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How the Air Force's 30-Year-Old B-2 Stealth Bomber Looks on the Inside

The National Interest - Sat, 24/07/2021 - 00:12

Kris Osborn

U.S. Military, United States

Despite flying more than 40-hour missions, pilots have no bed and no refrigerator, just two seats in a small cockpit and a small area behind them about the same width as the seat.

Here's What You Need To Remember: So how much longer will the B-2 fly? It is slated to fly alongside the emerging new B-21 Raider stealth bomber as it starts arriving in the mid 2020s, and ultimately retire. However, given its current trajectory and combat effectiveness, it seems entirely reasonable to speculate 2040? Perhaps 2050? We’ll see, the Air Force does not discuss this much.

(Washington, D.C.) Slicing through the sky with bat-like wings, eluding enemy radar with stealth technology, quietly destroying enemy air defenses from 50,000 ft and using computers to merge sensor data with targeting information -- the Air Force’s B-2 bomber … has been in the air attacking targets for “30-Years.”

“You pull up the weapons suite screen, align the right weapon with the target and provide input into the DEP - Digital Entry Panel. Then, you enter text into the computer,” Lt. Col. Nicola Polidar, Commander of Detachment 5 of the 29th Training Systems Squadron, told Warrior in an interview.

As this happens….the air attack begins.

The B-2 took its first flight July 17, 1989 -- so now is the “30-Year Anniversary.” 

B-2 pilots have operated the sleek, curved air-defense-defying platform for sensitive, highly-dangerous missions many times in recent decades. After blasting onto the scene in the early 90s, the B-2s combat debut came in the late 90s when the aircraft destroyed Serbian targets over Kosovo. Three decades ago, the Air Force and Northrop Grumman thought to massively advance the paradigm for stealth attack, and create a first-of-its kind leap ahead bomber. It was conceived of as a Cold War weapon, engineered to knock out Soviet advanced air defenses. The intent was to build upon and surpass the F-117 Night Hawk’s stealth technology used in the Gulf War.

The B-2s stealth configuration, buried engine, low heat signature and “radar absorbent” coating, is meant to not only avoid being hit by enemy weapons, but complete missions without enemies ever knowing it is there. Its core mission: launch secret, quiet, undetected attacks over heavily defended enemy territory to create a safer “air corridor” for less stealthy planes to operate within extremely lethal,otherwise uninhabitable airspace.

Weapons selection, navigational data and intelligence analysis are all controlled by a human pilot, operating a digital display, computer screen and fire control system in the sky.

“We have eight displays and we are able to pull up different information depending upon which buttons we push. We can see weapons, communications, flight characteristics, current atmospheric conditions, engines, electrical systems and hydraulics,” Polidar said.

The aircraft, which entered service in the 1980s, has flown missions over Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. Given its ability to fly as many as 6,000 nautical miles without needing to refuel, the B-2 flew from Missouri all the way to an island off the coast of India called Diego Garcia - before launching bombing missions over Afghanistan.

While the original engineering may have come from the 1980s, many upgrades, adaptations and technological improvements have sought to keep the bomber current, relevant and ahead of evolving threats.

“We’ve been through at least 10-plus major modifications, some hardware and some software. The biggest difference in flying the B-2 today is the amount of information flow coming through the cockpit,” Col Jeffery Schreiner, 509th BW Commander and B-2 Pilot, told Warrior in an interview. Schreiner has been involved with the B-2 bomber for more than 15 years.

Managing this massively increased information flow has inspired new B-2 sensors, targeting displays, communications networks and - perhaps of greatest significance - new computer automation and processor upgrades.

“Pilots manage all the different data sources to make good, tactically relevant decisions and maintain situational awareness. Now you can make specific changes and rework sorties in flight,” Schreiner said.

The upgrades involve the re-hosting of the flight management control processors, the brains of the airplane, onto much more capable integrated processing units. This results in the laying-in of some new fiber optic cable as opposed to the mix bus cable previously being used – because original B-2 computers from the 80s could be overloaded with data in a modern war environment, Air Force officials explained.

Schreiner’s strategic view of B-2 modernization plan aligns with what leading service thinkers envision regarding future threats and needed technical adjustments, particularly regarding this need for information and networking. One prominent Air Force strategist, Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, describes this phenomenon in terms of the need for an emerging “combat cloud.” Improved networking technology, coupled with new processing power, enables new sensors and next-generation targeting to destroy newer threats and also maintain operations in the event that one connection is damaged in war.

“The challenge is this whole notion of sharing, and treating ships, vehicles and aircraft as information nodes. This builds robustness and redundancy of the ability to share information,” Deptula told Warrior.

Extending Deptula’s reasoning, it seems apparent that the Air Force modernization approach with the B-2 has, in some ways, managed to anticipate future warfare environments.

One such example of this is the now-in-development B-2 Defensive Management System, a new sensor enabling B-2 crews to identify some dangerous enemy locations and therefore better avert advanced air defences.

An Air Force 2018 acquisition report examines some of the technical adjustments which enable these advanced sensors, stating that the DMS “upgrades the threat warning systems on board by replacing aging antennas, electronics, display system and an autorouter.”

The autorouter introduces what could easily be referred to as a transformative technology for several key reasons; the report describes the autoloader as something “which automates the re-planning of aircraft missions in flight.” This brings several key implications; increased automation lessens what’s often referred to as the “cognitive burden” for pilots. This frees up pilots to focus on pressing combat variables because computer automation is performing certain key procedural functions.

Secondly, by allowing for “re-planning of aircraft missions in flight,” the autorouter brings a sizeable intelligence advantage. Instead of relying upon pre-determined target information, on-board intelligence can help pilots adjust attack missions as targets change and/or relocate.. while in flight. Much of these improvements can be attributed to an ongoing effort to implement a new computer processor into the B-2, a system reported by Air Force developers to be 1,000 times faster than the existing system.

Given their 30-year life span, many may wonder how the B-2s have been maintained and remained combat ready through the decades. B-2 maintainer 2nd Lt. Bruce Vaughn from 131st Maintenance describes it as sustaining the welding, fuselage, tubing and sheet metal. Most of all, he said, it has been crucial to maintain the low-observable components and radar absorbent material. “It involves a lot of painting and materials management. You often apply it like spray paint,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn’s description of the challenges and work required to maintain stealth coating, interestingly, is supported by a 2017 essay from the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, called “Defect-Detection Technologies for Low-Observability Aircraft Skin Coatings.” The paper makes a point to emphasize the importance, and the difficulty, of maintaining stealth materials on an aircraft.

“Due to mechanical trauma, water or other chemical trauma, natural or sunlight- or temperature-accelerated chemical breakdown, etc., an aircraft's low observability coating peels off the substrate, flakes, blisters, cracks, or otherwise undergoes changes in texture or color or both,” the report states.

The essay also explores ways that both ultraviolet and infrared lights can be used to detect wear and tear or anomalies in the stealth coating. Computer algorithms, the paper explains, can also function as an integral part of the process.​

Alongside the coating, there are a handful of additional key variables necessary to preserving stealth. The B-2 not only curved but also entirely horizontal, without vertical structures. This creates a scenario wherein a return electromagnetic ping, or radar signal, cannot obtain an actual rendering of the plane. The exterior is both smooth and curved, without visible seams binding portions of the fuselage. Weapons are carried internally, antennas and sensors are often built into parts of the fuselage itself so as to minimize detectable shapes on the aircraft. By not having protruding objects, shapes or certain vertical configurations such as fins, the bomber succeeds in blinding enemy radar, which is unable to generate enough returning electromagnetic “pings” to determine that an aircraft is there. An indispensable premise of B-2 sustainment is that the aircraft be prepared to succeed in the most “high-threat” or “contested” combat environments likely to exist.

The intent is to not only elude higher-frequency engagement radar, which allows air defenses to actually shoot an airplane, but also elude lower-frequency surveillance radar, which can simply detect an aircraft in the vicinity. Also, stealth aircraft such as the B-2 are built with an internal, or buried, engine to decrease the heat signature emerging from the exhaust. One goal of stealth aircraft thermal management is to try to make the aircraft itself somewhat aligned with the temperature of the surrounding air so as not to create a heat differential for enemy sensors to detect.

The priority, maintainers explain, is to ensure the weapons, electronics, computing and stealth properties are all continuously upgraded. Today’s B-2 could almost be described, in some ways, as an entirely different airplane with the same basic exterior - than it was upon first flight in 1989.

The Air Force currently operates 20 B-2 bombers, with the majority of them based at Whiteman AFB in Missouri. The B-2 can reach altitudes of 50,000 feet and carry 40,000 pounds of payload, including both conventional and nuclear weapons.

One emerging nuclear weapon, now being tested and integrated onto the B-2 is the advanced B-61 Mod 12, an upgraded variant of several different nuclear bombs with integrates their functionality into one weapon. This not only decreases payload but of course multiplies attack options for pilots. For instance, a B-2 could quickly adjust from a point detonate variant of the B-61 Mod 12, to one designed with penetration capabilities, Air Force officials said. Alongside its nuclear arsenal, the B-2 will carry a wide range of conventional weapons to include precision-guided 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, 5,000-pound JDAMs, Joint Standoff Weapons, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles and GBU 28 5,000-pound bunker buster weapons, among others. The B-2 can also carry a 30,000-pound conventional bomb known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a weapon described as a more explosive version of the Air Force GBU-28 bunker buster.

The platform is also preparing to integrate a long-range conventional air-to-ground standoff weapon called the JASSM-ER, for Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, Extended Range.

Despite flying more than 40-hour missions, pilots have no bed and no refrigerator, just two seats in a small cockpit and a small area behind them about the same width as the seat. Pilot’s food, Polidar said, needs to be non-perishable items.

“Sometimes we can bring a little blow-up mattress, put in on the floor and take a nap,” she said.

So how much longer will the B-2 fly? It is slated to fly alongside the emerging new B-21 Raider stealth bomber as it starts arriving in the mid 2020s, and ultimately retire. However, given its current trajectory and combat effectiveness, it seems entirely reasonable to speculate 2040? Perhaps 2050? We’ll see, the Air Force does not discuss this much.

Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

This piece first appeared in 2019 and is being reprinted due to reader interest.

5 Best Planes to Ever Fly from Aircraft Carriers

The National Interest - Sat, 24/07/2021 - 00:00

Sebastien Roblin

Aircraft Carriers,

Designing an airplane that can fly at high speeds lugging heavy weapons loads, and yet still takeoff and land on a short flight deck a few hundred meters long has always posed a formidable engineering challenge.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Despite its flaws, the Phantom proved you could combine speed, heavy payload, advanced sensors, and (eventually) decent agility in one large airplane, a principle which informs modern fourth-generation jets such as currently-serving FA-18E/F Super Hornet.

Designing an airplane that can fly at high speeds lugging heavy weapons loads, and yet still takeoff and land on a short flight deck a few hundred meters long has always posed a formidable engineering challenge. Sea-based fighters typically feature folding wings for easier stowage, ruggedized landing gear and arrester equipment, and greater robustness to endure the wear and tear from sea-based operations. These all literally weigh against the exquisite engineering exhibited by land-based fighters.

Yet since World War II, exceptional carrier-based fighters have repeatedly more than held their own against land-based adversaries.

To quality for this list, the carrier-based-fighter in question must not only have been effective, but also had significant operational impact. This excludes excellent carrier-based jets such as the Super Hornet or Rafale-M which haven’t seen intensive combat employment.

The airplane must also be a ‘fighter’ designed for air-to-air capability airplanes. This leaves out excellent aircraft like the SBD Dauntless dive bomber, A-1 Skyraider and A-4 Skyhawk which were attack planes foremost, even though they had their occasional air-to-air successes.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

The A6M Zero was an elegant fighter designed for the Imperial Japanese Navy by engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Weighing less than 4,000 pounds. The Zero’s 840-horespower radial engine allowed it to traverse a remarkable 1,600 miles on internal fuel, outclimb and outrun many contemporary land-based fighters with a top speed of 346 miles per hour, and still turn on a dime.

When Japan unleashed its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and territories across Asia and the Western Pacific, Zeroes flown by veteran Japanese pilots proved a terror of Allied fighters like the Hawker Hurricane and F4F Wildcat which the Zero outclassed in both speed and maneuverability. Allied pilots spent the first year of the Pacific War developing tactics to cope with the Zero’s capabilities.

However, unlike other successful carrier-based fighters, the Zero failed to evolve at the same pace as its adversaries. Its remarkable performance had been achieved by cutting away almost all armor protection—a design compromise that became increasingly fatal as faster, better-armored Allied fighters entered service with heavier armaments.

Vought F4U Corsair

In 1943, the Grumman F6F Hellcat brought an end to the Zero’s dominance, shooting down hundreds of Japanese aircraft in air battles such as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

However, the Hellcat itself was outlived by the even higher-performing F4U Corsair. The Corsair is notable for its unique gull-winged design, but difficulties landing the “Hogs” caused the Navy to delay its introduction into service—so the Marines snatched them up up by instead. The Corsair quickly proved so succesful that both the U.S. and Royal Navies adopted it into service.

The Corsair’s powerful Double Wasp engine made it fast and deadly, scoring an 11:1 kill ratio versus Japanese fighter pilots, who nicknamed it the “Whistling Death.” It played a vital role in intercepting Kamikaze attacks and providing ground support for Marines in Iwo Jima and Okinawa using napalm cannisters and high-velocity rockets.

