The Chinese Evolve UAVs: Why the F-35B is Part of the Response


2013-04-02 In a recent report looking at the evolution of Chinese robotic air systems, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, two analysts associated with the 2049 project provide an overview on developments and projected impacts.

According to the assessment of Ian Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, the PRC is weaving UAVs into its planned projection of power out into the Pacific.

The Evolution of Chinese UAVs

The PLA’s expanding UAV capabilities could complicate U.S. and allied operational planning across the Western Pacific battle space, ultimately impacting upon equities in all service branches.

As a matter of policy, it may therefore be appropriate for the U.S. and allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific to consider placing a greater emphasis on joint regional air and missile defense efforts.

The most economically and politically sustainable place to begin such efforts would be in better defending the air bases the U.S. has in the region. At a minimum, there should be at least one protective shelter for every fighter aircraft parked at Yokota, Atsugi, Iwakuni, Futenma, Kadena, and Guam.

Every regional air base should have a detachment of military engineers for rapid runway repair. And every base should have underground facilities with hardened pilot quarters and logistics stores. These should be fully stocked with spare parts, aviation fuel, water, armaments and other supplies. In this regard, the United States and Japan could learn much from Taiwan. The U.S. should also consider investing in the construction of large air bases on Tinian and Wake Islands in order toassure greater regional access and diversify its power projection portfolio.

Of course, another way to address this is to complicate dramatically the PRC’s ability to operate against the US and its allies operating a distributed force. 

F-35B arrives with two F-18s. The past escorts the present. Credit Photo: Yuma Sun 

As part of deterrence or warfighting you re-shape the expectations of where your forces can operate or how you can re-shape your force packages on the fly.

A suggestion of the way ahead has already been seen in Forager Fury with the initial operations of the Osprey. In our interview with the Commanding Officer of First Marine Air Wing, Major General Owens, the CO highlighted his thinking which certainly would be part of any Chinese push out into the Pacific.

SLD: There is a broader strategic point, which emerges from your exercise and the range and speed of the Osprey and the multiplier effect, which it and the coming F-35Bs could have on Pacific operations.  There are many islands in the Pacific.  With the flexibility and relocation skills evident by the USMC (e.g. with regard to expeditionary airfields), islands can be a useful compliment to amphibious to provide the kind of presence which we may well need in the years ahead.  What is your thinking along these lines?

MG Owens:  This makes sense. We have a relative paucity of amphibious shipping. When I was a young lieutenant and captain, I think we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 amphibious war ships in the Navy inventory.  Right now, we have 28 and they’re spread about as thin as they possibly can be.  We’re running through their lifecycle faster than anticipated, and yet they’re never enough.

Going back to the whole challenge in this AOR is getting to where you need to be with some capability.  Being able to stretch the legs of the aircraft and operate from austere sites is critical.

A good case in point is that we just brought a couple of KC130s back from disaster relief in the Philippines, a typhoon rolled through Mindanao and Palawan a few weeks ago.  And we deployed a couple of KC130s to haul relief supplies from Luzon to Mindanao.

The KC-130J was the aircraft of choice because there was a useable airfield at the southern end, at the affected end.  But had there not been an airfield, which is often the case after tsunamis and typhoons, we could have done the same thing with the Osprey; flown it to Clark Field, operated out of Luzon — loading supplies in Luzon and dropping them to a point landing site in Mindanao supported by KC130s in the air, providing aerial refueling.

And it’s a capability we’ve never had before, and I expect that within the next couple of years, we’ll have an opportunity to demonstrate that the Osprey may be the only aircraft that can get in to an affected area at the distance that we’ll be required to support from.

Whether it be from an intermediate staging base, like Clark or flying directly from MCAS Futenma here in Okinawa.

SLD: So in effect, an airborne infrastructure that allows you to have the reach and range to affect the situation on the ground.

MG Owens:  That is a good way to put it. When we put the KC130 into the mix, we can bring some forward basing capability in the form of the maintenance crews that are required not only for the KC130s, but also for MV22s or whatever else that the tanker can drag to the objective area.

