We are in a new era of warfare with drones

Often in military history, a single weapons system can become emblematic of a whole age of warfare. One thinks of the longbow used by the English archers at Agincourt in the Middle Ages or the heavily armored tanks that epitomized the ground combat of World War II.

The MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) became the iconic weapon of the period of counter-insurgency warfare waged by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. This corresponded with what has been called “the uni-polar moment” after the end of the Cold War, when the United States stood alone and unchallenged as the dominant global superpower.

The drones’ symbolic status only grew when Predator — originally conceived for aerial reconnaissance — was armed with Hellfire missiles. Its successor, the Reaper, was specifically designed as a hunter-killer. It has a greater range than its predecessor and can carry a heavier weight of munitions.

These can be precise killers capable of targeting one’s enemies whenever and wherever they least expect it. It was Reaper drones that are believed to have been used by the U.S. to kill the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport in Jan. 2020.

For a brief period of time it was largely the United States and Israel (with its own significant drone industry) who were able to carry out such operations. This was the first age of the combat drone. However, things have dramatically changed.

A new era of drone warfare has already arrived involving many more players. And the use of UAVs has moved from counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency warfare into full scale conventional combat. Indeed, a new third age of drone warfare beckons as technology becomes ever more sophisticated and linked to artificial intelligence.

Drone strikes have played a key role in recent conflicts,helping bolster the Ethiopia’s position in the face of attacks from Tigray People’s Liberation Front rebels. The Ethiopian government has purchased armed drones from Turkey and Iran. It is also reported to have access to Chinese Wing Loong II UAVs via the United Arab Emirates. The UAE similarly supplied Chinese-built drones to its ally General Khalifa Haftar in Libya’s brutal civil war.

In many cases, armed drones have had a decisive impact, contributing to the survival of Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli. And, in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, drones were a potent factor enabling Azerbaijan’s forces to wrest control of the disputed enclave from Armenia.

Drones strikes often raise complex legal and moral dilemmas. They can only be as accurate as the intelligence upon which they are based. The hope that their use might be curbed in some way by arms control treaties has proved illusory. Indeed, the spread of UAVs seems relentless. Over 100 countries and non-state groups have drones, and many actors have access to armed drones.

Indeed as Paul Scharre, Director of Studies at the Center for New American Security says, the proliferation of these systems looks set to continue. Indeed, he argues that “commercial drone technology is so widely available that anyone could build a crude do-it-yourself attack drone for a few hundred dollars, and some terrorist groups have.”

The UAV’s decisive impact is no surprise, he adds. They give a country an air force on the cheap. “States and non-state groups that can’t afford to buy fighter jets can buy drones,” he says, “and while drones are not as capable as fighter jets, they give actors access to some airpower. Combined with digital technologies that enable high-definition surveillance and precision strike, drones can be quite lethal to ground forces.” But the use of UAVs in regional conflicts and civil wars provides only a pointer to the drone’s value in future warfare.

While the U.S. and its allies were focused upon counter- insurgency operations, Russia used its involvement in Syria as a testing ground for the incorporation of drones into its wider order of battle. “Russia’s drone fleet in Syria conducted crucial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, connecting identified targets with Russian artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, and aircraft through drone observation in real-time,” says Samuel Bendett, a member of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses in Virginia. “This concept is now redefining how the Russian military fights today and in the future by giving forces a UAV-enabled, round-the-clock picture of the battlefield, something that the generals did not have before.”

The current fighting in Ukraine has provided valuable insight into Russia’s planned use of UAVs. Several types of Russian-made drones have been shot down over eastern Ukraine. Mr. Bendett says that intelligence gathering and reconnaissance remain their key mission, “but that they also have another important role in electronic warfare, with a special class of Russian drones fitted for that purpose.” Electronic warfare is the art of locating enemy forces by the signals that they send out and then isolating them by jamming their communications.

Russia may be a decade or so behind the U.S. in terms of the sophistication of its most advanced technology, but the Russian armed forces may well be ahead in terms of integrating drones into their fighting units. Military drones are present across the entire Russian military force structure, says Mr. Bendett. “The utility of this organization has been proven in combat with instances of Ukrainian armored units speedily identified, their communications jammed, and devastating artillery fire directed against them.

Indeed, Ukraine also now has access to armed Turkish drones, having used them against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas fighting. Away from the high-intensity battlefield, drones are still being used by insurgents and militia units.

But if the drone threat is relatively well understood, why is it so hard to counter ?

