A Roadmap to Tomorrow’s Tactical Airpower

Dec. 1, 1983

The fundamental requirements of the tactical air forces (TAF) boil down to five specifics:

• Over the near term, the Air Force needs to flesh out the forty fighter wings it is authorized, meaning the acquisition of enough aircraft quickly enough to achieve that end before attrition and obsolescence can negate whatever progress is being made.

• Further, the aircraft the Air Force buys must represent a prudent mix of specialized and non-specialized designs.

• The existing force ought to be bolstered by upgrades in two areas: increased reliability and maintainability, on the one hand, and additional capabilities, such as night and all-weather features, on the other.

• New aircraft should be developed and procured. Over the near term, this means the Dual Role Fighter, or DRF, a derivative of either the F-15 or F-16 (see November’83 issue). This process needs to be in phase with the replacement of the F-4s that are on average about sixteen years old and probably won’t last more than five years.

• Lastly, in building the fighter force of the future, the Air Force should make full allowance for the threats, as they can be calibrated, and the fiscal realities that are likely to be encountered.

These were the key findings to emerge from the Air Force Association’s National Symposium on “Tactical Air Warfare,” held September 14 in Washington, D. C.

Calibrating the threat was the task of the Tactical Air Command’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Col. Donald R. Arnaiz, who explained that the Soviet military aircraft arsenal is now in excess of 6,800 planes that can be shuffled rapidly between theaters of operations, depending on specific needs.

Among the most advanced recent entries into the Soviet fighter inventory, he told the AFA meeting, is the MiG-31, a “true look-down/shoot-down” fighter, similar to the F-15 Eagle. Two regiments of MiG-31s are now in being, and the aircraft is about to go into “full production.” The MiG-31 Foxhound TAC’s intelligence head said will markedly boost the Soviet Union’s ability to detect and shoot down “low-altitude penetrating aircraft, such as our bombers.”

Two other new fighters appear to be intended to narrow the performance gap with the Air Force’s front-line fighter, according to Colonel Arnaiz. One is the MiG-29 Fulcrum, which recently achieved operational status. This new design is slightly larger than the F-16, incorporates advanced look-down/shoot-down capabilities, and exhibits “superb maneuverability for air=to-air dogfights.” The other new Soviet fighter is the Su-27. This aircraft is expected to achieve operational status next year. Describing the Su-27 as somewhat larger than the F-15, Colonel Arnaiz said it “should be very competitive with our best fighters in terms of technology and maneuverability.”

The Soviet Threat

Within the present generation of Soviet fighters, the Su-24 Fencer should be seen as the most “worrisome” tactical ground attack aircraft. Describing the SU-24 as similar in configuration to the F-111. Colonel Arnaiz said the “Soviets have deployed this aircraft outside the USSR for the first time, in Eastern Europe, and there is poses a distinct threat to NATO forces.” Fencers are being produced at the rate of eight per month, and a total of 800 of these aircraft probably will be built over the next few years.

Another formidable Soviet ground-attack fighter is the SU-25, which “is similar in design and mission to our A-10. This aircraft will eventually be deployed throughout the Soviet tactical aviation forces and… has been used extensively in Afghanistan.”

Providing operational command and control for the vast array of Soviet air-superiority and ground-at-tack fighters in the “Mainstay” SUAWACS, patterned after the US Air Force’s E-3A AWACS “but not quite as good,” according to the TAC intelligence chief. Based on the Il-76 airframe, this aircraft uses a radar dome similar to that of the E-3A to “detect aircraft hundreds of miles away.”

Augmenting the growing capabilities of Soviet Frontal (tactical) Aviation are the world’s most advanced and dense tactical air defenses that, moreover, are being modernized at a furious rate. Between 1972 and 1980, Colonel Arnaiz told the AFA Symposium, the Soviets brought out three completely new surface-to-air missiles — the SA-6, the SA-8, and the SA-9. Since 1980, two additional systems — the SA-11 and the SA-13 — have been brought into the inventory, and by the mid—1980s two more new SAM types are expected to achieve operational status — the SA-12 and the SA-8 FO.

Soviet tactical airpower is being bolstered by steady growth in the USSR’s airlift capabilities. Military Transport Aviation and Aeroflot, the Soviet state-owned airline that becomes an appendage of the military in periods of crisis or war, are being equipped with large number of modern jet transports, soon to include “Condor,” an aircraft similar to our C-5A Galaxy, according to TAC’s intelligence chief.

The bomber element of the Soviet armed forces can back up Soviet tactical airpower and is growing steadily. The Backfire bomber keeps coming off the production line at a rate of about thirty planes per year. About 200 of these supersonic aircraft — which in addition to bombs can carry a variety of air-to-surface missiles — are now operational, according to Colonel Arnaiz. In addition, there are about 150 Bear and Bison bombers in the Soviet inventory, along with some 600 medium-range Badger and Blinder bombers.

