Tag Archives: aircraft

Resurrected Weapons: A-6E Intruder

If my father’s generation wanted precision strike from the sea, they’d call up the ugly but effective Grumman A-6E Intruder. Looking like a drumstick with wings, the Intruder had a two-man crew, a radar-navigation system for night/all-weather guidance, and a FLIR system in a small turret under the nose for target identification. It was subsonic, had an approximately 600 nautical mile (a bit over 1,100 km) striking radius, and it could carry up to 18,000 lbs of bombs.

The long strike radius was a direct consequence of optimizations and the choice of subsonic speed. Grumman opted for subsonic speed, because even the big F-4 Phantom was subsonic when heavily laden with bombs. Accepting a lack of supersonic speed meant that more fuel efficient engines could be used, providing a long strike radius.

In the Intruder’s day, there were no smart weapons. The delivery vehicle was responsible for all of the precision (or lack thereof). This alternative is a lot easier, since the plane is a lot bigger and easier to fit sensors and targeting computers into. As a brief aside, this sort of precision-on-aircraft delivery of dumb munitions is still used by Russia, and was the delivery method of choice for the airstrikes in Syria.

The Intruder proved very effective in Vietnam, where it was the Navy’s most accurate bomber. It was also the primary Navy delivery platform for dropping laser guided bombs in Desert Storm, since the -E models had a laser designator in their FLIR turret.

Despite the Intruder fleet getting new wings in the early 90s and having a solid combat record, the Intruders were taken out of service in 1996. There really wasn’t a perfect replacement. It was supposed to be replaced by the A-12 Intruder II, a poster child for bad project management. This project was cancelled1 without anything new being proposed in its stead. In the late 90s, the Intruder’s role was supposed to be filled by F-14 Tomcats with LANTIRN pods, which could not match the payload capacity of the Intruder. In 2005, the Tomcats were also removed from naval service, and their roles were taken over by F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. These could not match the range of the Tomcat or Intruder (both of which have a strike radius of about 600 nautical miles).

I really don’t like the loss of strike radius in the newer platforms. Super Hornets are nice otherwise, but they could really use longer legs. Yes, I know tankers have worked in recent conflicts, but the Navy shouldn’t rely on them. Or else what’s the point of naval aviation? If you can make tankers work, you can probably make land-based strike work. The whole point of naval strike is to be deployable quickly, and to come from additional vectors. In Vietnam, carriers at Yankee Station brought strikes from the east, in addition to the USAF strikes from the west out of bases in Thailand. If they required tankers, that makes life a lot more difficult for the planners, since tankers are fat and vulnerable.

The Intruder was cancelled to reduce the number of airframe types in the fleet. Understandable, but likely premature. The limited wars of the 2000s and 2010s would have been a good match for the capabilities of the Intruder. The A-6E isn’t very survivable in a high-threat environment, but Al Qaeda doesn’t have any serious SAMs. Long range would also make for long loiter time, and adapting a plane for JDAMs isn’t exactly hard.

On the one hand, restarting A-6 production would be silly. On the other, they were taken out of service way too early, and there’s no real replacement out there.

  1. The A-12 is a program that even I think deserved to get cancelled. 

Swedish Strike Saturday: the AJS-37 Viggen

The AJS-37 Viggen is a modernized classic: a 1990s update of the 1971 AJ-37 Viggen.

Why is it a classic, though? You may be forgiven for not knowing. In fact, I did not know until I saw that Leatherneck Simulations1 are making a DCS AJS-37. So, on this first Swedish Strike Saturday, let’s take a look at why the Viggen is such an icon, and why you ought to be excited for it.

In doing so, we first have to take a trip back in history, back to Sweden circa 1961. The enemy du jour is the Soviet Bear. Although the Saab 35 Draken matches up well against Soviet fighters of the day, the Saab 32 Lansen, a late first-generation jet which handles the attack role, is looking a little long in the tooth. It’s time to make something better.

Much better. The Swedes had a history of pioneering aircraft designs out of Saab, and the Viggen was no exception.

It was the first canard aircraft to enter front-line service, and featured the first afterburning turbofan in a strike fighter. By date of start of development, the Viggen’s computer was the first integrated-circuit computer designed for use on an aircraft. For a time in the early 1960s, while development work was under way on the computer, Saab was the world’s largest buyer of integrated circuits. It was the first single-seat third-generation jet strike fighter to enter development, and the second to enter service2.

As one of the two first digital attack aircraft to enter service, it is, then, an object of some historical interest. Similarly, its computer is one of the first in the aviation world, and that makes it interesting to me (a computers guy). The CK37 (CK for Central Kalkylator) flight computer does just about everything data-related in the aircraft: it runs both of the cockpit displays (the HUD and the Central Indicator—think radar screen, but with navigational information, too), does navigational calculations, and handles weapon aiming.

