Thursday, September 09, 2010

Low and Slow

Who'd ever think that Cessna or Beechcraft might be in the interceptor business?

But, if Admiral James Winnefeld gets his way, they might get a shot.

Admiral Winnefeld, the Commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is concerned about an existing "gap" in our air defenses. Specifically, he's worried about the potential threat from slow, low-flying aircraft that are difficult for fast-moving fighters to escort and interdict.

According to Aviation Week, the problem was underscored during a recent incident involving a Navy Fire Scout drone. Launched from Patuxent River NAS in Maryland on 2 August, the UAV suffered a software glitch that caused it to go off course. Making matters worse, the drone failed to return to Patuxent (as it was programmed to do). Instead, it headed toward restricted airspace about 40 NM from Washington, D.C.

As NORAD Commander, Winnefeld was in the battle cab [at Peterson AFB, Colorado] as the incident unfolded. He was on the verge of scrambling fighters against the UAV when the Navy regained control of the aircraft.

In this case, the aircraft type--and its mission--were known, so the event was hardly a crisis. Still, there were legitimate concerns about the aircraft passing through restricted airspace, or the heavily-congested corridors leading to Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport near Washington.

Winnefeld is also worried about our ability to intercept (or interdict) slow-moving aircraft at low altitude when their intention is not known. To handle that mission, he's developing a formal requirement for a "fast" attack helicopter or a low-speed, fixed-wing design. And he hopes to have it in the DoD budget in the near future.

So far, Admiral Winnefeld hasn't specified the number of helicopters or aircraft needed for the "low-and-slow" intercept mission. But given their limited speed and range, the NORAD would (presumably) need dozens of of airframes, enough to protect key metropolitan centers (including Washington) and sensitive facilities across the country. By the time you factor in such costs as crew training, aircraft modification and sensor installation, the price tag for Winnefeld's plan will run into the billions of dollars. So far, he hasn't said where the money will come from, given current Pentagon efforts to slash costs.

Besides, the U.S. already has an interceptor force, consisting of Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, stationed at various locations around the country. The Air Force would argue that the current force is adequate, although its sometimes difficult for fast-moving fighters to fly alongside slow-moving aircraft and attempt to communicate with their pilots. Blue-suiters would argue that aging interceptors need better air intercept radars and integration with other sensors, including FAA radars. But judging from the Admiral's proposal, he seems to have little confidence that high-performance jets can handle the low-and-slow intercept mission.

Oddly enough, there might be a potential compromise for this problem. Newer generations of UAVs have the speed to match many slow-moving aircraft, and they're controlled through command-and-control nodes with access to a wide array of sensors--so it might be easier for an interceptor drone (and its operators) to determine the intent of an aircraft more quickly and respond, based on NORAD guidance. UAVs have excellent endurance, so they could escort unknown aircraft for hours, over a wide geographic area. And, with available armament options, they could also be used to shoot down a plane or helicopter (in a worst-case scenario). With cooperation from the FAA, the military could install a signal system on the drone, to attempt communications with the wayward aircraft.

Unfortunately, there's only one problem with this "solution." The FAA has been extremely reluctant to allow UAV operations in congested airspace, for the reasons illustrated in the Pax River incident. Federal officials don't want an unpiloted aircraft drifting through restricted (or heavily-used) airspace, regardless of its mission.

Creating a force of interceptor drones (which would be scrambled periodically for training) would raise more prospects for wayward drones, operating in places there are not supposed to be. Admiral Winnefeld, a career fighter pilot, has admitted that the off-course Fire Scout "did not help" the military's case to bring drone operations into civilian airspace. That's one reason the NORAD commander is talking about attack helicopters and slow-moving fixed wing platforms to fill the interceptor "gap." He'll face an uphill battle from the Air Force, which doesn't want to share the mission with other aircraft that (might) be operated by the other services.

Still, the USAF interceptor force is aging rapidly, and airpower analysts openly wonder if NORAD will have enough airframes for the air defense mission by the end of this decade. That reality is not exactly a confidence-builder, giving an opening to someone like Admiral Winnefeld and his "alternative" solution.


BuckeyeSandy said...

Sounds like another mission for the Civil Air Patrol.

James said...

The Cubans seemed to have no problems with those two props they shot down a few years ago.

James said...

The Cubans seemed to have no problems with those two props they shot down a few years ago.

Ed Rasimus said...

Thinking "outside the box" is always a good exercise. The pros and cons here initially make this look like a very bad idea and very ineffective.

Interceptors need to be fast because they can't be everywhere in anticipation of the need. They deploy and then must move rapidly to the point of contact.

They require maintenance and skilled operators. That means large numbers.

They are single mission and not capable of being re-roled into other tasks.

You lose the on-scene judgment factor that a manned interceptor provides.

It is creative thinking, but I pray that it doesn't go much further.

Anonymous said...

Interesting....I used to chase cruise missiles out of Pax when they were being tested, and any time that we had something unmanned flying like that we always had them wired such that the chase aircraft could press a button and destroy them if necessary. I wonder why this failsafe was not employed?

Intercepting very slow aircraft can be difficult in a fighter; first of all you can't get that slow; second some slow movers even have canvas wings and small engines that don't show up very well on your radar or FLIR. You can always get them with 20 mm and the old eye balls, though, no problem.

Corky Boyd said...

The low slow targets have been a problem since the days we gave up prop aircraft. Modern jet inteceptors simply can't do the job.

I ran into a customs pilot in the 1980s who came up with an ingenious, low cost solution to tail drug runners flying to Florida. Through the drug seizure law, they obtained a free Cessna Citation. For a radar they were given the losing prototype radar from the F-16 program which they grafted on. And they somehow got a decent FLIR. Turned out to be an excellent platform for intercepting planes flying up from Colombia.

A similar effort was done by the Navy in the early 1960s in Viet Nam where some night time low-slow targets had been detected. They used an AD-4Q (prop plane)from one of our elint squadrons converted temporarily for air intercept work.

Brian said...

A job for an armed T-6 or T-45 type of aircraft. Some RAF Hawks have a centreline 30 mm cannon pod for weapons training and some (T-1As)were fitted with sidewinders under the wings during the Cold War as short range point defence fighters using Tornado F2s to guide them to eyeball range.

Storms24 said...

Do we need a slower interceptor (aircraft) or do we need a targeting system that can intercept slow movers?

sykes.1 said...

A few Brazilian SuperTurcanos would be useful in that role.

While you're add it, order up some A1 Skyraiders for the infantry.

Anonymous said...

Civil air patrol can't and shouldn't be able to shoot aircraft down, so they should stay out of that loop.

Ed is right; sometimes these things are detected late, and you need a fast mover to get there quickly. Fast movers can intercept and hand off to helos or something similar, or just set up a nice, old fashioned gunnery pattern on the thing with your wingman and have fun tracking him. A fabric crop duster laden with a bio agent 25 ft. off the water moving 60 mph could get pretty close to an aircraft carrier if they weren't paying very close attention. Most of the problems with this is headwork; it is out of the box thinking like Ed said and very few people have any original tactical thoughts these days.

gatorbait said...

Something like an A-37 would do it nicely.Just ask the Colombians

CT Guy said...

How about pulling some A-10's out of the boneyard for this ? They have long loiter,slow stall speed and they are already paid for.Keep the F-15's & 16's for the serious stuff.

Keith1954 said...

Need a low and slow aircraft? Try a blimp. They fly around 60 mph with an ideal height of 600-1000 feet. They did a cracker jack job of escorting subs in WW2.