The number of Bear bombers may be increasing, according to Colonel Arnaiz, because the Soviets are building new models to serve as ALCM (air-launched cruise missile) carriers. Of special concern here is the AS-4, an ALCM with a range of about 200 miles and a maximum speed above Mach 2.

The Soviets’ emphasis on cruise missiles comes to the fore also in their naval forces assigned to general-purpose tasks, range of about 200 miles and a maximum speed above Mach 2.

The Soviets’ emphasis on cruise missiles comes to the fore also in their naval forces assigned to general-purpose tasks, Yankee-class submarines that had to be taken out of the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal because of the numerical ceilings of SALT II are being revamped as “cruise missile shooters,” according to Colonel Arnaiz. The very quiet Victor-class submarines also are being equipped with cruise missiles.

Probably the most prominent example of Soviet determination to exploit the cost-effectiveness of cruise missiles is the new Oscar-class submarine that carries twenty-four SSN-19 cruise missiles with a range of more than 200 miles. Oscar, the world’s largest attack submarine, serves primarily in an anti-ship role, but can be used for other general-purpose force missions.

In the area of aircraft carriers, the Soviet Union still lags behind the US, with only four carriers in being. But by the year 2000, the TAC intelligence chief predicted, there could be as many as ten aircraft carriers — equipped with fixed-wing fighters rather than helicopters — in the Soviet inventory.

Tac Air Technology

Two aircraft programs rank high among the five fundamental TAF requirements set forth by the symposium’s moderator of a special “requirements panel,” USAF’s new Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition, Lt. Gen. Robert D. Russ. These are the Dual Role Fighter (DRF) and the Advanced Tactical Fighter (AFT), General Russ said.

The DRF, according to General Russ, could start to enter the operational inventory in 1986 if the decision to pick one of the two candidates — the F-15E or F-16E — for this derivative program is made early in 1984. If, on the other hand, the Pentagon waits much longer in making this decision, buying the Dual Role Fighter might not make too much sense since its advent would come close to the deployment of Advanced Tactical Fighter, beginning probably in 1995.

Carl Smith, a professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a panelist at AFA’s Symposium, pointed out that delays in funding the DRF program were not caused by Congress but by the Air Force, “which put it near the bottom in terms of its requirements.” General Russ and the other Air Force experts serving on the panel did not dispute Mr. Smith’s contention.

Gen. Robert T. Marsh, Commander of Air Force Systems Command, told the AFA Symposium that the DRF would “provide significant improvements for both the air-to-surface and air-to-air capabilities of our tactical air forces.” He added that the “flying part of the Dual Role Fighter evaluation is complete and we are now compiling the results.” Although the declines to discuss the relative merits of either the F-15E or F-16E, he said that “among other enhancements, the range and payload improvements alone for either of these aircraft promise a dramatic improvement for our ability to accomplish interdiction.”

Maj. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, the Pacific Air Forces’ Director of Operations and Intelligence, told the AFA meeting that because the Soviet Union is building up its force projection capabilities, “we will need a fighter with more range and payload, and that means the Dual Role Fighter,” especially so far as the Pacific theater of operations is concerned.

Turning to the need for an Advanced Tactical Fighter, Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Craig, TAC’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Requirements, told the AFA meeting that the ATF has gone through the painstaking SON (statement of operational need) process at TAC, PACAF, and USAFE. Following further coordination among the TAF components, the formal requirement for ATF will be forwarded to the Air Staff, probably before the end of this year, he predicted. The Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board is reviewing the technological options that the ATF might incorporate, he added.

He and other panelists explained that no decision has been made as yet on the ATF’s engine and that it could be either a derivative of an existing engine or a completely new design.” Both General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, the two principal US engine manufacturers, are exploring a range of technological approaches for the ATF engine, according to General Craig. The Air Force, so far, has not yet decided whether the ATF design should be confined to STOL (short takeoff and landing) capabilities or aim for the more ambitious and “very interesting” V/STOL (vertical and short takeoff and landing) regime.

The Most Integrated Aircraft

There is no doubt in the TAF community, however, that the ATF needs to be “the most integrated aircraft we have ever built in terms of power, flight controls, and weapon systems,” according to the members of the Symposium’s requirements panel. There also was channeling advanced low-observable (Stealth), aerodynamic, and electronic countermeasures technologies into the ATF’s design and that the resultant benefits would be of a “synergistic nature.”

General Marsh elaborated by explaining that the ATF’s integrated electronic warfare system, as currently envisioned, “will combine sensors and jammers for the full spectrum of electronic warfare threats — lasers, infrared, and millimeter wave, as well as normal radar frequencies.”