Saab built the prototype, using individual transistors, in the 1960. It was table-sized, featured about 5,000 transistors, and ran at about 100,000 cycles per second. Total weight was about 450 pounds. Obviously, it wasn’t altogether suitable for aerial usage. Redesign efforts in 1961 used the newly-available ‘integrated circuit’.

Enter Fairchild, who beat Texas Instruments (!) for the contract. Their integrated circuits featured a whopping two transistors per square millimeter, ten times the density of discrete components. Some few years later, in 1964, Saab’s computing division delivered the final CK37 prototypes. This final version could run about 200,000 instructions per second, with about 28 kilobytes of magnetic core memory, with core density of about one core per millimeter3. It weighed about 150 pounds, comprised five computer units, and drew about 550 watts of power.

And, going by everything I’ve seen, it made for a tremendously effective aircraft. On seven hardpoints, the original Viggen could carry a combination of weapons: 135mm rockets, 120kg bombs, the RB-05A MCLOS missile, and the RB-04 anti-ship missile. Between the radar and the advanced (for its day) navigation system, the Viggen could fly in ugly weather, dropping unguided bombs precisely on any target it could see by radar. Although its air search capabilities were rudimentary, the radar could still cue Sidewinder seekers; on those grounds, it was not altogether ineffective as a fighter.

It did so without a navigator; the autopilot and navigation systems are sufficient to permit the pilot alone to fly and fight. By all accounts, the Viggen gave excellent service from its introduction date in 1971 to its retirement thirty-odd years later. Along the way, it gained the RB-75 missile4, and a variant called the JA-37. A fighter first and striker second, the JA-37 gained a better computer, a lookdown-shootdown radar, and support for the Skyflash5 missile. Much later, both the JA and the AJ Viggens saw some upgrades. The JA-37 became the JA-37D, with a glass cockpit and the ability to sling AMRAAMs6. The AJ-37 became the AJS-37, and that’s the plane we’re interested in today.

Development of the JAS-39 Gripen7, the follow-on to the Viggen and the Draken, began in 1979. It didn’t fly until 1988, and it didn’t enter service until 1997. In the interim, Swedish military planners began to get a little nervous about the state of their ground attack force. Though the Viggen was a solid workhorse, its armaments were outmoded, and its navigation system was fiddly.

Some of the Gripen’s weaponry was already available in the early 1990s, though, including the BK-90 submunitions dispenser8 and the RBS-15 anti-ship missile. The S-modification allows the Viggen to launch both, giving it access to modern smart weapons. At the same time, Saab’s designers added a data cartridge, greatly simplifying pre-mission preparation. The extra data capacity in the cartridge also allowed for a terrain contour matching function. The data cartridge contains information about the elevation contours expected during the mission and their locations; in flight, the computer correlates the expected contours to the actual, observed contours from the radar altimeter. This allows the computer to update the INS with true positions, correcting to some degree for drift during flight.

With those upgrades, the AJS-37 soldiered on until 2005, flying alongside the Gripen for eight years, at which point it was finally retired. An airplane of many firsts, it was also a notable last: the last of the great 1970s low-altitude strike fighters to fly its original mission profile. The Tornado, the F-111, and all the Viggen’s other contemporaries were upgraded to fly more modern, middle-altitude missions. The Viggen never lost its focus as a low-altitude interdictor.

Is the Viggen a good interdictor in its original threat environment? Do the upgrades make it better? Is it suitable for the modern world? How good is the Leatherneck recreation? This paragraph is where I had hoped to tell you that we would soon be finding out. Unfortunately, it’ll be a little longer than I had hoped; Leatherneck’s Viggen releases on January 27, and it isn’t looking like the Soapbox is big enough for a preview key. No matter—that just gives me more time to prep for the articles down the road. In February, you can expect two or three of them, touching on the answers to the questions posed at the start of this paragraph.

Stay tuned!

  1. Makers of the DCS MiG-21
  2. The A-7 Corsair came first, entering service in the late 1960s to the Viggen’s 1971 
  3. The CK37 divides its memory into 8192 words of 28 bits in length, with 1536 words as working space and the remainder write-protected data. 
  4. The AGM-65A Maverick; the Swedes have a thing about keeping American names for missiles. 
  5. Or RB-71. 
  6. Surprisingly, they call this one the AIM-120. 
  7. The Gripen is a longtime favorite of mine. 
  8. The Swedes are anti-cluster-bomb, so a weapon which drops explosive bomblets is called a ‘submunitions dispenser’. 

