In Focus: Stealth in the Nick of Time

Nov. 1, 1986
Washington, D.C., Sept. 26—If the proposition is valid that technologically advancing and proliferating Soviet air defense capabilities threaten to clip the wings of US airpower in the years to come, then stealth technology is arriving just in the nick of time. While the pic­ture they are painting about the de­cline of “conventional” airpower may be too bleak, respected US defense analysts in and out of uniform who do so can undergird their arguments with substantial evidence. The inten­sifying contest between penetrating aircraft and air defenses relying on guided missiles and other weapons is real and rough. Even under the best of circumstances, the imperative of cur­tailing aircraft payload to make room for various ECM and other self-de­fense features exacts a heavy toll in battlefield utility and cost-effective­ness.

Enter low-observables technology (LOT), popularly called “stealth.” If the US manages in the years ahead to stay ahead of the Soviets in masking the inherent emissions and observ­able reflections of its new aircraft, cruise missiles, and other platforms, the 1990s may indeed become the “age of stealth.” In a recently pub­lished article, Krasnaya Zvezda, the newspaper of the Soviet armed forces, acknowledged as much. Un­der the headline “Why the Pentagon Needs Invisibility’ and Stealth,’ Krasnaya Zvezda carps that “the US Administration states with blatant cynicism that [LOT] may become part of the policy of economic attrition’ conducted by US militarist circles and the NATO bloc.”

Marshal of the Soviet Union N. V. Ogarkov, while not referring to “stealth” by name in a Krasnaya Zvezda interview, clearly had LOT in mind when he warned that “this qualitative leap will inevitably entail a change in the nature of the prepara­tion and conduct of operations, which in turn predetermines the pos­sibility of conducting military opera­tions using conventional systems in qualitatively new, incomparably more destructive forms than before.”

The USSR’s frantic reaction to US stealth programs presages a twofold Soviet response, in the view of most US experts. The advent of the first op­erational American LOT vehicles will prompt the Soviets to attempt to de­velop effective defenses against them as well as to field stealth vehicles of their own, which current US radars and radar-guided weapons may have difficulty tracking. While long-term forecasting about the outcome of the impending US-Soviet “stealth” race may be risky, it is clear that the first round has gone to the American side.

Technologically advanced as they are, the latest Soviet fighter-intercep­tors—the MiG-31 Foxhound, MiG-29 Fulcrum, and Su-27 Flanker—are seemingly meant to defeat enemy air­craft through a “first-look, first-shot” advantage. USAF’s advanced tactical fighter (ATF) offers a realistic chance to turn out to pasture the latest gener­ation of Soviet fighters, because its high maneuverability, combined with LOT, promises to deny the Soviets that first-look, first-shot advantage. It is a safe bet in the view of US stealth experts that this country has the abili­ty to widen its early lead in LOT, there­by imposing disproportionate costs, greater uncertainties, new mission re­quirements, and staggering stresses on Soviet forces.

While the persistent Soviet charge that the US stealth programs are meant to put this country into a first-strike posture is hardly credible, LOT is bound to play a major role in the nuclear strategic deterrence equation as well as in conventional warfare roles. The ATB (advanced technology, or “Stealth,” bomber) and the stealth-intensive advanced cruise missile (ACM) that is now in flight test clearly breathe new life into the air-breathing leg of the strategic triad by bolstering its capability to penetrate Soviet de­fenses In the case of the ATB, its stealthiness may make it SAC’s best hope for finding and destroying such imprecisely located targets as the roadmobile SS-25 ICBM and the larger, railmobile SS-24. An addition­al plus that accrues to the ATB is its reusability, which in the case of pro­tracted strategic nuclear warfare—unlikely as that may be—would be in­valuable.

It is also quite clear that such stealthy systems as ATB and ACM will drive up the cost of Soviet air defense significantly and make that task far more difficult. The continued pres­ence in the US inventory of B-52s, B-1 s, and FB-11lis, on the one hand, will force the Soviets to maintain and improve their current SAMs and inter­ceptors for years to come. The US LOT vehicles, on the other hand, will compel the Soviets to come up with a whole new generation of air defense systems that are bound to be ex­tremely costly and, initially at least, only marginally effective. It can be ar­gued plausibly, therefore, that be­cause LOT forces the Soviets to up the ante on the defensive side in a massive, long-term fashion, the Sovi­ets will have to limit their investments in offensive strategic systems that are intrinsically more destabilizing than territorial air defenses.

