Washington Watch

Oct. 1, 2007

The Bear in the Air

Russia is again flexing its aviation muscles, resuming Cold War-like global operations in ways that create new complications for the United States Air Force.

On Aug. 17, Russian bombers flying long-range missions fanned out from the North Pole over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, inaugurating what Russian President Vladimir V. Putin called a permanent return to strategic aviation operations.

The bomber flights were carried out mostly by old but serviceable Tu-95 Bears, but also by younger Tu-22M Backfires and Tu-160 Blackjacks. Russian strategic aviation numbers about 70 aircraft.

Putin made the announcement at the close of multinational exercises conducted by Russia, China, and Central Asian nations. These were the first such exercises ever conducted on Russian soil. The US was denied permission to observe them.

The events of mid-August drew a public statement from Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff. In it, the nation’s top airman said the Russian bomber flights serve as a reminder that “the international security environment is complex, dynamic, and uncertain.” The Air Force, he said, has to balance the needs of “today’s war with the need to keep an eye on emerging and re-emerging peer competitors.”

The official White House position on the resumption of Russian bomber missions was a loud “ho-hum.” Both the Defense and State Departments offered statements to the effect that the missions are within Russia’s sovereign rights and that ties between Washington and Moscow are cordial.

The State Department announced it had no objection if the Kremlin wished to “take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again.”

However, Air Force officials privately said the flights are a worrisome development, given Russia’s recent truculence toward the United States and NATO.

“We might have to put some more money into Noble Eagle,” the air sovereignty missions flown by USAF since September 2001, said one official. He noted that the service might have to revise some plans, including a plan to cut USAF flying hours in Fiscal Year 2009 and beyond by more than 10 percent.

As of last year, Noble Eagle flights are paid for out of the basic Air Force budget, not from war supplementals, as they had been previously.

Russia’s rhetoric toward the US has turned harsh in recent months. Putin has asserted that NATO expansion, Washington’s push for a US-sponsored anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have all amounted to jabs at Russian security.

The Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991 and its biggest component—the Russian Federation—picked up most of its military forces and obligations. Moscow ended the strategic flights in 1992. Starved for funds, the Russian Air Force languished for most of the ensuing 15 years. In some years, Russian Air Force pilots only received 10 hours of flying time.

However, oil and gas revenues have poured into Russia during the past decade, and its air force’s budget has once again begun to build. “Our pilots have been grounded for too long,” Putin remarked.

Pentagon officials said USAF aircraft intercepted and escorted some of the Russian bombers over international waters in the vicinity of Alaska. NATO partners also ran intercepts. British Typhoon fighters over the North Sea escorted a 1960s-era Bear bomber, and Norwegian fighters photographed A-50 Mainstay AWACS aircraft and two MiG-31 interceptors being refueled by a Russian tanker in the vicinity of the North Pole.

A Pentagon spokeswoman confirmed that the strategic flights continued in the weeks following the announcement, at a rate of every day or two. This is a substantially higher operating tempo than in the previous years, when such flights were mounted only every few months.

She said that the flights were not provocative; unlike in Cold War years, the bombers made no dash toward US airspace, only to turn away at the last minute. Russian aviation authorities had been “completely transparent” about the activity, filing flight plans and issuing notices about where the airplanes would be going and when.

“There have been no incursions” into US airspace, she said.

Russia’s Bold Talk

Mere days after restarting Russian strategic bomber flights, President Vladimir V. Putin announced that the country is putting some of its new petroleum wealth into a quest for “supremacy” in aerospace technology. He promised aggressive development of new aircraft to modernize Russian air forces and achieve parity with the West in commercial aviation.

Putin announced the initiative at the MAKS-2007 aviation and space trade show outside Moscow in August. With a format similar to the biennial Paris and Farnborough air shows, MAKS drew more than 800 companies. The biggest delegations came from China, South America, and the Middle East.

Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) unveiled a mockup of a stealth unmanned aerial vehicle, called “Skat,” which in Russian means “Stingray.” The Skat was displayed with a number of air-to-surface missiles. Russia’s Novosti news service said the 20,000-pound aircraft would carry 4,000 pounds of munitions and have a combat range of about 2,100 miles. There was no announcement about when the aircraft might see operational service.

The aircraft is the first true “stealth” design to be publicly acknowledged by Russia, and is reminiscent of the Boeing X-45C and Northrop Grumman X-47. Similar craft are being developed by Britain, France, and Germany.

Sukhoi officials said they would unveil within two years a prototype of the T-50, a “fifth generation” fighter which would be Russia’s answer to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Artists’ concepts show a twin-engine, twin-tail configuration similar to the F-22. Russia is in negotiations with both India and China on possible collaboration.

Russian plans call for acquiring 250 new air force aircraft and upgrading 800 more “legacy” airframes by 2015. It would do so on an air force procurement budget of between $8 billion and $10 billion per year. Strategic bombers will be fitted with new cruise missiles to make them a more credible nuclear force. Modernization of sea- and land-based strategic nuclear missiles is under way.

Putin pledged to spend about $250 billion on developing civil airliners to equip Russia’s domestic carriers with 4,500 aircraft within 18 years.

On flight display were variants of Russia’s Su-27 and MiG-29 families. The aircraft are being offered in a variety of configurations and price ranges, the most sophisticated of which have thrust vectoring and active electronically steered array antennas, as well as updated versions of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.

Now: Space Protection Summits

China’s successful test of an anti-satellite weapon earlier this year has been getting top-level attention from pretty much everyone with a dependence on satellites, according to Ronald M. Sega, the recently departed undersecretary of the Air Force.

Sega, on the eve of his August departure from the post, said the “large community” of space officials met in July and August—and planned a third meeting in September—to discuss the options for protecting key satellites and capabilities against a growing ASAT threat.

The Air Force said these first two “Space Protection Summits” featured meetings of three- and four-star Air Force space leaders and “senior representatives from the broader national security space community,” including the National Reconnaissance Office, NASA, and the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The meetings focused on what is currently being done to protect the nation’s satellites and, more broadly, the range of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance products that they provide. The gathering also delved into discussions of possible new steps that should be taken.

The first and most obvious step would be to create a comprehensive space situational awareness (or SSA) capability, said Sega. The object would be to know just what’s up there, whether something with a nefarious purpose had been launched, or whether a dormant space vehicle had suddenly awakened and started to behave in a suspicious fashion.

The Air Force has consistently funded SSA over the last few years. Projects range from software programs that analyze satellite behavior to telescopes and radars able to keep tabs on everything in orbit out to the geo-synchronous zone.

Second is to study the feasibility of protecting satellites themselves against attack. Sega said that they are already “hardened against radiation.” Other options already in use, such as anti-jam gear, were discussed as well. However, armoring satellites is a costly proposition, with launch costs still well over $10,000 a pound. Moreover, kinetic or electromagnetic attack is not the sole means of destruction; spraying paint over key optics would disable a satellite just as effectively.

The attendees discussed the idea of distributing US orbital capabilities over many smaller, easily replaceable satellites, to make the whole constellation “more robust,” Sega observed. The smallsat concept would mean that the loss of a few satellites would be bearable and their capability easily replaced. Not only would this require greater miniaturization, but there would have to be some advances in the field of “operationally responsive space,” he said—namely, the ability to be able to take something off the shelf and put it on orbit in hours or days, not months.

Part of making the ISR system more “robust” included discussions of whether some functions now performed by satellites could be moved to the ground, sea, air, or “near-space,” where high-flying unmanned aerial vehicles will soon be able to maintain station over targets of interest for more than a week at a time. The group looked at “where it makes sense” to perform some of the ISR mission now done on orbit, Sega allowed.

