Grasping at Shadows, Blindfolded

A special guest post by Kenneth Ellis, “Fringe.”

The hallmark for good analysis of simulation is found from both admitting the functional limitations of the modelling capability and scenario, and by having an intimate understanding of that which is being represented by said model.

Recently, Kyle Mizokami over at War is Boring (by way of Medium and Foreign Policy) presented us with a long series of admissions pertaining to his simulation of a possible engagement within China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea:

“So what does my simulation of the battle mean for the current situation in the East China Sea? Simply put, China has a chance of pulling off an aerial ambush. If my scenario is realistic. If the game’s modeling is accurate. If the Chinese are little lucky and if U.S. and Japanese commanders make mistakes. And if the first volley of AMRAAMs misses.

To be sure, those are a lot of ifs.”

Measuring the Understatement

The first issue with Mizokami’s exercise is what he presents as a “battle plan”. To understand why, we must look at the defining factors of air to air engagement as they exist in the real world, versus how they are presented in the simulator that he used (Command: Modern/Air Naval Operations, from here designated CMANO), and coupled with his order of battle.

Air operations of the kind presented by Mizokami  are highly dependent on many moving parts and factors, the most important of which is time. In the age of Airborne Early Warning radar (AEW), the ability to detect, identify, and define intent takes place over many hundreds of miles; the further the detection is made against a potentially hostile flight, the longer the amount of time a defender has to position its assets as necessary to construct an effective defense.

To this, certain tactics and and systems can be employed which can minimize this window of response; for example, even against atmospheric reflecting over the horizon radar, low level approach can be used to hide until deep within the radar’s search range. However, the low level ingress eats in to another vital factor of air operations: fuel. Jet aircraft burn more fuel at low altitude by nature of the denser air. Constructing an operation in which a strike package at low level is going to run in at high speed to minimize their chances of exposure demands aircraft with suitably large fuel fractions and combat radius.

The actual strike assortment against the high value targets of China’s eye are the Chengdu J-10. The problem with this representation is that the J-10 has a reported effective radius of 550km when flying a leisurely cruise profile; striking with intent against a Japanese P-3 AND E-2C Hawkeye is anything but a leisurely exercise. With the E-2C orbiting nearly 300 nautical miles away from the closest represented PLA airfield, we have a problem: any dash/tail chase situation on the part of the J-10s against their prey is going to certify that they can’t get home, unless they’re carrying bags (external fuel tanks) to increase their fuel from the reasonable 9900 lbs to something more suitable for the mission profile.

While the need for bags may be a reason why the type, in Mr. Mizokami’s model, were not carrying a larger array of ordnance, it does not appreciably account for the incurred drag penalty having those tanks on the aircraft. Anything hanging off the airframe slows it down, whereas a targeted strike against an airborne target demands maximum haste. When this is contrasted with the premise that the J-10s cruise out to the Eagles, Orions, Hawkeye, and Raptor to engage them without bags, it means that they’re not getting home.

One could make the suggestion that this situation could be resolved through in-flight refueling; however Mizokami has not afforded the PLA assets this resource. Further, as a rule air to air refueling does not take place at low level; given the nature of the refueling approach and the need for options for both the refueling aircraft and its customers in the event of an emergency, such events take place at altitude. This would sacrifice the clandestine nature of the strike package- the instant they dive to hide, the JASDF aircraft in the area would know something was amiss. Groups of aircraft disappearing over contested airspace is a sure way to put people on notice.

Thus we find that given the circumstances that Mizokami has presented, the Chengdu J-10 is not the right tool for the job. That role, however, is more than happy to be filled by the J-11.

The Shenyang J-11 is a license-built copy of the familiar Russian Su-27 Flanker. Built for the air superiority role, and with the intent of minimizing the need for air to air refueling, the Flanker carries a downright prodigious internal fuel fraction– in excess of twenty thousand pounds, or more than double that of the J-10. Further, it can hang a higher amount of air to air ordnance off its pylons than the J-10, and attain a higher top speed. Dismissing the J-10 flight, and replacing it with a matching number of J-11s would go a long way towards solving the underlying failure towards generating operation realism in the scenario. But that is the role of the honest scenario designer, not the person evaluating the analysis.

All that said, the greatest error in the analysis is in not realizing the failures of Command’s model of air combat maneuver.