“Most drones in use today are smaller than traditional military aircraft and require different kinds of air defenses,” says Mr. Scharre. “They fly slower and lower to the ground and that means that many air defense systems are not optimized to shoot them down.” Many countries, he says, are working to develop counter- measures against drones, and over time we’ll see more effective counter-drone systems spread to battlefields as well. One challenge, though, will be countering massed drone attacks, since low-cost drones can be built in large numbers. There’s been a lot of talk about futuristic, so-called “drone swarms.”

We’ve already seen massed drone attacks, such as that in 2018 by Syrian rebels against a Russian air base that used 13 drones. However, Scharre insists that a deluge of drones is not a true swarm. Swarming, he argues, “isn’t so much defined by the number of drones in an attack but by their ability to cooperate together without any human involvement.” And drone swarms could be used for simultaneous, multi-directional attacks in ways that could overwhelm human defenders. Over time, he warns, this could have a dramatic effect in transforming warfare.

– edited from BBC News, February 4, 2022
PeaceMeal, March/April 2022

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Australia to get nuclear subs in new U.S., British partnership

The United States will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new Indo-Pacific strategic alliance including Britain, a U.S. official announced on Sept. 15. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the three-way partnership, dubbed AUKUS ( pronounced “aw-kiss”, is a “historic” new piece in Washington’s growing focus on the region, where China is challenging decades of United States leadership and naval dominance. The announcement infuriated France, which has been negotiating a multi-billion-dollar sale of conventional submarines to Australia.

What the Biden administration official called an alliance of “maritime democracies” will combine the three countries’ forces on “cyber, AI [Artificial Intelligence] — particularly applied AI, quantum technologies, and some undersea capabilities as well.” AUKUS’ first initiative, however, will be “to support Australia’s desire to acquire nuclear powered submarines,” the official said, stressing this does not mean nuclear weapons.

Technical and naval representatives from the three countries will spend the next 18 months deciding how to carry out Australia’s upgrade. The Biden administration official underlined repeatedly how “unique” the decision is, with Britain being the only other country the United States has ever helped to build a nuclear fleet.

Although the official would not directly name a rising China as the reason for the U.S. move, the intentions of AUKUS are clear. “It’s meant to send a message of reassurance and a determination to maintain a strong deterrent stance into the 21st century,” the official said. Even if not carrying nuclear weapons, the new submarines will allow Australia to “play at a much higher level,” the official said.

“Nuclear powered submarines really maintain superior characteristics of stealth, speed, maneuverability, survivability and really substantial endurance,” the official said. “You will see much deeper interoperability among our navies and our nuclear infrastructure. This is a fundamental decision. It binds Australia... and the United States and Great Britain for generations. This is the biggest strategic step that Australia’s taken in generations.”

It was not immediately clear where the development leaves the roughly $66 billion French deal, which was personally backed by President Emmanuel Macron. France’s defense contractor Naval Group agreed to build 12 conventional Attack Class subs, but the order is already years behind schedule, well over budget, and has become tangled in Australian domestic politics. As recently as deal. However, a top Australian defense official said around the same time that Australia was actively considering alternatives.

President Joe Biden has made countering China a central aspect of his foreign policy as tensions grow over the South China Sea and Taiwan. Underpinning his efforts is a desire to rally the West and U.S. partners in Asia in the battle between “autocracy versus democracy,” one of the defining objectives of his presidency.

Also hoping to play a larger role in Asia is the United Kingdom, which under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sought to pursue a “Global Britain” strategy of greater engagement abroad. That effort has been sputtering at times, particularly as Johnson works to contain the Covid-19 pandemic at home and buffer his country from the economic fallout of Brexit. American officials have received indications from their British counterparts that the U.K. hopes to “substantially step up its game in the Indo-Pacific,” and believe the new partnership with Australia can help advance that goal.

Meanwhile, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the “sub snub” deal “a knife in the back.” In a joint statement with France’s defense minister Florence Parly, they took aim at both Australia and the United States. “This decision is contrary to the letter and spirit of the cooperation that prevailed between France and Australia,” the two officials said in the statement. “The American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region ... shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret,” they added.

A spokeswoman for Australia’s Defense Ministry said in an email to Naval Group on Sept. 15 that a review had been completed, as required by contractual agreements. “This correspondence did not refer to or authorize commencement of the next phase of the program, which remained subject to the announcement of decisions by the Australian Government.”

