Thursday, November 3, 2011

Eric Lerhe - Libya, the F-35 Debate and Some Other New Trends.

From the Fall issue of the CDFAI Dispatch
With the election of a Conservative majority government one might expect the Canadian debate over the F-35 purchase will soon come to an end.I do not think so, if only because the ‘sticker shock’ of a $9 billion defence purchase will continue to upset many. There is also a prevailing sense that the rationale for having such a costly 5th generation aircraft has not been made. DND’s assertion that their in-house expert review of the competing aircraft only lead to one satisfactory aircraft, the F-35, has not been convincing to many.  When you spend $9 billion to purchase and $7 billion to maintain a capability, hard data is needed. In addition to better arguments, one might also hope a continuing debate on the F-35 would raise broader issues of Canadian defence policy. I will turn to some of these at the end of this piece.
A discussion of the F-35 can be difficult when much of the high cost comes from a heavily classified capability like stealth. On the other hand, the internet has thousands of entries for aircraft stealth and only a few hours work is needed to produce something like the following rough table to fill in what the government could not provide on the F-35 purchase.[i]
There are hundreds of factors that will alter these radar cross-section and detection range figures. These include radar frequency, aircraft speed (whether it is pointing at the tracking radar or not), configuration (are its bomb doors open?) and height to name but a few. However, I am confident that the rough orders of magnitude displayed in the table will hold up to scrutiny as there is a surprising level of agreement on them on the internet.
The table’s collective data is quite startling. For example, a new F/A-18E/F is over fifteen times stealthier than our older CF-18. That you can improve a design that much is impressive, but if you want really significant increases in stealth a new design seems to be required. The F-22’s radar signature is reportedly 1,000 times smaller thatn the F-15 it replaces.[ii] The F-35 radar cross section is likely 1,000 smaller than that of our existing CF-18.
The resulting impact of a smaller radar cross-section (RCS) on detection range shown in the table may not initially appear as dramatic.  Their effects certainly are. For example when an attacking aircraft’s RCS falls down to 1 square metre (F/A 18 C/D) and the range at which it can be detected falls below 250 kilometers, one can no longer rely on ground alert interceptor aircraft, our traditional approach, to successfully defend an area against it.[iii] If detection comes this late, there is not enough time within a 15 minute alert posture to launch and make it to intercept.[iv]To overcome late detections, one is forced to rely on airborne combat air patrols for defence realizing this will eat up 10 to 20 fighters to maintain two on station over one vital point.
The other option is to rely on thousands of surface-to-air missile and gun systems (like the Libyans do). These systems must be placed very close, that is within 5 kilometres, of each vital point. However once detection ranges fall to the F-117’s 38 kilometres detection range, missile and gun systems will fail 99% of the time because they cannot move from detection, to target identification (friend or foe?), to missile launch quickly enough to make an intercept on a fast closing fighter bomber. The F-117 first flew 30 years ago.
This was all proven to dramatic effect during the first Gulf War as this assessment makes clear.
A typical non-stealth attack package in Desert Storm required 38 Air force, Navy, Marine and Saudi aircraft to enable 8 of those aircraft to deliver bombs on three aim points. Yet at the same time, only 20 stealthy F-117s simultaneously attacked 37 aim points successfully in the face of a far more challenging Iraqi surface-to-air defensive threat. The difference was more than a 1,200 percent increase in target coverage with 47 percent fewer aircraft.[v]
The US Air Force then devoted itself to stealth aircraft and proceeded to eliminate apparently unnecessary supporting aircraft.[vi]
This direction was reassessed after two successful Serbian intercepts of F-117 stealth aircraft in 1999 during Operation Allied Force. One was damaged and returned to base while the other was actually shot down. The latter was achieved at very close range, using an older missile system operating at a lower than normal frequency range, allegedly when the F-117 had a malfunction that kept its bomb doors open, during a period when US electronic intelligence support aircraft were unable to provide warning of this unusual Serbian missile radar activity.[vii] The fact that over eighteen aircraft were then put at risk to rescue the downed F-117 pilot soon suggested to the US Air Force that even stealth aircraft should now receive extensive electronic warfare support from other aircraft.[viii]
Off Libya this year, the air war began with cruise missile and the B-2 strikes followed with non-US aircraft like the CF-18, Rafael, Typhoon, Tornado, F-16 and Étendard aircraft. These latter aircraft took over most of the bombing work as the US withdrew its attack aircraft and transitioned to a supporting role on 28 March 2011. It seems clear, however, that the European owners of these aircraft were able to convince the US to keep its electronic warfare support aircraft in the campaign.[ix] This electronic warfare capability is rare to non-existent outside the US military.
What then does this mean for Canada? First, stealth is required now. Further, once the majority of allied air forces convert to stealth aircraft they will have zero interest in a nation still operating older aircraft with 1000 times their radar cross section flying anywhere near them. Surprise would be totally lost. In fact, the only role of a CF 18 in a few years will be as a diversion or decoy. Second, all fighter bombers, including stealthy ones, need the support of the limited number of electronic warfare aircraft available. One can safely predict that a future air campaign commander will dedicate his scare electronic warfare assets to the most capable aircraft flying against the most defended targets deep in enemy territory. Finally, older designs like the F/A-18 can be made more stealthy but this has seems to have peaked with the F/A-18 E/F. While 15 times stealthier than the CF-18, the F/A-18 E/F’s radar cross section is ten to fifty times larger than that of an F-35 with stealth part of its original design.
Canada could, of course, decide not to participate in these types of air operations noting that the Libyan air defence network hardly provides the most complex or difficult of scenarios. In the past such a Canadian decision would have rested on the assumption that the US would pick up the slack. This is now a doubtful option. The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mullens, has declared that US debt is “the single biggest threat to our national security.”[x] The US Secretary of State indicated that America expects allies to take greater responsibility for meeting the security threats in their region.[xi] As a result, NATO and particularly the European allies were expected to carry the weight of the Libyan campaign.
The Libyan campaign has shown that even when genocide is directly threatened only a small number of NATO nations, seven in this particular case, will be able to quickly muster the will and the equipment for the attack mission. The US Secretary of Defence also noted this very limited allied response in Libya, the continued overreliance on the US elsewhere, and the uneven European commitment to Afghanistan. He then predicted “a dim, if not dismal, future” for NATO if these types of imbalances were not addressed.[xii]
Prime Minister Harper has recognized this changed security landscape stating “we will have be prepared to contribute more” in the face of a “diminishing” US ability to “single-handedly shape outcomes and protect our interests.”[xiii] This all means Canada must have a military capable of operating overseas with our allies. In that regard the evidence seems overwhelming that the F-35 is the only aircraft that will meet what will soon be mandatory levels of stealth for the long-term. Thankfully, the Canada First Defence Strategy’s capital plan provides that aircraft if, perhaps, in less numbers than was desired. Moreover, the Canada First plan also replaces aging ships and land equipment. These too are needed and must meet the evolving standards of modern warfare. What seems clear, however, is that the public needs more forthright and more detailed rationales for each of these multi-billion dollar buys than they have seen to date.
Eric Lerhe is a retired naval officer who served as the Commander Canadian Fleet Pacific from 2001 to 2003. Cmdre. (Ret’d) Lerhe is currently completing his doctoral degree at Dalhousie.

