Thursday, February 27, 2020

J-CATCH: When attack helicopters shot down fighter jets

It's been long enough to be a fuzzy memory now. But if you look long enough in the corners of Cold War history, you can find the story of when helicopters showed what they can do against fighter jets.

Yes, helicopters can shoot down planes. Even some of the deadliest planes in the world.

J-CATCH (Joint Countering Attack Helicopter) was a series of exercises the US Army and Air Force held in the late 70s that sounds like something a teenager with a flight combat simulator on his computer would try. The Army had its helicopters armed with machine gun pods, meant to approximate the firepower Soviet helicopters. The Air Force jets swept in... and were promptly cut to pieces. The kill ratio in early exercises, which included F-4s and F-15s, was 5:1 in favor of the helicopters.

This exercise, along with the presence of the heavily armed and armored Mi-24 Hind helicopter in the Soviet arsenal, led the United States to develop specific tactics for fighting attack helicopters. The kill ratio swung back in favor of the fighter jets, though it was still lower than one would expect.

Helicopters are considered more fragile than planes. They're much slower, usually carry shorter-range weapons, and aren't designed to combat air superiority aircraft. But J-CRAFT showed that the element of surprise, combined with some Red Team ingenuity to leverage the maneuverability of the helicopters, could turn the tables. It isn't a strategy the United States intends to carry out, but it's a fun piece of history and a demonstration of what asymmetric warfare in the air might look like.

VR in the Air Force

Air Education and Training Command (AETC) has begun a partnership with multiple major commands (MAJCOMs) of the US Air Force to integrate virtual reality technology into aircraft maintenance training, as part of the organization's larger force development mission. The so-called Technology Platform initiative aims to build virtual training hangars to "enable training anywhere and any time." The hangars will be programmed with three-dimensional design series environments for all airframes in the AETC's inventory--meaning they can be used for all aircraft used by the Air Force.

The goal of this initiative is to develop a learning environment that utilizes a combination of virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR), artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. Air Mobility Command was the first MAJCOM with which AETC collaborated; the Air Combat Command, Air Force Reserve Command, and the Air Force Special Operations Command soon followed suit, and more will join as the initiative gathers steam.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kenneth Renfrow, 19th Maintenance Group maintenance qualifications training instructor, uses a virtual reality headset

The 21st Century Space Race

The “Space Race” was, initially, a component of the Cold War that stretched out for decades between the United States and Russia. The infamous pseudo-conflict was defined by nuclear arms race and, more broadly, competition to develop superior technology. The technological advantage required to rapidly achieve spaceflight milestones was seen as necessary for national security and mixed with the symbolism and ideology of the time.

By the early 2000s, the era of the “Space Race” seemed antiquated; the Soviet Union had just collapsed, and the new Russian Federation struggled to regain economic viability. However, in the past decade, Russia has made enormous strides to develop their position in outer space. They notably decided to reinstate an official space force within the broader Aerospace Forces in 2015, a step the United States only took this past year.

Also known as Roscosmos, the modern Russian Space Force’s mission is to: monitor space objects, identify potential threats, prevent attacks from space, launch satellites, and control both military and civilian satellite operations. As such, its primary military purpose within the Aerospace Forces is one of reconnaissance. It is used to inform political leaders and military commanders about missile attacks, ballistic missile defense, and the activities of other in-orbit space vehicles.

For example, it operates the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLOSNASS), a space-based navigational system that provides an alternative for Russian operates to the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS). Notably, however, Russia believes that the active militarization of space is a security threat; though they are advancing reconnaissance technology, they are also determined to prevent the active militarization of space. According to their 2010 military doctrine, Russia wants “an international treaty prohibiting the deployment of any types of weapons in outer space.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed last week that they do not have plans to solve problems in space using weapons.

The United States will now have to assess the reality of the threat that Russian activity in outer space poses before implementing their own policies. The Space Force as it currently exists will be more capable of doing so than those scattered initiatives previously relied upon.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Space Force's First Federal Budget Process

Over the past year the US Air Force has continued to make changes to adjust training and capabilities to the realities of the 21st century. Much of this focus has been in research and development of new technologies that help improve readiness, lethality, and effective decision making among many others. In April of last year, the Air Force submit a new science and technology strategy that highlighted the reforms and developments that would be necessary to maintain technological superiority and military advantages.

One aspect of the shift in strategy is the increasing role of artificial intelligence. AI helps in many aspects of military operations from training soldiers with enhanced work out machines, to autonomous weapons. The Air Force recognizes data in its Annex to the DoD Artificial Intelligence Strategy as "a strategic asset," and has made it their objective to account for this in their policy and standards.

This year we also witnessed the creation of Space Force, the official 6th branch of the military. Fiscal year 2021 is the first federal budget that includes Space Force.  In the first step of the budget process the DoD submit a budget proposal to the President for review asking for 15.4 billion dollars 10.3 of which are for research and development.

While having its own research and development funds are necessary for classified and sensitive technology development, some of this funding would be useful to other researchers outside of the military. Basic research is needed for the development of all technology, including military, and is known for receiving very low amounts of funding. While the Space Force is still in its "early" or "formative" years and threats are minimal, appropriating funds to research that benefits a wider range of initiatives (including the private sector) is possible and should be seriously considered.