Remarkably, the Corsair’s career was only getting started. By the 1950s, Corsairs were back in action over Korea and French-occupied Vietnam, principally used in ground attack roles. However, radar-equipped Corsair night fighters shot down North Korean night intruders. Corsair pilot Guy Bordelon was only the Navy ace of the Korean War, and one Corsair even shot down a MiG-15 jet.

The Corsair’s combat career concluded violently in July 1969, when El Salvador invaded Honduras over a lost soccer game. Both sides operated Corsairs, and a Honduran F4U pilot shot down two Salvadoran Corsairs and a P-51 before the four-day war’s conclusion.

Grumman F9F Panther

The Panther was the first jet successfully integrated into U.S. Navy carrier air wings for long-term service. The slick jet, painted an inky navy blue and packing four twenty-millimeter cannons and flew on hundreds of raids during the Korean War, a dangerous role immortalized in the film The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It quite likely scored the first jet-on-jet aerial kill in history by downing a MiG-15 on November 9, 1950.

Though both powered by similar turbojets based on the Rolls Royce Nene, the straight-wing F9F could only attain 620 miles per hour, compared to the 670 mph of the swept-wing MiG-15. However, that didn’t prevent a lone F9F pilot from downing four Soviet MiG-15s in an whirling air battle over the Sea of Japan in 1952. Like the best naval fighters, the F9F also evolved gracefully over time, developing into a higher-performing swept-wing model called the “Cougar.”

The Harrier (In its Many Incarnations)

There have been many variants of the Harrier built by various manufacturers, but their basic appeal was always the same: their vector-thrust turbofans allowed them to takeoff and land vertically like a helicopter from the deck of a small amphibious carrier or a remote forward bases lacking traditional runways.

This capability came at a price, however. Despite boasting air-to-air capability, Harriers were firmly subsonic jets that would be at a grave disadvantage dueling contemporary supersonic fighter jets. Furthermore, the trickiness of its VTOL engines has caused Harriers to suffer extremely high accident rates.

Yet the Harrier makes the list because its capabilities decisively affected the outcome of Falkland Island War. In addition to twenty-eight carrier-based BAe Sea Harriers, the U.K. hastily converted container ships to carry fourteen land-based Royal Air Force Hawker Harriers. Together these escorted Royal Navy ships and pounded Argentine ground targets.

Argentina flung scores of strike jets at the British fleet, which lay at the extreme of their operational range. Though they might have been equally matched versus the Harrier, the Argentine pilots followed orders to only press the attack on British ships—arguably a mistake. Harrier managed to shoot down roughly twenty Argentine fighters using all-aspect AIM-L Sidewinder missiles. The Argentine pilots endured heavy losses to still sink several ships. But without the deterrence provided by the Harriers, the damage would likely have been far greater.

McDonnell Douglas manufactured AV-8 Harriers also performed well in combat over Afghanistan and Iraq and remains in service with the U.S. Marines and the navies of Spain and Italy. They will be replaced by F-35B jump jets, which despite significant teething and cost issues, promise a tremendous improvement thanks to supersonic flight capability, stealth characteristics, and advanced avionics.

McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom

The F-4 Phantom was a beastly warplane powered by two huge J79 turbojets that could propel it past twice the speed of sound. A rare example of a design successfully used by all three branches of the U.S. military, the two-seat Phantom could detect adversaries and engage them with long-range missiles using its nose-mounted radar, and also carry a heavier bombload than a World War II B-17 bomber.

The Phantom often gets a bad rap for difficulties it faced combatting MiGs over Vietnam related to its lower maneuverability and the ineffectiveness of its early air-to-air missiles. The Navy responded to these problems by instituting the “Top Gun” school which schooled aviators in air combat maneuver theory. Navy Phantom pilots claimed forty MiGs shot down for only seven Phantoms lost in air-to-air combat. Later F-4J and F-4S models operated by the Navy incorporated wing-slats which greatly improved maneuverability and landing performance, though at a slight cost of speed.

Despite its flaws, the Phantom proved you could combine speed, heavy payload, advanced sensors, and (eventually) decent agility in one large airplane, a principle which informs modern fourth-generation jets such as currently-serving FA-18E/F Super Hornet.

And what of the awesome F-14 Tomcat, you ask?

The Grumman F-14 Tomcat of Top Gun fame was indeed a superb air superiority fighter. However, the Tomcat’s saw most of its action as a land-based fighter in the service of the Iranian Air Force.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

This article first appeared in April 2019. It is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Flickr.

How A Chinese Submarine Crew Died a Savage Death: No More Air

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 23:33

Sebastien Roblin

Submarine, Asia

On April 25, 2003 the crew of a Chinese fishing boat noticed a strange sight—a periscope drifting listlessly above the surface of the water.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Only high standards of maintenance, manufacturing and crew training can avert lethal peacetime disasters—standards which are difficult for many nations to afford, but which the PLA Navy likely aspires to it as it continues to expand and professionalize its forces at an extraordinary rate.

On April 25, 2003 the crew of a Chinese fishing boat noticed a strange sight—a periscope drifting listlessly above the surface of the water. The fishermen notified the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) which promptly dispatched two vessels to investigate.

At first the PLAN believed the contact to be an intruding submarine from South Korea or Japan. But when Chinese personnel finally recovered the apparent derelict they realized it was one of their own diesel-electric submarines, the Ming-class 361.

When they boarded on April 26, they found all seventy personnel slumped dead at their stations.

Military commissioner and former president Jiang Zemin acknowledged the tragic incident on May 2, 2003, in a statement honoring the sacrifice of Chinese sailors lives and vaguely characterizing the cause as “mechanical failure.”

A month later, an inquiry by his commission resulted in the dismissal of both the commander and commissar of the North Sea Fleet, and the demotion or dismissal of six or eight more officers for “improper command and control.” Jiang and President Hu Jintao later reportedly visited the recovered submarine and met with the families of the deceased.

The Chinese government is not disposed to transparency regarding its military accidents. For example, it does not release the results of its investigations into jet fighter crashes and it never publicly acknowledged earlier submarine accidents. At the time, some commentators expressed surprise that Beijing acknowledged the incident at all, and speculated it was obliquely related to contemporaneous criticism of Beijing’s attempts to downplay the SARS epidemic.

The Type 035 Ming-class submarine was an outdated second-generation design evolved from the lineage of the Soviet Romeo-class, in turn a Soviet development of the German Type XXI “Electric U-Boat” from World War II. The first two Type 035s were built in 1975 but remained easy to detect compared to contemporary American or Russian designs. Though China operated numerous diesel submarines, due to concerns over seaworthiness, they rarely ventured far beyond coastal waters in that era.

Nonetheless, Chinese shipyards continued to build updated Ming-class boats well into the 1990s. Submarine 361 was one of the later Type 035G Ming III models, which introduced the capability to engage opposing submerged submarines with guided torpedoes. Entering service in 1995, she and three sister ships numbered 359 through 362 formed the North Sea Fleet’s 12th Submarine Brigade based in Liaoning province. You can see them together in this photo.

361 had been deployed on a naval exercise in the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea gulf east of Beijing and Tianjing. Unusually, a senior naval officer, Commodore Cheng Fuming was aboard. In its last ship’s log on April 16, the submarine was practicing silent running while off the Changshang island, heading back to a base in Weihai, Shandong Province.

Because it was maintaining radio silence, the PLAN didn’t realize anything was amiss until ten days later. The method by which 361 was recovered after its presence was reported remains unclear. Several accounts imply the ship was submerged, but the fact that it was promptly towed back to port implies that it had surfaced.

The lack of clear official explanation has led to various theories over the years. The typical complement of a Type 035 submarine is fifty-five to fifty-seven personnel, but 361 had seventy on board. Officially these were trainers, but conditions would have been quite cramped. The presence of the additional personnel and the high-ranking Commodore Cheng leads to the general conclusion that 361 was not on a routine mission.

Indeed, some commentators speculated that the additional crew were observing tests of an experimental Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system which would have offered greater stealth and underwater endurance. As it happens, another Type 035G submarine, 308, was used to test an AIP drive, and Stirling AIP drives would soon equip the prolific Type 041 Yuan-class submarines which prowl the seas today.

Another theory is that leaks allowed seawater to mix with battery acid, forming deadly chlorine gas that poisoned the crew. The Hong Kong Sing Tao Daily claimed the submarine had embarked on a “dangerous” antisubmarine training, and that “human error” led it to nose-down uncontrollably, causing it to get stuck on the seafloor.

However, the most widely accepted explanation today was first published by the Hong Kong Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing newspaper: the crew was suffocated by the sub’s diesel engine.

A conventional diesel electric submarine uses an air-breathing diesel engine to charge up its batteries for underwater propulsion. This is usually done while surfaced—but a submarine attempting to remain undetected can also cruise submerged just below the surface and use a snorkel to sip air. The snorkel is designed to automatically seal up if the water level gets too high.

According to Wen Wei Po361 was running its diesel while snorkeling when high water caused the air intake valve to close—or the valve failed to open properly due to a malfunction. However, its diesel engine did not shut down as it should have in response. You can find what appears to be a translated version of the article here.

Apparently, the motor consumed most of the submarine’s air supply in just two minutes. The crew might have felt light headed and short of breath during the first minute, and would have begun losing consciousness in the second. The negative air pressure also made it impossible to open the hatches. A 2013 article by Reuters repeats this theory as well as mentioning the possibility that was exhaust was improperly vented back into the hull to fatal effect.

Any of these explanations would reflect serious failings in both crew training and mechanical performance.

The recent tragic loss of the Argentine submarine San Juan, the fire raging amongst moored Russian Kilo-class submarines at Vladivostok (a drill, Moscow claims), and the fortunately nonfatal but highly expensive flooding of the Indian nuclear-powered submarine Arihant highlight that despite being arguably the most fearsome weapon system on the planet, submarines remain dangerous to operate even when not engaged in a war. Even brief breakdowns in crew discipline or mechanical reliability can rapidly turn the stealthy underwater marauders into watery coffins.

Only high standards of maintenance, manufacturing and crew training can avert lethal peacetime disasters—standards which are difficult for many nations to afford, but which the PLA Navy likely aspires to it as it continues to expand and professionalize its forces at an extraordinary rate.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National InterestNBC and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.

This article first appeared in 2018. It is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.

The F-35I? America's Most Lethal Stealth Fighter With an Israeli Twist

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 23:09

Sebastien Roblin


Israel took America's fierce fighter and made it even better.

Here's What You Need to Remember: It has become a common practice to create custom variants of fourth-generation jet fighters such as the Su-30, F-15 and F-16 for export clients, made to order with local avionics, weapons and upgrades that suit a particular air force’s doctrine and strategic priorities. Today, Israel operates heavily upgraded F-15I Ra’am (“Thunder”) and two-seater F-16I Sufa fighters.

On May 22, Israeli Air Force commander Amikam Norkin announced that its F-35I stealth fighters had flown on two combat missions on “different fronts,” showing as proof a photograph of an F-35 overflying Beirut. While details on those missions have not been released—apparently, they were not deployed in a massive Israeli air attack on Iranian forces in Syria that took place on May 9—this nonetheless apparently confirmed the first combat operations undertaken by any variant of the controversial stealth jet, which is currently entering service with the militaries of ten countries after undergoing over two decades of development.

In fact, Israel’s F-35I Adir—or “Mighty Ones”—will be the only F-35 variant to enter service heavily tailored to a foreign country’s specifications. There had been plans for a Canadian CF-35, with a different refueling probe and drogue-parachute to allow landing on short Arctic air strips, but Ottawa dropped out of the F-35 program.

It has become a common practice to create custom variants of fourth-generation jet fighters such as the Su-30, F-15 and F-16 for export clients, made to order with local avionics, weapons and upgrades that suit a particular air force’s doctrine and strategic priorities. Today, Israel operates heavily upgraded F-15I Ra’am (“Thunder”) and two-seater F-16I Sufa fighters. Furthermore, Israel in particular hasn’t hesitated to modify aircraft it has already received fit its needs: for example, in 1981 it rigged its then-new F-15A Eagle air superiority fighters to drop bombs, and used these first-ever strike Eagles to destroy the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor.

However, the Lockheed-Martin has mostly refused to allow major country-specific modifications to the F-35, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars foreign F-35 operators contributed to the aircraft’s development. There is, of course, an efficiency-based rationale, given the additional costs and delays of creating country-specific variants, and the fact that Lockheed is struggling to both produce F-35s fast and cheaply enough and build enough spare parts for the hundreds already in service.

Israel, however, managed to carve out an exception. Though not an investor in the F-35’s development, Tel Aviv was nonetheless quick to sign on to the program with an initial order of fifty. It also negotiated a favorable deal in which billions of dollars worth of F-35 wings and sophisticated helmet sets would be manufactured in Israel, paid for with U.S. military aid. Furthermore, depot-level maintenance will occur in a facility operated by Israeli Aeronautics Industries rather than at a Lockheed facility abroad.

The first nine F-35s entered operational service in December 6, 2017, with the 140 “Golden Eagles” Squadron, based at Nevatim Airbase near Be’er Sheva. Six more should arrive in 2018. Israel will eventually activate a second squadron at Nevatim, and retains the option for an additional twenty-five F-35s to form a third squadron, likely based elsewhere. However, recent reports suggest a third squadron may postponed for a decade in favor of buying additional F-15Is, which trade the F-35’s stealth for greater range and payload. Israel has paid a high price of between $110 to $125 million per F-35 for its initial order, but in the future unit cost will supposedly decline to around $85 million.

The first nineteen stealth jets received by Israel will actually be standard F-35A land-based fighters, while the following thirty-one will be true F-35Is modified to integrate Israeli-built hardware. However, most media sources have taken to labeling all of them as F-35Is, and it does appear even the initial batch will be retrofitted with an open-architecture Israeli Command, Control, Communications and Computing (C4) system.