[i] I got none of this material from  government sources and relied most heavily on the following sites covering aircraft radar cross section: accessed 9 Jul. 2011 accessed 9 Jul. 2011 and accessed 9 Jul. 2011.
[ii] Hardy, Scott A.,  LCDR, “The Search of Air Dominance: Stealth versus SEAD,” Paper presented at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell,,Alabama, Apr. 2006, p.20
[iii] Sendstadt, Ole, Jakob; LCDR Thomas Siensvick; Arne Cato Jeanssen, “Area Air Defence as a Network Enabled Capability for the New Norwegian Frigates,” Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 1 Sep. 2006.
[iv] This is true even if the defending fighters are at an airfield 80 kilometers from the point they must defend – a relatively ideal scenario. 
[v] Lambeth, Benjamin, S. , The Transformation of American Airpower. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2000.  p. 156.
[vi] Hardy, p. 9, 16.
[vii] Hardy, p.17
[viii] Hardy p. iv, vi,11, and 16.
[ix] These include F-16 CD and EF-18G aircraft tasked to jam and destroy Libyan radars and U-2, E-8, and P-3 and EC- 130  elint or recce aircraft. _________,”US Still Flying Strike Missions in Libya,” Defence Web, 4 Jul. 2011, at accessed 9 Jul. 2011.
[x]Mullins, Mike, Admiral, “Address to Government Executive Media Group,”  JCS Page, accessed 4 Jun. 2011.
[xi] Haas, Richard, F., “A Conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton,”Council on Foreign Relations, 8 Sep. 2010, at  accessed 11 Jul. 2011
[xii] __________, “Head off NATO’s ‘dismal future’” The Globe and Mail, 12 Jun, 2011.
[xiii] Whyte, Kenneth, “In Conversation: Stephen Harper,”, 5 Jul. 2011 at   accessed 11 Jul 2011.