Can the U.S. Air Force Keep Up With Russia and China?

 In China, CIS, Air, Forces & Capabilities, P5

Key point Washington is invest­ing in new tech­nolo­gies to keep its mil­i­tary edge. Can America con­tin­ue to out­pace Russia and China?

While many rec­og­nize the extent to which Russia and China have been closely studying the U.S. mil­i­tary, includ­ing tac­tics, weapons and tech­nolo­gies — what about the reverse

Naturally, U.S. weapons devel­op­ers have been study­ing Russian and Chinese plat­forms with a spe­cif­ic mind to defending against them. However, American war plan­ners also want to find ways to destroy them. These kinds of ini­tia­tives, senior Air Force lead­ers explain, can ensure that the ser­vice suc­ceeds in engi­neer­ing prop­er­ly resilient weapon sys­tems, designed in many cases to specif­i­cal­ly counter adver­sary capa­bil­i­ty. 

“If we don’t under­stand our adver­sary, we will show up with the wrong capa­bil­i­ty, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, com­pet­ing on the wrong field,” General Charles Brown, Air Force Chief of Staff, said at the service’s 2020 Air Force Association Virtual, Air, Space & Cyber Conference. 

Of course, many of the spe­cif­ic details regard­ing how enemy tech­nolo­gies may be coun­tered may not be avail­able for secu­ri­ty rea­sons, Brown’s emphasis invites some inter­est­ing ques­tions.  For instance, which Russian and Chinese weapons will the United States most-focus on coun­ter­ing? In some cases, tech­ni­cal devel­op­ments will focus on coun­ter­ing enemy “coun­ter­mea­sures” as part of an effort to stay in front of a col­lec­tive mod­ern­iza­tion tra­jec­to­ry. 

Broadly speak­ing, all the mil­i­tary ser­vices refer to this as “Red Teaming,” think­ing like an enemy and repli­cat­ing tac­tics and weapon­ry likely to be employed by an adver­sary. 

More specif­i­cal­ly, it is not sur­pris­ing that so many existing weapons systems are being upgrad­ed with soft­ware, sensor and tar­get­ing adjust­ments. For exam­ple, the Air Force AIM-9X missile is now engi­neered with an off-bore­sight tar­get­ing tech­nol­o­gy, an advance­ment which enables the weapon to alter course in flight and destroy tar­gets actu­al­ly “behind” an air­craft. 

The weapon can effec­tive­ly change course or “course cor­rect” to hit enemy tar­gets approach­ing at var­i­ous angles such as behind, below or to the side. Also, Raytheon’s AIM-9X is now being engi­neered with infrared sens­ing spec­trum flex­i­bil­i­ty to find new oper­at­ing fre­quen­cies to counter enemy jam­ming. In radio terms, this idea is often referred to as fre­quen­cy hop­ping to avoid enemy jam­ming. 

More promi­nent upgrades include the often-dis­cussed F‑35 con­tin­u­ous devel­op­ment pro­gram and the sub­stan­tial software-driven weapons upgrades for the F‑22. F‑35 upgrades include the antic­i­pat­ed inte­gra­tion of Raytheon’s Stormbreaker, an air dropped weapon engi­neered with a “tri-mode” tar­get­ing all-weath­er seeker. Stormbreaker also uti­lizes a “two-way” data link, allow­ing the bomb to change course in flight as needed. 

The guid­ance tech­nol­o­gy, which can help track enemy tar­gets on the move from dis­tances as far as forty miles, can use semi-active laser tar­get­ing, infrared imag­ing or all-weath­er mil­lime­ter wave tech­nolo­gies. The weapon, pre­vi­ous­ly referred to as the Small Diameter Bomb II, is slated to arm the F‑35 by 2023 and is also being inte­grat­ed into a host of other air­craft such as the Air Force F‑15. Raytheon devel­op­ers recent­ly com­plet­ed a “cap­tive carry” test of the emerg­ing multi-mode seeker attached to an F‑35 to assess and refine its abil­i­ty to use the weapon. 