Cargo Helicopter for Borgundy

Between the two of us, Fishbreath is the clear rotorhead. And that’s fine. He really likes flying helicopters in sims.

I, on the other hand, am coming at this from the logistican’s perspective. I’m looking for a helicopter to haul stuff. It should be cheap. It should be reasonably modern. It should be readily available in numbers. Armored thrusts need lots of fuel, ammo, and food, and we need ways to get that materiel to the front. Let’s look at some big, ugly cargo helicopters. They’re probably no fun to fly, but they’re important just the same.

The most obvious choice would be the Mi-26. The biggest helicopter in mass production. Of course, being Russian, lower initial purchasing price comes with higher maintenance costs. That’s not a big dealbreaker though. Of greater concern is the revanchist Russian bear. Can they be depended on to supply spare parts in the future? The production line is also moderate. Besides, I’m sure Fishbreath is waiting to throw politics into this. Let’s dig deeper.

We come to that big, US Army classic: the CH-47F Chinook. It’s been in production since 1962. It can carry 55 men or just under 11 tonnes of cargo. Three machine guns can be mounted to cover soldiers. It maxes out at 170 knots. Plus, the price is reasonable. Not quite Russian cheap, but the service life is better, especially as far as engines are concerned.

Compared to other Western options, the Chinook is a real bargain. It’s almost one third of the cost of the big CH-53K, but carries two thirds the payload. Also, unlike the CH-53K, it’s in full-rate production now. It’s also a pretty common helicopter. This means spares are easy to come by, the secondary market can supplement our orders, and most importantly, that someone else (namely the U.S. Army) is on the hook for funding upgrades, not us.

There’s not much out of Europe that can lift as much as a Chinook can. The NH90 can’t (it’s more of an oversized Blackhawk), and it’s more expensive to boot. Plus, it’s been plagued with all manner of difficulties. Not that the Chinook hasn’t, but any such problems are long ago. Call me when the NH90 has been through several wars.

Like most modern helicopters, the Chinook has plenty of optional extras. High end digital controls built under common architecture principles are readily available, along with midair refueling equipment and modern composite rotors. There are three pintles (left, right, and rear exit doors) for mounting machine guns. It’s got a long, proven history of good service.

There’s not much more we could ask for in a cargo helicopter.


The Beyond Visual Range Air to Air missile is a critical munition in any air force arsenal. At first it might seem easy for a western air force. Call Raytheon, order up the latest version of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and then call it a day and have a beer. Is it really that easy? Let’s take a look.

The AIM-120 AMRAAM was the world’s first missile with an active radar seeker, and it has become the world standard. It was designed to replace the AIM-7 Sparrow semi-active radar homing missile. It features improved range, and a way-cool seeker. The Sparrow’s semi-active radar seeker requires an external source of radar to illuminate the target, usually the firing aircraft. So the aircraft has to keep flying more-or-less towards the target while the Sparrow is in flight. This strongly limits the evasive maneuvering possibilities of the launch aircraft. If the radar lock is broken, the missile becomes a useless ballistic projectile.

The AMRAAM is different. It has an inertial guidance component for the initial run towards the target. It can be updated by radar from the launch aircraft. Then, when it gets close enough to the target, it turns on the active radar seeker. This has it’s own radar, so the launch aircraft is free to turn away from the target aircraft. It’s a big improvement. The seeker can also home on jamming if the target aircraft tries to jam it.

Okay, so that’s cool. The rest of the AMRAAM is pretty typical: it’s a single-pulse solid fuel rocket. So once you light it, it burns until the fuel is gone, and only burns once. This means that during most of the intercept it’s coasting. There are also dual-pulse rockets which relight later, which helps chase down a maneuvering target. But those are more expensive, and while there’s been a lot of discussion about putting one on the AMRAAM, that still hasn’t happened yet. The AIM-120D gets its improved range from improved guidance algorithms and GPS-aided navigation. Cool. The question becomes: can we do better.

We’ll need to take a brief interlude here to define a term: the no-escape zone. This is the range in which a target can’t escape a missile by outrunning it. Outside of the no-escape zone, a fighter can turn away and light afterburners and the missile will be unable to catch it. Within the no-escape zone is not a guaranteed kill, it merely forces the fighter to maneuver aggressively to force the missile to miss.