We also are experimenting with a kit that could replace our direct air support center (airborne) the system that we used in the legacy KC130s, which does not fit in a KC130J.

We’re looking at a modernized and upgraded version of that kind of command and control capability that we can put in a KC130J.  And one of brilliant things about the J is it is so capable; we can do that in an aircraft that is still tanker capable.  In other words, it will still have plenty to give in its wing tanks while using the cargo bay, not to hold additional fuel, but to hold the maintenance crews or a command and control capability and so forth.  And it’s one aircraft that can do it all.

And as you know, you can configure that aircraft with the low-speed Drogues to refuel helicopters, or the high-speed drogues for the tactical jets and Ospreys.  In fact, you can put one of each type in one tanker, so that tanker can have the flexibility to fuel both low-speed or high-speed aircraft.

When you add to that the Osprey and its range and speed, you now have a wider selection of landing spots if we needed an intermediate support base.

A good case in point would be when we wish to deploy helicopters from Futenma to the Philippines, there are a couple of places that we must land for fuel.  For one leg, there is only one site, which allows us to do this. But when you have an aircraft with greater range, it opens up more possibilities.

If, in a time of conflict, we were going someplace and an adversary wanted to deny us the ability to put in a refueling point or intermediate support base, they would have to now take into account a much greater number of islands.  With only helicopters, an adversary could draw a 100-mile ring around a base and know where we could operate.

Ospreys, particularly when supported by KC-130Js, would significantly complicate an adversary’s attempts to predict our movements and operations.

And adding the F-35B to the mix will further enhance capabilities to deal with any push out of Chinese power projection forces, including robotically enhanced capabilities.

Ed Timperlake has highlighted in various assessments how the B works into the F-35 as a Pacific fleet to provide for expanded viability for the joint and coalition force.  And such an approach is integral to dealing with the threat, which the authors underscore concerning the evolution of Chinese UAVs.  As Timperlake always argues, in warfare, there is always the reactive enemy.

Too often analysts forget that as competitors like China innovate, so does the United States and its allies.

But strikingly in conversations in the United States, the F-35 is the forgotten piece of the puzzle, although it can be central to the shaping of distributed operations.

In a war at sea, hitting the carrier’s flight deck can cripple the Carrier Battle Group (CBG) and thus get a mission kill on the both the Carrier and perhaps even the entire airborne air wing if they can not successfully divert to a land base.

With no place to land, on the sea or land and with tanker fuel running low, assuming tankers can get airborne, the practical result will be the loss of extremely valuable air assets.

In such circumstances, The TacAir aircraft mortality rate would be the same as if it was during a combat engagement with either air-to-air or a ground –to-air weapons taking out the aircraft.

The only variable left, between simply flaming out in peacetime, vice the enemy getting a kinetic hit would be potential pilot survivability to fly and fight another day.

However, with declining inventories and limited industrial base left in U.S. to surge aircraft production a runway kill could mean the loss of air superiority and thus be a battle-tipping event, on land or sea.

Now something entirely new and revolutionary can be added to an Air Force, the VSTOL F-35B.

Traditionally the VSTOL concept, as personified by the remarkable AV-8, Harrier was only for ground attack. To be fair the RAF needed to use the AV-8 in their successful Falklands campaign as an air defense fighter because it was all they had.

The Harrier is not up to a fight against any advanced 4th gen. aircraft—let alone F-22 5th Gen. Fighters that have been designed for winning the air combat maneuvering fight (ACM) with advanced radar’s and missiles.

Now though, for the first time in history the same aircraft the F-35 can be successful in a multi-role. The F-35, A, B &C type, model, series, all have the same revolutionary cockpit-the C5ISD-D “Fusion combat system” which also includes fleet wide “tron” warfare capabilities.

There has been a lot written about the F-35B not being as capable as the other non-VSTOL versions such as the land based F-35A and the Large carrier Battle Group (CBG) F-35, the USN F-35C.