The Lightning’s sophisticated flight computer and ground-based logistics system has become a matter of contention with many F-35 operators. Foreign air forces would like to have greater access to the F-35’s computer source codes to upgrade and modify them as they see fit without needing to involve external parties—but Lockheed doesn’t want to hand over full access for both commercial and security-based reasons.

Israeli F-35Is uniquely will have an overriding Israeli-built C4 program that runs “on top” of Lockheed’s operating system. One of F-35’s key capabilities come from its superior ability to soak up data with its sensors and share it with friendly forces. Compatibility with datalinks used by friendly Israeli air and ground forces is thus an important aspect from Israel’s perspective as it tracks the position of hostile surface-to-surface rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles systems.

The new system will also allow the IDF to install Israeli-built datalinks and defensive avionics systems such as radar-jamming pods. An official told Aviation Week the IAF expects the advantages of the F-35’s low radar cross section will be “good for five to ten years” before adversaries develop countermeasures. There already exist methods for detecting stealth fighters, including long-range infrared sensors, electromagnetic sensors, and low bandwidth radars (though all have significant limitations), and more exotic technologies such as quantum radar are also under development.

Thus, the IDF particularly values the flexibility to install “plug-and-play” defensive countermeasures such as jamming pods as they become relevant and available. It so happens the Israeli firms Elbit and Israeli Aerospace Industries are major developers of such systems. However, due to the F-35’s highly “fused” avionics, such plug-and-play support needs to be built both into F-35 software and apparently even the airframe. The add-ons will be installed in special apertures in the lower fuselage and leading edge of the wings—presumably, features only in the later production F-35Is that arrive in 2020.

Israel is also developing two different sets of external fuel tanks to extend the F-35’s range. The first will be non-stealthy 425-gallon underwing tanks developed by a subsidiary of Elbit—these could be dropped when approaching enemy airspace (the pylons holding the drop tanks would reportedly detach as well so as not to compromise stealth), or used for missions in which stealth isn’t necessary. Further down the line, IAI wants to co-develop with Lockheed bolt-on conformal fuel tanks which “hug” the F-35 airframe so as not to compromise stealth and aerodynamics.

The F-35I will also be certified to carry major Israeli-developed weapons systems in its internal weapons bay, notably including the Python-5 short-range heat-seeking air-to-air missile, and the Spice family of glide bombs, which combine electro-optical, satellite and man-in-the-loop guidance options for greater targeting versatility and have a range of up to sixty miles.

However, country-specific F-35 weapons capabilities are not unique to Israel. British Royal Air Force and Navy F-35s will be compatible with the Meteor and ASM-132 air-to-air missile, while Norway and Australia’s Lightning IIs will be able to carry the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile, reflecting the importance of the sea-control mission for these nations. The United States even would like its NATO partners to purchase F-35s specially modified to deploy B-61 nuclear bombs.

The Adir and Israeli Strategy

Norkin’s announcement of F-35 operations was as much a part of Israeli strategy as the actual deployment of the fighters. Tel Aviv wants potential adversaries (chiefly, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah) to know that its fighters have already proven capable of infiltrating the airspace of neighboring countries, and that its stealth jets could at any moment launch an attack that may go undetected until the first bomb strikes a target.

The F-35 has been criticized for its mediocre flight performance compared to earlier fourth-generation jets, meaning that it would be at a disadvantage in a short-range ai dogfight against enemy fighters. Supporters argue that the F-35 would leverage its stealth, sensors and long-range missiles to avoid getting that close to more agile opponent in the first place, and that the platform is really optimized more for striking targets in defended enemy airspace.

The strike emphasis, however, is just fine with the Israeli Air Force, as since 1948 it has historically mostly trounced its opponents in air-to-air combat, but suffered heavy losses to ground-based air defenses in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since then, Israel jets have continued to face, and mostly defeat, hostile SAMs in scores of raids launched into Lebanon and Syria, though in February 2018 it suffered its first combat loss of a fighter in decades when Syrian S-200 missiles downed an Israeli F-16. Since 2017, there have been rumors of the F-35s involvement in these raids, though most of these rumors were likely inaccurate due to the risk of losing an airframe over hostile territory at this stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu, in power since 2009, clearly favors using military force to suppress Iran’s nuclear research program, having opposed and undermined negotiated settlements. While Tel Aviv basically wants the United States to carry out such an attack, the F-35 makes an Israeli attack on Iran more practical.

However, Israeli aircraft would have to fly through Turkey, or either Jordan and Syria and then Iraq to reach Iranian aerospace over six hundred miles away—and remember, key targets will likely be much further from the border. This also happens test the range limit of most combat-loaded fourth-generation fighters, meaning they would need conspicuous aerial tankers to make the raid viable. Furthermore, Israeli warplanes would have to disable or destroy Iranian air defenses, which would require additional time and aircraft.

Israeli jets violated Turkish airspace in 2007 in order to destroy a nuclear reactor in northern Syria. However a sustained air campaign traversing foreign airspace would be more difficult to execute than a one-time raid. However, the F-35 has a greater combat radius than most fourth-generation jets, due to its inability to carry extra fuel tanks without compromising stealth. Furthermore, it could more easily penetrate Iran’s air defenses, and evade detection by neutral countries, than fourth-generation jets, lowering the necessary size of a strike package.

Over time, Israel will likely acquire additional F-35s, as it intends for the type to replace its fleet of over 320 F-16s, starting with the now very old F-16A Netz aircraft first acquired in 1980s. Reportedly, Israel is even interested in possibly acquiring F-35B jump jets down the line. One usually thinks of F-35Bs as serving from smaller aircraft carriers or island bases, but Israel sees role for jump jets by dispersing them to remote improvised airstrips to avoid enemy air-base attacks. This still seems a somewhat extravagant solution to the threat, given that the F-35B is more expensive and has inferior performance to the F-35A for most other purposes. This may explain why an F-35B purchase is allegedly more popular with Israeli politicians than the Israeli Air Force.

Israel has also been a proponent of a two-seat variant of the F-35, which would be convenient for training purposes, and also allow a back-seat Weapon System Officer to manage the F-35s precision-guided weapons while the pilot focuses on flying.

At any rate, the activities of Israel’s Adirs are likely to continue to remain conspicuously in the news, if less so on hostile radars.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. (This first appeared in 2018.)

Image: Reuters.

Fastest Ever: Will the Air Force Get an SR-72 Mach 3 Spy Plane?

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 23:01

Sebastien Roblin

SR-72 Darkstar,

As the military looks for hypersonic weapon systems, Lockheed is talking up a possible new Blackbird. But will they get the funding to build them?

Here's What You Need to Remember: No manned aircraft in operational service has matched the remarkable long-distance Mach 3 cruises of the Blackbird. Until recently, SR-71s simply outran missiles fired at them on photo-reconnaissance missions over North Korea and the Middle East. Now the latest surface-to-air missiles render Mach 3 speeds inadequate to assure survival, but a hypersonic aircraft might again outpace the threats arrayed against it.

Hypersonic weapons—those capable of flying over five times the speed of sound—are the hot new buzz word of defense industrial complexes across the globe. China, Russia and the United States have all vigorously and relatively openly pursued a diverse array of hypersonic weapons programs, adding fuel to the fire of a growing arms race.

While long-range ballistic missiles could already attain hypersonic speeds, they travel in predictable arcs and can be detected well in advance, giving military and political leaders time to react. Furthermore, an increasing number of air defense systems may be at least partially capable of intercepting ballistic missiles.

However, back in 2013 Lockheed executive Robert Weiss caused a stir when he told Aviation Week the aerospace titan was well into developing a hypersonic aircraft—and invoked the legendary SR-71 Blackbird spy plane by dubbing it the SR-72.

No manned aircraft in operational service has matched the remarkable long-distance Mach 3 cruises of the Blackbird. Until recently, SR-71s simply outran missiles fired at them on photo-reconnaissance missions over North Korea and the Middle East. Now the latest surface-to-air missiles render Mach 3 speeds inadequate to assure survival, but a hypersonic aircraft might again outpace the threats arrayed against it.

The SR-72 depicted in Lockheed’s concept art was described as capable of cruising at six times the speed of sound. The challenge, however, lay not so much in designing an aircraft that could attain hypersonic speeds as ensuring that it could also take off and land at slower speeds. The rocket-powered X-15 testbed, which in 1967 recorded the fastest flight by a manned, powered aircraft ever at Mach 6.7, had to be carried aloft and released mid-air by a B-52 bomber!

Weiss told journalist Guy Norris “…all I can say is the technology is mature and we, along with DARPA and the services, are working hard to get that capability into the hands of our warfighters as soon as possible... I can’t give you any timelines or any specifics on the capabilities. It is all very sensitive... We can acknowledge the general capability that’s out there, but any program specifics are off limits.”

Reportedly, Lockheed and the firm Aerojet Rocketdyne made a breakthrough by developing a Combined Cycle engine involving both a turbine for speeds below Mach 3 with a scramjet engaged for hypersonic cruising. A scramjet generates thrust by sucking in air while traveling at supersonic speeds—meaning that a separate engine has to push the airplane to those speeds before the scramjet can engage. The Combined Cycle engine makes the dual-engine approach viable by having the turban and scramjet share the same inlets and exhaust nozzles.

Weiss made clear he hoped Lockheed would receive funding to build an optionally-manned sixty-foot long (jet-fighter-sized) single-engine test-bed aircraft that would cost “only” $1 billion. This would then lead to the development of an operational twin-engine one-hundred-foot-plus SR-72.

In the six years following Weiss’ comments, Lockheed officials continued drawing atypical levels of attention to a supposedly secret program too sensitive to reveal to the public, teasing statements that kinda-sort-of implied they had already built an SR-72 testbed.

For instance, at a science convention in 2018, Lockheed vice president Jack O’Banion stated “Without the digital transformation [of three-dimension design technology], the aircraft you see there could not have been made. In fact, five years ago, it could not have been made.” However, Executive Vice President Orlando Carvalho subsequently said to Flight Global “I can tell you unequivocally that it [the SR-72] has not been built”, claiming O’Banions quotes had been taken “out of context.”

Lockheed’s hyping of a hypersonic aircraft which may-or-may-not already exist seems explicitly intended to build support for additional funding. This may be because it’s pursuing the project with the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA), which focuses on innovative development of cutting-edge technologies often well ahead of capabilities in operational service, rather than fulfilling an Air Force requirement.

While the U.S. Air Force is interested in deploying hypersonic aircraft in the long term, it already knows what it wants in the near future: lots of F-35 stealth fighters (also built by Lockheed) and forthcoming B-21 Raiders flying-wing stealth bombers. As the air warfare branch already can’t procure all the aircraft it wants, carving out funding for a highly-expensive avant-garde concept won’t be easy.

Hypersonic Bomber

The Blackbird’s unique “SR” designation stood for “Strategic Reconnaissance,” reflecting that its job was to penetrate defended airspace on short notice and snap up photos of what was going on below before anyone could move or cover it up. However, the appellation SR-72 is arguably misleading for a number of reasons.

A hypersonic SR-72 would almost certainly be an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—in other words, a drone normally receiving a “Q” designation. To what extent it would rely on man-in-the-loop (which might be susceptible to disruption) or pre-programmed control versus its own autonomous algorithms, remains an interesting question.

Furthermore, while an SR-72 would have an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) role, it would also surely be intended to strike targets with little advancing warning—in other words, it would be a bomber. Traveling around 4,000 miles per hour, a hypersonic bomber could theoretically depart from a base in the continental U.S. to hit targets across the Pacific or Atlantic in just 90 minutes. Unlike the various hypersonic missiles under development, it could then return to base and load up for further sorties.

Weiss stated from the beginning the SR-72 “had strike-capability in mind.” The SR-72 project, in fact, is reportedly an outgrowth of the rocket-powered Falcon HTV-3 hypersonic test-bed, which was associated with America’s Prompt Global Strike program.

However, the cost-efficiency of a hypersonic bomber/spy plane is debatable. It would surely lack stealth characteristics, as the heat generated by travel at such high speeds would make them highly visible to sensors and burn away radar-absorbent materials. Thus adversaries would probably see it coming, even if they had relatively little time to react.

While it might exceed the capabilities of contemporary air defense missiles, the SR-72’s existence would surely further spur the development of surface-to-air missiles capable of engaging hypersonic targets. An SR-72 bomber would also require expensive development of munitions designed for launch at such high speeds.

The Blackbird was retired and not replaced because its ISR capabilities had become niche due to improving spy satellites and because of slow but stealthy long-endurance drones like the RQ-170. Sure, Blackbirds could rapidly penetrate defended airspace, but a stealth drone could do that more slowly but also more discretely, and sustainably orbit an area of interest, delivering real-time video feeds for hours. In fact, the Pentagon’s decision to contract Grumman to build ultra-stealthy long-endurance RQ-180 drones may be perceived as coming at the SR-72’s expense.

The SR-72’s promoters argue that “speed is the new stealth,” reflecting a growing belief in some quarters that improved networked sensors will eventually diminish the survivability of stealth aircraft, making speed once again more prominent as means of defense. Given the Pentagon’s blossoming interest in all kinds of hypersonic weapons, it’s possible Lockheed’s Schrodinger's cat of a hypersonic UAV may attract additional funding. However, that may place it at odds with the stealth-oriented paradigm the Air Force is currently committed to.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared earlier in 2019.

