted, vigorous campaign by the White House on Capitol Hill to obtain full funding of the MX program.

  • US intelligence sources report that the Soviets have deployed between forty and 100 mobile SS-16 ICBMs at their Plesetsk launch complex. These deployments violate the SALT accords.