Research Note – RAF Centre for Air Power Studies Interviews

Research Note – RAF Centre for Air Power Studies Interviews

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Oral history is challenging. It is challenging to conduct and to use as a source. It takes a skilled oral historian, such as Peter Hart, to conduct an interview that brings the best out of an interviewee. Much of this has to do with the ability of the interviewer to put the interviewee at ease to allow them to discuss their experiences as openly as possible as well as having an understanding and empathy for the subject matter. As a source, arguably, the principal criticism of oral history remains the charge of viewing the past through ‘rose-tinted glasses.’ In short, the passage of time can distort the remembrance of the past; however, as someone with an interest in military culture, this is also a strength. Culture has as much to do with perception as it does with the archival record of the time so how people remember and reflect on their service is just as important as what happened at the time.

As such, it is great to see that the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies is currently making available a number of interviews that were conducted from the 1970s onwards. The first two were conducted at the RAF Staff College at Bracknell in the early 1990s. It was not unusual to have after-dinner speakers at Bracknell, and it formed part of the pedagogical process at the Staff College. In these cases, the interviewees were Group Captain Sir Hugh Dundas and Wing Commander Roland Beamont. The final interview was conducted in 1978 by the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies Group Captain Tony Mason. The interviewee was Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, and this talk formed part of a series conducted by Mason, which included an interview with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. The unifying theme of the videos is leadership through the participants experience of their service in the RAF.

Here are the videos with their respective descriptions:

In this interview, Wing Commander Roland Prosper “Bee” Beamont, CBE, DSO*, DFC* talks about his experiences during the Second World War with Group Captain (Retd) J P (Phil) Dacre MBE DL RAF at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell (April 1991). Wing Commander Beamont served as a fighter pilot with Fighter Command from the start of the War until he was shot down and captured in October 1944 on his 492nd operational mission. After the War, Wing Commander Beamont went on to become a leading test pilot on aircraft such as the Meteor, Vampire, Canberra and Lightning as well as writing several books.

In the second of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, Battle of Britain legend Group Captain Sir Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas CBE DSO* DFC presents his thoughts on ‘Leadership in War’ followed by an informal question and answer session at an after-dinner speech given circa 1991 at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell. Group Captain Sir Hugh Dundas joined the Auxiliary Air Force as an acting pilot officer in 1938 before being called up to active service early in the war. Initially, he served on 616 Squadron flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain fighting ‘hard and fiercely’ throughout. He went on to serve as a squadron commander and then subsequently as wing leader and had, by 1944, become one of the youngest Group Captains the RAF at the age of just 24. He left the RAF in 1947 to pursue a successful career in the media. His autobiography, Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot’s War Years, describes his wartime experiences in more detail.

In the third of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, inspirational wartime leader and world-renowned humanitarian, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire VC OM DSO** DFC is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, February 1978. During the interview Group Captain Cheshire discusses his now legendary record of achievements throughout his service during WWII.

Group Captain Cheshire received a commission as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 16 November 1937. Although he demonstrated considerable prowess in training as a single seat pilot, by a vagary of the system he was destined to be posted to Bomber Command. During the War, his command appointments included 76 Squadron, 617 Squadron, and RAF Marston Moor and he was, at one time, the youngest group captain in the RAF. By July 1944 he had completed a total of 102 missions, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation simply states: ‘Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader’. After the war, Cheshire founded the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability and devoted the remainder of his life to pursuing humanitarian ideals. His obituary in the Independent (1992) declares that ‘LEONARD CHESHIRE was one of the most remarkable men of his generation, perhaps the most remarkable’.

Header Image: Flying Officer Leonard Cheshire, while serving his second tour of operations with No. 35 Squadron RAF, stands with his air and ground crews in front of a Handley Page Halifax at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. (Source: © IWM (CH 6373))

Book Review – Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience

Book Review – Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience

By Dr Brian Laslie

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 432 pp.

airpower applied

In the most recent work to focus exclusively on air power combat operations, Colonel John Andreas Olsen of the Royal Norwegian Air Force and a visiting professor at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm, presents a thoroughly researched, persuasive, and insightful work on the study of air power that ranges from large-scale state-on-state actions to the more abundant (some might say most likely) asymmetric fights of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century. Olsen’s name should be more than familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the history of air power. He is the author/editor of numerous works including John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power, A History of Air Warfare, Airpower Reborn, Air Commanders, European Air Power, and Global Air Power. Aside from his prolific output, Olsen also has the ability to bring together the most respected names in air power studies to provide chapters in his edited works. The same is true for his latest book, Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience. The purpose of the book, as the title suggests, is to provide a valuation of the American, NATO, and Israeli combat experience from World War II to present campaigns. It is broken into five chapters that cover a total of twenty-nine separate air campaigns or operations. Olsen’s thesis is that ‘knowledge of operational history helps political leaders and military professionals to make better informed decisions about the use of force.’ Thus, this work is not about ‘lessons learned’ as much as it is a learning tool used to provoke thought and create questions amongst professionals.

Richard Hallion provides the first chapter on ‘America as a Military Aerospace Nation: From Pearl Harbor to Desert Storm.’ Hallion admits that much of America’s advancement during the Cold War was owed to ‘emulation and innovation [rather] than to invention.’ That being said, American air power has moved to the forefront of technology, invention, innovation, and execution in the post-Vietnam era leading up to the dramatic successes of air power during the First Gulf War. Before this Hallion covers many previous aerial campaigns, whose success and failures led to the triumph of Operation DESERT STORM: The Second World War, the Berlin Airlift, Korea, Vietnam, ELDORADO CANYON and JUST CAUSE. Hallion’s contribution here is the best single chapter on the history of American air power from the Second World War to DESERT STORM. However, he, unfortunately, omits any discussion of the failings of Operation EAGLE CLAW, missing an opportunity to discuss the genesis of true air power jointness; this might be forgiven considering that most consider EAGLE CLAW a Special Forces operation with little to do with actual air power. Hallion also misses the mark on his discussion about the use of the F-117 in its combat debut during the operation in Panama. Hallion states ‘The F-117 strike at Rio Hato […] succeeded in stunning the PDF [Panamanian Defense Forces] defenders.’  This, however, is disputed by the Joint History Office’s report on operation JUST CAUSE which stated that ‘[D]espite radio broadcasts and the use of F-117As and other weapons to stun and intimidate them, most PDF units fought harder than expected before surrendering or fleeing.’[1]

Hallion’s belief in the efficacy of air power is apparent when he states that ‘In the gulf it took one bomb or one missile’ to destroy a target (p. 93). This is an oversimplification and poses a danger to those who would believe it. This view of air power as scalpel needs to be tempered. Bombs and missiles miss and many targets in Iraq had to be repeatedly attacked. There is an oft-repeated axiom that they are called missiles and not hittles for a reason. That being said, Hallion’s chapter represents a concise and persuasive argument detailing just why America has become the eminent air power nation in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries and transitions nicely into the next chapter on air power since DESERT STORM.