The diplomatic rupture resulted in President Macron recalling France’s ambassadors to the United States and Australia over what it saw as a “betrayal.”

– edited from Agence-France Presse, Sept. 15, 2021, CNN, Sept. 15, 2021, USA Today, Sept. 16, 2021, and Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2021
PeaceMeal Sept./October 2021

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F-35 design flaws mounting, new document shows

In 2015 things weren’t looking great for the Marine Corps’ F-35B fighter jet. Reports from the Government Accountability Office and Department of Defense inspector general had found dozens of problems with the aircraft. Engine failures, software bugs, supply chain issues, and fundamental design flaws were making headlines regularly. The program was becoming synonymous in the press with “boondoggle.”

Back then, the F-35 program, already years behind schedule, faced a key program milestone. The goal was to have the F-35B ready for a planned July initial operational capability (IOC) declaration, a major step for the program, greenlighting the plane to be used in combat. The declaration is a sign that the aircraft is nearly ready for full deployment, that the contract awarded in 2006 was finally producing a usable product.

About a week before the declaration, some in the Pentagon expressed serious doubts about the aircraft. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) obtained a memo through the Freedom of Information Act that revealed the performance of the jets to be poor. The memo, from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, called foul on the test that was meant to demon-strate the ability of the F-35B to operate in realistic conditions. “[The test] did not — and could not — demonstrate that the ... F-35B is operationally effective or suitable for use in any type of limited combat operation.”

Problems continued to plague the “combat ready” aircraft in the months later. Flaws in the design of the ejection seat meant that pilots under 165 pounds had about a 25% chance of death and certainty of serious neck injury when ejecting. The software system was riddled with bugs that made maintenance a nightmare. The $400,000 helmet was proving to be a mess, with one test pilot complaining that “aft visibility will get the pilot gunned [down] every time.” While the aircraft was barely able to fly half the time.

A new document obtained by POGO shows that the F-35 program office has made little progress in fixing the fighter jet’s hundreds of design flaws and continues to discover more of them. The Joint Strike Fighter Program Office’s Deficiency Report Metrics document, dated February 28, 2020, shows the program is currently dealing with 883 unresolved design flaws and has no plan for correcting over 160 of them. More than half remain “open, in dispute.” This means pilots or engineers believed they found a problem, but the contractors tasked with fixing the problems are claiming no problem exists. Multiple sources inside the F-35 program told POGO that the default response from the program’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, to any identified shortcoming is to say that the company’s design meets contract specifications, and that any further changes can only be made with a contract modification. In other words, the contractors will not fix the design flaws until the government pays for the changes. More worrying are the 162 deficiencies listed as “open, no planned correction.”

The document also shows that engineers have identified solutions for 273 flaws, but they remain open either because more funds are needed to fix them or more testing is required to make sure the corrections worked.

The Pentagon breaks down deficiencies into two categories based on their severity and potential impact on safety and mission performance. Category I flaws — the most serious — are those that “may cause death, severe injury, or severe occupational illness; may cause loss or major damage to a weapon system; critically restricts the combat readiness capabilities of the using organization; or result in a production line stoppage.” The document shows there are currently nine Category I flaws. In response to POGO’s request for comment, the program office did not provide any information about solutions the office is pursuing for those flaws. Minutes from a 2018 F-35 program office Deficiency Review Board meeting showed that the office had been making paperwork changes to reclassify some Category I deficiencies to a lower status rather than actually correcting them.

The number of remaining design flaws is one thing, but the 2019 annual operational test report also highlights their persistent nature. The F-35 entered operational testing in December 2018 with a large “technical debt” of problems that had been identified but not corrected during developmental testing, as the Pentagon’s testing office reported earlier this year. Of the 873 deficiencies identified by the testing office as of November 2019, approximately 576, or 66%, were carried over from the development phase. The program’s technical debt has only grown during operational testing as evaluators keep discovering new flaws, and the testing office’s report cautioned that the unresolved flaws “should be addressed by the program to ensure the SDD [System Development and Demonstration] baseline configuration of software and hardware is stable, prior to introducing a large number of new capabilities to the software in the new hardware configuration associated with Block 4 [future development].”

What the testing office is saying in engineering parlance is that the endlessly patched software controlling all the F-35's components and mission systems is unstable. The “computer that happens to fly” is a densely integrated network of hardware, software, weapons, and mission data. Making a software change to any one component can, and often does, have unintended negative effects on a seemingly unrelated component. The testing office wants to see the program correct all the existing flaws so the F-35 has a stable base on which to build as designers and engineers add new capabilities in the coming years. Unless this occurs, every time a new function is added, they will likely end up piling new flaws on top of old flaws.

