Thursday, March 08, 2007

Debunking the Debunker

Over at Harper's, I found this piece by Ken Silverstein, which claims to blow holes in a recent International Herald-Tribune article on China's new fighter, the F-10. The IHT piece, which ran last month, described the F-10 as a "super fighter," the first PRC fighter with capabilities similar to fourth-generation western aircraft, including the U.S. F-16, the French Rafale, and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Not true, says Mr. Silverstein. He claims that the F-10 (China uses the J-10 designation) has serious defects:

"...the plane is reported to have serious problems with its engine and other major systems; finally, the electronics systems on the J-10 are downright primitive compared to those of American warplanes."

As for the IHT article, Silverstein says it's nothing more than a plug for the Air Force's F-22 Raptor, thanks to an over-inflated assessment of the China threat from Rick Fisher, director of the International Assessment and Strategy Center's Project on Asian Security and Democracy. Mr. Fisher is apparently suspect because (gasp) he once worked for the Heritage Foundation and is a fomer advisor to California Congressman Chris Cox, who happens to support Taiwan. Why, one of Mr. Fisher's current colleagues, Dr. Arthur Waldron, has actually advocated "regime change" in the PRC.

Mr. Silverstein has clear problems with Fisher's assertion that the F-22 is the only fighter currently in service that would clearly outmatch the F-10. Silverstein describes the Raptor as a Cold War relic, over-priced and not necessary to meet the emerging Chinese threat. It's an argument frequently used by foes of the F-22, and it's almost entirely inaccurate, as is his characterization of the Chinese fighter.

Let's begin with the F-10. It is a super fighter? Depends on how you define the term. Put another way, it's the best tactical aircraft the Chinese have ever produced, thanks largely to technology acquired lock, stock and barrel from Israel, and its cancelled Lavi fighter program. Serious problems with its engines and other systems? Please be more specific. In a twin-engine fighter (like the F-15 or the F-22), loss of a single powerplant is a manageable problem, in most circumstances. In a single-engine jet (such as the F-10 or F-16), it's a major emergency, one that requires quick acquisition of a runway.

Has the PRC had problems with F-10s that lost their engine and crashed? Yes, but by that standard, so has the United States and every other country that has operated single-engine fighters. And, based on my conversations with analysts who have followed the F-10 program for more than a decade, the number of Chinese crashes has not been excessive, and the test program advanced steadily. True, the F-10 was in development for more than a decade, but that's typical for modern fighter programs. The days when a team of engineers could retire to a room a design a new fighter in 90 days (like the famed P-51 Mustang) have long since passed.

In terms of electronics, the F-10 has a Russian-designed, multi-function Pulse-Doppler radar, the first ever in a Chinese-designed fighter. This radar, probably a derivative of the Zhuk or RP-35 models, supports the AA-12 ADDER, an active radar missile, similar in performance to the U.S. AIM-120 AMRAAM. More disturbingly, advanced models of the AA-12 (which Beijing will have access to) are expected to have a larger employment envelope that the U.S. missile, giving the Chinese a potential "first shot" advantage against other fourth-generation fighters equipped with AMRAAM.

In terms of overall performance, the F-10 is extremely competitive with the F-16 and various European fighters. And that brings us to the heart of Silverstein's argument. Is a peer competitor, as he implies, good enough to guarantee air supremacy over the Taiwan Strait. I would argue that it isn't, for a couple of reasons. First, U.S. defense plans are (typically) built on the assumption that we will control the skies. Without air supremacy, our operating bases are threatened, along with the flow of supplies and reinforcements into a region.

Secondly, control of the skies gives us the flexibility to attack enemy target sets--in depth--at the time of our choosing. The lessons of both Gulf Wars and Operation Allied Force have not been lost on Beijing, which is building an Air Force (and air defense system) capable of challenging U.S. domination of the skies. These capabilities are being supplanted by a state-of-the art denial and deception (D&D) program, aimed at denying our advantages in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Finally, Silverstein conveniently ignores the other half of China's air force modernization program, embodied by the acquisition of more than 200 SU-27/30 FLANKER aircraft from Russia. A potential battle for control of the Taiwan Straits isn't simply an F-10 vs. F-22 proposition. It's a scenario pitting large numbers of F-10s and FLANKERs against Taiwanese F-16s, Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs), Mirage 2000-5s, and at some point, U.S. F-15s and F-22s.

Unfortunately for Taiwan's Air Force, the numbers are (increasingly) on the PRC's side, and with the F-10 and SU-27/30, Beijing has achieved technological parity in basic fighter performance. And, with the AA-11 (infrared air-to-air missile) and extended range AA-12, PRC pilots will have the advantage in both beyond-visual-range (BVR) and short-range engagements.