Allied Force
A US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker on April 6, 1999, during an air strike mission in support of NATO Operation ALLIED FORCE. (Source: Wikimedia)

Benjamin Lambeth provides the second chapter on ‘American and NATO Airpower Applied: From Deny Flight to Inherent Resolve.’ Lambeth demonstrates that air power in ALLIED FORCE was a ‘textbook illustration of airpower in action not to “win a war” but rather to achieve a discrete and important campaign goal short of full-fledged war’ (p. 133). However, when looked at through Hallion’s view of ROLLING THUNDER as a ‘naïve intent,’ there arises an internal inconsistency in the application of air power to achieve limited ends, something that all scholars of air power still struggle to contend with (p. 53). It seems that when air power is used for a limited goal and ‘works,’ air power scholars tend to use it as a good example and when it is used towards a limited end and fails, i.e. ROLLING THUNDER, we use that as an example of why air power should not be used towards limited ends.

Lambeth goes one bridge too far in his admittedly unfinished assessment, of the role of air power in attacking ISIS in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. Readers in 2017 have something Lambeth did not have when he penned his chapter in 2014/2015, namely three more years of data, which seem to finally indicate that the tide against ISIS has turned and that coalition air power with the support of Iraqi and other forces on the ground have driven ISIS out of the sanctuary cities of Raqqa, Sirte, and Mosul. These campaigns, as part of the most precise air campaign in history, and while limiting civilian casualties, took time. Ironically, nearly precisely the amount time called for by government officials in 2014 that Lambeth decried in his chapter.

The book shifts its focus here away from the NATO and American experience to two chapters on Israeli Air Force (IAF) combat operations. First, Alan Stephens writes ‘Modeling Airpower: The Arab-Israeli Wars of the Twentieth Century’ detailing the First Arab-Israeli War to the First Lebanon War in 1982. Stephens provides balance by indicating up front that these conflicts were not only about survival for the country of Israel but the displaced Palestinians as well. Focusing more on the air power side of the conflict, Stephens asks up front, ‘Why were the Israelis so good and the Arabs so bad?’ The answer soon becomes clear, ‘airpower is very expensive’ (p. 274). Israel exploited an ‘educated workforce, rigorous standards, advanced technology and […] exemplary training’ (p. 276). Arab air forces did not, as history, economics, and culture hindered them.

Raphael Rudnik’s and Ephraim Segoli’s next chapter, ‘The Israeli Air Force and Asymmetric Conflicts, 1982-2014,’ looks at the myriad of smaller conflicts Israel has fought since 1982. The chapter also provides linkages to conflicts Lambeth discussed, thus linking the American, NATO, and Israeli conflicts into an overarching air power learning environment. In other words, those who execute air power struggle with the same problems. Namely, as Rudnik and Segoli stated when discussing Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah, ‘[T]he large gap between its [the IAF] improved assault capabilities and its ability to identify viable targets’ in conflicts where an expressed desire of governments is minimising civilian casualties against increasingly urban enemies (p. 294). This highlights the difficulties faced by the IAF and the USAF, namely the need to prepare for ‘traditional’ air force missions versus the asymmetric conflicts of the 21st Century.

041003-F-3188G-247
A pair of U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers fly over Iraq at sunset during a mission in support of Operation IRAQ FREEDOM, c. 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

Colonel John Warden provides a final chapter that looks at ‘The Airpower Profession.’ From a certain point of view, Warden still seems to be litigating his arguments from the First Gulf War by focusing not on fielded forces, but rather on parallel warfare against the five rings, which can also be found in his work, The Air Campaign. Warden also decries the ‘cult of jointness’ (p. 343) and believes that ‘surface officers have far less motivation to concern themselves with direct strategic effects than do air professionals’ (p. 346). Warden’s real value is added when he describes the many areas needed to be understood truly by air power professionals, but more importantly, the attendant ability to articulate the importance of air power. So, what does the education of an air power professional look like? Warden casts a wide net of topics worthy of study including classical and modern military history and strategy but also includes more nuanced fields including economics, secular and religious philosophy, fiction, marketing, and advertising.

Any disagreements this author might have over omissions or discrepancies with this work are relatively minor to the overall importance and continued relevance of this well-written, eloquently argued, and nuanced study of air power operations. If one aspect of air power becomes clear, it is that the U.S., NATO, and Israel have proven their ability in large-scale state-on-state conflict, but the ability to use air power in the asymmetric fight is still being argued, some might say conceived. What is needed is more discussion and a better understanding by those in the military and national security communities on the merits and limits of air power operations in what will only become a more contested environment in the future. From the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles to peer-on-peer conflict, aerial operations will only increase, and a deep understanding of what air power can and cannot provide can only be accomplished through continued works like Airpower Applied.

Header Image: A two-ship of Israeli Air Force F-16s from Ramon Air Base, Israel, head out to the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 17 during Red Flag Exercise 09-4, c. 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Ronald H. Cole, Operation Just Cause: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Panama, February 1988-January 1990 (Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Washington, D.C., 1995), p. 41

The Kh-101 and Syria: Maturing the Long-Range Precision-Strike Capabilities of Russia’s Aerospace Forces

The Kh-101 and Syria: Maturing the Long-Range Precision-Strike Capabilities of Russia’s Aerospace Forces

By Guy Plopsky

On September 26, 2017, modernised Tupolev Tu-95MS bombers of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) Long-Range Aviation Command executed another strike with Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) against targets in Syria. According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, the missiles targeted ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra ‘command posts, hardware and manpower concentration areas as well as ammunition depot.’[1] As with previous Russian ALCM strikes during the conflict, the heavily publicised September 2017 strike was intended to serve yet another reminder to the United States and NATO (as well as to other potential adversaries) of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ growing long-range precision-strike capabilities.