Anyway, the Europeans have designed something nice for once in an effort to do better, and are actually getting it to market in a sort of timely fashion. This is the MBDA Meteor AAM. It’s noteworthy for two reasons. First, it has a datalink for midcourse guidance updates from the launch aircraft, which improves the accuracy of the midcourse phase of the flight at longer ranges. More importantly, it has a snazzy new engine. This is a “throttleable ducted rocket” also known as an “air-augmented rocket,” but it’s easiest to think of it as a hybrid solid-fuel rocket/ramjet motor. Like a rocket, it can give useful thrust from zero speed. Like a ramjet, it can also pull in outside air, and has no moving parts. This means it gets way more burn time from its motor, which means that it has a much bigger no-escape zone. Even the way-cool guidance algorithms in the -120D can’t get around the fact that the Meteor has a more advanced engine that provides more oomph. The Meteor isn’t that much bigger than the AMRAAM either, at least as far as length and weight. It might take some doing to get it certified for internal carriage on the F-35 though.

So where does that leave us? The Meteor is the better missile, with the bigger price tag. We’d say it’s worth it though, especially to get those early shots in on Flankers. We’ll have to spend some money to get it qualified on legacy platforms, but that’s totally worth it for the leg up on potential enemies. It’ll be interesting to see if the AMRAAM ever gets that improved motor.

CAS Aircraft Throwdown: A-10C vs. Su-25T

Fishbreath and I have spent lots of time studying these aircraft and flying them in DCS. They represent two different philosophies for air support, the clash between ‘push’ from the top and ‘pull’ from the bottom. Plus, they represent some different design philosophies. We’ve talked about these two planes already, but let’s break everything down and see how they compare directly. Features are in no particular order.

We’ll break these down by type, and then tally up an overall score for this section.

GUN: A-10C
This is no contest. The A-10C has the GAU-8A, which is the most powerful flying gun around. It’s got better AP rounds than the GSh-30-2, and more than five times as many rounds in the magazine (1,174 rounds as opposed to 250). The A-10C has some nifty pilot aids to stabilize the aircraft on a gun run too, but the Su-25T just leaves you to your own lack of skill. Interestingly, the Su-25T also doesn’t have enough dispersion built into it’s gun. The A-10’s designers recognized that being exactly on target is very hard, so the gun has some built in dispersion to give you a margin of error, which makes it a lot easier to hit things.

This is also no contest. The Russians like their rockets, and have a wider variety of sizes available. Even if we restrict to the standard small rockets (Russian 80mm S-8 and American 70mm Hydra 70), the Russians have a wider variety of warheads available, including exotics like thermobarics.

Both have the ability to drop laser guided bombs, plus plenty of dumb bombs. The A-10C can drop JDAMs (GPS guidance). The Su-25T can’t drop Russian GLONASS-guided bombs, but they do have the ability to drop bombs with the Electro-optical guidance system (they have a -Kr suffix). That said, the A-10C has glide bomb options, and the Su-25T doesn’t, giving the ‘Hog some excellent cheap standoff attack options. Glide bombs rock.

Both have a lot of cluster bomb options, but (for now, at least), the Americans do cluster bombs better. The CBU-87 doesn’t really care at what altitude/airspeed it’s dropped at, and drops bomblets that combine antipersonnel, anti-armor, and incendiary effects in each bomblet. That’s pretty cool, and is a big logistics simplifier. It’s compatible with the wind-corrected munitions dispenser add-on kit, which isn’t really guidance, but it does ensure that the bomb dumps the submunitions where you intended, rather than get all mucked up by the wind. The CBU-97 Sensor fused weapon is also pretty sweet. It’s designed to scatter smart anti-tank munitions that will search for a tank beneath them as they fall, and then fire an explosively-formed penetrator at it if a tank is detected. The Russians don’t have such fancy anti-armor measures, and they don’t have fancy wind correction kits. They also don’t combine effects frequently in their bomblets. And altitude matters for the dispensers.

Given how much tech the Americans like to fight with, this might be a shock. Both aircraft can carry older WVR AAMs on the outermost pylons that can’t do much else. The A-10C can also carry a bunch of Mavericks, and that’s about it. The Maverick is a great air to ground missile, with a variety of guidance options. The Su-25T can carry the Kh-25 “Maverickski”, and the Kh-29, which is something like a bigger Maverick with a bigger warhead. It can also carry 16 9K121 Vikhrs ATGMs, so it ends up with more anti-tank capable missile capacity. You can also add an ELINT Pod and antiradiation missiles for SEAD missions. The A-10C has no such capability. The A-10C would certainly benefit from being able to sling Hellfires.

A-10C: 3
Su-25T: 2

I’m not actually going to break this one down. Either way you look at it, it’s a tie. The Su-25T is faster. The A-10C has more range. The Su-25T was designed to be sent out from a forward airbase towards a given concentration of enemies. So it’s superior speed is more useful in that doctrinal role. It’s designed to go out, kill some stuff, and go home. Loitering is not called for, so plenty of range isn’t needed. The A-10C was intended to loiter near the battlefield until called for or it’s out of ammo. So range is good, because range translates into loiter time. Since it’s supposed to start in the air close to where the action is, it’s inferior speed isn’t a great handicap. Each does one thing better, and each has an attack doctrine built around its strengths.