Lastly, past US willingness to use single integrated operational plan (SlOP) assets for conventional war­fare missions—such as the B-52s in Vietnam—probably suggests to Sovi­et planners that under certain circum­stances this country might use ATBs and ACMs armed with nonnuclear munitions and warheads against tar­gets in the USSR, Eastern Europe, or even at sea. This eventuality is apt to intensify further Soviet efforts to field air defenses against LOT vehicles.

It can also be argued that the prospects of US involvement in low-inten­sity conflicts in the Third World, pos­sibly fomented by Moscow, are great­er than the likelihood of either gener­al nuclear war with the USSR or a Warsaw Pact conventional attack on NATO. In case of contingencies of this type, an ATB that can project power directly from CONUS bases over great distances within hours would provide immeasurable psychological lever­age.

An ATB could fly such missions at medium or high altitudes, thereby re­ducing to close to zero the chance that invaluable crews and valuable air­craft will be lost to such relatively primitive air defense weapons as AAA or hand-held SAMs. With the political and human risks of using conven­tional military force in low-intensity conflict sharply diminished, the cred­ibility of US intervention, and hence the deterrence of such conflicts, obvi­ously is enhanced.

But the “age of stealth” is not likely to dawn without some doctrinal tran­sition pains, in the view of most de­fense analysts. In the case of ATB, SAC faces some fundamental chal­lenges. For one, there is the question of sheltering ATB from the prying sen­sors of Soviet reconnaissance satel­lites in order to preserve the weapon system’s stealthiness. Presumably, the degree of operational security that SAC and the Air Force impose on ATB is affected by assumptions about how much useful information regard­ing LOT the Soviets might glean from their overhead sensors.

If shape, for instance, is crucial to ATB’s stealthiness—and Soviet satel­lites are judged capable of sufficient resolution to detect that shape clearly in three dimensions—SAC might not want to park ATBs in the open. Out-of­-sight sheltering would also make it much harder for the Soviets to track ATB deployments on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, parking 132 ATBs in hangars over their opera­tional life would be neither easy nor cheap.

Another operational security prob­lem that needs to be resolved before ATB achieves operational status in­volves training. While there is every indication that ATB’s mission simula­tors will be quite effective, some air­crew training, in the view of LOT ex­perts, is essential. The resultant op­erational strictures are unprece­dented. SAC’s doctrine with regard to ATB presumably will stipulate special precautions with regard to the take­offs and landings associated with ATB training missions. During daytime at least, there is the acute danger of clandestine photography from relatively close, off-base locations. If that can’t be controlled, then the value of sheltering the aircraft in hangars to hide them from Soviet reconnais­sance satellites, of course, would quickly become moot.

Special precautions also seem to be called for with regard to flying ATB5 in airspace monitored by non­military traffic control radars. Daily exposure of the Stealth bomber’s ra­dar profile to domestic air traffic con­trol radars, over time, might enable advanced signal-processing tech­niques to assemble an identifiable signature. LOT experts are quick to point out that there are ways to over­come this problem, provided the right measures and procedures are in place and relatively free of bugs at the time ATB achieves initial operational capa­bility (IOC). It would seem possible, for instance, to provide ATBs with the means to present magnified, dis­guised, or false signatures for peace­time training missions.

New analyses of measures likely to prevent compromises of ATBS stealth technology also suggest the need for a special watchdog organization to detect, catalog, analyze, and prevent avoidable breakdowns in operational security. These studies also under­score the importance of anticipating countermeasures to the ATB. Essen­tial here may be the creation of a US “LOT Red Team” that would be charged with not only building and testing the most promising counters to ATB that the US defense communi­ty can come up with but doing the same with LOT systems that the Sovi­ets appear to be pursuing. Three spe­cific requirements would seem to en­sue from ATB’s operational security concerns: regular testing of platform signatures; sustained monitoring of operational patterns, practices, and vulnerabilities; and an aggressive, dy­namic search for countermeasures.

