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From the monthly archives:

December 2010

With all the hoopla about China’s new fifth-gen fighter this week, we asked Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia for his take on how serious a threat the J-20/J-XX  is to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in air-to-air combat and as a competitor on the global fast jet market.

Rumor has it the J-20 is designed to take on the air superiority-focused F-22 Raptor. But remember, now that the F-22 is ending production and is banned for export sales, the F-35 will be the fifth-gen mainstay of the United States and numerous allies.

Here’s what Richard has to say on the matter:

I would gauge a modern combat aircraft’s capabilities by looking at the following features:

1.      Access to offboard space, ground, and air-based sensors, particularly a capable AEW/AWACS system with a well-trained crew and robust data links.

2.      Effective sensor fusion to allow the pilot to make use of all this information, as well as information from onboard sensors.

3.      An integrated EW system.

4.      An AESA radar with a high level of reliability.

5.      Training and doctrine necessary to make effective use of all this data and equipment.  Plenty of flight hours for pilot flight training, too.

6.      Powerful engines (ideally capable of supercruise), with a high mean time between overhaul and failures.

7.      An airframe with low-observable characteristics.

8.      A robust air-to-air refueling capability (equipment, readiness, training).

9.      Sophisticated and reliable precision guided weaponry.

10.  A robust software and hardware upgrade roadmap, to keep this plane effective in 5, 10, and 30 years.

11.  Maintenance procedures in place to keep the plane operating with a high mission-capable rate.  And of course equipment that has been designed with easy access for maintenance and easy access for electronic diagnostic tools, and ideally a sophisticated health-usage monitoring system (HUMS).

This list is not in any particular order of magnitude.  And I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few other key items.

The J-20 offers one item from this list (#7).  I’m not convinced that the PLAAF has any other items from this list, although China seems to be making some progress with #9.

It’s kind of fun to watch the world fixate on this one item (#7).  Then again, I still enjoy air shows, too.  Pugachev’s Cobra maneuver, for example.  Drives the crowd wild.  Relevance to modern combat?  Zero.

As for the F-35, it certainly has its problems, especially regarding the price tag.  But most, if not all, of the customers and partners are sophisticated enough to have a list that’s a lot more comprehensive than the one above.  And I’m sure the appearance of item #7  as a prototype in PLAAF markings affects exactly none of their thinking.

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Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone!

Here’s one more example of new China’s fast modernizing military tech. Smoke coming from the stack of ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag (now the Shi Lang) that’s being rapidly converted into what’s assumed to be China’s first operational carrier. The ship’s come a long way in the last 10 years.

Just last week, Reuters reported that the PLAAN was planning (oh, stupid pun!) to launch the ship in 2011; a full year ahead of U.S. intelligence estimates.

China may be ready to launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011, Chinese military and political sources said on Thursday, a year ahead of U.S. military analysts’ expectations.

Analysts expect China to use its first operational aircraft carrier to ensure the security of its oil supply route through the Indian Ocean and near the disputed Spratly Islands, but full capability is still some years away.

“The period around July 1 next year to celebrate the (Chinese Communist) Party’s birthday is one window (for launch),” one source with ties to the leadership told Reuters, requesting anonymity because the carrier programme is one of China’s most closely guarded secrets.

The Defense Ministry spokesman’s office declined to comment.

The possible launch next year of the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier ‘Varyag’ for training, and testing technology, will be one step toward building an operating aircraft carrier group, analysts said.

The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimates the Varyag will be launched as a training platform by 2012, and China will have an operational domestically built carrier after 2015.

Yes, this is a relatively old ship and it takes years to master the art of effective carrier ops. Still, China is making serious gains in its military technology and we shouldn’t underestimate its learning curve as The Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng points out over at sister site, DoDBuzz.

Here are some more pics of the smoking ship.

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The final version of the OP Topside and COP Kahler — aka Wanat — ambush report has been completed and released. The 274 page report is chock full of great information and detailed accounts of the action and fallout of the attack which killed nine and wounded more than two dozen.

We’ve done a lot of coverage here at Defense Tech about this battle and some of its preliminary findings.

Wanat Final Report

The report’s authors say sure, there could have been more drone passes and eyes in the sky making sure Talib fighters weren’t snooping into the wire. But the outposts did have high rez thermal cameras, LRAS3 scopes and a “robust SIGINT” capability (Prophet?). But when you don’t have boots on the ground or your OP is in a place where those things can’t see, all the million dollar gadgets don’t get you much.

[Continue reading…]

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So it happened, late yesterday the Navy gave out a pair of $430 million contracts for Lockheed and Austal to start work on the first two ships of what should be a split buy of 20 Littoral Combat Ships from both companies.