The principle criticism is about the more limited range of the F-35B. In fact, the combat history of the VSTOL AV-8 shows that if properly deployed on land or sea the VSTOL capability is actually a significant range bonus. The Falklands war, and recent USN/USMC rescue of a Air Force pilot in the Libyan campaign proved that.

The other key point is limited payload in the vertical mode. Here again is where the F-35 T/M/S series have parity if the F-35B can make a long field take off or a rolling take off from a smaller aircraft carrier-with no traps nor cats needed it can carry it’s full weapons load-out.

Give all aircraft commanders the same set of strategic warning indicators of an attack because it would be a very weak air staff that would let their aircraft be killed on the ground or flight deck by a strategic surprise.

Consequently, the longer take off of the F-35 A, B or C with a full weapons complement makes no difference. Although history does show that tragically being surprised on the ground has happened.

Pearl Harbor being the very nasty example. Of course, USN Carrier pilots during the “miracle at Midway” caught the Japanese Naval aircraft being serviced on their flight deck and returned the favor to turn the tide of the war in the pacific.

In addition to relying intelligence, and other early warning systems to alert an air force that an attack is coming so “do not get caught on the ground!” dispersal, revetments and bunkers can be designed to mitigate against a surprise attack.

Aircraft survivability on the ground is critical and a lot of effort has also gone into rapid runway repair skills and equipment to recover a strike package. All F-35 TMS have the same advantages with these types of precautions.

The strategic deterrence, with tactical flexibility, of the F-35B is in the recovery part of an air campaign when they return from a combat mission, especially if the enemy successfully attacks airfields.

Or is successful in hitting the carrier deck-they do not have to sink the Carrier to remove it from the fight just disable the deck. War is always a confused messy action reaction cycle, but the side with more options and the ability to remain combat enabled and dynamically flexible will have a significant advantage.

With ordinance expended, or not, the F-35B does not need a long runway to recover and this makes it a much more survivable platform — especially at sea where their might be no other place to go.

A call by the air battle commander-all runways are destroyed so find a long straight road and “good luck!” is a radio call no one should ever have to make.

But something revolutionary now exists.

In landing in the vertical mode the Marine test pilot in an F-35B, coming aboard the USS Wasp during sea trials put the nose gear in a one square box. So the unique vertical landing/recovery feature of landing anywhere will save the aircraft to fight another day.

It is much easier to get a fuel truck to an F-35B than build another A or C model, or land one of the numerous “decks” on other ships, even a T-AKE ship then ditch an F-35C at sea.

This unique capability can be a war winning issue for countries like Israel, Taiwan and the U.S. Navy at sea.

General Hostage, the head of the Air Combat Command clearly has in mind the ability to use the entire distributed air fleet, including the unique war winning capabilities of the B, to shape what he has called and “air combat cloud.”  By shaping a distributed force able to operate over a 360 degree battlespace and leveraging multiple basing modes, US and allied forces can create a much more effective warfighting and hence deterrent force against the PRC as its evolves its capabilities to project power.

This is also why we have focused on the shaping of an attack-defense enterprise as the way ahead whereby new multi-mission platforms can shape new ways to operate over a distributed battlespace.

Shaping the rules of engagement for the Second Nuclear Age entails forging capabilities to execute what we called in an earlier piece an “attack and defense enterprise.” The evolution of 21st century weapon technology is breaking down the barriers between offensive and defensive systems. Is missile defense about providing defense or is it about enabling global reach, for offense or defense? Likewise, new fifth generation aircraft such as the F-22 and the F-35 have been largely not understood because they are inherently multi-mission systems, which can be used for forward defense or for forward offensive operations.

In Operation Chimichanga, the Air Force demonstrated the impact of an integrated air force upon an adversary. “The first sign of the coming U.S. air raid was when the enemy radar and air-defense missile sites began exploding. The strikers were Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, flying unseen and faster than the speed of sound, 50,000 feet over the battlefield.”

The evolving threat certainly can be dealt with but not if the U.S. and its allies fail to innovate in terms of technology and concepts of operations.