Most defense analysts tend to be­lieve that LOT will cause the Air Force to look for new ways of doing busi­ness. Centralized control and strike-force packaging are probably the an­tithesis of such LOT vehicles as ATB that depend on reducing observable signatures to the point of carrying out missions undetected. Hence it would seem preferable, tactically, to operate ATB in very small formations or, better yet, as single units. Another doctrinal challenge associated with ATB stems from the fact that “conventional” communications required for “real-time” control over ATBs operating deep in enemy airspace seem at odds with the aircraft’s need to avoid detec­tion.

In the case of ATBs hunting down imprecisely located targets, such as mobile Soviet ICBMs with nuclear weapons, the wisdom of operating even two Stealth bombers in the same area is questionable in light of poten­tial fratricide from nuclear ordnance. The most plausible mode in which to employ ATB, LOT experts argue, will therefore be as single aircraft operat­ing with great autonomy, in a manner not unlike that for SSBNs, the bal­listic-missile-launching nuclear sub­marines.

USAF’s Role in Libyan Raid

Misunderstandings in Congress and the executive branch about the performance of USAF’s F-ills during the raid on Libya in April 1986 arose from stringent rules of engagement rather than inadequate performance, according to Gen. Bernard Rogers, Commander in Chief of USEUCOM: “The pilots and the weapon systems officers of the F-111s were told in very plain English if there was any doubt about whether or not ‘you have identi­fied the target properly—and that re­ally meant identifying the radar offset point—’or if you have any doubt about your equipment working properly, do not drop your ordnance.’ We had at least two instances in which these in­structions were followed.”

In one instance, General Rogers told a group of Pentagon correspon­dents recently, the weapon systems officer was not sure about the condi­tion of the relevant equipment, and in another, there was a question about proper identification of the offset point. In another case, however, one crew realized too late that the radar offset point for a specific target had been misidentified, with the result that the weapon went astray and dam­aged the French embassy, according to General Rogers. Allegations that the Air Force’s F-111s were brought into play because of interservice rival­ry are “baloney,” he asserted.

Immediately following the go-ahead order for the mission from Washington—which spelled out the specific targets and timing—the se­nior commanders in Europe decided that in order to attack the five targets properly, “we would put the Navy on the targets in the east and the Air Force on the targets in the west. I, for one, was convinced that we had to have carriers as well as F-111s,” according to the USEUCOM Command­er.

The retaliatory strike against Libya had to be planned with several con­tingencies in mind. Had the British refused the use of the F-111s sta­tioned on their soil, General Rogers explained, the raid would have to have been confined to four targets, with the aircraft from one carrier striking two targets in Tripoli and those from the other one going after two targets in Bengasi. Other variables affecting the planning of the mission hinged on overflight rights across France or Spain as well as whether or not a suffi­cient number of tankers could be brought into the theater in time to support the long, circuitous route the F-111s eventually had to fly.

Use of CONUS-based B-52s was not considered in the case of the April 15 mission because “we confined our­selves to assets in the theater,” ac­cording to the SACEUR. He hastened to add, however, that if it became nec­essary to convince Qaddafi of the “virtually unlimited reach” of US air-power in the future, Stateside-based B-52s might well be brought into play.

The F-111s employed in the April 15 raid encountered some difficulties: “We lost one aircraft that we don’t believe had gotten to the target yet. [Another F-111 realized after getting refueled] and dropping off that he was headed in the wrong direction.” Had that pilot tried to turn around and catch up with the other aircraft, “he would have had to go so fast that he [might] not have had enough fuel to go over the target and make it back to the refueling rendezvous. So he didn’t go over the target. These are some of the reasons why we didn’t get all of the targets.” General Rogers added that the F-111s that encountered dif­ficulties were supposed to go after a single target complex.

Asked if from a military point of view he would replicate the April 15 operation or come up with a different approach, General Rogers conceded that “fourteen hours [the flight time of the F-111s] is a hell of a longtime, but it really was a professional perfor­mance,” especially if allowance is made for the teamwork with the tank­er force. Expressing doubt that the US government would ask British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to release the F-ills stationed in En­gland for another strike against Libya, General Rogers said that even if that were to happen, “I am not sure whether I would use [the UK-based] F-111s again or not. It depends on the targets we will select.” At the same time, he pointed out, “the fact is they could do it again.”

