Why not just build some X-wings while they're at it?


It would appear that none of this country's premier weapons designers have embraced any of the rather painful lessons taught by the Joint Strike Flying Piano. Instead, they seem to be interested in tripling down on those same mistakes:
Northrop Grumman has revealed a tantalising image of a new stealth 'superjet' capable of firing laser weapons. 
The so called 'sixth generation fighter' is rumoured to fly at supersonic speeds, although Northrop Grumman, who are developing it, say the specifications are still secret. 
The stealth craft is expected to use advanced cooling systems to help disguise its laser systems. 
Chris Hernandez, Northrop's vice president for research, technology and advanced design, told BreakingDefence the sixth-gem [sic] fighter will be long range because it won't have many bases to operate from overseas; it must 'carry a lot of weapons;' survivability will be key. 
What do those requirements and physics lead you to? 
'This looks a lot like a baby B-2 and this is really getting into our sweet spot,' Hernandez said.
Okay, look, I've never worked for a weapons designer in my life, but even a knucklehead like me is capable of understanding that it is generally not a good idea to compare any new fighter aircraft to even a baby version of the B-2 stealth bomber. The very same B-2 bomber that costs- and I'm not making this up- $2 BILLION. That's with a "B". Its primarily selling point is that it's... well... "stealthy". Which means that it can deliver a nuclear payload into the heart of Soviet Russia without ever being detected.

That's terrific news! Except for one tiny little detail:

The Soviet empire went bust about 25 years ago.

On top of that, there are major issues with the uses of stealth technology on the modern battlefield. To my mind, there are two huge problems with the entire concept of high-tech, stealth warfare.

The first is that stealth technology- fascinating and effective though it is and can be- can only beat the kinds of detection systems that it was designed to defeat. I claim no expertise whatsoever with regard to modern American and European radar systems, but as far as my limited knowledge goes, those systems tend to operate in high-frequency, short-wavelength spectrums. Radar designed to operate in those bands allow for a detailed understanding of what is coming at you- which is rather handy if you happen to be fighting a reasonably technologically sophisticated enemy that can send fourth- and fifth-generation fighters and bombers up against yours.

However, what if your enemy has kept older, low-frequency/long-wavelength radar systems, such as the ones that Britain used during the Battle of Britain? Well, according to no less a personage than Pierre Sprey himself- who worked on the F-15, the F-16, and the A-10- those old radar systems could easily detect every stealth aircraft ever made, including the much-vaunted B-2 bomber.

And, presumably, this new proposed sixth-generation fighter too.

The second huge problem is that these stealth boondoggles always have a massively underestimated cost base when sold to Congress and the public. The F-22 was supposed to cost around $26.2 billion for 750 aircraft. Do a little arithmetic and that comes to about $35 million per plane- not bad, considering that the estimated unit cost of the F-15 is around $30 million (though I don't think this includes maintenance and upgrades and so on). 

The final price-tag of the F-22 was... well, it's actually hard to tell, but the most conservative estimate puts it at a truly staggering $678 million per aircraft.

As for the F-35, which isn't actually all that stealthy, the per-unit cost is simply astronomical. One estimate that I've seen puts it at close to $223 million per aircraft. And that is for a plane that its critics argue cannot turn, cannot climb, cannot run, and was soundly thrashed in a dogfight by its predecessor, the venerable F-16.

That the United States military has the most advanced technological marvels available anywhere on Earth is not up for debate. We know this for a fact. We also know for a fact that stealth technology works, brilliantly, against any enemy that cannot counter it- as was demonstrated repeatedly during Operation Desert Storm.

As detailed in Skunk Works by Ben Rich and Leo Janos, the F-117 pilots who carried out the first critical strikes against the Iraqi command and control networks, bombed Baghdad while flying into the teeth of what were considered to be the most formidable concentrations of anti-air defences anywhere on Earth. It was estimated at the time that Baghdad was defended by something like 16,000 surface-to-air missile batteries and some 7,000 anti-aircraft guns.

Any conventional air force, approaching that kind of a target in large numbers, would have been shredded like a cat attacking a roll of toilet paper. But F-117s, undetectable by Iraqi early-warning radar networks, were able to attack quickly and quietly, rapidly taking out the enemy's eyes and ears.