Image: Reuters

War of Words: India Claims It Can See Through Chinese Stealth

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 23:00

Sebastien Roblin


In January 2011, the maiden flight of a large, dagger-like grey jet announced that China had developed its first stealth aircraft—the Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon.”

Here's What You Need to Remember: As long as the PLAAF has only a few dozen J-20s in service, it may make sense to reserve them for hit-and-run tactics and special deep strikes. But as the article in the Diplomat points out, there’s ample evidence the J-20 may be intended to grow into a capable all-rounder that can hold its own in a dogfight.

In January 2011, the maiden flight of a large, dagger-like grey jet announced that China had developed its first stealth aircraft—the Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon.” Six years later, after several substantial revisions, J-20s entered operational service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force.

(This first appeared several years ago.)

As radar-guided missiles from fighters and ground-based launchers threaten aircraft from dozens, or even hundreds of miles away, stealth capabilities are increasingly perceived as necessary for keeping fighter pilots alive on the modern battlefield.

But just how good is the J-20? And what is its intended role? After all, America’s first stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk, was not even really a fighter and lacked any air-to-air capability whatsoever.

The PLA has, true to custom, kept its cards close to the chest, and has not shared performance specifications to the public. Thus, there are broad estimates of the J-20’s top speed (around Mach 2), and considerable-seeming range (1,200 to 2,000 miles), but those remain just that—estimates. For years, analysts even over-estimated the aircraft’s length by two meters. It’s broad but relatively shallow weapons bay can accommodate four to six long-range missiles or bombs, though not munitions with especially heavy warheads.

International observers generally concluded the large twin-engine jet possessed high speed and long operational range, but that the Mighty Dragon lacked the maneuverability necessary to prevail in close engagements with enemy fighters. Relatively modest aerobatic displays in the Zhuhai 2016 and 2018 airshows (you can see some of the latter here) reinforced the narrative in certain quarters that the J-20 isn’t optimized for gut-wrenching air combat maneuvers.

Given the above premises, observers mostly speculate the J-20 would either serve as long-range supersonic strike plane, or a hit-and-run interceptor used to slip past fighter screens and take out vulnerable supporting tanker and AWACS planes.

However, Rick Joe of The Diplomat argues these theories of the J-20’s supposedly specialized role might be a case of group-think, ignoring both design features and statements by Chinese sources suggesting the J-20 was intended as a multi-role fighter with “competitive” dogfighting capability.

For example, a brochure distributed at Zhuhai 2018 explicitly stated the J-20 was capable of “seizing & maintain air superiority, medium & long range interception, escort and deep strike.” In other words, a multi-role fighter.

 “A commonly insinuated premise is that the Chinese aerospace industry was not capable of producing a fifth generation air superiority fighter, and would have to “settle” for a less technically challenging interceptor or striker instead,” Joe argues.

He points out that the lengthy J-20 is still shorter than the Russian Su-35 Flanker-E, one of the most maneuverable jet fighters ever designed. He further cites a 2001 study by Song Wecong, mentor of the J-20 designer Yang Wei, which you can read translated here. Wecong wrote that stealth aircraft “must have the capability to supercruise and perform unconventional maneuvers such as post-stall maneuvers.”

Song concluded the ideal stealth fighter would incorporate canards (a second, small set of wings close to the nose of the plane), leading-edge root extensions (or “strakes,” a thin surface extending where the wing emerges from the fuselages), and S-shaped belly intakes, in order to balance stealth, speed and maneuverability. These are all design characteristics evident in the J-20.

While details on the J-20’s radar remains elusive (presumably a low-probability of intercept AESA radar), it also mounts arrays of electro-optical and infrared sensors with 360-degree coverage, reportedly designed to fuse sensor data to form a common “picture” and even share it with friendly forces via a datalink—technology seemingly modeled on the advanced sensors found on the American F-35. Such sensors could be particularly useful for detecting radar-eluding stealth aircraft.

J-20 pilots also are equipped with helmet-mounted sights that allow them to target high-off-boresight PL-10E heat-seeking missiles within a 90-degree angle of the plane’s nose simply by looking at the target. The short-range missiles are stored in small side-bays but can be cunningly rotated outside prior to launch, as depicted here.

These by no means unprecedented capabilities nonetheless suggest that the J-20 may be designed to hold its own in a close-range encounter, not just sling long-range hypersonic PL-15 missiles from its fuselage bay from dozens of miles away. Particularly when engaging agile fighters, short-range missiles (which might still threaten targets over a dozen miles away) have a much higher probability of a kill—by some estimates, up to 80 percent.

Chinese designers have also expressed interest in incorporating vector-thrust engines in the J-20. These have moving exhaust nozzles to assist in pulling off tight maneuvers. The PLAAF recently acquired Su-35 fighters from Russia with vector-thrust engines, and also reportedly tested domestic vector-thrust turbofans on a J-10B two-seat fighter.

Despite the awesome maneuvers enabled by vector-thrust engines, they are far from being automatically included in modern fighters. This is because they significantly add to weight, cost, and difficulty in minimizing radar cross section (RCS). Moreover, when vector-thrust engines are over-used in combat, they can bleed off energy rapidly, leaving the aircraft sluggish and vulnerable to enemy fighters (as occurred in one exercise in Nevada pitting U.S. F-15s against Indian Air Force Flankers). For this reason, few Western fighters incorporate vector-thrust technology, the F-22 being a notable exception. China’s interest in thrust-vectoring again suggests it sees relevance in agility.

The J-20’s short-range capabilities naturally lead to the question—what exactly happens when two stealth fighters clash? If their stealth qualities are robust, both aircraft may only be able to detect each other within 50 miles or less—at which point air combat maneuvers could prove important. As U.S. stealth aircraft are one of the chief military threats to China, it seems reasonable to assume the J-20 would be designed to have a fighting chance against them.

While the J-20 would likely remain outclassed by the F-22, it could potentially prove a dangerous adversary to the F-35, which is not as optimized for within-visual-range engagements. However, both the F-22 and F-35 are believed to have a significantly lower all-around RCS than the J-20, though the Chinese fighter still appears to be significantly stealthier than the Russian Su-57.

A 2011 analysis by Australian aviation expert Carlo Kopp concluded that J-20 probably had strong stealth from a frontal aspect, but a larger radar cross section (RCS) when scanned from the side or rear—a limitation also found in the Russian Su-57 stealth fighter.

But as the extent and type of the radar-absorbent materials used affect RCS, visual analysis alone cannot determine how stealthy an aircraft is. This has not dissuaded the U.S. Marine Corps from a building a full-scale mock-up of a J-20 in Georgia for study and training purposes. The Indian Air Force has boasted its Su-30 Flankers have tracked J-20s on radar, but as stealth fighters often employ emitters called “Luneburg Lens” to enlarge their RCS on routine flights, and thus conceal their true capabilities, it’s difficult to infer much from this either.

Another issue confusing analysis of the J-20 is that it doesn’t yet have the high-thrust WS-15 turbofans the PLAAF envisioned for them, and are making do with Russian AL-31F engines instead. Even China’s fourth-generation jets have been frustrated by deficient jet engines. The WS-15 generates 23 percent more thrust than the AL-31FN, and would enable the J-20 to super-cruise, or sustain supersonic speeds without resorting to fuel-gulping afterburners. Thus, certain more aggressive projections of J-20 performance, such as a top speed of Mach 2.5, may be premised on engines that have yet to be fully developed.

As long as the PLAAF has only a few dozen J-20s in service, it may make sense to reserve them for hit-and-run tactics and special deep strikes. But as the article in the Diplomat points out, there’s ample evidence the J-20 may be intended to grow into a capable all-rounder that can hold its own in a dogfight.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Wikipedia.

Security Council calls for ‘immediate reversal’ of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot decision on Varosha 

UN News Centre - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:49
The Security Council said in a statement released on Friday that settling any part of the abandoned Cypriot suburb of Varosha, “by people other than its inhabitants, is “inadmissible”. 

Know Before They Go: How Military Spouses Can Prepare for Deployments

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:49

Victoria Kelly


It’s not just the service member who has to prepare for deployment.

It’s not just the service member who has to prepare for deployment. In fact, a spouse staying at home often needs to do just as much, or more preparation. Start early and don’t wait until the last minute (emotions will run high, and you’ll want to have all the practical stuff out of the way). Here is a list of important things to consider before your spouse’s deployment:

Make sure you have all your paperwork in order. This includes: Asking your spouse to create a power of attorney; making a will for both you and your spouse; reviewing your homeowners’ insurance and life insurance; making sure you have flood insurance (I have personally needed this, as have people I know who didn’t live near an ocean); making sure your passport is up to date if you plan on visiting your spouse overseas; collecting birth certificates, car titles, house deeds, marriage licenses, etc. Put all your most important paperwork in one folder or box.

Become a joint account holder on your accounts. You can typically do most transactions with a power of attorney, but if your name is on the account it saves you time and effort. This doesn’t just mean bank accounts. Add your name to the cable, internet, insurance, rent, credit cards, etc. so you can pay these. Make sure the bills are going to your email address, not your spouse’s, so you don’t pay them late, or set up automatic payments.

Know your spouse’s social security number (and write it down somewhere secure).

Know every password (and pin number).

If you don’t already, know where to take the car if it breaks, as it inevitably will.

Talk about care packages. How often will you send them? What kind of things are you allowed to send? What kind of things does your spouse want to receive? This might include subscribing to a favorite magazine and including it in the package once a month. Come up with some ideas ahead of time. Make sure you know your spouse’s mailing address. Also, send this address to friends and family and ask them to commit to sending at least one care package during the deployment; it will mean a lot.

Buy a lot of phone cards.

Make sure they will work on your spouse’s ship or base, because some only accept certain kinds. Sign up for a Skype account too.

Have a copy of your spouse’s orders.

Get your house in order.

Commit an afternoon together to changing all of the batteries in the smoke detector, all hard-to-reach lightbulbs and fixing minor things that are broken. It will make your life so much easier not to worry about that stuff later on.

Make a budget.

Your budget will change during deployment. Make sure you have a household budget for what you will spend at home, and make sure your spouse has a budget for what they can spend on port calls, time off, and expenses on the ship. Discuss how much you want to save during deployment also.

Know who to call.
Do you have a landlord? Does anyone do your yard maintenance? Who is your electrician? Who is your plumber? Who fixes your HVAC? Do you have your spouse’s family’s phone numbers in case of an emergency? Does your neighbor have a copy of your key in case you get locked out of the house?

Know where you’re going in the case of a natural disaster.

I can’t even count the number of times I had to evacuate during tornado and hurricanes warnings. West-coasters will need an earthquake or wildfire plan. Make a list of things you will take with you so you can grab them quickly. Have documents all in one place. Make sure you have pet leashes and tags. Know which hotels accept pets (all Starwood hotels, for example, do).

Have the tough conversations.

It’s not easy, but make sure you discuss worst-case scenarios. What kind of funeral does your spouse want? What is the life insurance policy? Is there a trust for your children? What does your spouse envision for your and your children’s future? Many people going on deployment write a note for their spouses and children to be opened if they don’t make it home.

Have a backup childcare plan.

If you have no family nearby, make sure you have a plan for who will watch your children if there is an emergency and you have to go to hospital, get stuck at work, go into labor if you’re pregnant, or get stuck on a flooded street (it’s happened to me). Talk to your neighbors, babysitters and fellow spouses to compile a list of who you will call for what situations.

Know how to send a Red Cross message.
If there’s a family emergency, the Red Cross can contact your spouse on deployment even when there is no internet access. Put this number if your phone: 1-877-272-7337.

Read more from Sandboxx News:

This article was originally published 8/23/2020

This article first appeared at Sandboxx News.

Image: Flickr.

Like Concealed Carry Revolvers? There Is Nothing Like the Model 66

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:47

Richard Douglas


The model 66 was legendary when it first hit the market in the 1950s.

Here's What You Need to Remember: If you’re in the market for a revolver that is functional and can be used for concealed carry, I cannot recommend the Model 66 enough. It certainly isn’t a Glock, an S&W M&P 20, or other such more modern tech-savvy weapons, but it is one of the most advanced revolvers out there.

The model 66 was legendary when it first hit the market in the 1950s, becoming a staple of U.S. law enforcement for over thirty-five years. The Model 66-8, S&W’s fresh new take on this classic has already become popular due to the original Model 66 having been discontinued in the early 2000s.

Today, we’re going to delve into the big picture of this gun and see if it lives up to the legacy its predecessor left. Let’s go!


The Model 66 had an emphasis on improving the sight quality, with slimmer sights and a red ramp sight that helps improve visibility and target acquisition. In five-shot groupings it measured at the worst 3.25 inch groupings, and at its best 1.25 inch groupings.

At twenty-five yards, the Model 66 can even equal the Sig Sauer P226 Legion and other such magazine-fed, red dot sight-assisted, or modified sidearms, making it viable even in these times. In my experience, the drastic sight improvements have really given this pistol new life in comparison to models from the 1960s–1970s when it was a police-issued weapon.


As with most revolvers, reliability is one of the Model 66’s selling points. A lack of moving parts means less can break on this firearm, but that doesn’t equate to invincibility. When firing magnum rounds specifically for a duration of time, the barrel of a revolver can begin to break down, including the barrel melting.

Overall, reliability is on par with most wheel guns. If you steer clear of Magnum ammo, you’re far less likely to encounter any problems and will find it an extremely reliable revolver that is ideal for concealed carry.