Lineup_of_Tu-95_at_Engels_Air_Base
 A line up of Tupolev Tu-95MS’ at Engels Air Base c. 2005 (Source: Wikimedia)

Designed by MKB Raduga, the Kh-101 is an advanced conventionally-armed cruise missile with low observable characteristics. The missile has a reported operational range of 4,500km (2,800 miles),[2] and features a guidance package that includes an inertial navigation system (INS), a terrain contour matching (TERCOM) system, a digital scene-matching area correlation (DSMAC) system, and a GPS/GLONASS receiver.[3] Compared with the older, conventionally-armed Kh-555 ALCM, the Kh-101 features significantly improved accuracy and a larger payload, making it suitable for use against hardened targets.[4] Drone footage of Kh-101 strikes from Syria, including the September 2017 strike, appears to attest to the missile’s high-accuracy (though the impact of only several missiles is shown).[5]

Russian bombers first utilised Kh-101s in combat on 17 November 2015, when Tu-160 bombers delivered the new cruise missiles against targets in Syria.[6] The strike, which also included Tu-95MS bombers armed with older Kh-555 ALCMs, marked the combat debut of both the Kh-555 and Kh-101 as well as the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS. Exactly one year later, on November 17, 2016, modernised Tu-95MS bombers executed their first strike with Kh-101 cruise missiles.[7] Before the integration of the Kh-555 and Kh-101 on the Tu-95MS and the Tu-160, and their subsequent employment in Syria, the two bombers were utilised solely for the nuclear deterrence role and did not participate in conventional conflicts.

The only Russian bomber currently in service with the Long-Range Aviation Command to have seen combat before Syria is the Tu-22M3, which flew sorties in the Soviet-Afghan War, the First Chechen War and, more recently, the 2008 Five Day War with Georgia. In all three conflicts, the Tu-22M3 was used exclusively for delivering unguided (or ‘dumb’) bombs – a mission which it continues to fulfil in Syria.[8] Given that bombers delivering unguided munitions are likely to find themselves within range of enemy fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), such an approach is only viable for low-intensity conflicts in which the adversary lacks credible air defences. Even then, multiple sorties against a single target may be required, and excessive collateral damage may be caused due to the poor accuracy of unguided bombs. Russia witnessed the difficulty of operating its bombers in a contested airspace first hand in August 2008, when one of its Tu-22M3s was shot down by a Georgian SAM during a strike sortie against a Georgian military base.[9]

The introduction of the Kh-555 and Kh-101, therefore, represents a crucial new capability for Russia’s Long-Range Aviation Command, one which allows it to partially compensate for the lack of a long-range very low observable platform. Unlike the USAF, which operates the B-2A stealth bomber, the VKS does not currently field a long-range very low observable platform capable of penetrating modern integrated air defence systems (IADS) and won’t be fielding one until at least the end of the next decade.[10] Hence, to avoid being targeted by adversary fighter aircraft and ground-based air defences in the event of a conflict, Russian bombers will need to launch long-range conventionally-armed ALCMs from stand-off ranges. This is particularly true for the cumbersome turboprop-powered Tu-95MS – the backbone of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation Command, – which, unlike the Tu-160 and Tu-22M3, is not capable of operating at supersonic speeds.

SU-30SM_escortant_un_Tu-160_qui_lance_un_missile_de_croisière
 A Tupolev Tu-160 launching an Kh-101 against a target in Syria, c. 20 November 2015 (Source: Wikimedia)

In this regard, the integration of the Kh-101 on the Tu-95MS dramatically expands the legacy bomber’s conventional strike capability, which until recently, was limited to dropping unguided bombs, transforming it into a formidable long-range precision-strike platform capable of accurately engaging hardened targets in heavily defended areas. At present, Russia is also outfitting its Tu-95MS bombers with SVP systems (developed by ZAO Gefest i T), which will enable Russian bomber crews to retarget their missiles before launch.[11] This will further enhance mission flexibility, allowing modernised Tu-95MS bombers to strike not only fixed but also relocatable targets. The ability of the Kh-101 to cover very large distances also reduces the Tu-95MS (and Tu-160’s) need to rely on in-flight refuelling for long distance missions. This, as several analysts have noted, makes the Kh-101 a particularly valuable asset given Russia’s relatively small fleet of aerial-refuelling tankers and limited overseas basing options.[12] A modernised Tu-95MS can carry up to eight Kh-101 ALCMs on four externally-mounted two-station pylons, while a Tu-160 can carry up to 12 such missiles on two internally-mounted six-station rotary launchers.

Considering that neither ISIS, nor the other factions with whom Russia is presently engaged in active combat with field capable air defenses, the Long-Range Aviation Command’s use of modernized Tu-95MS and Tu-160 bombers with Kh-101 ALCMs in Syria stems from Moscow’s desire to test both the reliability of its new air-launched weapon and its carrier platforms as well as the proficiency of Russian bomber crews under real combat conditions. As with the occasional use of conventionally-armed Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) in the Syrian conflict, the employment of Kh-101s is likewise intended to convey a strong signal to Russia’s potential adversaries and reflects Moscow’s desire to place greater emphasis on conventional deterrence. The need to expand precision-strike capabilities and increase reliance on conventional weapons for deterrence has been highlighted in Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine and has been voiced by Russian military officials.[13] As Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, noted in February 2017, though:

[t]he development of strategic nuclear forces remains an absolute priority for us […] the role of nuclear weapons in deterring a potential aggressor will decrease first of all due to development of high-precision weapons.’[14]

For the United States and NATO, Russia’s growing emphasis on conventional long-range precision-strike weapons such as the Kh-101 represents an increasingly pressing need to bolster missile defences.