That war was considered a tremendous victory for the entire concept of a high-tech, stealth-based air force, and for the American doctrine of "deep strike". (I've seen that doctrine called a couple of different things, but the basic emphasis remains the same: wipe out an enemy's operational and logistical capabilities early, then body-slam him with massive assaults on multiple fronts.)

However, that war was 25 years ago. And a quarter-century is, in military terms, a damn long time- it took less than 20 years for the Roman Republic to go from losing the equivalent of 16 legions (and allied forces) at the catastrophic Battle of Cannae, to comprehensively defeating Hannibal's army at the Battle of Zama by implementing a thorough overhaul of Roman tactical and operational doctrine.

A quarter-century is plenty of time for a powerful, relatively modern military- like, say, China's, or Russia's- to think up ways to counter the tremendous advantages offered by stealthy aircraft.

And one of those counters is to use old-school long-wavelength radar arrays that can give a C&C structure an early indication that something is coming. Those old radar arrays might not be great at telling you exactly what is coming- though my understanding is that the Chinese and Russians have done quite a lot of work on refining the noise-filtering algorithms used to process the signals from those radar returns- but they will tell you that something is on its way, likely carrying a world of unpleasantness, and will allow you to get ready to shoot it down.

And everything that I've written above still ignores the really big problem with all of this whiz-bang technological tomfoolery.

That problem is the fact that the wars of the future are not likely to be fought between nation-states. As William S. Lind and other proponents of 4th-Generation War theory keep pointing out, the old post-Westphalian order, in which war became the monopoly and concern of the state, is fast disappearing. We are instead returning to an earlier conception of war, in which wars were fought between diverse actors for diverse reasons.

The belligerents that the United States is already facing today are not technologically advanced opponents with highly sophisticated command and control structures, huge numbers of aircraft and tanks and submarines, carrier battle groups, or railway and road networks. They're much smaller, more isolated cells of Islamic fundamentalism that fight primarily through inflicting moral and psychological defeats upon American forces.

No amount of stealth technology is going to be effective against a lone-wolf Islamist suicide bomber or mass murderer with an AK-47 and access to simple but deadly homemade explosives.

This new sixth-generation fighter that is being proposed is, for all of its "wow" factor, already obsolete. In a world where fighter pilots (or automated drones) can be blinded simply by pointing very powerful ground- or sea-based lasers right at them, and where an entire carrier battle group can therefore be rendered useless and impotent, spending billions and trillions of dollars on high-tech toys that constantly run over-budget and consistently under-deliver on their promises is a sure-fire way to go down in ignominious and humiliating defeat against smaller, technologically weaker but morally superior enemies.

The US Air Force might as well spend its budget on building X-wings instead- because apparently, the airheads in charge seem to think that the battles of the future will involve TIE fighters and Scimitar assault bombers...

Comments

  1. It may be of interest to you. It is not permitted to import high-power lasers into New Zealand since March 2014 - because people have been tagging aircraft with them. Including police helicopters.

    The last jackass who did it got 12 months supervision and 100 hours of community work.

    I wouldn't be surprised if someone started laser-tagging cars. I wouldn't be surprised if this is happening in various hot-spots by ISIS and their lot, distracting drivers and guards. Either before an attack, or simply to harass and wear down the opposition.

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    1. It's pretty much guaranteed that such a ban won't stop the development of high-powered yet cheap, cost-effective, and very deadly laser technology. As was pointed out in Riding the Red Horse, Vol. I, technologies that are cheap, simple, and effective will always win out eventually against technologies that are expensive, unwieldy, and overly sophisticated.

      Whether it's the Chinese, the Russians, ISIS, or your friendly neighbourhood gun nut (hey, that's me!), somebody will develop a way of blinding the technological terrors that government bureaucracies and weapons developers keep churning out. The cat is so far out of the bag that no amount of treats and/or stray-cat catchers will get it back in ever again.

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    2. Totally out of the bag. You can create a laser with the guts of an old hard-drive from a computer - I've thought of doing it myself. There's plenty of video's on youtube about it too, as well as plans.

      I seem to remember, many years ago, an article in a science magazine about two lower-power lasers used to illuminate glass (probably specially doped). IIRC there was quite a buzz about it because incoming laser beam photons would interfere, cause special mirror-like "cavities", and be reflected 100% back upon their source.

      It's unfortunate when most gun-owners have been conflated with nuts.

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