“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack”

To illustrate this, we’ll forego review of the PLA engagements with the JASDF Eagles and move right into Mizokami’s money maker- the engagement between the surviving PLA aircraft and the F-22 Raptors.

In his breakdown, Mizokami states that the F-22 Raptors made a mistake late in their intercept of the inbound PLA aircraft- activating their respective APG-77 radars, allowing for them to be detected by the Chinese. This, as far as the white-sourced world currently knows, is in error.

The APG-77 is what is referred to as a Low Probability of Intercept, or LPI, radar. This means that the radar randomly changes the signal frequencies and widths it sends out hundreds of times per second, across its hundreds of individual active arrays, to keep the aircraft from being detected by way of its emissions. Radar warning receivers function based on recurring patterns of bandwidth frequency, width and power to define the type of threat that is pinging it and determine a relative direction and distance to that emitter. With LPI, the warning receiver is unable to find a pattern on which to designate a specific emitter; instead, even if the emissions are detected based on the bands that the RWR is sensitive to, no consistent pattern is found, and the signal is rejected as background noise.

Simply put- the J-11s can’t see the Raptor by way of RWR, even if they’re “loud”.

Compounding this is the differing nature of RWR sensing versus the required data to put a missile on a target. Whereas the APG-77 can turn another aircraft’s emissions into the type of data that an AIM-120 AMRAAM needs to engage, the N001VE Myech radar of the J-11 cannot. Thus, the pulse Doppler N001VE must be close enough to the F-22 to get some form of return to guide a PL-12 at it. Plugging in even a worst-case return value for the F-22 into the radar equation, that of the F-117 Nighthawk (of which the Raptor’s signature is a mere fraction), it’s still miniscule in the terms of beyond visual range (BVR) warfare.

What’s more, the F-22 carries what is referred to as the IFDL, or Intra-Flight Data Link. This system allows a group of Raptors operating within the same region to share targeting data amongst every other Raptor it wishes, meaning that one F-22 can “paint” a target for his wingman, and that wingman can launch a weapon without ever turning on his own radar.

While CMANO’s model of datalinked launch capability purportedly exists, Mizokami never gave it a chance. Lateral separation between a pair of Raptors means time and lack of full recognition of the threat, at least until J-11s (and J-10s) in his example start spontaneously exploding by way of AIM-120. Properly represented, the PLA aircraft do not know they’re being fired upon; and even if they do, they are attempting to intercept the wrong aircraft, making for an easier attack profile for the incoming AMRAAMs.

Summed, Mizokami’s contention that the “U.S. and Japanese commanders (or, in this case, aircrew) make mistakes” is wrong- they didn’t make the mistake. The mistake is on the part of the model, and ultimately, the analyst.

Further, even a cursory review of CMANO’s interactions within the air combat maneuvering arena find it’s modeling of such events to be suspect. BVR tactics are derived from a series of what are called “poles”-

the A-Pole (the range at which one’s BVR missile goes active and can attack without guidance from you),

E-Pole (minimum range one can be from the enemy and outrun his weapon),

and F-Pole (the range from an aircraft to the enemy when his missile attacks)

In BVR, a pilot wants to maximize the range of his launch, minimize the range of his opponent’s weapons, and maintain distance that allows him to reengage, or escape, as required. Applying tactical control of these “poles” allow a well trained pilot to do just that- engage without being engaged, escape when needed, and press the fight as required.

CMANO doesn’t grasp the poles, or more advanced BVR tactical considerations. Intercepts are purely a function of pointing at the enemy, launching at maximum range, and continuing to close with the opponent at the current speed. Weapon avoidance is unrealistically late, and in no way, shape, or form uses well understood maneuvering techniques to deny the shot. At no time do aircraft within CMANO attempt to maximize their situation by way of offset maneuvering, deceleration post-launch, or any number of other techniques made to make survival possible. It is all left to a pure probability model- that is, chance. Even when a player takes over flying duties through manual overrides, his ability to affect ultimate performance is limited; he can create mismatches, direct specific volumes of weapons to be employed on given targets, but not actually force the method of prosecution. This breaks down even further within visual range.

In essence, air warfare in CMANO is 18th century warfare by formatted lines. Mizokami’s example not only surrendered numerical advantage to the Chinese; by failing to account and allow for the USAF/JASDF to effectively employ the advantages their aircraft hold, the resulting findings are without merit, and without usefulness to the lay person or the professional.