In my experience, the Model 66 is exceptionally smooth-functioning for a double-action revolver and doesn’t feel like a rough wheel gun in hand. The only negative I can place on it handling-wise is the size and blockiness of the Model 66, as those with smaller hands or a lack of familiarity with revolvers will likely struggle to fire this gun effectively. Practice and just getting used to the feel of the 66 can certainly deal with this, but I would not recommend this for those unfamiliar with such weapons.

To me the 66 is moderately easy to handle, but I wouldn’t put it in the same comfort tier as a Glock 19, S&W M&P 20, or other such magazine-fed pistols. In all fairness however, I am not exactly a consistent user of revolvers and this may be due to my lack of experience with them.


At four pounds and 11 ounces, the Model 66’s trigger pull is a perfect balance and like many K-frame revolvers pull easily in-hand. An excessively light trigger for a revolver actually doesn’t feel right from my experience, and the 66 excels at smooth firing because of its exceptional trigger.

Overall this is one of the best triggers I’ve ever felt, and definitely has lightened and smoothed out the trigger pull in comparison to the original models. It would even be an easy trigger for those inexperienced with revolvers to become familiar with and shoot accurately.

Magazine and Reloading 

True to the revolver name, the Model 66 is a six-shooter and only holds six rounds; arguably its most significant downfall. The cylinder action isn’t loose, therefore being quite durable and rugged for those who might not be as gentle with their guns as others.

Reloading is as speedy as could be for a revolver, especially if you’re utilizing a speed-loader. However, it still will be nowhere near as quick as a magazine-fed pistol, clocking it at its fastest near nine seconds. In a fight against a Glock or Sig, this would likely not end well for the Model 66 user not only because of capacity but reload time as well.

Length and Weight 

Coming in at 4.25 inches, the Model 66 is almost hand-made to be a perfect concealed carry revolver. It isn’t so short that accuracy is an issue at mid-range, yet it doesn’t profile when carried to the point you look like you’re hiding something. This makes the gun also very easy to handle, as it’s not too compact nor an excessively long western-style six-shooter.

Surprisingly, the Model 66 is only two pounds in weight, almost a full pound lighter than original models, and being on par with most other modern handguns. For me, this is the ideal weight for this revolver, as it makes recoil controllable while also not making you feel like a rock in your pocket. It is no doubt the lightest revolver I’ve fired, which made it a pleasure to shoot!

Recoil Management 

For me, the recoil of the Model 66 is not bad at all even when firing .357 Magnum. However, the structure and frame of the pistol itself may ‘amplify’ the recoil to those who haven’t used revolvers before but have used magazine-fed pistols. Overall reacquiring your target after firing is great with this revolver, as the recoil doesn’t throw the weapon to either side and keeps you relatively centered when aiming.

Compared to other higher-end revolvers like Ruger, I personally find this to have the best overall recoil. It’s just light enough to make it very manageable especially with great experience and this makes it excellent for a concealed carry revolver where every shot counts.


Running at between $500–$650 dollars, I think this weapon is a steal considering most high-quality revolvers are well over $900. It’s extremely durable, shoots well, and is one of the best revolvers for concealed carry on the market. If there was one wheel gun I had to choose to be on my hip in modern times, this would likely be it. Which brings us to my verdict...

My Verdict?

If you’re in the market for a revolver that is functional and can be used for concealed carry, I cannot recommend the Model 66 enough. It certainly isn’t a Glock, an S&W M&P 20, or other such more modern tech-savvy weapons, but it is one of the most advanced revolvers out there.

When it comes to reliability in revolvers, this gem is the definition of it. It is an absolute must-have for anyone that loves wheel guns, whether as a collector or carrier!

Richard Douglas is a firearms expert and educator. His work has appeared in large publications like The Armory Life, Daily Caller, American Shooting Journal, and more. In his free time, he reviews optics on his Scopes Field blog.

Image: Creative Commons.

Receiving Child Tax Credit Stimulus Checks? You Might Owe the IRS.

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:35

Ethen Kim Lieser

Child Tax Credit,

Tax experts are already warning that those smiles could quickly turn into frowns when tax season rolls around next year.

There were undoubtedly plenty of happy families on July 15 when the Internal Revenue Service began issuing payments from the expanded child tax credits that were approved under President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

But tax experts are already warning that those smiles could quickly turn into frowns when tax season rolls around next year.

This is due to the fact that in some instances, these currently credit-eligible parents must repay the money—a $250 or a $300 payment per child each month through the end of 2021—if their financial situations change this year.

Do keep in mind that the federal government is directed under Biden’s stimulus legislation to issue advance payments of the credit in periodic installments. And since these payments are largely based on the IRS’ estimates on available data—such as income, marital status, and number and age of qualifying dependent children—there could potentially be outdated or inaccurate data that trigger an overpayment of the credits.

In an effort to avoid such a precarious situation, some parents already have decided to opt out of the monthly checks. Be aware that those taking this route could potentially be eligible to collect a one-time lump sum during the 2022 tax season.

There are, however, now some protections in place for the nation’s lower-income parents. Lawmakers were able to pass legislation that states that households making $50,000 or less and joint filers with incomes of $60,000 or less won’t be responsible to repay excess credit payments.

How to Opt Out

For those parents who want to opt out of the payments but haven’t done so, the process is very straightforward. Just make sure to head over to the newly launched Child Tax Credit Update Portal, which will allow “families to verify their eligibility for the payments and if they choose to, unenroll, or opt out from receiving the monthly payments so they can receive a lump sum when they file their tax return next year,” the IRS notes, adding that more features will be included in the Update Portal to make the processing of the credits as smooth as possible.

Babies Born This Year

Another question often brought up by parents is whether babies born this year will make them eligible for the child tax credits. According to the IRS, it appears that they would indeed be eligible for the funds—but do know that there is an extra step involved to claim those credits.

On the aforementioned Update Portal, parents are able to report any changes, such as number of dependents, including those newborns, throughout the year. For those who have yet to file their federal tax returns, they should make sure to utilize the Non-filer Sign-up Tool, which will give the IRS the necessary personal and financial information to properly issue the funds.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Image: Reuters

Modi Rejected an Indian Hero

Foreign Policy - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:24
Danish Siddiqui’s death should have been a moment of national unity. The prime minister made it the opposite.

Tokyo 2020: How Japan’s Moment of Glory Has Become a Millstone for The Economy

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:22

Taku Tamaki

Japan Olympics, Japan

"Japan is back?" Maybe not.

“Japan is back!” declared Shinzo Abe, the then Japanese prime minister, after he made a surprise appearance dressed as Super Mario at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Tokyo 2020 was supposed to be a moment of national glory, a chance to put the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 firmly in the past, and to showcase Japan’s technological pre-eminence in spearheading an environmentally sustainable Olympics.

Yet the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is beginning – a year later than planned – without spectators. As athletes converge on Tokyo, the city is back in emergency restrictions for the fourth time.

The government remains determined to make the games a COVID-secure success. But with Japanese multinationals shying away, infections surging, and costs three or four times higher than the original estimates, it is barely even clear if this spectacle can go the distance.

Great economic hopes

Tokyo 2020 was supposed to be a great economic stimulus, replicating the achievements of Tokyo 1964. It was thanks to hosting that Olympics that Japan invested in infrastructure such as the famous Shinkansen bullet train.

In Tokyo, they built an expressway linking the international airport in Haneda to the centre, and widened some of the city’s major arteries, while an important new highway between Osaka and Nagoya was also opened. These infrastructure improvements helped to bring about the Japanese economic miracle over the next couple of decades.

But this time around, there were signs of trouble long before the pandemic. The main Olympic stadium, which was designed by the late British architect Zaha Hadid, had to be re-designed from scratch as its complex roof structure became too expensive. Instead, the organisers built a stadium at roughly half the cost.

As costs spiralled, the organisers looked at moving some events out of Tokyo to existing venues elsewhere. Not only would this reduce costs, it would help spread the benefits of economic development – in an echo of UK-style “levelling up”.

Just like Britain, Japan suffers from widening inequalities between the capital and the rest of the country. For example, house prices rose 15% in Tokyo between 2002 and 2018 while falling between 5% and 15% everywhere else. Over the same period, the disparity in wages grew from about 20% to more like 35%.

The Japanese regions were sceptical of the whole idea that the Olympics would help level up. Local business people knew that construction projects would still be concentrated around Tokyo, with limited benefits to their regions. There was also talk that demand in Tokyo would cause a supply shock, leaving manufacturers in the regions clamouring for materials.

That particular concern might have been overblown in the end, and some moves did see investment. For example, cycling has been moved to Izu some 125 miles west of the capital, and the city’s velodrome has been upgraded.

Other moves failed, however. Miyagi prefecture in north-east Japan, 250 miles from Tokyo, was considered for rowing and canoe sprinting. This was seen as a way to accelerate the slow pace of reconstruction following the March 2011 earthquake and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

But again financial reality intervened. Disputes over cost-sharing and other logistical issues emerged, and it was decided to hold rowing in Tokyo Bay as originally intended. Another venue in Miyagi is hosting football, while baseball and softball are taking place in Fukushima itself.

Despite such efforts to save money, the government’s estimate for the cost of the Olympics had risen from the initial US$7.3 billion to US$12.6 billion (£5.3 billion to £9.2 billion) by late 2019. Then came the pandemic. Thanks to the postponement, the official estimates are a $22 billion cost, and some are saying it will be nearer US$30 billion. Meanwhile, the huge stimulus from international tourists that the Japanese authorities would have been expecting from the Olympics is no longer happening.

What now?

Even before it began, domestic support for the Olympics was weak, as the wider economic benefits were unclear, especially outside Tokyo. With COVID infections currently accelerating in Japan, and Tokyo particularly badly hit – 4,943 new national cases on July 21, including 1,832 in the capital – the public mood has shifted further against the games. According to a recent survey, 55% of Japanese think the games should not go ahead, and 68% think that infections can’t be controlled by the organisers.

As expected, some athletes arriving into Japan have tested positive, including participants from Uganda and the US, along with British athletes “pinged” on a flight en route to Tokyo as close contacts to people with infections.

The possibility of the games turning into a super-spreader event seems to have prompted Toyota to pull its TV adverts. The leaders of Panasonic, NTT, Fujitsu, NEC and Keidanren, the employers’ association, are skipping the opening ceremony. Increasingly, the idea that there needs to be a trade-off between health and the economy seems to be losing traction.

The Japanese government is still determined to go ahead with the games, despite being warned of accelerating community transmission by its scientific advisers. The fourth Tokyo state of emergency began a few days ago, curbing people’s movements until August 22. Bars and restaurants are having to curtail late-night services as part of the restrictions, inflicting further pain on a sector that has already been hit hardest by COVID. Tokyo’s nightlife is being blamed for the spike, never mind that the government has been unwilling to impose tougher restrictions, claiming it is prevented by the constitution.

In this situation, running a COVID-secure Olympics looks increasingly like a major challenge. With the system of isolation bubbles at the athletes’ village already failing, it brings to mind events on the stricken cruise ship Diamond Princess, where COVID spread like wildfire after it left Yokohama in February 2020.

Just like the UK is trying to plough on with its own plan for opening up the economy as cases surge, it’s only a matter of time before both nations find out whether the supposed trade-off between health and the economy is workable – or is actually a false dichotomy.

 is a Lecturer in International Relations, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Reuters

As Taliban Expand Control, Concerns About Forced Marriage and Sex Slavery Rise

Foreign Policy - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:13
In some Afghan towns, women are fleeing ahead of insurgent takeovers.

Increased jihadist attacks in Burkina Faso spark record-breaking displacement: UNHCR

UN News Centre - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:08
Rising violent attacks by jihadist groups in Burkina Faso are forcing record-breaking numbers of people to flee both inside the country and across international borders, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reported on Friday. 

Believe It or Not, Adolf Hitler Built a Stealth Aircraft

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:04

Sebastien Roblin

History, Europe

The Horten brothers were given the go-ahead to pursue the concept in August 1943.

Here's What You Need to Remember: The Ho 229 might have been a formidable adversary over the skies of World War II, but in truth the plane was far from ready for mass production by the war’s end. While it seems a stretch to claim that the Ho 229 was intended to be a stealth aircraft, there’s little doubt that it pioneered design features that continue to see use in low-observable aircraft today.

Northrop Grumman revealed this year it is developing a second flying wing stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, to succeed its B-2 Spirit. However, it was a pair of German brothers in the service of Nazi Germany that developed the first jet-powered flying wing—which has been dubbed, debatably, “Hitler’s stealth fighter.”

But maximizing speed and range, not stealth, was the primary motivation behind the bat-shaped jet plane.

Walter Horten was an ace fighter pilot in the German Luftwaffe, having scored seven kills flying as wingman of the legendary Adolf Galland during the Battle of Britain. His brother Reimar was an airplane designer lacking a formal aeronautical education. In their youth, the pair had designed a series of innovative tail-less manned gliders.

In 1943, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering laid out the so-called 3x1000 specification for a plane that could fly one thousand kilometers an hour carrying one thousand kilograms of bombs with fuel enough to travel one thousand kilometers and back—while still retaining a third of the fuel supply for use in combat. Such an airplane could strike targets in Britain while outrunning any fighters sent to intercept it.

Clearly, the new turbojet engines Germany had developed would be required for an airplane to attain such high speeds. But jet engines burned through their fuel very quickly, making raids on more distant targets impossible. The Horten brothers’ idea was to use a flying wing design—a tail-less plane so aerodynamically clean it generated almost no drag at all. Such an airframe would require less engine power to attain higher speeds, and therefore consume less fuel.