Despite the triumphant 2018 proclamations that the program had completed its troubled development process, the testing office has reported that development “may take years to complete.” Meanwhile, F-35 pilots today are dealing with the effects that “may be observed from both operational testing and fielded operations.”

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet fighter, the most expensive weapons system in Pentagon history, currently comes in at more than $100 million per aircraft. And yet, somehow, no one ever seems to be responsible for such programmatic failures and prices — certainly not the companies that make them (or all those retired military commanders sitting on their boards or working for them). One crucial reason for this lack of accountability is that key members of Congress serving on committees that should be overseeing such spending are often the top recipients of campaign contributions from the big weapons makers and their allies. And just as at the Pentagon, members of those committees or their staff often later become lobbyists for those very federal contractors.

– edited from The Defense Monitor, January-March 2020
PeaceMeal, May/June 2020

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Cool your jets: Some perspective on the hyping of hypersonic weapons

Ivan Oelrich

Russia, China, and the United States are in a race to develop and deploy hypersonic glide weapons. Hypersonic vehicles are defined as moving at a speed greater than five times the speed of sound. The speed of sound in air, Mach 1, is about 720 mi/hr near the surface of the Earth. So Mach 5 is about 3,600 mi/hr. Modern intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles travel much faster — Mach 15 and higher.

The Defense Department has claimed hypersonic weapons will provide revolutionary new capabilities and will present daunting new threats against which there is currently no effective defense. Such claims have been repeated with little skepticism in the press. Many of the claims made for hypersonic weapons, however, are overstated, and much of what they might do could be achieved more easily and cheaply using better-established technology, typically by the modification of ballistic missile warheads.

There are two distinct types of hypersonic vehicles. First are boost-gliders, which are accelerated to high speed with some sort of rocket booster and then coast unpowered from their own momentum. Second are hypersonic cruise missiles, which have engines that use oxygen from the air and produce thrust during their flight, just as other aircraft do. These two types are often combined in the non-technical literature. Most of the current effort is directed toward the far easier boost-glide vehicles.

Hypersonic gliders are characterized by their speed, range and maneuverability, but there are direct tradeoffs among all three performance parameters. Once the booster rocket burns out and falls away, the glider’s only “fuel” is its momentum and, to a lesser extent, its altitude, which can be traded for speed. Most of the missions proposed for hypersonic gliders, such as a quick attack on a fleeting target, are already met, or could be met, just as well by ballistic missiles.

The United States envisions hypersonic gliders to be key weapons for attacking mobile missiles and air defense radars in a conventional war with a peer competitor, say, Russia or China. Still, all of these missions could be met by ballistic missiles — not ballistic missiles deployed today but missiles that could be developed using lower-risk technology, perhaps by modification of existing weapons.

Many descriptions of hypersonic weapons note that they will be difficult to impossible to defend against. But this is nothing new. None of the major military powers, much less North Korea and Iran, can now defend effectively against long-range ballistic missiles. Nor even defend against subsonic drones, as demonstrated by the 2019 attack on a Saudi oil refinery.

Descriptions of hypersonic weapons cite three main characteristics that change the defense equation relative to ballistic missiles: a lower trajectory resulting in less warning time for ground-based radars, maneuverability in the atmosphere, and reduced radar cross-section. But in all three cases, the advantage of hypersonic gliders is overstated.

When cruising to their target, hypersonic gliders will, indeed, have the upper hand against most currently deployed defensive systems simply because the interceptor missiles are not designed to operate at typical hypersonic altitudes. For example, the U.S. Aegis anti-missile system has an interceptor that operates in the near vacuum of space but does not perform well even in slight atmosphere. The Russian S-400, perhaps the most capable anti-air missile in the world, is long range, is itself hypersonic and maneuverable, but is almost certainly not designed to operate at the 18-mile altitude typical of hypersonic gliders.

Not being able to defend the continental United States from a long-range missile threat, whether hypersonic or ballistic, is neither new nor a problem that the United States will solve any-time soon. Implications that hypersonic gliders pose a new defense problem are entirely misleading. Much of what is written about hypersonic gliders only makes sense if one assumes a ballistic missile defense that is far more effective than it actually is.