Header Image: A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ in flight over Russia. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] For a description, see: Russian Ministry of Defense, ‘Нанесение авиаударов Ту-95МС крылатыми ракетами Х-101 по объектам ИГИЛ в Сирии [Tu-95MS Airstrikes with Kh-101 Cruise Missiles Against ISIS Objects in Syria],’ YouTube video, 3:01. Posted September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaI0QuvgKJA.

[2] ‘Министр обороны России генерал армии Сергей Шойгу провел военно-техническую конференцию [Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu held a Military-technical Conference],’ Russian Ministry of Defense, October 6, 2016

[3] Piotr Butowski, ‘All missiles great and small: Russia seeks out every niche,’ Jane’s International Defense Review, October 2014, pp. 48-9.

[4] Anton Lavrov, ‘Russia’s GLONASS Satellite Constellation,’ Moscow Defense Brief, 60:4 (2017).

[5] For example, see the video footage from September 2017 strike in fn1.

[6] David Cenciotti, ‘Russian MoD Video Shows Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22 Bombers (with Su-27 Escort) Bomb ISIS in Syria,’ The Aviationist, November 17, 2015.

[7] ‘РФ впервые применила в Сирии новые ракетоносцы Ту-95МСМ с крылатыми ракетами Х-101 [Russian Federation Employed new Tu-95MSM Missile Carrier with Kh-101 Missiles in Syria for the First Time],’ TASS, November 17, 2016.

[8] For example, see: Russian Ministry of Defense, ‘Боевой вылет дальних бомбардировщиков Ту-22М3 с территории РФ по объектам террористов в Сирии [Combat Sortie of Long-range Tu-22M3 Bombers from the Territory of the Russian Federation Against Terrorist Targets in Syria],’ YouTube video, 2:10. Posted January 25, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55ni9KbpSv4.

[9] Anton Lavrov, ‘Russian Air Losses in the Five-Day War Against Georgia,’ in Ruslan Pskov (ed.), The Tanks of August (Moscow: Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010), p. 100.

[10] ‘PAK DA: Russian Defense Ministry Reveals When New Bomber Will Fly,’ Sputnik, April 27, 2017.

[11] Dave Majumdar, ‘One of Russia’s Most Deadly Bombers Now Has a Scary New Capability,’ The National Interest, July 5, 2017.

[12] For example, see: James Bosbotinis, ‘Russian Long-Range Aviation and Conventional Strategic Strike,’ Defense IQ, March 5, 2015.

[13] For an English translation of Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine see https://www.offiziere.ch/wp-content/uploads-001/2015/08/Russia-s-2014-Military-Doctrine.pdf.

[14] ‘Russian Shield: Nukes Priority, but High-Precision Weapons to Play Greater Role,’ Sputnik, February 21, 2017.

Unseating the Lancer: North Korean Challenges in Intercepting a B-1B

Unseating the Lancer: North Korean Challenges in Intercepting a B-1B

By Andy Zhao and Justin Pyke

Introduction

When North Korea threatened to shoot down a B-1B Lancer in response to a September 23rd flight operating off its east coast, a reasonable amount of discussion centred around if the North Koreans have the capability to carry out their threat.[1] This article outlines some of the challenges faced by North Korea if it attempts to shoot down a B-1B operating off the coast in international airspace. Any scenario where United States (US) or South Korean aircraft attempt to penetrate the airspace of North Korea is outside the scope of this discussion.

North Korean Equipment

DN-SN-83-06768
An East German SA-2 ‘Guideline’ similar to that currently operated by the KPAF. (Source: Wikimedia)

North Korea’s primary air defence is provided by the Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAF). It operates a wide assortment of Soviet/Russian and Chinese equipment, consisting of everything from Chinese J-5s (a MiG-17 ‘Fresco’ derived aircraft) to the Russian MiG-29 9.13s ‘Fulcrum.’ Due to the secretive nature of the KPAF, it is hard to determine the true readiness of these aircraft in inventory. Many KPAF aircraft originate from the 1960s and are likely reaching their maximum airframe flight hours and/or are suffering from a lack of spare parts as indicated by the decreasing numbers of operational aircraft visible on airfields. This appears to be a major concern of the KPAF as in 2013 they attempted to import equipment and spare parts from Cuba. Numerous other problems plague the KPAF, from poor pilot training to the possibility of a largely expired inventory of air-to-air (A2A) missiles (i.e. R-60MKs (AA-8 ‘Aphid’) and R-27Rs (AA-10 ‘Alamo’) were received in 1987).

The KPAF also operates larger ground-based air defence platforms, such as:

North Korea also possesses a formidable array of short-range air defence systems. These are not relevant to the discussion as their range is too limited to pose a threat to a B-1B operating in international airspace.

Understanding the Kill Chain[4]

The process required to intercept an aircraft can be broken down into various steps:

  1. Detect and identify the target;
  2. Acquire the target with fire control;
  3. Identify range and the target direction/angles, paint/illuminate (literally lit up with radar waves) the target for the missile;
  4. Launch the missile;
  5. Guide the missile onto the target;
  6. The missile detonates/impacts near the target;
  7. Observe the target, repeat chain if necessary.

For the target to be intercepted, every aspect of the chain must be followed and must be successful. It is a delicate process, and if any step is interrupted, the target is unlikely to be successfully engaged. The kill chain will be similar regardless of the method used to conduct the interception.

Intercepting the B-1B using S-200 Angara (SA-5 ‘Gammon’) for Interception

S-200 Battery
North Korean S-200 Battery (Onggodok) located on the East Coast [39°19’03” N , 127°20’04” E] – Dated May 25, 2015

We will now take a closer look at the possible engagement of a B-1B by an S-200 surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery. This was the only SAM system likely to be in range of the B-1B flight on September 23rd, though even that is in doubt. For the sake of argument, we will assume a B-1B and its fighter escort stray into this outer layer of North Korea’s air defence. Firing an S-200 would be North Korea’s best shot at a successful engagement against a B-1B, as fighter interception would take more time and have to contend with a US and/or South Korean fighter escort of vastly superior quality. An S-200 SAM battery consists of several components:

An S-200 SAM battery consists of several components:

  • 5N62 (‘Square Pair’) Engagement Radar;
  • SM-106 5P73 Launchers;
  • V-601P 5V28 (S-200) Surface-to-Air Missile.