Flying wing designs were not an entirely new idea and had been used before in both gliders and powered aircraft. During World War II, Northrop developed its own high-performing XB-35 flying wing bomber for the U.S. military, though it failed to enter mass production. Despite the aerodynamic advantages, the lack of a tail tended to make fly wing aircraft prone to uncontrolled yaws and stalls.

The Horten brothers were given the go-ahead to pursue the concept in August 1943. They first built an unpowered glider known as the H.IX V1. The V1 had long, thin swept wings made of plywood in order to save weight. These “bell-shaped” wings compensated for yawing problem. Lacking a rudder or ailerons, the H.IX relied upon “elevons” (combinations of ailerons and elevators) and two sets of spoilers for control. The elevons could be moved differentially to induce roll, or together in the same direction to change pitch, while the spoilers were used to induce yaw.

Following successful tests of the V1 glider at Oranienberg on March 1944, the subsequent V2 prototype was mounted with two Jumo 004B turbojet engines nestled to either side of a cockpit pod made of welded steel tubing. It also featured a primitive ejection seat and a drogue chute deployed while landing, while redesigned tricycle landing gear was installed to enable the plane to carry heavier loads.

The first test flight occurred on February 2, 1945. The manta-shaped jet exhibited smooth handling and good stall resistance. The prototype even reportedly beat an Me 262 jet fighter, equipped with the same Jumo 004 engines, in a mock dogfight.

But the testing process was cut short on February 18 when one of the V2’s jet engines caught fire and stopped mid-flight. Test pilot Erwin Ziller performed a number of turns and dives in an effort to restart the engine, before apparently passing out from the fumes and spiraling his plane into the ground, mortally wounding him.

Regardless, Goering had already approved the production of forty flying wings, to be undertaken by the Gotha company, which mostly produced trainers and military gliders during World War II. The production planes were designated Ho 229s or Go 229s.

Because of the Ho 229’s great speed—it was believed the production version would be able to attain 975 kilometer per hours—it was repurposed to serve as a fighter with a planned armament of two heavy Mark 103 thirty-millimeter cannons. Construction of four new prototypes—numbered V3 throuh V6— was initiated, two of which would have been two-seat night fighters.

However, the Ho 229 never made it off the ground. When American troops of VIII Corps rolled into the factory at Friedrichroda, Germany in April 1945, they found just the cockpit sections of the prototypes in various stages of development. A single pair of corresponding wings was found 75 miles away. The most complete of the four, the V3 prototype, was shipped back to the United States for study along with the wings, and can today be seen under restoration at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the United States Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia.

The Hortens were reassigned to draft specifications for a flying wing jet bomber with range enough to deliver an atom bomb to the east coast of the United States. Their resulting schematics for the Horten H.XVIII “Amerika Bomber” flying wing were never realized, except arguably in the film Captain America.

Was the Ho 229 a stealth fighter?

One word you haven’t seen in this history so far is “stealth”—and that’s because there isn’t any documentation from the 1940s supporting the notion that the flying wing was intended to be a stealth aircraft. And yet, the Hortens had stumbled upon the fact that a flying wing design lends itself to the sort of reduced radar cross-section ideal for a stealth plane.

Reimer Horten moved to Argentina after the war, and in 1950 wrote an article for the Revista Nacional de Aeronautica arguing that wooden aircraft would absorb radar waves. Thirty years later, as the theory behind stealth aircraft became more widely known, Reimer wrote that he had intentionally sought to make the Horten flying wing into a stealth plane, claiming that he had even constructed the airframe using a special radar absorbent mixture of carbon, sawdust and wood glue without notifying his superiors. Two tests were undertaken to determine the presence of the carbon dust, one of which supported his claim and the other that didn’t. In general, historians are skeptical that stealth was a design goal from the outset.

In 2008, Northrop Grumman teamed up with the National Geographic channel to reconstruct a mockup of the Ho 229, which they tested for radar reflection, and then pitted against a simulation of the British Chain Home radar network. Their findings were less than overwhelming—the flying wings would have been detected at a distance 80 percent that of a standard German Bf. 109 fighter.

The Northrop testers stressed that combined with the Ho 229’s much greater speed, this modest improvement would have given defending fighters too little time to react effectively.

But of course, the flying wing’s main feature was always supposed to be its speed, which could have exceeded the maximum speed of the best Allied fighters of the time by as much as 33 percent. Detection time would not have mattered greatly if it could outrun everything sent to intercept it. Furthermore, stealth would have had little usefulness in the fighter role the Ho 229 would actually have assumed, as the Allied daylight fighters ranging over Germany did not benefit from radars of their own.

The Ho 229 might have been a formidable adversary over the skies of World War II, but in truth the plane was far from ready for mass production by the war’s end. While it seems a stretch to claim that the Ho 229 was intended to be a stealth aircraft, there’s little doubt that it pioneered design features that continue to see use in low-observable aircraft today.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in 2016 and is being republished due to reader's interest

Image: Wikipedia.

Why The Army Didn't Want to Say Goodbye to the M1 Rifle

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 22:03

Paul Huard


The M-1 carbine was in the right place at the right time.

Here's What You Need to Remember: The M-1 carbine was an alternative to the venerable M1911 pistol that was a proven man-stopper but demanded a fairly high skill level on the part of the shooter.

A grim-faced U.S. Army major led a group of armed men away from a tropical village he decided not to attack. Wearing jungle boots and olive-drab battle dress, Edwin Brooks grasped a lightweight, reliable, .30-caliber weapon in his right hand as he walked.

It was an M-1 carbine.

The scene could have been anywhere in the South Pacific during World War II or somewhere near the Pusan Perimeter during the Korean War. But Brooks also wore a green beret with a Special Forces flash and he was leaving the then-South Vietnamese village of Ban Me Thuot in 1964, leading the indigenous forces he commanded back to base in an effort to defuse a rebellion.

It’s all on the cover of the January 1965 National Geographic magazine in a photo by writer and photographer Howard Sochurek. Not a single M-16 is anywhere to be seen. The Pentagon had shipped thousands of the new M-16s to U.S. troops including the Special Forces, but in 1964 many Green Berets still preferred the M-1 carbine, the weapon of their fathers’ wars.

What’s more, Brooks’ Viet Cong enemy was almost certainly wielding the more modern Kalashnikov assault rifle. As for the Montagnard tribesman Brooks trained and led, they also were carrying some of the 800,000 M-1 carbines the U.S. sent to South Vietnam during the war.

For more than three decades, the M-1 carbine did more than anyone ever expected it to do. Long overshadowed by the iconic and heavy-hitting M-1 Garand, the M-1 carbine began its existence in 1940 when the Secretary of War issued orders for the development of a lightweight and reliable “intermediate rifle.”

“It was a compromise,” Doug Wicklund, senior curator at the NRA National Firearms Museum in Virginia, told War is Boring. “They called it the ‘war baby,’ the younger sibling of the Garand, and it was for soldiers who were not on the front line, something that they would have a better chance of hitting the enemy and defending themselves with.”

The M-1 carbine was an alternative to the venerable M1911 pistol that was a proven man-stopper but demanded a fairly high skill level on the part of the shooter.

The success of the German Blitzkrieg in 1939 had convinced the Army that rapidly deployed maneuver forces such as airborne soldiers or armored columns could punch through front lines and endanger support troops. In theory, the M-1 carbine never was supposed to replace the Garand as a battle rifle—it was supposed to arm cooks and clerks.

But by 1943, up to 40 percent of some infantry divisions were carrying the carbine as their primary weapon, according to The M-1 Carbine, Leroy Thompson’s brief but thorough history of the weapon’s development and use.

In 1944, the Army modified the weapon to shoot both in semi-automatic and full-auto modes—and called it the M-2. It was one of the nation’s first assault rifles, spitting out bullets at a rate of 900 per minute.

During the same year, the Marines on Okinawa used a version of the M-1 fitted with the first U.S. night-vision gear—the so-called “Sniperscope,” visible in the banner photo at top.

“It was an easier gun to carry than the Garand,” Wicklund said. “It was shorter, it was lighter, it was reliable, it was easier to shoot and easier to clean and it had a 15-round magazine. It was easy to tape two magazines together and get 30 rounds to fire. Stopping power was not there with the carbine, but you could fire it more times.”

Once the United States entered into World War II, the Army issued contracts ramping up production of the M-1 carbine. Eventually, more than six million of the weapons in both semi-automatic and select fire models poured out of factories—two million more than the number of Garands produced during the war.

Winchester was one leading producer, but as American companies turned to war production Inland Manufacturing—a General Motors division and producer of a majority of the weapons—National Postal Meter, IBM and even Underwood Typewriter Co. cranked out hundreds of thousands of the carbines.

During World War II and the Korean War, it was completely possible for the Army to issue a company clerk an Underwood typewriter and an Underwood M-1 carbine.

When German troops received the history-changing MP 44 Sturmgewehr, the Wehrmacht put increased firepower in the hands of small units that could direct fully automatic fire at U.S. troops with an assault rifle. The M-1 Garand, hard-hitting as it was, carried only eight rounds to the MP 44’s 30 rounds contained in a detachable box magazine.

Inland Division produced 570,000 M-2 select-fire carbines as a solution. The weapon has a selector switch on the left side of the receiver and it can hold a 30-round box magazine.

It wasn’t a Sturmgewehr, but it was available. “The U.S. military has always used what it has already,” Wicklund said. “We had it in inventory. They were everywhere.”

It was also the ideal platform for a technological development that presaged how the United States would own the night during future wars.

Late in World War II, the Electronic Laboratories Co. developed active infrared night vision in the form of the Sniperscope, a 20-pound package of telescopic sight, infrared flood light, image tube, cables and power pack.

The scope had a range of around 70 yards and fit both the M-1 and M-2 carbine.

The system not only saw action in the Pacific Theater during World War II but troops used it widely during the Korean War. In nighttime battles, Marines packing carbines with the Sniperscope would fire tracers down on the positions of North Korean and Chinese troops, so machine-gunners could target the enemy with heavier fire.

Once again, the M-1 carbine was in the right place at the right time. One of the reasons the Marines selected it as the weapon of choice for the Sniperscope was the weapon’s modest weight and bulk. The lightweight carbine kept the weight penalty on an already heavy weapon system to a minimum, a boon for the G.I. who had to slog the battlefield with it.

Image: Wikimedia

Russian Tanks Got a Taste of U.S. TOW Missiles in Syria

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 21:56

Sebastien Roblin

Russia, Middle East

In February 2016, Syrian rebels filmed a video of a TOW missile streaking towards a T-90 tank in northeast Aleppo.

Here's What You Need to Remember: When Moscow intervened in Syria in 2015 on behalf the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad, it also transferred around thirty T-90As to the Syrian Arab Army, as well as upgraded T-62Ms and T-72s. The Syrian military could desperately use this armored infusion, as it had lost over two thousand armored vehicles in the preceding years—especially after Syrian rebels began receiving American TOW-2A missiles in 2014.

The interconnected conflicts raging across the Middle East today have amounted to a dreadful human catastrophe with spiraling global consequence. One of their lesser effects has been to deflate the reputations of Western main battle tanks mistakenly thought to be night-invulnerable in the popular imagination.

Iraqi M1 Abrams tanks not only failed to prevent he capture of Mosul in 2014, but they were captured and turned against their owners. In Yemen, numerous Saudi M1s were knocked out by Houthi rebels. Turkey, which had lost a number of M60 Pattons and upgrade M60T Sabra tanks to Kurdish and ISIS fighters eventually deployed its fearsome German-built Leopard 2A4 tanks. ISIS destroyed eight to ten in a matter of days.

While these tanks could have benefited from specific defensive upgrades in some cases, the real lesson to be drawn was less about technical deficiencies and more about crew training, competent morale, and sound tactical employment matter more even than “invulnerable” armor. After all, even the most heavily armored main battle tanks are significantly less well protected from hits to the side, rear or top armor—and rebels with years of combat experience have learned how to ambush imprudently deployed main battle tanks, particularly using long-range anti-tank missiles from miles away.

One exception to the general tarnishing of reputations has been Russia’s T-90A tank, 550 of which serve as Russia’s top main battle tank until the T-14 Armatas fully enters service. The T-90 was conceived in the 1990s as a modernized mash-up the hull of the earlier mass-production optimized T-72, and the turret from the higher-quality (but operationally unsuccessful) T-80. Retaining a low profile and a three-man crew, (the tank’s 2A46M auto-loading cannon takes the place of a human loader), the fifty-ton T-90A is significantly lighter than the seventy-ton-ish M1A2 and Leopard 2.

When Moscow intervened in Syria in 2015 on behalf the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad, it also transferred around thirty T-90As to the Syrian Arab Army, as well as upgraded T-62Ms and T-72s. The Syrian military could desperately use this armored infusion, as it had lost over two thousand armored vehicles in the preceding years—especially after Syrian rebels began receiving American TOW-2A missiles in 2014. The T-90s were spread out between the 4th Armored Division, the Desert Hawks Brigade (composed of retired SAA veterans led by pro-Assad warlords) and Tiger Force, an elite battalion-sized SAA unit specialized in offensive operations.

In February 2016, Syrian rebels filmed a video of a TOW missile streaking towards a T-90 tank in northeast Aleppo. In a blinding flash, the missile detonates. However, as the smoke cleared it became evident that the tank’s Kontakt-5 explosive-reactive armor had discharged the TOW missile’s shaped-charge warhead prior to impact, minimizing the damage. (This fact was perhaps not appreciated by the tank’s gunner, who in the full version of the video clambered out of an already open hatch and fled on foot.) Nonetheless, the video went viral.