Defining ATF as the next-generation air-superiority fighter possessing “substantial air-to-ground capability.” General Marsh said, “We are now looking at an aircraft with tremendous advances over existing systems, including fully integrated defensive and offensive avionics, greatly reduced observables, efficient supersonic cruise, a significant increase in fuel efficiency, greater range, forty percent fewer parts, a 100 to 300 percent increase in reliability, a short takeoff and landing capability, and high maneuverability provided by integration of systems, new aerodynamic design, and vectored thrust.”

Looking at ATF and other next-generation fighters, Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez, USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics and Engineering, told the AFA Symposium that ”the tactical airpower of the future must be able to operate independently of the fixed communications networks, the air terminals, and computer networks now extant. The fighter squadron of tomorrow must be mobile and lightly manned, and be dependent only on the availability of runway services and supply of water, fuel, and munitions.”

Toward this end, the next-generation fighter must be “designed so that the lion’s share of maintenance can be done on the aircraft and not in adjacent shops, which will require stabilized power supplies and cooling air to the complex support equipment we use today. In short, we must pay as much attention to the fault-isolation problem on the aircraft as we do to the performance specifications.” These steps, he added, are needed to overcome longstanding maintenance problems that absorb a large share of the Air Force’s airlift capacity and drain manpower resources.

Flexibility, Lethality, Survivability

For US tactical airpower to maintain its technological edge in the years ahead, three “musts” need to be met, according to General Marsh:

“We must provide the capability to navigate at low level and find targets at night, under the weather.

“We must satisfy the end-games kill requirements with smarter and more affordable weapons.

“And we must enhance our aircrew survivability through improved standoff armaments and electronic warfare capabilities.”

LANTIRN (the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night system), he stressed, is of fundamental importance because it permits operation at night, in marginal weather, “down on the deck, where our pilots can take advantage of terrain masking for ingress and egress, and [because it enhances substantially] target acquisition in a hostile environment.” LANTIRN’s payoff is that tactical commanders “get more from their weapon systems. The capability to attack at night, under weather, and with lower attrition multiplies the effectiveness of our limited forces.”

He added that the system boosts accuracy, especially when combined with some of the smarter weapons coming into the inventory. This leads to increased effectiveness over the target and denies the enemy the license to operate with immunity from attack during night and overcast conditions, according to the AFSC Commander.

LANTIRN’s navigation system, he explained, includes a wide field of view forward-looking infrared sensor (FLIR), a terrain-avoidance radar, and a wide angle raster head-up display that enables the pilot to keep his eyes “out of the cockpit must like daytime flying.”

LANTIRN’s second pod houses the target=acquisition system that “couples a maneuverable field of view FLIR with a laser ranger/designator to allow our pilots to identify targets and to… launch their munitions” with high precision, he said.

Pointing out that LANTIRN hardware is in being, General Marsh said the navigation pod is now in flight test “with the target-acquisition pod slated to begin flight tests in the near future.” If Congress provides the needed funds, the Air Force plans to bring the first LANTIRN systems into the operational inventory in the second half of 1987, he explained.

JSTARS, the joint surveillance target attack radar system under development by AFSC’s Electronic Systems Division, will improve tactical airpower’s ability to find targets and obtain real-time targeting information, he said. Its purpose, General Marsh said, it “to provide an airborne radar platform capability of identifying moving or stationary targets well behind enemy lines and then direction weapon systems to the target.”

The Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS) is another AFSC program bound to raise “drastically the effectiveness of our tactical aircraft and weapons,” according to General Marsh: “It will offer pinpoint position accuracy for navigation in three dimensions, allowing our aircraft to accurately navigate to targets anywhere in world. Eventually, we should be able to incorporate Navstar GPS into the terminal guidance systems of our weapons in order to provide true launch-and-leave capabilities with precise accuracy. This could be particularly useful as a terminal guidance update for long-range standoff weapons.” He predicted that a full constellation of GPS satellites will be in place by 1988 to provide revolutionary accuracy gains on a global scale.

Weapons that combine standoff launch features with accurate terminal guidance for a high probability of kill in the end game can increase significantly the survivability of tactical strike aircraft. The joint Tactical Missile (JTACMS) program that the US Army is pursuing jointly with AFSC “will provide just such a capability” and eliminate the current reliance on lasers or data links for weapon guidance, General Marsh told the AFA meeting. But he warned that money is scarce for the development of millimeter wave and infrared techniques for target acquisition and terminal guidance required for standoff weapons.

With defense suppression the key to increased survivability of tactical aircraft, AFSC is pursuing a host of programs designed to produce the means for identifying and destroying the enemy’s electronic warfare assets, radars, and command and control systems. Most promising in this context is the Precision Location Strike System (PLSS). He explained that PLSS draws on TR-1 aircraft to provide “recce data on enemy emitters, ground-based processing stations to analyze that data, and airborne attack aircraft. Once the emitter is identified, [its] location is pinpointed and…PLSS… then directs a fighter to the target — even if the emitter goes off the air.”