However, this is not an exhaustive list as the S-200 can also draw on higher assets, such as early warning/intercept radars (ex. P-14 ‘Tall King’ or ST-68 ‘Tin Shield’), or share information along with an integrated air defence network. It must be noted that the S-200 was developed in the 1950s through 1960s with the intention of engaging high-altitude bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress. The heavy missile is not ideal for engaging smaller and more manoeuvrable targets, particularly near its maximum range. The S-200 battery requires a constant feed of range and azimuth data to guide the missile onto the target and uses the 5N62 Engagement Radar to accomplish this task. Once the B-1B has been painted, the SAM battery can attempt to engage it.[5]

US aircraft are equipped with radar warning receivers (RWR), such as the ALQ-161A on the B-1B, that can detect radar emissions and alert the pilot. The pilot can then perform various actions (‘defending’) to attempt to break the lock. The most obvious of these is taking evasive action, but countermeasures such as chaff (small pieces of plastic and fibre with a conductive coating), jamming (providing false signals at the specific frequency used by the radar), and towed decoys (mimics the appearance of the parent aircraft) can also be employed.

Additionally, the S-200 has a poor record of target interceptions. On March 24th, 1986, Libya fired at least four S-200 missiles against two F-14 Tomcats when they were 40km off the Libyan coast. All of them missed their targets, and the engagement radar was destroyed by an AGM-88A High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, rendering the S-200 battery inoperable. In March 2017, Israeli aircraft launched airstrikes in Syria and were targeted by an S-200 battery, escaping unscathed.[6] In fact, the authors were unable to find a single example of a successful S-200 interception in a combat environment. In summary, the chance of an S-200 successfully downing a B-1B or its fighter escort is very low. The system was simply never designed to engage these types of aircraft effectively.

On September 23rd, the kill chain did not proceed past the first stage. According to Yonhap, the South Korean National Intelligence Service claimed that ‘North Korea did not take any immediate action in response to US’s strategic bombers’ flight.’ A member of the US intelligence community (IC) reached out to the authors and stated that the North Koreans picked up the flight on their early warning radars, but not engagement radars and that seemingly no alerts were sent to any airfields or SAM batteries. The source was unsure of the reason why the North Koreans did not send out alerts, and suggested possibilities varying from confusion/incompetence to a willful decision not to notify air defence assets. Ultimately, the North Koreans were either unable to acquire the B-1B flight with their engagement radars, or decided not to escalate the situation further by doing so.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the eastern S-200 battery’s (Onggodok) engagement radar was no longer present on the newest Google Earth imagery (October 19th, 2015), and was still missing as of May 5th, 2017. The US IC source stated it was likely just routine relocation training, and that there is another S-200 battery located on the east coast. Unfortunately, the authors could not confirm if the new site has the engagement radar, or if the battery was even operational during the September 23rd flight.

Intercepting the B1B using MiG-29 9.13s ‘Fulcrum’ for Interception

KPAF Mig-29
 A KPAF MiG-29 unit being visited by Kim Jong-Un. (Source: Unknown)

The same Yonhap article notes that North Korea has moved additional aircraft to the coast, and CNN claims that they are MiG-29s. A ‘best case’ example of MiG-29 9.13s equipped with R-60MKs and R-27Rs will be used as this is the most capable A2A combat system in the KPAF inventory. North Korea only has around six of these MiG-29 models.[7] If the MiG-29s are fully combat loaded, they only have a 180km combat radius. This can be extended to ~276km with the use of a drop tank. Additional drop tanks can be fitted, but the MiG-29 9.13s would have to forgo the R-27R medium-range A2A missiles that would be critical to a successful interception.[8] Given the locations of North Korean airfields in the eastern part of the country, the MiG-29s would have only slightly more reach than the S-200 battery at best, and would just have one brief shot at the interception before needing to return to base. Additionally, the intercepting MiG-29s would likely not have time to engage with the US and/or South Korean fighter escort. For the sake of argument, the assumption will again be made that a B-1B flight comes within range of fighter interception.

Using aircraft to intercept the B-1B would follow the same general kill chain as mentioned for the S-200. First, the B-1B would need to be detected. This could be done with early warning radar before scrambling the MiG-29s to intercept. KPAF fighters could also be assigned to patrol the airspace around-the-clock, with ground radar assisting the aircraft in attempting to detect the B-1B. The latter is an unlikely option given the limited range of the MiG-29 and is demanding on the aircraft as well as the pilots. There may also be a significant delay between detection of the B-1B and the scrambling of aircraft. The MiG-29s would likely be detected by US or South Korean early warning assets in the region, which would communicate an advanced warning to the B-1B. It could use this time to leave the area, putting an end to the interception. However, if the B-1B is identified and does not leave the area, the MiG-29s still need to acquire it visually to engage with infrared missiles (R-60MKs) or on the radar to engage with radar-guided missiles (R-27Rs). Once again, countermeasures could be deployed, and evasive manoeuvres could be taken to defeat the missiles.

landscape-1504206649-36755613416-05fc74a29d-k
US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, fly alongside 2 US Air Force B-1B Lancers assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, over waters near Kyushu, Japan, Aug. 30, 2017, and 2 Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-15J fighters. Source: US Pacific Command)

If fighters are escorting the B-1B, as was the case on September 23rd, they could intercept the MiG-29s. This would put the escorting fighters at risk. However, it must be made clear that even if the interception were conducted by the best KPAF fighters available (MiG-29 9.13s) using the best KPAF A2A missiles available (R-60MKs and R-27Rs), they would still be at a large disadvantage against US and South Korean aircraft. The countermeasures and missiles are both inferior at the least. For example, the R-27R relies on semi-active guidance, meaning the parent aircraft must keep its nose pointed at the target and maintain a lock with the onboard radar until impact.[9] By contrast, the AIM-120 AMRAAM used by US and South Korean fighters can be fired at an extended range, and course corrected using data from the parent aircraft without the need to keep the MiG-29 painted with radar. The pilot of the MiG-29 would not be alerted by their RWR that a missile was inbound until the AIM-120 reaches its terminal phase, providing little warning of its approach. This gives the US, or South Korean pilots added tactical flexibility over their North Korean counterparts. Any lesser aircraft in the KPAF inventory, such as MiG-23MLs ‘Flogger,’ would be even further disadvantaged.