Against that sort of threat, you don't want equality; you want a fighter that totally eclipses the adversary's capabilities. In other words, you want the F-22, and its combination of stealth, super-cruise and advanced avionics to (a) ensure air supremacy, and (b) allow us to penetrate enemy airspace, and eliminate high-value targets.

If the Chinese threat evaporated tomorrow, I'd be the first to suggest an early termination of the F-22 program, and accelerated development of UCAV technology. But as Beijing continues its military modernization program, the F-22 remains a wise investment, not only for the defense of Taiwan, but for other regions as well. You see, there's another element missing from Mr. Silverstein's piece. China will aggressively market the F-10, just as Russia has done with the FLANKER. Advanced fighters from those countries will likely show up in Iran and Syria in the near future, providing a similar challenge to existing, fourth-generation fighters. And once again, the question becomes: do you want an absolute advantage, or just parity?


In fairness, both Silverstein's article--and my reply--ignore the issue of pilot training and tactical proficiency. Historically, that has been an area where the U.S. (and other western Air Forces) have held a clear advantage. But even that advantage may be eroding, as demonstrated by recent Cope India exchanges, where Indian Air Force FLANKERS, operated by tactically competent crews, surprised their USAF counterparts. There are indications that China's air tactics are also evolving, to take full advantage of the capabilities found in the F-10 and SU-27/30. Improving proficiency by PRC pilots buttress the case for the F-22.

As for that computer-code "bug" that supposedly short-circuited the recent Raptor deployment to Okinawa? It's been fixed. Using that flaw as proof that the F-22 is a "dodo," is reminiscent of early criticism of the Maverick missile. During one of its early tests, the Maverick suffered a seeker malfunction and missed the target, causing critics to howl. The Maverick has gone on to become the most successful air-launched anti-armor weapon in history, with thousands used successfully in the Gulf Wars and Kosovo. It's not a stretch to say the F-22 will be even more successful.

Finally, I do not know Mr. Fisher, nor am I affilated with his organization.


RussInSoCal said...

The Chengdu fighter weighs in at 40,000LBS MTOW (kinda light). Same as the F-16 and its spin-offs Typhoon and Rafael. (I don't know anything about the Israeli jet). The Chinese have obviously opted for canards instead of vectored thrust - which the T and R have. The comment about the level of advancement in the engines is expressed here: The F-22, Typhoon, Rafael and F-35 all have vectored thrust and super-cruise capability. The F-16 (30 years old) and the J-10 do not. Add a stealth deficiency and short range attack capability and you have a poorly maintained F-16 with sub-comp pilots.

Yes - you could theoretically throw thousands of them at the the Western threat, but these fighters may be starting to cost real money to the Chinese - hence the market shudders of late.

Make your fighters, sell your fighters China. Your fronts are too many. And too close.

jamminedward said...

Thanks again for some real insight into an important technical and strategic issue. Of course, the "defeat at all costs" or "never prevail" leftists will tout equivalency, balance, or symmetry in confronting aggressive threats, instead of substantial superiority and victory. It is a sad and potentially fatal devolution of our national consciousness. Let's hope the next generation of tech-obsessed and video-game schooled citizens will love the uber-coolness of the F-22 and whatever it takes to stay on top in future enough to keep the barbarians at bay. I know my teens go straight to the cheat to get tanks and harriers in GTF San Andreas, so there's hope from unanticipated quarters--maybe.

jobob said...

Its not the F22 that has me concerned. Air superiority is so important and the technical superiority of the aircraft is such a important part of maintaining that superiority, it should be a given that the F22 is necessary.
What concerns me is whether we need the F35 . A aircraft that may be too much of a comprise and too expense to really be of much value.

Red River said...

The fighter is just one of several components.

Not in any order:

1. Fighter and Air Battle Doctrine
2. Air General and Air Battle proficiency
3. Maintenance capacity = sorty rate
4. SAR
5. Ability at all levels to improvise and learn
6. Refuel and Rearm Capacity

Certainly there are cheap ways to take down an F22 - a Stinger when its lands or a SOF attack on its base.

Or a focus on shooting down tanker aircraft.

Throw in a Mach 6 AWACS killing missile fired from a Sub and its all over with.

DirkVan said...

A concern I 'd like some feed back on. What about China drawing the U.S into a military spending race just as the U.S economy begins to show the strain of the war in IRAC and the economic impact of china's rise. More to the point is china using it's "threat" to manipulate the US into losing the real war. Economics. Remember the USSR.