The discussion to this point has considered only hypersonic gliders. There is an alternative: hypersonic vehicles could be powered, allowing them to cruise at a steady speed and altitude. Almost all current attention and development effort is directed to gliders, in large part because hypersonic propulsion is extremely challenging.

In theory, a hypersonic air-breathing engine could allow greater range than a ballistic missile of the same initial weight because the vehicle does not need to carry an oxidizer to mix with the fuel as a rocket does. It only has to carry the fuel portion of the propellant and simply scoops up the oxygen-laden air. In practice, developing and operating such an engine is fiendishly tricky.

If engineers can master the formidable technical challenges, hypersonic weapons will offer some new capabilities, but these are not quite as revolutionary as they are often presented. And while claims that hypersonic weapons are “unstoppable” may be true, the United States currently has no effective defense against a sophisticated ballistic missile attack of even moderate size, so ballistic missiles are also unstoppable. Many articles discussing hypersonic missiles leave the reader with the impression that ballistic missile defense is a done deal and hypersonic attack undoes all that, which is a major misrepresentation.

In general, many of the claimed new capabilities of hypersonic weapons could be accomplished by modifying ballistic missiles. The fact that states have not done this suggests that the capabilities are not as urgent as claimed by advocates of hypersonic vehicles. There’s good reason to ask whether their contribution will be worth the huge cost of pushing the technical envelope as far and as fast as early deployment of hypersonic weapons would require. The United States will make better decisions if it takes a collective deep breath and stirs a dollop of skepticism into the discussion.

Ivan Oelrich is a Senior Non-resident Scholar at the Elliott School, George Washington University and a Senior Non-resident Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. His article is edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 13, 2020, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, March/April 2020.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Abundance of countries with military drones is changing the way the world prepares for war

The number of countries with military drones has skyrocketed over the past decade, a new report revealed, showing that nearly 100 countries have this kind of technology incorporated into their armed forces.

In 2010, around 60 countries had drones, but that number has since jumped to 95, according to a report from Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone. The report’s author, Dan Gettinger, identified 171 different types of unmanned aerial vehicles in active inventories. Worldwide, there are at least 21,000 drones in service, with well over 200 military drone units operational in 58 different countries. And the proliferation of drone technology is expected to continue as countries like China and others export drones around the world.

“I think drones will be a ubiquitous presence on future battlefields,” Gettinger said, explaining that drone technology is contributing to an evolution in warfare. “They represent an increase in combat capacity, an increase in the ability of a nation to wage war.”

Drones come in all shapes, sizes and levels of sophistication, and they have become important tools for both countries and non-state actors such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Islamic State in several different countries.

In recent months, militarized drones have made headlines globally, highlighting the importance of unmanned systems. The incident likely the freshest in everyone’s mind is the drone and cruise missile attacks on Saudi oil sites in early September, when Saudi oil production was temporarily crippled by systems most air defense systems are not designed to effectively counter.

The strikes on Saudi Arabia, which the United States believes were carried out by Iran, marked the second time in just a few months the U.S. had to figure out how to respond to a drone-related incident involving Iran after Iranian forces shot down an expensive U.S. surveillance drone in June.

That incident nearly ignited armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran. President Trump had plans to attack Iranian missile and radar sites in retaliation, but he called off the attack at the last minute due to concerns about possible Iranian casualties.

His stated concern that killing Iranians in response to the downing of an unmanned air asset was disproportionate, highlights the challenges of responding to attacks by military drones. All countries will have to develop a framework for dealing with those situations.

– edited from Business Insider, September 27, 2019
PeaceMeal, November/December 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

New Pentagon weapons systems easily hacked

New weapons systems being developed by the Department of Defense can easily be hacked by adversaries, according to a new government report released on October 9. The Government Accountability Office said the Pentagon was unaware of how easy it could be for an adversary to gain access to the computer brains and software of the weapons systems and operate inside them undetected.

The weak points began with poor password management and unencrypted communications, it said. And access points for the systems continued to grow in number and are not always well- understood by the operators themselves, leaving even non- networked systems deeply vulnerable.

More critically, the report faulted the U.S. military for not incorporating cybersecurity into the design and acquisition process for the computer-dependent weapons, and said weapons developers themselves often did not adequately understand cyber-security issues.

“Due to this lack of focus on weapon systems cybersecurity, DOD likely has an entire generation of systems that were designed and built without adequately considering cybersecurity,” the GAO said.