Conclusion

The possibility of a successful interception of a B-1B operating in international airspace off the coast of North Korea cannot be disregarded entirely. However, the limited reach of North Korea’s air defence, the advanced age and limited capabilities of the systems theoretically in range, and the array of defensive options available to the air forces of the US and South Korea would pose a nearly insurmountable challenge. The high chance of failure (and by extension embarrassment), the possibility of instigating a regime-ending war, and negligible benefits of successfully downing a B-1B leads to the conclusion that North Korea is unlikely to carry out this threat. This is particularly true when North Korea has much more reliable and effective means of provocation, such as continued ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

Header Image: A B-1 Lancer performing a fly-by during a firepower demonstration, c. 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Special thanks to Samuel Stadem, air power enthusiast and current chemistry graduate student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, for providing assistance with the finer points of modern military aviation.

[2] Tony Cullen and Christopher Foss (ed.), Jane’s Land-based Air Defence, 5th ed. (Surrey: Jane’s Information Group, 1992), pp. 261-62, 264.

[3] Richard D. Fisher Jr., ‘North Korean KN-06 Test Confirms Similarity to Chinese and Russian Fourth-Generation SAMs,’ IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 53:22 (2016).

[4] Robert H.M. Macfadzean, Surface-Based Air Defense System Analysis (Norwood: Artech House, 1992), pp. 39-63.

[5] Cullen and Foss, Jane’s Land-based Air Defence, pp. 263-64.

[6] The Syrians claimed that they shot down one aircraft and damaged another. However, no evidence has been presented and the burden of proof lies with Syria.

[7] Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov, Soviet and Russian Military Aircraft in Asia (Manchester: Hikoki Publications, 2014), pp. 265-89.

[8] Yefim Gordon, Mikoyan MiG-29, trans. Dmitriy Komissarov (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2006), pp. 341, 377. The drop tank combat radius was extrapolated from the given range and combat radius values. The internal fuel capacity gives a 900km range and 180km combat radius, providing a ratio of 5. The given range on one drop tank is 1,380km. Dividing this by 5 results in a 276km combat radius.

[9] Gordon, Mikoyan MiG-29, pp. 364-65, 487-88.

Research Note – Wither Air Power Studies?

Research Note – Wither Air Power Studies?

By Dr Ross Mahoney

I started writing this post several months ago, but for various reasons, it lay dormant until a recent Twitter exchange began with Brian Laslie. Brian suggested that Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power was the ‘foundation of modern air power studies.’ This immediately got my attention, and I queried this, which led to a fruitful exchange of views on the subject between several participants.

The original source for this post came from comments I provided to the Second Sir James Rowland Seminar at the Australian Defence Force Academy, which is an initiative between UNSW Canberra and the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. Another source was a post by Nicholas Sarantakes with an update on the ongoing debate on the ‘decline’ of military history in academia. These sources originally got me thinking about the state of air power studies in the English-speaking worlds and the recent Twitter exchange brought that process to the fore again.

In my reply to Brian, I made the argument that in the UK, the mantle of ‘father’ of air power studies, in my opinion, belongs to Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason who was the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS). To my mind, Tony generated the space for the subject both within the RAF and with external partners. There are, of course, other names we could put into this mix including Dr Noble Frankland, J.M. Spaight, Professor Phil Sabin and Professor Richard Overy, but I am unsure whether these writers ever created enough mass for the field to evolve. For example, while Overy wrote on air power issues early in his career, he then moved onto other subjects, though has more recently returned to the field. Conversely, through the creation of the DDefS post, the RAF has provided a platform for the development of air power studies in the UK. The position still exists, and there have been several notable holders of the post including Dr Peter Gray, who is now Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stu Peach. Indeed, since moving to the University of Birmingham, Grey has helped generate a mass of air power scholars in the UK and beyond.

Despite my views on the origins of air power studies in the UK, some important issues came out of the discussion on Twitter. One is that while we might identify Clodfelter or Mason as defining the field in the US and UK respectively, this does not answer the question of whether there is someone who crosses national boundaries. One name that did spring to mind was John Andreas Olsen. However, as Travis Hallen, one of the editors over at The Central Blue, reflected, Olsen has been more productive in bringing together people to produce worthwhile edited volumes. Furthermore, as David Benson, a Professor at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies, noted these writers may have defined the field but should they define it today? David provided an interesting reflection on this issue in a number of Tweets, and while I do not agree with all of his points, his views on how we define the field are critical.

Knowledge is not static and as such how we define the field of air power studies should not be fixed either. Indeed, David suggested that this might be the case with it being argued that the study of air power might not be keeping up with changes in the field of social science. Here lies one problem as this essentially suggests a social science view of the study of air power and raises the question of where the subject fits as a discipline? Is the study of air power a social science or is it interdisciplinary? Moreover, are we looking at air power from the perspective of how it is defined in doctrine or do we need to take a broader view that encompasses a wider remit and brings in other fields including history? I would suggest the latter.

Take, for example, myself, I am an air power specialist, but first and foremost I am a historian, though I admittedly make use of interdisciplinary methodologies. My views on air power, even when looking forward, is essentially historical in outlook. I believe that we cannot understand the future without first considering past challenges, but does this lead to a ‘classical’ analysis of air power? I do not think so. I would argue that my broader perspective allows me, hopefully, to push the field forward. In this, I agree with David’s view that is up to those of us currently working in the field to ‘push it from its origins into modernity as a scholarly field’. Another advantage of broadening the scope of air power studies is that by encompassing a more comprehensive approach that includes aspects such as the history of air warfare and the social and cultural analysis of the armed forces, then we can further understand how we develop the knowledge that defines the field. We should also add other disciplines into this comprehensive mix including ethics and law.