While the T-90A is still outgunned by Western main battle tanks, it does sport number of defensive systems particularly effective verses anti-tank missiles that (all but a few) Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks lack—and anti-tank missiles have destroyed far more armored vehicles in recent decades than tank main guns have.

If you look head on at a T-90A you may notice the creepy “eyes” on the turret—a reliable method of distinguishing it from similar-looking modernized T-72s. These are actually infrared dazzlers designed to jam laser-targeting systems on missiles, and glow a terrifying red color when active. The dazzlers are just a component of the T-90’s Shtora-1 active protection system, which can also discharge smoke grenades that release an infrared-obscuring aerosol cloud. Shtora is integrated with a 360-degree laser-warning receiver which automatically triggers the countermeasures if the tank is painted by an enemy laser—and can even point the tank’s gun towards the origin of the attack. The T-90A’s second line of defense comes in the form of plates of Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor, which was designed to detonate prior to a missile impact in order to disrupt the molten jet of its shaped-charge warhead and feed additional metal in its path.

So did the T-90’s reactive armor and Shtora active protection system prove a sure-fire countermeasure verses long-range anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs)?

In a word, no—but you would only know that if you followed the many less well publicized videos depicting the destruction or capture of T-90s by rebel and government forces.
Jakub Janovský has dedicated himself to documenting and preserving recorded armor losses in the Syrian Civil War for several years, and recently released a vast archive of over 143 gigabytes of combat footage from the conflict ranging from atrocities perpetrated by various groups to hundreds of ATGM attacks.

According to Janovský, of the thirty transferred to the Syrian Arab Army, he is aware of five or six T-90As being knocked out in in 2016 and 2017, mostly by wire-guided TOW-2A missiles. (Some of the knocked out tanks, to clarify, may be recoverable with heavy repairs.) Another four may have been hit, but their status after the attack as not possible to determine. Of course, there may be additional losses that were not documented, and there are cases where the type of tank involved could not be visually confirmed.

Furthermore, HTS rebels captured two T-90s and used them in action, while a third was captured by ISIS November 2017. On June 2016, Sham Front rebels knocked out a T-90 with a TOW-2. Drone footage taken afterwards shows smoke rising from the turret hatch, and reveals the T-90’s tell-tale Shtora dazzlers. Another video recorded on June 14, 2016, at Aleppo shows a T-90 pulling a sharp turn and racing for cover behind a building—possibly aware of an incoming TOW missile. However, the T-90 is struck in its side or rear armor. The tank explodes, scattering debris high into the air, but stills continues to roll behind cover.

Another T-90A was either hit by a Russian-built Konkurs (similar to the TOW) or the more powerful laser-guided AT-14 Kornet missile near Khanassar, Syria, wounding the gunner. The crew eventually abandoned the vehicle as a fire spread from the machine gun mount into the vehicle, where it began to cook off the 125-millimeter shells on the carousel-style autoloader. The placement of ammunition in middle of the tank alongside the crew, rather than a separate stowage compartment as in the M1, has long been a vulnerability of Russian tank designs.
Rebels, meanwhile, maintained two T-90s in an abandoned brick factory in Idlib province. In April 2017, of the rebel T-90As, reinforced with sandbags on its armor, apparently went on a rampage assisting rebel forces in recapturing the town of Maarden, according to Russian media. Later, one of the T-90As was recaptured by the government, and the other was knocked out—reportedly, by a T-72 tank using a kinetic sabot round in the side armor.
In October, ISIS captured a 4th Armored Division T-90A near al-Mayadeen in eastern Syria when it ventured alone into a sand storm. Then on November 16, 2017, ISIS ambushed a Tiger Force armored column and apparently blasted a T-90A’s turret clean off its hull and left to rot upside down in the desert. The crew was reportedly killed. However, pro-Assad media claims this was the T-90 captured earlier by ISIS, found to be inoperable, and then destroyed for propaganda purposes.

This not to say the T-90’s defensive systems never worked. In one remarkable incident recorded on July 28, 2016, a T-90 tank near the Mallah farms of Aleppo was struck by a TOW missile, but emerged apparently unscathed from the dust cloud thanks to its reactive armor. As the vehicle frantically scuttled away, the TOW crew smacked it with a second missile—which it apparently survived despite sustaining damage.

Janovský says he is not aware of T-90s being lost to shorter-range weapons, “since the regime rarely used T-90s in close combat, especially after two were captured.” The T-90 has in fact been “relatively successful” in Janovský’s opinion, despite losses due to “overconfidence and poor coordination with infantry, which has been a long term problem of the SAA.”
According to Janovský, the T-90’s most useful feature has actually proven to be its superior optics and fire control computer compared to earlier Russian tanks. “T-90s performed well when they had an opportunity to shoot at rebels from long distance or at night, when modern optics and fire-control computer proved to be a major advantage.” Indeed, the T-90A model began receiving French-built Catherine FC thermal imagers in the mid-2000s.

Of course a small number of T-90s was not going to have a great impact on a sprawling civil war that had been raging for years. However, Janovský still see lessons to be drawn from the situation. “The regime was also lucky that rebels never got any modern ATGM that has top attack mode—which would reliable kill T-90.” Examples such of top-attack weapons include the Javelin missile, and the TOW-2B.

“In my opinion, the major issue with T-90 (and most other modern tanks) is a complete lack of hard-kill Active Protection System [one that shoots missiles down], ideally with 360 degrees coverage, but 270 degrees should be minimum. This not only means that it is vulnerable to being disabled by cheap rocket propelled grenades in urban combat but also from Anti-Tank Guided Missiles fired from unexpected angle. When you consider the range of current ATGMs [typically two to five miles], it will be fairly regular occurrence that you get a side shot opportunity against attacking enemy tank from positions across from the of attacked location.”

Indeed, Russia is reportedly planning to upgrade its T-90As—which are currently less advanced than the T-90MS’s in service with the Indian Army—to a T-90M variant with new hard-kill active protection systems, upgraded reactive armor, and a more powerful 2A82 main gun. Ultimately, the losses in Syria show that any tank—whether T-90, M-1 or Leopard 2—is vulnerable on a battlefield in which long-range ATGMs have proliferated. Active protection systems and missile warning systems are vital to mitigate that danger—but so are careful tactical employment, competently trained crews, and improved cooperation with infantry to minimize exposure to long-range attacks, ward off ambushers, and provide extra eyes on possible threats.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This piece was originally featured in 2018 and is being republished due to reader interest. 

Image: Wikipedia.

Russia’s Akula-class Submarine Is a True Shark

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 21:46

Sebastien Roblin

U.S. Navy, Arctic Ocean

The Soviet Union produced hot-rod submarines that could swim faster, take more damage, and dive deeper than their American counterparts.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Despite the Akula’s poor readiness rate, they continue to make up the larger part of Russia’s nuclear attack submarine force, and will remain in service into the next decade until production of the succeeding Yasen class truly kicks into gear.

The Soviet Union produced hot-rod submarines that could swim faster, take more damage, and dive deeper than their American counterparts—but the U.S. Navy remained fairly confident it had the Soviet submarines outmatched because they were all extremely noisy. Should the superpowers clash, the quieter American subs had better odds of detecting their Soviet counterparts first, and greeting them with a homing torpedo. However, that confidence was dented in the mid-1980s, when the Soviet Navy launched its Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. Thirty years later they remain the mainstay of the Russian nuclear attack submarine fleet—and are quieter than the majority of their American counterparts.

Intelligence provided by the spies John Walker and Jerry Whitworth in the 1970s convinced the Soviet Navy that it needed to seriously pursue acoustic stealth in its next attack submarine. After the prolific Victor class and expensive titanium-hulled Sierra class, construction of the first Project 971 submarine, Akula (“Shark”), began in 1983. The new design benefited from advanced milling tools and computer controls imported from Japan and Sweden, respectively, allowing Soviet engineers to fashion quiet seven-bladed propellers.

The large Akula, which displaced nearly thirteen thousand tons submerged, featured a steel double hull typical to Soviet submarines, allowing the vessel to take on more ballast water and survive more damage. The attack submarine’s propulsion plant was rafted to dampen sound, and anechoic tiles coated its outer and inner surface. Even the limber holes which allowed water to pass inside the Akula’s outer hull had retractable covers to minimize acoustic returns. The 111-meter-long vessel was distinguished by its elegant, aquadynamic conning tower and the teardrop-shaped pod atop the tail fin which could deploy a towed passive sonar array. A crew of around seventy could operate the ship for one hundred days at sea.

Powered by a single 190-megawatt pressurized water nuclear reactor with a high-density core, the Akula could swim a fast thirty-three knots (thirty-eight miles per hour) and operate 480 meters deep, two hundred meters deeper than the contemporary Los Angeles–class submarine. More troubling for the U.S. Navy, though, the Akula was nearly as stealthy as the Los Angeles class. American submariners could no longer take their acoustic superiority for granted. On the other hand, the Akula’s own sensors were believed to be inferior.

The Akula I submarines—designated Shchuka (“Pike”) in Russian service—were foremost intended to hunt U.S. Navy submarines, particularly ballistic-missile submarines. Four 533-millimeter torpedo tubes and four large 650-millimeter tubes could deploy up to forty wire-guided torpedoes, mines, or long-range SS-N-15 Starfish and SS-N-16 Stallion antiship missiles. The Akula could also carry up to twelve Granat cruise missiles capable of hitting targets on land up to three thousand kilometers away.

Soviet shipyards pumped out seven Akula Is while the U.S. Navy pressed ahead to build the even stealthier Seawolf-class submarine to compete. However, even as the Soviet Union collapsed, it launched the first of five Project 971U Improved Akula I boats. This was followed by the heavier and slightly longer 971A Akula II class in the form of the Vepr in 1995, which featured a double-layer silencing system for the power train, dampened propulsion systems and a new sonar. Both variants had six additional external tubes that could launch missiles or decoy torpedoes, and a new Strela-3 surface-to-air missile system.

However, the most important improvement was to stealth—the new Akulas were now significantly quieter than even the Improved Los Angeles–class submarines, although some analysts argue that the latter remain stealthier at higher speeds. You can check out an Office of Naval Intelligence comparison chart of submarine acoustic stealth here. The U.S. Navy still operates forty-three Los Angeles–class boats, though fourteen newer Seawolf- and Virginia-class submarines still beat out the Akula in discretion.         

However, Russian shipyards have struggled to complete new Akula IIs, which are not cheap—one figure claims a cost of $1.55 billion each in 1996, or $2.4 billion in today’s dollars. The struggling Russian economy can barely afford to keep the already completed vessels operational. Two Akula IIs were scrapped before finishing construction and three were converted into Borei-class ballistic-missile submarines. As for the Akula II Vepr, it was beset by tragedy in 1998 when a mentally unstable teenage seaman killed eight fellow crewmembers while at dock, and threatened to blow up the torpedo room in a standoff before committing suicide.

After lingering a decade in construction, the Gepard, the only completed Akula III boat, was deployed in 2001, reportedly boasting what was then the pinnacle of Russian stealth technology. Seven years later, Moscow finally pushed through funding to complete the Akula II Nerpa after fifteen years of bungled construction. However, during sea trials in November 2008, a fire alarm was triggered inadvertently, flooding the sub with freon firefighting gas that suffocated twenty onboard, mostly civilians—the most serious recent incident in a long and eventful history of submarine disasters.

After an expensive round of repairs, the Nerpa was ready to go—and promptly transferred on a ten-year lease to India for $950 million. Redubbed the INS Chakra, it served as India’s only nuclear powered submarine for years, armed with the short-range Klub cruise missile due to the restrictions of the Missile Technology Control Regime. In October 2016, Moscow and New Delhi agreed on the leasing of a second Akula-class submarine, although it’s unclear whether it will be the older Akula I Kashalot or never-completed Akula II Iribis—though the steep $2 billion price tag leads some to believe it may be the latter. This year, the Chakra will also be joined by the domestically-produced Arihant class, which is based on the Akula but reoriented to serve as a ballistic-missile sub.

Today the Russian Navy maintains ten to eleven Akulas, according to Jane’s accounting in 2016, but only three or four are in operational condition, while the rest await repairs. Nonetheless, the Russian Navy has kept its boats busy. In 2009, two Akulas were detected off the East Coast of the United States—supposedly the closest Russia submarines had been seen since the end of the Cold War. Three years later, there was an unconfirmed claim (this time denied by the U.S. Navy) that another Akula had spent a month prowling in the Gulf of Mexico without being caught. The older Kashalot even has been honored for “tailing a foreign submarine for fourteen days.” All of these incidents have highlighted concerns that the U.S. Navy needs to refocus on antisubmarine warfare. In the last several years, Russia has also been upgrading the Akula fleet to fire deadly Kalibr cruise missiles, which were launched at targets in Syria in 2015 by the Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don.

Despite the Akula’s poor readiness rate, they continue to make up the larger part of Russia’s nuclear attack submarine force, and will remain in service into the next decade until production of the succeeding Yasen class truly kicks into gear. Until then, the Akula’s strong acoustic stealth characteristics will continue to make it a formidable challenge for antisubmarine warfare specialists.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

This article first appeared in 2017. It is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Wikipedia.

The Russian Pipeline That Turned Into a Lightning Rod

Foreign Policy - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 21:26
How Nord Stream 2 made everyone in Washington mad at one another.

Kill the Tank: America’s Javelin Missile Is Second to None

The National Interest - Fri, 23/07/2021 - 21:23

Sebastien Roblin


The U.S.-made FGM-148 Javelin is one of the premier portable anti-tank missile systems in the world.