“In one case, it took a two-person test team just one hour to gain initial access to a weapon system and one day to gain full control of the system they were testing,” it said. In another case, the test team gained control of the terminals of the system’s operators. “They could see in real-time what the operators were seeing on their screens and could manipulate the system.

The unclassified public version of the report did not identify which weapons systems it had tested and found faults with, citing the need for secrecy. But it said that between 2012 and 2017, the Defense Department’s own testers “routinely” found dangerous cyber vulnerabilities in “nearly all” weapons systems under development.

“Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of these systems and largely operate undetected. In some cases, system operators were unable to effectively respond to the hacks,” it said.

This risk rises as Pentagon weapons and other systems are increasingly interconnected and their dependence on software and networking continues to grow.

The report came as the government wrestles with what it sees as concerted efforts by government-backed hackers in Russia and China to penetrate government and private sector computer networks to steal data or simply wreak havoc.

– edited from Agence France-Presse, October 9, 2018
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Global arms sales reach post-Cold War peak

Large arms supply and demand rose to a new post-Cold War height last year, with the United States and Russia topping the chart as the biggest suppliers, according to research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The study found that global transfers increased over the last five years to the highest volume out of any five-year period since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Middle East region nearly doubled imports in the meantime.

More than half the world’s arms exports came from the U.S. (33 percent) and Russia (23 percent) alone. They, China, France and Germany made up the five countries responsible for 74 percent of all major arms supplies. India and Saudi Arabia were the main arms importers. India alone received 13 percent of arms transfers globally, outpacing regional military powers China and Pakistan.

Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at SIPRI’s arms and military expenditure program said Asia was the growth region for arms sales, accounting for 43 percent of global imports since 2012. “With no regional arms control instruments in place, states in Asia continue to expand their arsenals,” he said. “Vietnam, in particular, dramatically increased imports by 202 percent, which puts it in the list of 10 largest importers compared to its hitherto position in the 29th place.”

“While China is increasingly able to substitute arms imports with indigenous products, India remains dependent on weapons technology from many willing suppliers, including Russia, the USA, European states, Israel and South Korea,” Wezeman added.

– edited from an article by Damien Sharkov in Newsweek, February 20, 2017
PeaceMeal, March/April 2017

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F-35 may never be ready for combat
Testing report contradicts Air Force leadership’s rosy pronouncements

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program — the most expensive procurement program in Pentagon history — has been a fifteen-year saga of schedule delays, cost overruns and performance failures. When Lockheed Martin won the contract to develop the aircraft just weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, they promised that the Air Force and Marine Corps would be flying fully capable new fighter jets in 2008, with the Navy following suit in 2010. They planned for 2,866 F-35s for just under $200 billion. But here we are in 2016 with the revised plan of 2,457 aircraft for just under $390 billion, which means we are paying double the unit cost, ultimately adding up to almost $200 billion more for 409 fewer aircraft.

But most troubling is the slew of underwhelming performance reviews for the aircraft. In August, the Air Force declared its variant of the F-35 “ready for combat,” and most press reports lauded this as a signal that the program had turned a corner. But a memorandum issued by the Pentagon’s top testing official shows that the Air Force’s declaration was wildly overblown.

The latest memo from Dr. Michael Gilmore, Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) is damning. The F-35 program has derailed to the point where it “is actually not on a path toward success, but instead on a path toward failing to deliver the full ... capabilities for which the Department is paying almost $400 billion.” The memo details just how troubled the program is: years behind schedule and failing to deliver even the most basic capabilities taxpayers, and those who will entrust their lives to the F-35, have been told to expect.

Dr. Gilmore warns that the F-35 is in no way ready for combat since it is “not effective and not suitable across the required mission areas and against currently fielded threats.” As it stands now, the F-35 would need to run away from combat and have other planes come to its rescue, since it “will need support to locate and avoid modern threats, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to outstanding performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage available.” In several respects, the memo rated the F-35A less capable than the aircraft we already have.

The Air Force stated to Congress that the Initial Operational Capability (i.e., “combat ready”) declaration for its F-35A variant would be based on the ability to perform three basic missions: close air support, interdiction, and limited attacks on enemy air defenses.

But the Air Force’s current configuration can only carry two long range air-to-air missiles (no dogfighting short-range, heat-seeking missiles) and two bombs to attack targets on the ground. This very limited weapons load is the result of ongoing software deficiencies. The next software version, which is suffering major development problems, should eventually allow the F-35 to employ the larger variety of weapons originally specified in 2001, but those planes are still years away from being operationally tested, much less actually reaching the fleet. So for the time being, even if the current F-35 could perform in combat (which Dr. Gilmore’s memo makes clear it can’t), the small and non-diverse ordnance load means any fight the F-35 finds itself in had better be a short one.