Meanwhile, the Stormbreaker could be used against vari­ety of tar­gets, includ­ing fast-moving armored con­voys or hidden tar­gets under fog or sand cover that thwarts U.S. laser or elec­tro-opti­cal tar­get­ing sys­tems. Should an enemy seek to obscure tar­gets under bridges, beneath uneven ter­rain or turn lights off to com­pli­cate elec­tro-opti­cal camera track­ing, a hard­ened infrared sig­na­ture could adjust course to find an enemy vehicle’s heat sig­na­ture. Newer tar­get­ing less depen­dent upon line-of-sight or more linear sensor angles can now become more vul­ner­a­ble to U.S. Air Force air attack, essen­tial­ly coun­ter­ing enemy coun­ter­mea­sures. 

There is yet anoth­er indis­pens­able area of focus, applic­a­ble to vir­tu­al­ly all sys­tems. That is cyber hard­en­ing. Not only does this mean secur­ing tar­get­ing sensor net­works, data links or video feeds, but also empha­siz­ing what is called “infor­ma­tion assur­ance” intend­ed to safe­guard the pas­sage and stor­age of sen­si­tive data as it trans­mits from plat­form to plat­form. Drone and satel­lite feeds, for exam­ple, which in some cases are more vul­ner­a­ble than other con­nec­tions to enemy inter­fer­ence or jam­ming, are being hardened through encryp­tion, decoys, redun­dan­cy, EW tech­nolo­gies or other meth­ods intend­ed to dis­rupt or thwart enemy jam­ming. 

As part of the broad effort, all ser­vices now build-in cyber resilien­cy early into the devel­op­men­tal process such as in the pro­to­typ­ing phase. This helps iden­ti­fy poten­tial com­put­er or net­work­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties being built into the weapon, and in most cases engi­neer­ing it to be upgrade­able such that it can respond to emerg­ing threats. Much of the Air Force effort to “bake in” cyber hard­en­ing is done through the ser­vices CROWS, for Cyber Resiliency Office for Weapons Systems. CROWS con­sis­tent­ly hacks or jams emerg­ing sys­tems and attempts a full range of intru­sions for the pur­pose of coun­ter­ing poten­tial enemy cyber­at­tacks. Once vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties are found, they then can be coun­tered early in the engi­neer­ing process. Interestingly, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett cited the pur­pose why CROWS exists at the AFA Conference September 15. 

“The future of Air and Space tech­nol­o­gy will include air­craft, weapons and satel­lites which will be dig­i­tal­ly engi­neered and vir­tu­al­ly tested before ever taking phys­i­cal form,” she told an audi­ence at the Conference.

Perhaps of great­est sig­nif­i­cance in terms of antic­i­pat­ed combat impact, one must think of long-range, multi-fre­quen­cy Electronic Warfare (EW). EW can, if engi­neered to oper­ate at longer ranges, can find what’s called a “line-of-bear­ing” or enemy elec­tron­ic signal such as radio com­mu­ni­ca­tions, radar or weapons tar­get­ing sys­tems. This is tac­ti­cal­ly quite sig­nif­i­cant because it enables a unit to defend itself by jam­ming or dis­rupt­ing the sen­sors of an approach­ing weapon, throw­ing it off course. EW can also jam enemy radar, giving air­craft more oper­a­tional flex­i­bil­i­ty over high-value target areas. EW can also give com­man­ders the option to pursue a non-kinet­ic option to take out tar­gets with­out caus­ing an explo­sion poten­tial­ly dam­ag­ing to civil­ians in pop­u­lat­ed areas. Lastly, find­ing and destroy­ing an enemy’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works, it goes with­out saying, can bring more tac­ti­cal advan­tages than could pos­si­bly be described. 

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. 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 appeared as a guest mil­i­tary expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This first appeared ear­li­er and is being repost­ed due to reader inter­est.

Image: Reuters

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