The greatest modern air battle after the 1973 Yom Kippur war was the air battle over the Bekaa Valley in 1982. The outcome of that battle still influences strategic planning and weapons development in the United States and Russia. One development that is critical to US programs is Beyond Visual Range (BVR) attack, which is the core idea of the F-22 and the F-35 “stealth” fighters. Likewise, the Russians also drew important conclusions which they are now implementing in new aircraft such as the Su-35 and the developmental PAK T-50. So, nearly 34 years since the Bekaa “turkey shoot” happened, resulting in a decisive victory for US equipment and the Israeli Air Force, can we anticipate such victories in future? In short, does America have the qualitative edge?
Today’s US Air Force consists primarily of the following jet fighter interceptors: F-15, F-16, and the Navy/Marine F-18 super hornet. Added to this is a limited number of F-22 Stealth fighter bombers and, in the near future, the F-35 Joint Strike fighter. The US also has a supply of A-10 Warthogs, mostly close support and anti-armor planes that are currently in use against ISIS.
The Russian Air Force consists of MiG and Sukhoi jet fighters, led by the latest MiG and Sukhoi fighters, such as the Su-35. The Su-35 has just made an appearance in Syria where the Russians have deployed it to protect their bombing operations from Turkish or US interference. The Su-35 is every bit as good as anything the US or the Turks can put in the air, allowing the Russians to make a strong statement about how seriously they are approaching their mission in Syria.
Operation Mole Cricket 19 was the name of the combined Israel Air Force mission to destroy Syrian air defenses which were protecting an emerging Syrian Army advance in the Bekaa valley and in central Lebanon, and to take out any attempt by the Syrian Air Force to achieve control of the skies stretching from Damascus to Lebanon. While Mole Cricket was supposed to look like a tactical air battle, starting with the elimination of Syrian radars and ground-control systems, it soon became an exercise that smashed Syria’s air defense system composed of SA-2, SA-3 and SA-6 mobile ground to air missiles and jammed (and in some cases destroyed) Syrian command and control assets.
The air battle itself was big. In wave one, which was focused on killing Syrian radars, command and control, and missiles, Israel deployed 96 fighter-bombers including F-15’s and F-16’s. Simultaneously Israel provided air cover to Israeli troops using A-4 and Kfir, themselves supported by Israeli drones, electronic jamming systems, and electronic countermeasure aircraft. Wave 2 was composed of 92 F-15’s, F-16’s and Kfirs that fought the air to air battle against Syrian MiG 21’s, MiG 23’s, Su-20’s and MiG 25’s. Israel succeeded, for the first time, to kill four MiG 25’s, the high-flying reconnaissance and jamming supersonic machine that up until then Israeli pilots could not catch. Overall the result of the exchange was devastating to the Syrians, losing some 82 aircraft. Israel lost no aircraft in the air to air battle, although two planes were hit by ground fire.
A year later the US sent Lieutenant-General John Chain, then deputy chief of staff for plans and operations went to Israel to learn lessons from the battle.
The Russians were greatly alarmed. They saw the Israeli operation as a possible prelude to an American assault against Russian assets in Eastern Europe. From the Russian perspective, the most important thing was to calm the waters and not give the American side any chance to launch an attack based on any provocation or refusal by the Soviets to cooperate. Covering their tracks and trying to reassure their Warsaw Pact allies, and their own public, the Russians claimed the Syrians had downed 67 Israel F-15’s and F-16’s. But mostly the Russians were anxious to get a deal and remove the thorn from their side as quickly as possible.
The US drew the conclusion that it had a qualitative advantage based on new technology in US fighters, especially look-down shoot-down radars which created an instant operational advantage, and effective long-range air to air missiles. It is this idea that resulted in subsequent improvements in US air to air missiles featuring the ability to launch attacks from any angle against an enemy aircraft. The short-range Sidewinder was significantly improved with advances in its seeker to function in an “all aspect” or, at least, improved aspect configuration, and the introduction of anti-jamming circuitry so the missile would not be fooled by flares or other decoys. And longer range missiles, better than the AIM-7 sparrow emerged, particularly the Amraam (AIM-120) which is still in production.