Another of the F-35’s basic shortcomings is the lack of a usable cannon because the software needed for it has yet to be completed. There also are doubts that the most recent version of the plane’s complicated helmet, which is the only way to aim the cannon, will be accurate enough to reliably hit air-to-air or ground targets.

There is an additional problem with the cannon on the Air Force’s variant of the plane. In order to keep the F-35A stealthy, the internal cannon sits behind a small door that opens when the cannon is fired. The drag caused by opening the door causes the plane to turn slightly, possibly enough to cause the cannon to miss. The DOT&E memo reports that the door-induced aiming errors “exceed accuracy specifications,” which will make it difficult for pilots to hit targets. And since the F-35A only holds 181 rounds — as opposed to 511 for the F-16 and 1,100 for the A-10 — every bullet will count.

Furthermore, the F-35A is not ready to provide close air support (CAS) to ground troops, and there are plenty of reasons to doubt it ever will be. As the memo states clearly, “The F-35A ... has numerous limitations which make it less effective overall at CAS than most currently-fielded fighter aircraft like the F-15E, F-16, F-18 and A-10.” The F-35A can only carry two bombs, both of which are too big to be safely used near friendly troops. And even if the bombs could be used in CAS, the plane has to immediately fly back to its base to re-load after only one pass over an enemy formation. For F-35As, that base is likely to be far from the battlefield since the plane needs an 8,000 foot concrete runway, thus seriously slowing CAS response times.

Air support for friendly troops is exactly where the lack of a usable cannon is most distinctly felt— and the F-35 won’t have a usable and test-proven cannon until 2019 at best.

But that presupposes the F-35 will actually be able to stay over the battlefield long enough to be on hand to drop its bombs or fire its cannon exactly when needed. The F-35 is a notorious gas- guzzler that relies heavily on time-consuming aerial refueling to stay on station for the length of time to be useful for ground troops. Obviously, they can’t call a time-out when their air support has to leave the battle to re-fuel or reload.

With the well-documented problems maintenance crews have keeping the F-35 flightworthy, they are flying only one sortie every 5 days! That means a squadron of 12 F-35s deployed to Afghanistan or Syria — such as is typical for F-16s or A-10s — would only be able to put up slightly more than one two-aircraft mission a day to cover the whole country.

The F-35’s sensor-fusion system’s capability to combine data derived from onboard sensors, sensors on other aircraft, and ground sensors has been highly publicized. Like other current fighters, the F-35 has radars, video cameras, infrared sensors, and passive electronic warfare receivers to locate targets and threats in the air or on the ground. One of the main selling points for the F-35 has been that its computer system is intended to merge the information from all these onboard and offboard sensors to create a simple, combined-sensor display (instead of the current approach of a separate display for every sensor) of each target and each threat for the pilot. The single display is shared instantly with every other plane in the formation. This is supposed to provide everyone with a more accurate, less confusing picture of the target and threat environment surrounding the formation — and to do so quickly without the need for time-consuming radio voice ? exchanges. As it turns out, the F-35s have difficulty managing and fusing their own data, let alone that of their wingmen or surveillance assets farther away.

Test pilots have reported their F-35s are creating false multiple tracks when all of their sensors are turned on. For example, when a radar and an infrared sensor detects the same enemy plane, the two sensors display it on the helmet-mounted sight as two enemy planes. The same thing happens when two or more sensors detect the same ground target. So, what has been touted as one of the F-35’s greatest advantages, to the contrary, increases the pilot’s workload.

Another major and expensive component of the F-35 program, the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), is a massively complex computer system intended to automate mission operations, maintenance diagnosis, maintenance scheduling, and parts ordering. But the cumbersome ALIS continues to be a major headache for the program. It also requires a large, heavy footprint of hardware wherever the F-35 is based and takes several days to set up whenever it is moved. This impedes the F-35’s ability to deploy quickly and raises questions about the entire program’s operational suitability.

For example, when it is working, it takes 24 hours to upload data from each plane into a new ALIS ground computer. So, when an F-35 deploys to a new base, an entire day is lost as the data is passed to the new ALIS. And only one plane at a time can upload. So if the 12 F-35’s of Hill Air Force Base’s first “operational” squadron deploy to combat, it will take nearly two weeks to start maintaining the full squadron with ALIS.