Both have a whole bunch of design features to make them tougher. Absent some kind of common destructive testing, this one is too close to call.

The category for random things that I can’t think of another place for.

This one’s almost not fair. The A-10C has a bubble canopy to provide good, all-around visibility. Plus, the A-10C has the LITENING pod, and this makes the Shkval look like a cardboard tube duct-taped to the cockpit. The LITENING has way more zoom, more resolution, a nearly-all-around field of view, and remembers what you were looking at if you have to make some turns, or if some part of the plane gets in the way during a turn.

A-10C: 6
Su-25T: 4

So the A-10C is better.

Or at least, in this simplified metric evaluation, the A-10C is the better plane. Really, the more relevant question is “Which doctrine do you prefer/buy into?” and to a lesser extent “Whose weapons are you buying?” since those questions will determine which will work for you, and if you’ll have to pay a bunch of annoying weapons integration costs and do some testing. Better electronics would go a long way toward improving the Su-25T, especially in the target acquisition phase.

Rampant speculation: why did the Falcon 9 blow up?

I am not a rocket scientist, but I do like to think about engineering problems.

Here are the facts as we know them:

  • A Falcon 9 rocket blew up on the pad on September 1, 2016.
  • The rocket was undergoing a pre-launch static test, when it exploded.
  • According to SpaceX, the explosion originated in the second-stage liquid oxygen tank.
  • SpaceX uses a fancy super-cooled LOX mix, which allows more fuel in a given tank volume, which allows better performance.
  • Last summer, SpaceX had another rocket fail. The CRS-7 mission disintegrated in flight after the upper stage LOX tank burst. The internal helium tank (to maintain tank pressure) failed because of a faulty strut.

Now, for a rocket to fail during fueling, before engine firing—as the most recent Falcon failed—is very unusual. To my engineer’s mind, it suggests a materials problem in the LOX or liquid helium tanks, something failing in an unexpected way when deep-chilled. Crucially, the Falcon 9’s LOX tank experiences the coldest temperature (for a LOX tank) in the history of rocketry. Take that in combination with the failure on the CRS-7 mission: after their investigation, SpaceX switched to a new strut, which means new failure modes.

Mark my words (and feed them to me along with a heaping helping of crow, when I turn out to be wrong): this is another strut issue, be it faulty or just unsuited for the deep-cryo fuel in some other way.

The CAS Conundrum

Assume a peer opponent, like the Soviet Union in its glory days.

Wait, no. That’s hard to think of. And not necessary.

Assume a relatively peer-ish opponent. Or even semi-peer. The diet coke of peer will do in a pinch. Maybe it’s a revanchist Russia, maybe China, or maybe just someone with their head screwed on right, like Serbia in the late 90s. Someone who has built a nice IADS. Invested in air defense. Trained on it. Got them in your head? Good. Now you’re at war…

We, of course, want to provide air support. And air support can take the form of interdiction or CAS, close air support. Right up at the line of contact. There’s plenty of good historical examples of how to do this right. And it’ll bring decisive firepower to assist. It’s worked in basically every war since the Second World War. If you can bring airplanes to help, you’ve got yourself a big win. And right at the front lines is where it matters the most. But the enemy is going to try to stop you, and therein lies the problem. Let’s consider those defenses.

As far back as the 60s, big medium and long ranged SAM systems were trouble. Remember Gary Powers? Okay, there’s that peer competitor again. But plenty of F-105s and even mighty B-52s were shot down by SA-2s over Vietnam. There. That’s not very peer. The SAM threat was bad. One counter was to build up a big strike package with SAM-suppression aircraft and jamming support. That’s perfect for the interdiction mission, the deep strike. But what about the CAS mission? Are we doomed?

No, we fly low! Perfect. And this is the approach of choice for the Panavia Tornado and the A-10 and the Su-25. If we’re doing close air support, and it’s the 60s or 70s, we only have to worry about anti-aircraft guns. And not like the big 12.8cm guns that defended Berlin in ’44, but small, mobile units. 23mm autocannons are the standard size for Russian units. So the A-10 was built to take shots from those 23mm guns, and it was built around a massive 30mm autocannon that outranged the Soviet 23mm guns. It could win a ‘high noon’ duel with the defending 23mm batteries, and then tear tanks apart with more 30mm gunfire plus bombs.