Here's What You Need to Remember: In any case, the Javelin missile remains one of the United States’ most potent systems on the ground, and one that seems set to increase in capability and be deployed on a greater number of platforms Its presence, or absence, on battlefields around the world will remain both consequential and highly scrutinized.

The U.S.-made FGM-148 Javelin is one of the premier portable anti-tank missile systems in the world. It’s also an expensive piece of kit, with each missile typically costing more than the targets it eliminates.

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Still, the infrared guided Javelin has proven itself in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria and has reliable shtick that should work on virtually any tank out there—it hits them on the weak top armor. It’s also exposes its crew to less danger than the typical guided missile system. Because it’s such a lightweight system, it may end up being a first responder on the ground to emergencies that could be described as “massive, unexpected tank invasions”—a scenario the U.S. military could have faced during Operation Desert Shield, when it deployed light infantry to defend Saudi Arabia, and currently fears in the Baltics.

The Javelin is so effective that who the United States sells or gives Javelins to has become a political issue on more than one occasion. Within the U.S. military, the Javelin also looks set to transition from being purely an infantry system to being mounted on vehicles.

So How Does One Throw These Anti-Tank Spears (and Why Are They Powerful?)

The Javelin doesn’t look as sleek and deadly as its name would have you think—it resembles a clunky dumbbell slightly over one meter in length. Fortunately, you don’t need good looks to blow up a tank.

The Javelin’s Command Launch Unit—CLU—has a sophisticated infrared sensor with multiple viewing modes, including 4x optical zoom, a 4x green-lit thermal view, and a 12x narrow-vision zoom activated for targeting. The seeker in the missile even provides a fourth 9x thermal viewing mode. The CLU can therefore serve as a handy scanning device for the infantry. The thermal viewers on the Javelin needs to be cooled off to function well, which theoretically takes 30 seconds, but might take a bit longer if you’re in Baghdad and it’s a breezy 120 degrees at noon. The system also incorporates multiple safeguards to avert or abort accidental launch.

The CLU, when loaded with a missile, weighs in at 50 pounds (most of the weight comes from the missile), and can be fired from a crouch or even seated position. That’s a lot lighter than the wire-guided TOW or other long-range missiles that typically required a heavy tripod. Still, it’s not exactly something you’d want to run a marathon with.

Once the firer acquires a target, locks the infrared seeker on to it and pulls the trigger, the Javelin missile is ejected out of the CLU without using its rocket motor in a “soft launch” creating relatively little back blast. Missile launch back blast not only makes it easy for opposing forces to spot the launcher after firing, but can make launching while inside a confined space (a building) a deadly risk. So the Javelin’s small backblast is very handy for keeping the operator alive. Still, the launch does blow back some gas, so you don’t want to stand directly behind it.

Afterwards, the Javelin’s gunner must… actually, the gunner could play Candy Crush on their cell phone if they wanted to, because unlike most long-range anti-tank missiles, the Javelin is a fire-and-forget system and requires no further input after lunch. The Javelin crew is free to duck into cover and concealment, rather than being forced to remain fixed in place guiding the missile towards the target, as is necessary with Semi-Automatic Command Line-Of-Sight (SACLOS) systems such as the wire-guided TOW or laser-guided AT-14 Kornet.

After launch, a Javelin shoots forward horizontally for a second before its rocket motor ignites and it climbs up 150 meters into the air, known as a “curveball” shot. It’s quite a sight, as you can see in this video.

The missile’s infrared seeker, benefiting from gyroscopes and gimbels, makes adjustments using thrusters to ensure its trajectory leads it to plunge almost vertically onto the infrared signature it was locked onto.

A Javelin fired in this manner will strike the top armor of an armored vehicle, which is generally much thinner than the frontal or even side armor. The Javelin’s 127 millimeter shaped charge warhead is estimated to penetrate the equivalent of 600 to 800 millimeters of Rolled Hardened Armor (RHA), which is not particularly impressive, given that modern tanks now feature composite armor that is extra effective against such warheads. But that doesn’t really matter: it’s still more than enough to penetrate the top armor of anything out there—at least, as long as we don’t consider other defensive system.

One common defense which sometimes does reinforce top armor is explosive-reactive armor (ERA), a layer of explosive bricks covering a tank intended to prematurely detonate the shaped charges used by missiles.

However, the Javelin has a tandem charge warhead designed to defeat ERA using a ‘precursor’ charge at the front of the warhead to take out the local ERA brick, blasting open a gap through which the main warhead can hit the tank’s conventional armor.

The Javelin can also be fired in direct attack mode, useful for hitting targets that are too close for the top attack, or that benefit from top cover, like a bunker or cave entrance. The direct-fire mode could also be effective against low flying helicopters.

One of the Javelin’s few limitations is its range—2.5 kilometers. Though adequate for most combat situations, older missiles like the TOW or Kornet boast ranges of 5 kilometers or more.

Russia is also aware of the Javelin’s capabilities—and their latest tanks feature several countermeasures intended to defeat them. New Relikt and Mechanit ERA systems feature dual layers of radar-triggered ERA plates designed to defeat tandem charge warheads. The Shtora and the newer Afganit Active Protection Systems can also deploy ‘soft kill’ multi-spectral grenades and flares designed to obscure the tank from infrared seekers or divert them to other heat sources.

However, the latest infrared sensors have also improved in their ability to see through obscuring haze and distinguish flares from the original target. And “hard-kill” active defenses designed to shoot incoming missiles down would need to be able to shoot vertically above the tank to tackle a top-attack Javelin—which the new Afganit system on the T-14 tank, with launch tubes nestled at a horizontal angle under the turret, doesn’t seem capable of doing.

So would Relikt-style ERA and soft-kill infrared defenses work against the Javelin? There’s simply no way to know for sure, unless Moscow were suddenly to invite Washington to test its anti-tank missiles against its best tanks in a friendly competition. But given that relations are too frosty for the United States to participate in Russia’s annual tank biathlon, don’t count on that happening.

So Do They Actually Work?

The Javelin was designed in the 70s and 80s, when the leaders of the U.S. military had nightmares about being overrun by endless hordes of Soviet tanks—a fear worsened by the generally poor performance of the M47 Dragon missile in use at the time.

However, the Javelin finally entered service with the U.S. military in 1996 after the Cold War had ended, and first saw action in 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

At the time, the United States was not able to deploy troops in Northern Iraq by land, so it instead air dropped Special Forces and paratroopers that fought alongside Kurdish peshmerga fighters. In the Battle of Debecka Pass, a force of a few dozen Special Forces operators and a larger peshmerga contingent engaged and destroyed an Iraqi mechanized company of over a hundred soldiers. The U.S. force had just 4 Javelin launch units. Nineteen Javelins missiles were fired, seventeen of which hit, destroying two T-55 tanks, eight MT-LB armored personnel carriers, and several trucks. Reportedly, all of the Javelins shots were made at 2,200 meters range or further—close to or exceeding the official maximum range of the weapon—and one hit was even reported at 4,200 meters.

Javelins knocked out several more tanks during the Iraq War, including Type 69 tanks and Lion of Babylon T-72s, none of them cutting edge types. As the conventional phase of the conflict ended, the Javelins main duty soon came to ‘sniping’ smaller, softer targets. The Javelin’s precise targeting scope was ideal for spotting and taking out at long ranges insurgent heavy weapons teams armed with machine guns, missiles, or recoilless rifles, as well as the occasional pickup truck. Other weapons systems available to the infantry lacked the combination of long range and precision.

The irony of using Javelins to destroy pickup trucks and machine guns is that the roughly $80,000 Javelin missiles cost considerably more than the weapon systems they are destroying. This has reportedly has led U.S. forces to at times hold back on using the weapon in Afghanistan. Though considered a ‘lighter’ weapon than the vehicle-mounted TOW missile, significantly larger numbers of TOW missiles have been expended since 2003.

However, given that the United States spends dozens or hundreds of thousands of dollars operating expensive jet fighters dropping pricy smart missiles, or deploying large numbers of ground troops just in order to take out a few insurgents at a time, the relative costs of using Javelins as a sort of heavy sniping weapon may not be that absurd. It’s less likely to cause collateral damage than calling in an artillery strike or dropping a large, laser-guided bomb. And if that strike eliminates in a timely manner an active threat endangering the lives of friendly troops, it could save lives.

One last note of caution when evaluating the Javelin: though it may be a top-tier anti-tank weapon, it has not yet been used in combat against a modern tank, which is not true of the TOW or Kornet missile.

The Future of the Javelin

The Javelin has undergone quite a few upgrades since initial deployment in 1996—let’s take a look at three of the most important ones.

Given that the Javelin has been used primarily to hit soft targets and structures, a new version of the Javelin warhead with a deadlier blast fragmentation has been introduced, designated the FGM-148F. This new warhead is supposedly just as effective against tanks, and no costlier than its predecessors.

The Army has also been funding the development of a Lightweight Command Launch Unit. The new launch system would supposedly be 70% smaller, weigh almost half as much, and feature upgrades including modernized electronics, a new laser pointer, a high-definition color camera, and IR sensors with improved range and resolution.

Finally, a new extended range Javelin has been recently tested capable of hitting targets up to 4.5 kilometers away. This is significant, as one of the chief rationales for keeping the TOW missile as the standard vehicle-mounted anti-tank weapon was its longer range of nearly 5 kilometers. A long-range Javelin would seem to be superior.

Vehicle-mounted Javelins are now in the works. Back in the 90s, the Army reportedly experimented with a Javelin-toting ‘Warhammer’ Bradley but didn’t pursue the project. Recently, however, the U.S. Army has announced it is looking to upgrade half of its standard Stryker wheeled APCs to carry Javelins. (The other half would receive 30 millimeter autocannons). Previously, only specialized M1134 Strykers equipped with TOW launchers had any anti-tank capability.

The move to equip middle-weight personal carriers with effective anti-tank missiles mirrors Russia’s own moves to install deadly Kornet anti-tank missiles on the Epoch turret used in its new families of Bumerang, Kurganets and T-15 Armata (not the T-14) armored personnel carriers.

The Javelin would represent a more flexible weapon than the older TOWs, as the launch vehicle can move immediately out of danger after firing the Javelin. If the upgrade is implemented, even the United States’ lighter armored vehicles will be bristling with anti-tank firepower and the ability to launch precision guided missile attacks.

One interesting question is what will happen to the TOW missile, which is considered a heavier asset assigned to specialized anti-tank platoons. The newer TOW-2B Aero has a top-attack kinetic warhead with a wireless guidance system so that the launch unit is no longer literally attached to the missile—and the operator doesn’t have to remain immobile, though he or she will still need to guide the missile onto the target.

Though the TOW may have lost its advantage in range, it is optically guided rather than infrared-guided and also costs less at around $59,000. Thus, the U.S. military might keep both weapon systems so that no single system of jamming or countermeasures would be effective, and to retain a less costly long-range missile for fighting the kind of insurgent targets it continues to face in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Political Battlefield

The Javelin is one the U.S. military’s most effective, man-portable weapon systems. They’re available to frontline infantry squads in the Marines and Army, and typically a few are stowed inside vehicles in mechanized units.

The United States has sold Javelins both to many NATO countries, including France and the United Kingdom, allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and to Asian-Pacific countries including Australia, Indonesia and Taiwan.

Because of the Javelin’s capabilities, the sale of Javelins is loaded with both political considerations as well as military significance.

For example, the United States has provided 120 Javelin launch units to Estonia and 260 to Lithuania. If the Baltic states were invaded by Russian armor—not truly a likely event, but one much worried about because the small NATO countries would be hard to defend—light infantry wielding Javelins would basically serve as the Baltics’ first line of defense on the ground until NATO mobilized.

When Russia provided military support to separatists in Ukraine, columns of Russian tanks were instrumental in turning back Ukrainian Army offensives and seizing government strongpoints, notably the Donetsk International Airport in January 2015. For hawks like Senator John McCain pushing for the United States to provide direct military aid to Ukraine, Javelin missiles were cited as a key weapon system that might have reversed the Ukrainian Army’s fortunes on the battlefield—and one far more practical to put into action than a main battle tank or jet fighter.

However, providing missiles of undeniably American origin would also have sharply escalated the conflict between the United States and Russia. Unlike the widely exported TOW missiles or various Russian weapon systems, there was no credible way for such weapons to end up in Ukrainian hands without American authorization. Thus: no Javelins for Ukraine.

Theoretically, the same policy applies to various Syrian rebel groups being supplied arms by the United States, including Kurdish groups opposed by Turkey. The United States acknowledges supplying them with older TOW missiles, not Javelins.

But then we have images like this.

In February of this year, Kurdish forces near El Shadadi are seen firing a Javelin missile that destroyed truck-born IED hurtling towards their lines, destroying it before it could hit friendly forces. You can see the action in this clip.

The report of Javelin armed Kurds caused quite a stir, even while the U.S. government insists that it is not arming the rebels with Javelins. This may be disingenuous, or it could be that the Javelin came from a U.S. Special Forces unit operating alongside the Kurds, and the provisioning was ad hoc rather than part of a systematic program. Another possibility is that the Javelin came out of the stocks of a Middle Eastern country sympathetic to the rebels.

The Turkish Land Forces have lost nearly a dozen Patton tanks this year to anti-tank missiles wielded both by ISIS and Kurdish fighters, whom it also opposes. So far, it doesn’t seem any have been hit by Javelin missiles, however.

In any case, the Javelin missile remains one of the United States’ most potent systems on the ground, and one that seems set to increase in capability and be deployed on a greater number of platforms Its presence, or absence, on battlefields around the world will remain both consequential and highly scrutinized.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared several years ago.

Image: Flickr.