Furthermore, forward-deploying units not only need to lug bulky equipment and facilities to foreign battlefields, they also need to drag around civilian contractors to help set up and operate the equipment. In combat, such needs hamper rapid deployment and limit basing options to locations safe for civilians. That means basing farther from combat zones, slower emergency response times, and increased reliance on scarce aerial tankers.

The JSF program is supposed to have truly combat-capable F-35s ready for operational testing at the end of the System Development and Demonstration process, which is now scheduled to be at the end of 2018. Dr. Gilmore reports the pace has fallen far behind that which is necessary to complete testing of the new capabilities and attempted fixes for the hundreds of remaining deficiencies within the remaining schedule and budget. It will be impossible to complete operational testing by the 2018 deadline.

To complicate matters even further, the program is losing testing personnel right at this critical juncture. Dr. Gilmore pointed out that how “the program will be able to complete the volume of work remaining at the integrated test centers while the staffing begins to ramp down is not known.”

Rrather than budgeting to complete the development phase of the JSF program adequately, JSF Program officials both inside the government and at Lockheed Martin have repeatedly expressed their desire to ramp up from low-rate initial production. They want Congress to authorize a block buy of 465 planes — with commensurate large pre-payments — for the United States and foreign military partners beginning in 2018. But not one official has expressed the need for funding the extra people and extra flight hours essential to keep the development program from sliding farther behind.

Ramping up production means we would be buying more planes that will require ever more fixes in order to be deployable. The Government Accountability Office has already estimated it will cost $1.7 billion to upgrade planes bought early in the program just to fix the deficiencies so far identified in testing. These costs will certainly rise as the services continue buying new F-35s and as the more stressful operational testing gets started in the next few years.

The delivery schedule through 2018 adds up to 355 F-35s that can’t go into combat but will have to go back for major rebuilds when developmental and operational testing has discovered and then designed all the required fixes and then confirmation-tested those fixes to make sure they actually work. Operational testing and evaluation likely can’t be completed any sooner than fall 2021, and that means those 355 F-35s will be non-combat-capable until at least 2023 and more likely 2024 or 2025. In other words, those 355 (plus those delivered after 2018) can’t go to war for another seven to nine years.

Not only has the Joint Program Office failed to create an adequate operational testing plan, it has failed to fund and test the equipment essential to do the testing. The memo states that the simulation facility needed for the most complex and combat- realistic of the operational test scenarios is still not on track to be delivered on time, despite 15 years of promises that it would be.

This is the Verification Simulator, which is supposed to provide multiple, ultra-realistic, thoroughly test-validated pilot-cockpit simulators operating together to enable operational testing of multi-aircraft tactical scenarios with large numbers of advanced threats. It’s the only way to test many of the F-35’s design capabilities because the test ranges cannot realistically replicate the full spectrum and quantity of targets and threats the F-35 combat formations would confront. According to the DOT&E memorandum, the Verification Simulator will not be ready for the currently operational testing and evaluation start date in 2018—and perhaps not until two or more years later.

Unfortunately, Dr. Gilmore’s memo may prove to be one of the last honest assessments of the F-35 program the Congress, White House, Dept. of Defense, or American people receive. Dr. Gilmore’s position as Director, Operational Test & Evaluation is an appointed one, made by the president. He has proven himself to be an independent, principled expert who has resisted the temptation that some of his predecessors failed to resist: to act on behalf of their future employers in the defense industry by signing off on ineffective operational test plans or watering down reports of operational test failures to make it appear as though everything is rosy for the purpose of continued program funding.

In a few months, with a new Administration, there may be a new head of operational testing. Unless a competent and courageous person, one not beholden to industry, occupies that office, the men and women who have to take these aircraft into combat will be in danger of receiving flawed equipment that could cost them victory and their lives. With all the evident foot- dragging that has taken place so far, a skeptical observer could be forgiven for believing that those in charge of the F-35 program may be attempting to run out the clock on Dr. Gilmore’s tenure.

Dr. Gilmore’s message is very clear: The F-35 will not be effective in combat and will place American military lives in danger unless drastic measures are taken now. The men and women who will risk their lives taking these fighter jets into combat deserve nothing less.

– edited from an article by Dan Grazier & Mandy Smithberger, Center for Defense Information, September 9, 2016
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2016)

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