Perfect. Except that nobody likes to be looking at a losing score up on the board. The Soviets love their tanks, and they weren’t about to sit around while they got torn up from the air. They had enough of that back when they were facing Ju-87Gs back in the Great Patriotic War. They doubled down on missiles, specifically short range missiles. And here was the hard counter they were looking for. Short range systems, plus the famed MANPADS like Strela-3, Igla, and Stinger.

In 1991, lots of aircraft came at the Iraqi air defense system at low level. Again, we had the Tornado and the A-10 as big users of the attack profile. Both were not only doctrinally constrained to low-level attacks, but also had weapons systems that required the aircraft to fly low to be effective. And both aircraft took some significant losses, which forced changes in attack profiles. Back up to medium altitude, where they were relatively safe because the Iraqis weren’t very good at protecting their bigger (and longer ranged) SAM systems from coalition air defense suppression assets.

The Soviets experienced basically the same thing in Afghanistan, once the Mujahedin got Stingers. This forced their aircraft up to medium altitude, where they were safe from the missiles.

And now it gets worse. First, we’re not really doing close air support anymore. We’re dropping from altitude, and can’t actually see the guys on the ground. So we’re dependent on communicated coordinates. Don’t screw that up, or else the bomb might hit you.1 Second, at medium altitude, that big awesome gun on the A-10 is just a lot of weight and drag.

But, no problem, right? We can just use a bomb truck with plenty of gas, like the A-6E. That even has a lot of built-in targeting systems to squeeze maximum precision out of dumb bombs. The even bigger F-111 is another good choice. Or it would be except for those surface to air missiles. We saw in 1999 that an army with old, reasonably mobile SAMs like the SA-6 could make life hell for an attacker by using clever tactics, decoys, and good emissions discipline. And they didn’t even have the widely-exported S-300 family, which are much more formidable.

At medium altitude, there’s no cover, and a bomb truck like an A-6 or an A-10 isn’t going to be able to shake SAMs very well. There is another way to beat the big SAMs though: stealth.

As Muhammad Ali would say, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see. A little route planning, and boom. They won’t be able to touch you. Stealth is cool, but it demands internal carriage of weapons and not being predictable. Both of which make CAS extremely difficult.

But CAS is not doomed. And I’m not about to give the skeptics victory. The Small Diameter Bomb is a good start, since lots of those can fit in a stealthy 5th generation fighter. Remember, the formidable Stuka generally didn’t use giant bombs, and we have way more precision than Rudel could have dreamed of. Plus, we could always loiter on standby near, but not over, the battlefield. And we don’t have any good examples of a stealthy midsize bomb truck. We have big fighters like the Raptor, but only small bombers. A stealthy plane with some bomb capacity would be perfect here. Something F-22 sized or a bit bigger that can haul a decent bombload internally.

1.) By ‘might’, I mean ‘will,’ thanks to that asshole Murphy.

Attack Helicopters for the Modern Army

Yes, I’m finally getting around to replying to some of Fishbreath’s stuff. You’re probably wondering what attack helicopter we in Borgundy like. The Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian, with the Longbow fire control radar setup. Duh. Best in-class. Next question.

Why do we like the AH-64E? Mostly on account of being the baddest tank killing thing with rotary wings, and that’s due to the phenomenal Hellfire missiles. It’s got the fancy millimeter-wave fire control setup so that it just has to poke the radar over a hill, or have a fellow helicopter do so, and it can literally rain hellfire on its enemies. Way cool.

This is hardly fair though. The AH-64E has gotten a lot of development money, and the alternatives have stagnated. And the single-seat Ka-50 is basically stillborn.1 The Ka-52, which hasn’t done well at exports, is a two-seater. Well, life and procurement games are hardly fair. But this is shaping up to be a dreadfully short piece, and simply adding tactics will make it boring, so let’s make it interesting (and also add tactics).

What helicopter would we choose if it was 1990? The Ka-50 has just entered production, and the Soviet union hasn’t collapsed yet. We’d still go with the Apache (then, it was the AH-64A, and it was made by McDonnell Douglas, who hadn’t been bought buy Boeing yet). A good chunk of that is political; we’re firmly in the West’s camp. But that’s the cop-out reason. Straight up, the AH-64A/Hellfire combo is still best at what we want it to do: kill tanks. Being semi-active laser homing, the Hellfire can be fired somewhat indirectly, as long as there’s some laser emitter to illuminate the target, the helicopter needn’t be exposed. Hellfire missiles can also be salvoed faster, since the laser only needs to be on target for guidance, not at launch. A ground launch option is available. Oh, and the tandem-HEAT warhead on the Hellfire is really big. So it’s probably going to kill what it hits.