Despite much of this rambling and reflection the crux of the issue remains how we develop air power studies as a scholarly field? What are the mechanisms that can be used to develop and disseminate knowledge? For me, one of the key issues here is the insular character of the field. As John Ferris reflected in 1998, those studying air power are either:

[t]he children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.[1]

My reading of the situation is that not much has changed and broadly speaking those of us writing on air power are a homogenous group who come from similar backgrounds. Again, using myself as an example, I am the child of a soldier, my PhD supervisor was a retired one-star officer, and I work for an institution devoted to preserving the history of an air force. Therefore, I accept there will always be a degree of subjectivity in my work. As such, how do we break free from that mould to further develop our field?

Part of the answer, of course, lies in establishing networks beyond our traditional insular boundaries. How do we, for example, encourage the study of air power beyond military academies? How do we work with colleagues who might ask difficult questions that do not fit our subjective paradigms? We need to be willing to accept these challenges and be prepared to discuss these issues freely and openly rather than dismissing them.

Further to a conceptual and personal willingness to engage, which I suspect most of us are happy to do, there is the question of the mechanism for discussion. While online platforms, such as From Balloons to Drones, The Central Blue, The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks are useful for generating discussion, are there other ways of pushing and developing knowledge? Has the time come, for example, to establish an academic journal devoted to air power that moves us beyond the service sponsored journals?

I have no silver bullet to these questions and what I have written here is part of an ongoing reflection on the subject, and I welcome any further thoughts people have. Nevertheless, I do think the time has come for us to reflect on the field and start ‘push it from its origins’.

Header Image: An RAF Atlas (A400-M) at night during Operation Mobility Guardian. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] John R. Ferris, ‘Review Article – The Air Force Brats’ View of History: Recent Writing and the Royal Air Force, 1918–1960,’ The International History Review, 20:1 (1998), p. 119.

Research Note – The Royal Cyber Force

Research Note – The Royal Cyber Force

By Luke

President Trump’s recent move to elevate the United States Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) to full ‘combatant’ status has given us in the United Kingdom an opportunity to refresh and revitalise our own cyber fielded forces. In the official statement launching CYBERCOM, Trump said:

[this] elevation will also help streamline command and control of time-sensitive cyberspace operations by consolidating them under a single commander.

At the moment UK cyber forces are not organised in a manner that enables us similar streamlined command and control and effective deployment of our cyber assets. Not helping the discussion is the lack of transparency around UK cyber capabilities. Former Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond made international headlines in 2013 by announcing that the UK was developing an offensive cyber capability. Other than this declaration, there is minimal public scrutiny or even awareness of our capabilities. The fact that this announcement was so note-worthy also highlights the dearth of public discussion on cyber warfare.

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The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released a Joint Doctrine Publication known as the Cyber Primer, which provides an excellent high-level overview of cyber opportunities and vulnerabilities in the military context but no real substance as to the order of battle of UK forces. With the recognition of cyber as a separate but underpinning domain of warfare as shown in this excellent article, perhaps it is time to re-organise the UK’s forces in a similar way to our US allies. Taking a step further to create a ‘purple’ force of offensive and defensive specialists along with a re- invigorated electronic warfare cadre would demonstrate real innovation in an arena where competition is fierce, rules are unclear and technology advances at a breath taking pace.

Why do we need a separate cyber force? Modern platforms such as Typhoon, A400M, AJAX and the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers are highly dependent on the cyber domain to fulfil their basic functionalities as well as gain a technological edge on our adversaries. Where the air force provides control of the air and the navy provides control of the sea, so too we must have ‘cyber control’ delivered by a force of experts and specialists. The Cyber Primer states that we must be able to operate as freely in this domain as we do in the other physical ones; therefore we need to create a separate branch of the armed forces with the innate “cyber-mindedness” to exploit this new battlespace. For someone with Royal Air Force leadership experience, this feels like 1916-18 all over again. Back then we had discovered another new realm of warfare, the air, and argument was fierce as to who would be responsible for aerial battle.

The UK led the world in the creation of an independent air arm. Now, 100 years on, we are presented with another opportunity to lead and innovate.

What would an integrated Cyber Force look like? Currently, the bulk of UK Cyber capabilities fall under Joint Force Command, similar to how US cyber forces used to fall under Strategic Command. There are also discrete units within each of the single services, such as No. 591 Signals Unit, the Fleet Electronic Warfare Group and 14 Signals Regiment. We could break out these units as well as the Joint CEMA Group, the operators, and Information Systems and Services, responsible for enabling those capabilities, into a separate ‘Royal Cyber Force’ commanded by a 3 or 4 Star officer.

The challenges of this radical change would be significant. Trades with these specialisations are under manned and in high demand from civilian industry. Institutional inertia and the ‘old guard’ would be hard to win over. However, there exists a motivated and committed cadre of personnel with the UK MoD who, given this challenge, could and would rise to the occasion. In conclusion, our allies and adversaries are innovating at pace in the cyber domain. In order to keep up, the UK must make a significant change to the way it conducts cyber operations. A Royal Cyber Force would be a substantial first step.

This post first appeared at the Wavell Room.

Luke has Air Force leadership experience, in the UK and on Operations. He also has experience working in the Cyber environment at the joint level.

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 3 – 1937-41

Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 3 – 1937-41

By Justin Pyke

Editorial Note: In the final part of a three-part article, Justin Pyke examines American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power during the inter-war years. This final part examines issues between 1937 and the outbreak of war between America and Japan in 1941. Part one and two of this article can be found here and here.

Japan’s air services had successfully weaned themselves off of their foreign dependence by 1937. American intelligence assessments continued to identify the strategic and industrial weaknesses of Japanese air power accurately but became poor concerning technology and tactics. Japanese information security was tighter than it had ever been. Hence, American observers formed their conclusions through open sources and preconceived notions. When evidence emerged contradicting the prevailing view of Japan’s lack of technological innovation, they were ignored or explained away. Assessments of Japanese personnel began to swing toward a consistently negative view. These failures in assessing Japanese technology, tactics, and personnel from 1937-41 contributed to the defeats at the outset of the Pacific War.