The targets inside Libya that were struck “related directly to terrorism,” such as terrorist training camps, ac­cording to the SACEUR. Expressing what he termed a personal opinion, General Rogers said that Qaddafi ought to be made to understand that “if he involves [himself and his coun­try] again in sensational terrorist acts against US personnel or facilities and [if] his fingerprints are found” on these acts, then the US must strike again. “Otherwise, why did we strike the first time?” He explained that he was not talking about “landing the US Marines on the shores of Tripoli, but [recommending] use of the kind of assets that can reach targets within Libya without [having to] put plat­forms over the targets. We have got the B-52s in the US, and [Qaddafi] just has to understand, I think, that he is subject to that kind of treatment again.”

The US, the SACEUR reported, will continue to conduct military exer­cises within Libya’s FIR, or flight infor­mation region, when this nation’s naval carriers are transiting the east­ern Mediterranean. But at this time, the US does not plan to breach what Qaddafi calls the “line of death.” So far as “old Bernie Rogers is con­cerned as CINCEUR and SACEUR, because we obviously are interested in what happens in the North African states along the Mediterranean lit­toral should we have a confrontation in Allied Command Europe, we ought to keep that guy [under stress] all the time.” The punitive strike last April, General Rogers asserted, had telling psychological impact on the Libyan strongman, triggering a “routine of withdrawal and depression that he is just now coming out of.”

ICBM Basing Mode Questions

The Senate Appropriations Com­mittee’s Report on the FY ’87 defense bill stipulates deferral of full-scale de­velopment of the Small ICBM (Midg­etman) by one or two years because of alleged uncertainties about weight, cost, schedule, and deploy­ment details. The committee also rec­ommends corresponding slips in the missile’s initial and full operational capability (IOC and FOC). The Air Force contends that on the basis of progress to date, the program is ready to transition to full-scale develop­ment, assuming a go-ahead decision by the Joint Resources Management Board (JRMB) expected late this fall.

The Chairman of the House Appro­priations Committee’s Defense Sub­committee, Rep. Bill Chappell, Jr. (D-Fla.), told this writer that his panel op­posed the Senate’s position and that Congress should make its decisions on both Midgetman and Peacekeeper without further delays. There is con­cern among some members of Con­gress as well as in the Pentagon that a delay in the Midgetman program might doom this project as well as the chances for deploying the second fifty Peacekeeper ICBMs in an as-yet­-unspecified basing mode.

The Defense Department plans to decide late this year on a Peacekeep­er deployment mode that meets Con­gress’s survivability mandate. Among the deployment modes for the second fifty Peacekeepers currently under consideration by the Air Force is an approach called garrisoned/rail­mobile. A variation on a theme used by the Soviets for their new SS-24 ICBM and on one that the Air Force had first proposed two decades ago, garrisoned/railmobile envisions the deployment of two MX Peacekeeper ICBMs each per railroad train. Three or four trains would be “garrisoned” on individual ICBM bases. Up to seven bases could be involved. Indi­vidual trains would be sheltered in “revetments” dug into hillsides to provide hardness levels comparable to those of the early Minuteman ICBM silos. Two crews, operating in alter­nating shifts and including four launch controllers and about fifteen security troops, would be assigned to each train.

The system would react to strategic warning by moving “off the reserva­tion.” Within several hours after being “flushed,” the fifty railmobile ICBMs could “generate” about 60,000 rail miles, meaning that the Soviets would have virtually no chance of knowing precisely where within the CONUS the missiles might be at a given mo­ment. The railroad cars housing the Peacekeepers would be essentially indistinguishable from regular new railroad cars that US railroads have on order.

The Peacekeeper trains would be able to exit the garrisons in one of several directions. The garrisoned/railmobile concept probably could not respond to tactical warning, be­cause under “quiet” conditions, the crews would not be aboard the trains. The concept presupposes that there will be sufficient warning to generate the system and rules out the possibili­ty of a “strike out of the blue.”