Now we get to the tactics. What are attack helicopters for? Well, we see them as a much more successful manifestation of the ‘tank destroyer’ concept. Helicopters can move much faster than ground vehicles, so they’re perfect for rapidly moving to provide support or counterattack a breakthrough. I don’t have a cute metaphor for this, other than maybe to call them ‘plumbers’.2 They’re to kill tanks first, other vehicles second. So, the powerful, accurate Hellfire missile that can be fired rapidly is just what we need.

I should probably take a moment to point out that deep strikes with attack helicopters are a bad idea. They don’t fare well when lots of things can shoot them, as evidenced by losing one to a flak trap in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They’re not very good at dealing with SAMs, so they need to use terrain to avoid them. Since they fly low, they’re also vulnerable to AAA fire. Again, it’s about speed and using cover and concealment effectively. They’re not well suited to forcing the SAM to dodge, since they’re not very fast.

That aside, we’ve mostly been talking about missiles, not about helicopters themselves. Let’s look more at the Apache and the two-man layout. A two-man crew is perhaps the most intuitive solution. There are two things that need doing: weapons employment and flying the helicopter. Since flying the helicopter is *hard*, and semi-active laser homing weapons like the Hellfire still require quite a bit of operator input for target discrimination and selection, we might naturally choose to have a crew of two, like the engineers at Hughes/McDonnell Douglas did. Or those at Bell, or those at EuroCopter, or those at Mil.

I generally like a crew of two in combat aircraft. In the fighter realm, the statistics show that for comparable types, the two-seat fighters tend to do better, since they have two pairs of eyes available. This is even more helpful for the attack helicopter, since spotting ground targets is notoriously difficult. Also, two sets of eyes to spot return fire is very helpful, since it’s easy for the gunner to get ‘tunnel vision’ when prosecuting targets. The pilot can maintain overwatch for tracers or missile launches, or keep the helicopter moving. These tactics of attack on the move have been heavily used by Soviet pilots in Afghanistan after Stinger missiles were introduced to the conflict, by American pilots in Vietnam, and more recently by Russian pilots in the Syrian intervention. Movement is good. Movement is life.

Hovering is not a good idea from a long-term survivability perspective. In addition to dedicated anti-aircraft assets, most modern IFVs and some modern MBTs have targeting systems capable of nailing attack helicopters if they hover for a while. Fishbreath and I can also testify that even an old-school T-55 can bag you if you sit pretty and hover for a while. If you’re gonna hover, you have to pop up from some kind of cover, engage, and drop back down (and relocate). Again, that second crewmember allows for a rapid transition to movement to avoid incoming fire, and he can keep his eyes up while the gunner is engaging targets. Or just be looking around and planning where to pop up from next. He can route plan while the gunner hunts targets.

One nifty feature of the Apache in particular is that the pilot has his own independent thermal viewer to let him see at night or in foul weather. The pilot’s thermal camera is slaved to his helmet. Night fighting and operations in harsh weather conditions are also better with the split workload, and the Apache has the vision tech to facilitate this. The Ka-50N might have rectified this a bit, but that was just a prototype, and we don’t know how well it would have done at night.

So there you have it. While you could operate an attack helicopter with a single man crew and appropriate automation, they’re better with a two-man crew. More combat effective. None of this precludes operating attack helicopters in groups; more helicopters are better. And yes, you’ll pay a bit more for the American-made Apache, and you’ll pay more for two crew. But you get more. This is the helicopter that armies want. This is the helicopter foreign designers wish they made. This is the most effective attack helicopter available. The choice is clear.

Geronimo would approve.

1.) Don’t worry, Fishbreath. I’ll be sure to say something pithy at its funeral. And then drink a bunch of good vodka and gloat.
2.) Because they stop leaks, get it? A trifle Nixonian though.

This Old Flanker

Hi, I’m Bob Villa, and welcome to This Old Fighter. Today, we’ll be looking at a classic late cold war fighter that always impresses on the airshow circuit: the Sukhoi Su-27. NATO reporting name: Flanker.

The Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker is a very interesting fighter. It’s somewhat analogous to an F-15, but since the Soviet Air Force wasn’t big on midair refueling, they designed it to be very large so it could carry enormous quantities of fuel internally. It’s got some phenomenal aerobatic capabilities, but suffers from a general lack of payload for its size and some less than stellar reliability numbers. That said, it’s also cheap, and Russia is an infinitely more loyal and useful friend than America these days. Supposing one were to buy some Zhuravliki1, what would we get in them?