Increased Accuracy

AFSC’s Integrated Flight and Fire Control program also should go a long way toward improving the lethality of the tactical air forces. “This technology provides increased accuracy for ordnance delivery — both air-to-air and air-to-ground — by integrating sensors [and] fire and flight control systems to improved weapon system accuracy.” According to General Marsh. He said that “in a test under adverse conditions, including a high angle of attack, high closing speed, and a 3.3-G turn, an F-15 equipped with this system was able to shoot down a drone with a single 20-mm cannon burst. This kind of accuracy in the air-to-air environment, coupled with greater standoff distances provided by the AMRAAM [Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile], will give our tactical forces a far better capability for achieving air superiority.”

The long-range prognosis for tactical air warfare, according to General Marsh, hinges on advances in computational technologies that can “put real ‘smarts’ into very small packages that can be used efficiently in weapons. We are beginning to think in terms of true autonomous attack capabilities for our tactical weapons — that is, weapons with the computational capability necessary to actually be launched on search and destroy missions — thus seeking, acquiring, and hitting targets of opportunity on their own, with nothing more than general locations of potential targets” guiding them.

The AFA Symposium’s panel on Operations and Tactics, headed by Lt. Gen. John T. Chain, Jr., USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations, cautioned, however, that tactical aircraft can’t be absolved of the need to penetrate to their targets. Lt. Gen. Arnold Braswell, then PACAF’s Commander in Chief, told the Symposium that although advanced standoff technologies should be pursued vigorously, “I don’t expect that they will mitigate against the need to take the war to the enemy and… to penetrate.” USAFE’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Intelligence, Maj. Gen. William L. Kirk, similarly rejected the notion that the attack function against the Warsaw Pact’s second echelon could be left to futuristic standoff weapons, saying, “You bet we will continue to penetrate!”

The Logistics Challenge

Although gratified by gains in logistics over the past few years that resulted in greater readiness and “improved staying power on the battlefield,” USAF’s DCS for Logistics and Engineering, General Marquez, warned that further improvements “face a tough road in Congress.” He expressed concern about the Air Force’s budget request designed to procure a sixty-day capability for spare parts and munitions by FY ’87.

The Air Force’s five-year logistics program concentrates on improvements in sustainability as well as mobility, he said, explaining that in the latter category the emphasis is on the “construction of facilities to preposition support equipment and flight-line vehicles in Europe and Southwest Asia, and to increase munitions and POL storage capabilities.” In the sphere of mobility, “we logisticians face our greatest challenge,” according to General Marquez.

“For the past three decades, we have seen the Air Force follow the trend of more and ever more centralization of logistics functions,” he complained, because of the relentless press to save manpower and money. The net result, he said, “is that we have allowed the capability of tactical airpower to become limited by the infrastructure on which we are so dependent. Our challenge now is to expand the strictures of that infrastructure so that tactical airpower may regain its greatest tactical advantage — flexibility.”

Cautioning that it won’t be easy to change entrenched mindsets, General Marquez stressed the urgency of returning to the “premise that the basic fighting unit of the tactical air force is the independent fighter squadron, and we must allow it to operate unhampered by infrastructure limitations.”

The most prevalent mindset to break, he said, “is the idea fixed in the minds of some people, within and without the Air Force, that we cannot afford to do that and that the greatest economies are achieved by centralization. Tactical Air Command is proving daily that this simply is not true — that we can operate as squadrons within the TAF. That trend must be nurtured and even expanded and our attendant combat infrastructure must be the facilitator, not the straitjacket.”

General Chain and the other members of the Operations and Tactics Panel stressed the importance of air base defense to tactical warfare. General Chain said that earlier this year the Chiefs of Staffs of the Army and the Air Force signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the subject. This accord underscores the importance of interservice cooperation, the imperative of avoiding duplicative investments, and the need to get the job done the most cost-effective way and without regard to service parochialism, he told the AFA Symposium. He added that both services are cooperating on an important program bearing on air base defense that can’t be discussed because of its classified nature.

The panel questioned the effectiveness of delivering conventional warheads or submunitions by means of medium-range ballistic missiles on grounds that CEPs (circular error probable, the statistical measure of accuracy) of fifty meters were adequate for nuclear and chemical weapons but not for conventional systems. There was consensus concerning the importance of acquiring and stocking the “Big Eye” binary chemical weapons but not for conventional systems. There was consensus concerning the importance of acquiring and stocking the “Big Eye” binary chemical warfare munition “to deter the Soviets from using their chemical weapons and the keep conflicts from escalating to the nuclear level.”