The F-22 and the F-35 are highly sophisticated and hugely expensive, evolutions of the air battle lessons learned from Mole Cricket 19.
The future US Air Force anticipates that the F-22 and the F-35 will provide cover for conventional F-15’s and F-16’s until they are phased out, and then will provide air superiority for the United States and its allies.
But is this so? Or have we perhaps not paid sufficient attention to Russia and to the 21st-century battle requirements that could encourage the Russians, or any potential adversary, to think the US approach is outmoded or, at least, not good enough to allow the United States to have air dominance.
There are many top-notch aviation experts who think that the US planners have lost track of strategic objectives in the F-35 program, leading to a dangerous situation that will emerge in the next five years and probably persist for the next 20 years. Put most simply, the US is coming to rely mostly on one airplane, the F-35, to carry the US Air Force and allied Air Forces forward and to act as a significant deterrent to the Russians and, in future, the Chinese.
The arguments center on the following main points:
1. the F-35 rests on its ability to deliver BVR weapons against an opposing air force, but without any proof that BVR will work as planned;
2. the F-35 uses a partially implemented stealth technology that is vulnerable to alternative or tweaked radars including L-Band radars that are appearing on Russian fighters and to other types of detection systems that can find stealth targets. These include advanced electro-optical sensors and new types of radio detection such as the Czech VERA passive sensor. While the US has bought the Czech company to keep it out of the hands of China and Russia, the cat is already out of the bag and VERA-like systems will certainly appear around Russia and China’s periphery.
3. The F-35 (like the F-22) is susceptible to advanced jamming techniques, an area where the Russians are expending considerable effort;
4. Inside a dogfighting box, or within strike range of modern Russian fighter, the F-35 is a poor system that is non-competitive;
5. The cost of the F-35 is so staggering, both initial acquisition cost, sustainment costs, and hourly operational costs that the US Air Force will have trouble keeping these aircraft in the air, even if the Air Force solves the complex hardware and software issues that dog the platform. For allied countries it is virtually unaffordable, or the result is an air arm that is so small as to be irrelevant against a large, well-equipped air force fielding modern platforms.
The lesson of the Bekaa demonstrated the value of American technology in the hands of a sophisticated air force when combined with a strategy and tactics that exploited the advantages in a systematic manner. But the Russians also learned a lesson, which they appear to have absorbed over the last thirty years. Russian operations in Syria (say what you want about Russian targeting techniques or disregard for civilian casualties) show a far great degree of pilot independence and initiative than was typical of the old Soviet centralized and managed combat approach. Some of this is because planes today have GPS, far better communications, and data links that feed information in and out continuously. Russian weapons are still a little behind the US in precision, and they are still fielding some old equipment. But the competence level and field availability of systems is far better and is complimented by a new, formidable generation of air defense systems, such as the S-400. In fact, the Russians can generate and field new systems faster than the United States, continuously improve weapons, electronics, and platforms, and build systems at a fraction of the cost incurred in the US, Europe, and Japan. All of this leads to the supposition that weapons costs in the West are out of control and the system inefficient. Indeed, the only real barrier to Russian power these days is the sad state of Russia’s state budget, not the state of the art.
With badly constrained allies who must depend on the United States, the US Air Force may not only have messed itself but is creating havoc among US friends abroad. This has many consequences: changing political alliances, searches for weapons that “make a difference” including WMD, and destabilization –all of which we are now beginning to see. The immediate issue is whether the US can overcome the grave risk it has created under the banner of the F-35, and do something more with the equipment it now has to try and stay in the game. Otherwise, the F-35 is a security threat for the US and its allies –just the opposite of what was intended.
* This commentary has been posted on Technology and Security, on Feb. 3, 2016