The service is kicking off the dual buy with a $430 million, fixed-price contract to each company to build one apiece of their ships, followed by an option for both firms to build nine more ships through 2015 for a total of roughly $7.1 billion, according to a Navy announcement. Congress must appropriate cash for the remaining nine ships in each of those five years.

Lockheed makes the Freedom Class LCS while Austal USA makes the Independence Class vessel.

The sea service revealed its hopes to buy both classes of LCS last month, claiming that competition between Lockheed and Austal had resulted in both company’s bids being far lower than what the Navy had expected. Navy officials insist that the split buy will save $2.9 billion over the next five years and allow for the purchase of 10 ships from each class versus 19 of a single class as previously planned.

Money saved by the dual-buy will now be redirected into other shipbuilding programs, according to the Navy.

This leaves a couple of big questions. First, what happens if the Navy decides it wants to install a common combat suite aboard both classes of LCS someday? How much will such a retrofit cost?

Navy and Lockheed officials have so far worked to downplay concerns about this.

[Continue reading…]

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J-20, it’s real and it’s doing high-speed ground runs. More outstanding pics here.

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It looks like this is the week China’s military rapidly advancing military tech keeps getting the limelight . First, we saw pics of the Asian giant’s new stealth fighter. Now, it looks like China is one step closer to fielding ballistic missiles aimed at holding U.S. forces throughout the Pacific at bay.

Adm. Robert Willard, the top U.S. officer in the Pacific said this week that China’s new DF-21D anti-ship balistic missiles, with their 900-mile range, have reached an early operational status.

Apparently, the missiles, widely fretted over in Washington as one of the most serious threats to the United States’ ability to project power in the Pacific (read here, here and here) have reached the equivalent of initial operational capability, Willard said in an interview with the Japanese Newspaper, Asahi Shimbun.

While the U.S. hasn’t seen an “over water” test of the missile, Willard says that the fact that the system is at IOC, means it can likely hit intended targets.

Typically, to have something that would be regarded as in its early operational stage would require that that system be able to accomplish its flight pattern as designed, by and large.

He goes on to say that while the missiles are not yet as serious a threat to American aircraft carriers as submarines are, they do represent one more layer of a complex anti-access, area denial system ranging from advanced surface to air missiles to submarines and the new ballistic missiles which could strike either U.S. allies or its carriers and bases in the region.

The anti-access/area denial systems, more or less, range countries, archipelagos such as Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, so there are many countries in the region that are falling within the envelope of this, of an A2/AD capability of China. That should be concerning–and we know is concerning–to those countries.

While it may be largely designed to assure China of its ability to affect military operations within its regional waters, it is an expanded capability that ranges beyond the first island chain and overlaps countries in the region. For that reason, it is concerning to Southeast Asia, (and) it remains concerning to the United States.

The rise of this type of anti-access technology has caused the Pentagon to beging reevaluating how it will fight a major war under the aegis of the Air-Sea Battle concept, which calls for the Air Force and Navy to figure out how they will work together to overcome such threats.  That plan is being finalized right now, none too soon in light of these latest developments. It remains to be seen whether the concept will me a highly fleshed out plan for fighting in places like the Western Pacific or if it will be a mere vision statement.

One aspect that will likely feature prominently in the Air-Sea Battle concept is the, so-called, family of long range strike systems being eyed by the DoD.

The family of systems idea was launched after Defense Secretary Robert Gates shelved the Air Force’s plan to build a new long range bomber by 2018. Instead, he told the service to look at what capabilities it could develop along with the other services to best overcome advanced enemy air defenses. While some sort of penetrating bomber/electronic attack/intelligence plane may be part of this family, it will also likely include stand-off cruise missiles lauchded by air or sea, and even land based ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets around the globe on very short notice.

While China insists its military tech is being developed for defensive purposes and that China will always work to safeguard “regional peace and stability,” it’s not always clear what that means. For example, China’s military has dramatically increased its penetrations of Japanese airspace, resulting in Japanese fighters being scrambled 44 times this fiscal year; double the total for 2006, according to a different article in Asahi Shimbun.

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Well, some new pics of the supposed J-XX/J-20 Chinese stealth fighter have emerged over at Alert 5. The images give a much better view of the airframe, although, they still don’t reveal the inner workings of the beast. Speaking of beasts, that’s a big fighter. It looks (in my very unscientific photo-analysis) to be a bit longer than an F-22. And who knows what type of engines those are or if they’re capable of thrust vectoring.

Rumor has it that production versions of plane will feature many fifth-gen prerequisites: Glass cockpit with one giant, re-programmable display; thrust vectoring engines, possibly the Chinese-designed 28,000-pound WS-10 engines or Russia’s 30,000-pound Salyut 99M2 engines; it’s also supposed to feature extensive fly by wire controls and a 3D HUD. Again, this is rumint.

[Continue reading…]

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