Let’s talk engines first. We’re looking for power in an afterburning turbofan. Best in production is the 142 kN AL-31F1S from Saturn Lyulka. Stretching things a little, the AL-31FM2, currently in testing, can put out 145 kN of thrust with afterburner. We’ll also want 3-D thrust vectoring here, with nozzles that can move in both pitch and yaw directions. Thrust vectoring requires some extra training however, as it can cause the aircraft to bleed energy too quickly. Still, it’s a nice extra edge pioneered on some Flanker models in the 90s.

Now, sensors. The Flanker doesn’t have AESA available just yet, we’re stuck with PESA. But, Rafale also has PESA, and Eurofighter still uses mechanically-scanned arrays. However, the Flanker has a really big nose radome for a large, powerful array. The best radar available is the N0035E Irbis-E, which is mechanically steerable to increase the maximum deflection angle of the beam. It’s got a 20 kW peak power, 5 kW average power, can track 30 targets at ranges of up to 400 km, and can engage 8 simultaneously. Way cool. Even the original Su-27s came with IRST and helmet mounted sights, so no special add-ons are needed here. One of the more interesting features of some late model Flanker prototypes, which we’ll put to use, is the N012 radar in the tail boom between the engines. This has a range of about 60 km for fighter sized targets, and is primarily designed to help warn of approaching rear threats. It’s also used to cue the defensive systems. There’s an improved version available, the Pharaon, which gets about 15 km more range for the “fighter size test target”. We’ll call for the Pharaon aft.

In terms of hardpoints, more is better. More specifically, we’ll go for the extra underwing hardpoints introduced in the 90s. The Russians wanted to facilitate the use of wingtip jamming pods like the Knirti SAP-518. But, those lose the wingtip rails, so Sukhoi added an extra pair of underwing hardpoints to take the short-range AAMs that would normally go on the wingtips. So, our Flankers will have a total of fourteen hardpoints: two wingtip, four under each wing, and four under the fuselage. Two of the underwing hardpoints will be plumbed to permit the installation of drop tanks, for an extra 4,000 L of fuel. We’ll get a pair of SAP-518s with each Flanker courtesy of Rosoboronexport. Why the Knirti pods? Well, since they’re also Russian, we can probably get a deal on the whole package. Plus, they’re some pretty powerful jamming pods, capable of jamming in the 5-18 GHz range. They’re modern, digital radio frequency memory jammers, so they’re better at emulating complex waveforms. Plus, with two pods widely spaced out (wingspan is 14.698 m), we can use crosseye jamming techniques to spoof incoming active-radar guided missiles. While we’re talking self-protection here, we’ll want to include a missile approach warning system (integrated with that snazzy Pharaon), the usual chaff and flare dispensers, and a Kedr2 towed decoy.

Now, let’s talk about aircraft structure. Our Flankers will have canards, to maximize agility. Also, because canards are cool. Some Flankers have opted against canards to reduce weight and radar signature. Our response is that it’s a Flanker. It has an elephantine radar signature and the addition of more control surfaces isn’t going to change that much. We will replace old soviet era hydraulic controls with shiny new quadruplex digital fly-by-wire controls. Since we have a digital flight control system, we can delete the dorsal airbrake to save a little weight, and get the same airbrake effect with differential deflection of the rudders.3 We’ll also reinforce the frame and the landing gear to deal with the increased weight. Our landing gear will be the dual nosewheel type, instead of the single nosewheel of the base model Su-27. Internally, we’re going to use all that space for 11,500 kg of internal fuel. And, of course, we’re going to opt for the midair refueling boom. How could we not?

In the cockpit, we’ll go with the center-stick version of the HOTAS control set. We will also use the conventional throttles; I’m not a big fan of pressure-based controls. The tactile feedback of actually being able to move the controls is nice. Avionicswise, we’re going non-Russian. More specifically, Franco-Israeli. The HUD comes from Israel: the Elbit Su 967, with it’s holographic displays. We’ll use a pair of Thales 12″x9″ (WxH) LCDs to display flight information. We’re not opting for touchscreens here. We prefer the traditional array of buttons around each displays. We don’t think touchscreens are robust enough yet, and prefer the tactile feedback and muscle memory that we can get with physical buttons. The Russian Zvezda zero-zero ejection seats are fine, and we won’t bother to replace them.

That’s it. One awesome Flanker. Since we also have an ego that’s almost as big as Russia, and we like to confuse defense analysts, rather than name this something sensible like Su-35MKB, we’ll insist that it be called Su-374. We might even recycle the old ad copy and call it the Su-37 Terminator.

1.) “Baby Cranes”. Because flankers are cute and adorable and above all small.
2.) Roughly analogous to an ALE-50.
3.) The Super Hornet uses a similar method.
4.) There’s already a Su-37, but that designation was applied to a pair of experimental demonstrator aircraft around the early 2000s. They did not go into production. This one will.