Disingenuity to the Last

Ultimately, the most interesting aspect of this exercise is the fact that in its original home at Medium, the article was inherently unable to receive any sort of peer or communal critique. The need for Twitter to sign in, along with the broken comment methodology permitted on the forum, allowed the presentation time to cement a legitimacy that it is undeserving of. With the disclaimer effectively “ten minutes” below the headline, most would never see it, thus have no opportunity to shade the findings as appropriate.

Contrast this with the honest approach to modeling and simulation required when presenting findings to an audience lacking the knowledge to properly assess the evaluation; the oft-mentioned RAND simulation of the F-35 being trounced in open warfare with China is a perfect example. The model had holes, and these holes were understood in a way to still make the data useful to the Department of Defense. Mizokami either doesn’t recognize the holes in CMANO’s modeling of air combat, or is making a conscious effort to not admit where all of these knowledge bombs lay. Thus, one can quickly ascertain why the “ifs” were held till the end- speaking from a non-authoritative position on the subject matter, when adding in the spice of a F-22 Raptor being shot down, it doesn’t make good copy and fails to generate clicks.

There is a place for honest presentation of military subject matter, and the means to which equipment, training, and readiness combine to effect policy, and vice versa, to the public. Wanton click mongering pays no value to the public at large, nor to the services that must be prepared to take action on policy.

In closing, Mr. Mizokami’s scenario, and his final analysis, are works of bad fiction, and should be treated as such. Japanese Eagles and US Raptors may fall if challenged by the PLA over the East China Sea, but it will not be based on the terms he has offered as an example.

Silent Hornet?

The F/A-18 family has been a pretty successful program for Naval Aviation, from it’s origins as an inexpensive lightweight fighter, to a replacement for legacy F-4 Phantom and A-7 Corsair II aircraft.  It’s evolution into the much larger F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EF-18G Growler were surprisingly smooth programs.

But the program isn’t without its faults.  For instance, the major weakness of the family has always been seen as its relatively low “fuel fraction,” that is, the percentage of the aircrafts weight devoted to fuel.  A low fuel fraction leads to relatively short range.  External tanks and aerial refueling mitigate this to some extent, but not without penalties in performance, payload, cost, and time.

The Super Hornets also have one other minor issue. A fair amount of attention was paid to reducing the radar cross section of the jet, without having to go full stealth. But when weapon separation tests were conducted on the prototype, it turned out that some loads were not leaving cleanly. The modified wing of the Super Hornet was doing things to airflow that no one had foreseen. Rather than have to redesign the entire wing, the fix turned out to be toeing out the external wing pylons by 4 degrees.  Of course, this imposes a healthy bit of drag, both for the pylons themselves, and for any stores on them. It also pretty much shot to hell all the attention to reducing the radar cross section of the jet.

So, with the pylons off, the Super Hornet is pretty sprightly, and has fair low observable characteristics. But it doesn’t have any range, or any weapons.

Boeing is trying to work around that issue.  In recent years, other “teen” series fighters, the F-15 and F-16, have used “conformal fuel tanks” fitted to the outside of the airframe to increase “internal” fuel, rather than having to carry drop tanks on pylons. With care, the design can have minimal impact on airframe drag or radar cross section. That goes a long ways toward tacking the range issue. But what about weapons? Boeing is also designing a semi-stealthy pod for the centerline that resembles a drop tank, but is instead a weapons pod.

Jason pointed out this article at The DEW Line showing a mock-up of the configuration that Boeing and the Navy will flight test this summer.


You can see the Conformal Fuel Tanks over the wing root, and the weapons pod on the centerline. Close observation will also show a sensor window under the nose, as opposed to the usual method of mounting a pod on one of the engine bays. Less drag, more stealth.

The concept is to give the Super Hornet fleet some limited ability for “first day of the war” stealth to penetrate enemy air space. My major concern is that the weapons pod right now is only configured (so far as we can tell) to carry four AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, giving it a fair air-to-air capability. What it really needs is a capability to carry weapons to attack enemy surface to air defense systems.  Some way of carrying anti-radiation missiles, or at a minimum, GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs is going to be critical. I suppose designing an alternative pod shouldn’t be too great an engineering challenge.

Boeing is smart enough to see that its rival Lockheed Martin is struggling to make the F-35C a reality, and is trying to offer a low cost, low risk alternative that will keep the carrier air wing viable through the first half of the 21st Century.