Forward to the past?

by Chris Chant on 25/10/2010

Call it what you will – asymmetric warfare, irregular warfare, low-intensity warfare and a host of others – the primary characteristic of modern land/air warfare is radically different from that contemplated in the period up to 1989 and the effective end of the ‘Cold War’. Starting in the late 1940s, the ‘Cold War’ was based on the possibility of a large-scale land, sea and air war between the two superpower blocs, namely NATO under US leadership and the Warsaw Pact under Soviet leadership. With its focus on dominance in western and central Europe, the concept of fighting any ‘hot’ war that might develop from the ‘Cold War’ was posited on European and peripheral operations by well armed and basically similar forces using sophisticated weapons. These were largely of the conventional type, with tactical nuclear weapons held in reserve for contingency purposes.

Within this concept, therefore, the development of generations of land and air warfare weapons was focused on main battle tanks, lighter fighting vehicles for the movement and support of infantry, medium and heavy artillery firing increasingly capable ‘dumb’ and ‘smart’ munitions to increasingly lengthy ranges, and a range of ever faster and better equipped tactical warplanes. These last had generally to be capable of holding their own in the air against an enemy’s warplanes, and also of delivering tactically useful loads of ‘dumb’ and ‘smart’ ordnance to strike an enemy protected by advanced battlefield air-defence weapons ranging from small-calibre cannon, via shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and/or heavier cannon turret-mounted on armoured hulls, to surface-to-air missiles. Almost all these surface-to-air weapons were controlled, right down to all but the very smallest types, by computer-based fire-control systems using data provided by optronic or radar target-acquisition sensors together with a laser rangefinder.

To operate and to survive in the face of such air-defence complexes, attack and close support warplanes had to operate at low level and to possess the high speed that would allow them to ‘ingress’ into the target area, acquire their targets and use their increasingly longer-ranged stand-off weapons, and then ‘egress’ from the target area all in the shortest possible time. Only thus, it was reasoned, would very complex and costly warplanes be able to undertake their designated role, use their inbuilt defensive systems to confuse the enemy’s radar, thermal and optronic target-acquisition systems, and exit without suffering catastrophic damage from the enemy’s air-defence complex.

It was in this context that the nations of both the NATO and Warsaw Pact blocs developed their attack and close support aircraft. Each side at first envisaged the use of fighters armed with specialised attack weapons, and more importantly planned and developed specialised attack and close support aircraft. On the NATO side of the putative front line, the primary emphasis was placed from about 1970 on the development of multi-role fighters such as the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon armed with guided air-to-surface weapons (laser-guided bombs and air-to-surface missiles with any of several types of guidance), although there was still scope for specialised older aircraft such as the lightweight Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, the medium-weight SEPECAT Jaguar and, later, heavyweight types such as the Panavia Tornado. There was also room for dedicated attack and close support aircraft such as the BAe Harrier close-support aeroplane and Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II tank-killer and close-support warplane. On the Warsaw Pact side of the line, emphasis was again placed on the use of fighters armed with attack weapons such as HE bombs and air-to-surface unguided rockets, and such fighters were complemented by specialised attack aircraft such as the Mikoyan-Guryevich MiG-27, Sukhoi Su-7 and Su-17, Sukhoi Su-24 and, as the analogue of the A-10, the Sukhoi Su-25.

With the exception of the highly specialised types such as the A-10 and Su-25 with their straight wings and large numbers of hardpoints for the carriage of multiple ordnance items, these aircraft were ‘high-tech’ solutions to the battlefield problem. All had swept wings and performance that was at worst transonic and at best high supersonic.

Many of these warplanes are still in service, but are they worth their continuing procurement and operating costs against an opposition altogether different from that for which they were created? The opposition in today’s asymmetric warfare battle is not the armoured fighting vehicle, artillery and advanced air-defence system, but rather the single man or small group of men armed with rocket-propelled grenades, light automatic weapons up to the medium machine gun and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. Such men travel on foot, or on motorcycles and small vehicles with four-wheel drive. They have only the smallest of logistic tails and are therefore difficult to interdict, wear no uniform, can emerge from and then melt back into the local population at a moment’s notice, and operate in terrain that is often very difficult but which they know well.

Irregular forces of this type are tactically astute, operate among generally supportive civilians, and are now encountered in combat all over the Middle East and Near East, as well as in parts of Africa, South America and the Far East. How can they be tackled by ground forces supported by what the Americans term ‘legacy’ aircraft? The answer can be ‘only very poorly’. Such aircraft are not optimised for the task, and are also maintenance-intensive and fuel-costly. Yet many of the world’s nations seem to be set on a course in which any conflicts, if they become embroiled in such, are and will continue to be of this asymmetric type. Planning for the specification, development, procurement and deployment of warplanes in the near future should reflect this fact, and the political masters of the world’s air forces should demand that their air forces look for ‘lower-tech’ warplanes for use in asymmetric warfare.

Such aircraft may lack the glamour of warplanes with the latest electronics and high supersonic performance, but are cheaper and quicker to design, evaluate, procure, maintain and operate, and most importantly are far better suited to the demands of asymmetric warfare. Aircraft of this type can be intrinsically more rugged than their high-performance counterparts, can operate successfully from smaller and less well developed airfields, and offer the combination of lower performance, greater agility and longer loiter time that makes them more capable of locating and attacking small groups of men in difficult terrain.

There are aircraft of the type already in existence, such as the EMBRAER EMB-314 armed version of the EMB-312 Tucano trainer, and T-6B and T-6C armed versions of the Raytheon T-6A Texan II trainer, but these are better suited to the counter-insurgency role than asymmetric warfare.

The way forward, it seems to me, is to find a conceptual exemplar by looking backward into the period just after World War II, when the US Navy’s premier attack warplane was the single-seat Douglas AD (later A-1) Skyraider, later adopted by the US Air Force. Comparatively large and powered by a single very potent piston engine for a speed of slightly more than 300 mph (480 km/h), the Skyraider was enormously rugged, very versatile and had good range with a significant warload. The aeroplane was armed with four 20-mm cannon in the leading edges of its straight wing, and under this wing and the fuselage had 15 hardpoints for the carriage of a very varied external load of up to 8,000 lb (3630 kg). The Skyraider proved very successful in the Korean War of the early 1950s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Pressurisation is not required as the aeroplane will generally operate at altitudes below 15,000 ft (4570 m). High speed is not needed for the asymmetric warfare role: a speed of about 300 mph (480 km/h) gives the pilot and/or weapons system operator sufficient time to search for and acquire his target optically, line up his aeroplane and then release the selected weapons, yet provides an opposition equipped largely with small arms little time to react effectively. The use of a straight rather than swept wing allows the disposition of the hardpoints in a lateral line that avoids problems of changing longitudinal pitch trim as weapons are released. The straight wing’s large area also lowers the wing loading and thus enhances agility, and provides the greater lifting area that permits the incorporation of a considerable weight of armour protection for the crew and vital systems. Essential sensors could be derived from the light yet highly capable types created for unmanned aerial vehicles, and light yet rugged digital avionics (including a head-up display) could be developed from those used in modern lightplanes. The light attack and close support warplane of the future could be crewed by one or two persons on lightweight ejection seats, and a powerplant of one or two modern turboprop or turbofan engines would be adequate.

It would be important not to ‘gold plate’ the basic design with features not essential to the primary task, and the result could be a reliable and effective warplane of a highly cost-effective nature.

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