Despite the tactical nature of such discussions, Sega said he nevertheless anticipates greater integration of “white world” and “black world”—open and secret—space projects, due to the need to ensure that ISR data is distributed in a timely way to those who need it most. He also suggested that satellites could become more multifunctional, serving many agency masters at once and performing both overt and covert missions.

COIN Operated Lift

The Air Force doesn’t have to overhaul its whole airlift fleet to handle counterinsurgency operations, said a new study by the RAND Corp. Moreover, the report claimed, USAF is probably taking the right approach in buying the Joint Cargo Aircraft, because it needs an airplane to fill the COIN “niche.”

In the July report, “Airlift Capabilities for Future US Counterinsurgency Operations,” RAND authors Robert C. Owen and Karl P. Mueller assert that the majority of the COIN support mission can be carried out perfectly well with the airlift fleet on hand: C-5 and C-17 strategic airlifters and C-130 tactical airlifters.

The authors note that in the last big US counterinsurgency effort—Vietnam—the Air Force had good success with the C-7 Caribou, a small aircraft able to carry only a few pallets of cargo but able to fly in and out of very short, rough airstrips, often carved out of a jungle hillside.

Today, the authors point out, the US is supporting many special operations teams throughout Southwest Asia and elsewhere in the world, sometimes in places too small for even the C-130 to be able to land and take off. USAF needs “an assault airlifter,” the authors said.

In a statement accompanying the report’s release, Owen said that “we found conventional and unconventional conflicts involve the same types of airlift missions, but the balance of missions is usually different.” Counterinsurgencies, he said, “generally involve a lot of small loads going into rough fields, while big wars involve big aircraft going to big airfields in big numbers.” The existing airlift fleet mix is fine for most scenarios, they said.

However, despite the fact that the Air Force and Army have already selected an airframe to fulfill the mission—the C-27J was picked as the Joint Cargo Aircraft over the summer—the report does not mention this or the requirement.

In fact, the JCA was envisioned very much as a modern day version of the C-7, as then USAF Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper explained it when he first began discussions with the Army about cooperating on the project several years ago. Jumper himself was a C-7 pilot in Vietnam.

The RAND authors specifically ruled out performing the COIN mission mainly with helicopters, noting that they are “slower and more vulnerable than fixed-wing aircraft,” a serious problem now that most insurgents have access to a variety of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons. Helicopters take a long time to traverse an area of operations, increasing their exposure time. They also “give enemy gunners far more opportunities to achieve single-hit catastrophic ‘kills’ than they would have against fixed-wing aircraft of similar size and weight.”

There are some unique aspects to the COIN mission other than short field capability that would support buying a limited number of such airplanes, RAND said. The aircraft must be small and agile enough—both physically and in their scheduling—to frequently change “route selection, approach procedures” and be ready to handle pop-up tasks. Such aircraft also would need “high quality self-defense systems.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley has touted the JCA as also being an ideal platform with which to engage smaller, poorer nations whose resources are limited and for whom airlift is a priority. Moseley has said the JCA is just the right way to build coalitions in the new US Africa Command.

The RAND statement noted that the “core airlifters” in the Air Force fleet, such as the C-17 and C-130, “are too complex and expensive to meet the needs of many smaller or less-wealthy countries. The report recommends that the US Air Force consider acquiring some substantially smaller and less technologically sophisticated transports that can more easily be used by such nations.”

Having such an airplane would enhance USAF’s own COIN capabilities while also “improving its ongoing efforts to help allies develop useful and sustainable airlift forces,” according to the RAND statement. Such an airplane would make the small partner countries better able to defend themselves and offer a way they could participate in larger coalition operations.

L-3 Communications, offering the C-27J Spartan, was picked by USAF and the Army to be the JCA supplier, but protests have been filed by losers in the competition, and the Government Accountability Office is looking into them. The Air Force plans to acquire 24 aircraft initially, beginning in 2011, and may buy more if the aircraft proves useful.