Basic research is rarely undertaken by the private sector because it is unlikely that it will lead directly to the commercialization of a product. It should therefore be treated as a public good, something that benefits everyone. The military can benefit from research done by civilians but not necessarily vice versa. While it still can "afford to" because of minimum threat levels, the Space Force should collaborate with civilians and the private sector in its research efforts whenever it can.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

America's Belt & Road is the F-35

Today, February 25th, Australia and the United Kingdom opened the F-35 Reprogramming Laboratory, located at Eglin Airforce Base (AFB) near Valparaiso, Florida. The opening of this joint Australia-UK Reprogramming Laboratory is the latest development in advancing Australia's F-35A Lightning II capacity. Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds stated "The Reprogramming Laboratory produces Mission Data Files (MDFs) while complies information about the operating environment and assets in the area, before being loaded onto the aircraft pre-flight using portable hard drive . . . Combined with the aircraft's advanced sensor suite, this provides the pilot with a clearer battlespace picture." Australia and the UK F-35s will have these MDFs installed; final operational capacity is expected by 2023.

              The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Project originally comprised of nine member nations. The original nine members were all at different tiers within the program: the US as a primary customer and financial backer; The UK is the only Tier One partner; Italy and the Netherland are Tier Two; Tier Three comprised of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Turkey. Despite the removal of Turkey, discussed below, the JSF program has expanded to four more nations—Japan, Israel, South Korea, and Belgium.

This economic and security project has cost over a trillion dollars, and its members encompassed forty-six percent of the global economy. Many liken this project, not without cause, to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Modern fighters require thousands of subcomponents drawn from many different technologies and a complex supply chain. Unsurprisingly, the F-35 comes with considerable logistic and technological headaches foreseeable from the world's first fifth-generation fighter. Yet once a country has several F-35s in its fleet, switching to a less advanced competitor is unappealing. The JSF project goes beyond the economic coercion the BRI is accused of; now, a JSF project member's very security will be reliant on the US for decades to come. Such leverage has already been used. In 2005, the US suspended Israeli access in retaliation for the latter's selling of drone parts to China. Israel quickly stopped those sales. Unfortunately, such coercion seems not to have fared as well against Turkey.

One major critique of the BRI's infrastructure initiatives work to advance the interests and influence of the lead nation, China, by binding smaller states into asymmetric interdependence. However, the JSF Project may do just the same. The JSF is responsible for more than 220,000 direct and indirect jobs in the US, with nearly 1,400 domestic suppliers in forty-five states and Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, while the Australian government claimed the JSF would bring 5,000 jobs and two billion USD in new business to the country by 2023, production jobs are projected to be well below 2,000

Skyhook Origins

William M. Leary's, "Robert Fulton's Skyhook and Operation Coldfeet" discusses the skyhook origins and how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used the technology. The Skyhook was originally called the All American System around the 1930's and 40's. This system was originally designed to quickly pick up service-people behind enemy lines. It used two steel poles and a transfer line. The CIA began using the All American System in 1952. Civil Air Transport (CAT) pilots made rounds in Japan and retrieved a mechanic named Ronald E. Lewis. 

Robert Edison Fulton Jr. was a talented inventor who believed the All American System could improve. Fulton finalized Skyhook in 1958. This improved retrieval system included a harness that was attached to a 500ft nylon line. The harness could also be used for a person or cargo.

So how did it work? The aircraft would fly into the line, which was aimed at a bright marker. The line is then caught between the forks, which were attached on the aircraft's nose. A ballon was then released simultaneously as the sky anchor was secured to the aircraft. The pickup crew is then attached to a J-hook and is pulled onto the aircraft. 

The first human pickup occurred on August 12, 1958. The process experienced some complications, but the person was picked up and on board in six minutes. In 1960, Captain Edward A. Rodgers used Skyhook to pick up mail in Point Barrow, Alaska. 

The CIA has always used Skyhook to extract officers from hostile environments. It is not just used for James Bond and Batman films. The CIA first used Skyhook in 1962 during Operation Coldfeet. The goal was to to extract CIA officers and materials that were in an abandoned Soviet ice station. The ice station was believed to be monitoring American submarines. Operation Coldfeet was successful and brought valuable intelligence.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

355 Ships!

As President Trump’s first term reaches its conclusion and he prepares to run again, his administration focuses on fulfilling promises from the 2016 campaign. One concrete point is Trump’s goal to expand the US Navy’s fleet to 355 ships, an ambition confirmed in several subsequent statements. Congress cemented his aspirations into law in Section 1025 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. 

However, the possibility of building and maintaining 355 manned ships appears increasingly impossible given projected budgets and the Navy’s current rate of development. In the face of an increasingly unachievable goal, many argue that numbers are not the most important metric. For instance, one way out of the numerical dilemma would be to change the way that ships are counted. Technology has provided improved capabilities for unmanned ships; in fact, the Navy has several times attempted to expand the counting methodology but failed in the face of congressional opposition. Defense hawks worry that such changes are merely artifices designed to undercut the Navy.

Some critics argue that the value placed on numbers is wholly misleading, and that capabilities of ships could be a better way to measure the quality of the fleet. However, ship count is more easily understood than fleet capability. Defense hawks cling to the concept of safety and strength in numbers, and so numerical methodology remains the ultimate measure of the size and strength of the Navy, to its detriment.

Criticism and vacillation within the methodology of ship-counting can seem irrelevant; however, the Navy’s inability to meet or circumvent the administration’s demand for 355 ships a worryingly critical failure. Most importantly, by delaying the announcement of the new FSA until the spring, the Navy missed an opportunity to include its results in the new 2021 budget and forfeited the ability to reshape the fleet and meet the standards of the modern national defense strategy. The American fleet risks losing its superior position the longer it struggles to define technicalities of how its forces should be structured.