Zero
 A captured Mitsubishi ARM ‘Zero’ in flight, c. 1944 (Source: National Naval Aviation Museum)

The Americans had relied on access to Japanese air stations and factories to gain their information until the early 1930s. This avenue was closed with the start of the war in China. In place of the old sources, American observers came to rely extensively on open sources, like official Japanese press releases, supplemented with the precious little information that could be drawn from chance sightings of Japanese aircraft by Westerners.[1] A meaningful assessment of Japanese air power’s performance in China, or detailed technical information of a specific aircraft, would surface on occasion. The information gained from open sources at best-reiterated views that had been in place for almost two decades and at worst became more critical and inaccurate about Japanese capabilities.

American assessments of the Japanese aviation industry remained accurate, despite Japan’s turn towards tight information security. However, the preconception that Japan could not innovate technologically remained pervasive. A July 1937 report was typical. It acknowledged the advances made by the Japanese aviation industry, accurately identified the numerous weaknesses present, and stated that a ‘dearth of local inventive ability’ was a critical failure.[2] Another report referred to the numerous industrial weaknesses as a ‘cancer,’ and went on to claim that Japan continued to rely on copies of foreign aircraft, acquired either through production licenses or ‘outright mimicry.’[3] American assessments combined recognition of the real weaknesses of Japan’s aviation industry with the fiction that it still relied on the copying of foreign aircraft designs.

The American emphasis on Japanese industrial weakness was warranted. The continued shortage of machine tools, skilled labour, heavy equipment, and modern industrial techniques contributed to Japan’s lack of an aircraft reserve, slower rates of production, poor quality and quantity of spare parts, and the numerous other issues that undermined Japanese air power.[4] Greg Kennedy has emphasised this point when he stated that to view:

[tactical] success as demonstrative of the overall ability of Japan to manifest effective, modern air power is to misunderstand fundamentally the core attributes of air power.[5]

Ultimately, the weaknesses of Japanese industry identified by the Americans before the war worked to cripple the offensive capabilities of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service (IJAAS) and Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service (IJNAS) during it.

Ki-61_at_Fukuoka_in_1945
 A Kawasaki Ki-61 ‘Tony’ of the 149th Shimbu Unit at Ashiya airfield in Fukuoka, Japan, c. 1945 (Source: Wikimedia)

The most egregious error in American reporting from mid-1937 onward concerned the preconception that Japan was incapable of designing its own aircraft. Exceptions to this trend did exist, but they were easily drowned out by the overwhelming number of reports that reiterated the same trope of Japanese unoriginality.[6] Fictional aircraft were given corresponding European designs that the Japanese supposedly had copied.[7] When the Americans received hard evidence of Japanese technological innovation, these indicators were ignored or misunderstood. Excellent American intelligence on the B5N Carrier Attack Bomber (‘Kate’) was not used as evidence that Japan had moved away from copying foreign designs.[8] The G3M was immediately assumed to be a copy of the German Junkers Ju-86, while another report stressed the bomber was a Heinkel design with Junkers’ ailerons. In fact, the superlative bomber was indigenous in origin.[9] Even when American observers disagreed on what the aircraft was a copy of, there was no doubt that it had to be a copy of something.

These preconceptions were all the more dangerous as Japan introduced new aircraft that it would use against the West in 1941. The most famous of these was the A6M Carrier Fighter (‘Zero’/‘Zeke’). Despite some accurate reporting on the aircraft, it remained largely unknown in Western aviation circles.[10] In one instance, the testimony of a captured Japanese bomber pilot caused confusion when he explained that the A6M was designed to dive on the enemy, then zoom upwards and prepare for another dive, but not to engage in extensive combat aerobatics. This reflected IJNAS fighter doctrine, which was similar to that of the Americans, rather than the true capabilities of the A6M. The Americans interpreted the testimony to mean the new fighter lacked manoeuvrability.[11] The underestimation of the A6M seems like a minor error when viewed in isolation. Indeed, American pilots quickly gained an understanding of the fighter from their first combat encounters.[12] However, it was only a symptom of a much broader issue. Evidence that the Japanese had achieved rough technological parity with the United States was belittled or ignored. Individual Japanese aircraft may have been better or worse than foreign counterparts for their intended roles, but American assessments assumed a clear and decisive technological advantage where none existed. Nor did Japanese technological innovation stop with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both air services introduced aircraft, such as the Nakajima Ki-84 Fighter (Hayate/‘Frank’), that matched some of the best American designs throughout the war.[13] The problem was not that leading-edge Japanese aircraft designs were worse than their American counterparts, but that they never were able to replace their ageing predecessors in sufficient numbers to matter.

The Americans dismissed not just Japanese innovation, but its personnel and tactics. American views of Japanese personnel became increasingly negative after the start of the war in China. Assessments of Japanese factory workers and mechanics significantly reduced in frequency and classified reporting on aircrews indicated that they were of poor to mediocre quality.[14] American observers also continued to emphasize Japan’s lack of pilot reserves and training facilities.[15] Popular literature took a firm stand on Japanese personnel and often relied heavily on racism and national characteristics. One such work listed a number of Japanese racial defects, and summarised them as ‘daring but incompetent aviators.’[16] Classified sources never degraded into this kind of drivel, despite American intelligence shortcomings concerning Japanese tactics and technology.

Captured_Aichi_B7A2_on_ground
 A captured Imperial Japanese Navy Aichi B7A2 ‘Grace’, c. 1945. This was one of many capable indigenous aircraft introduced by the Japanese air services during the Pacific War. (Source: Wikimedia)

Surprisingly little reporting discussed Japanese aerial performance in China, and reports that did provide a more balanced, and accurate, assessment of Japanese capabilities.[17] Occasionally, Chinese pilots were interviewed on their combat experience against the Japanese. One report from September 1940 concluded that dive bombing by the IJAAS and IJNAS was ‘very poor,’ while horizontal bombing had ‘improved tremendously.’ Discipline among IJNAS twin-engine bombers was rated ‘excellent,’ and the carrier air groups were given particularly high praise. The most important piece of information provided by Chinese pilots was that the Japanese sent fighter escorts with their bombers whenever possible.[18] However, given the mixed quality of the Republic of China Air Force, their views concerning Japanese capabilities were easily dismissed.[19]

The American underestimation of the Japanese air services’ personnel, tactics, and technology from 1937-41 contributed to, though by no means caused, the early defeats in the Pacific War. However, Japan’s inability to rectify the fundamental problems within its air services and aviation industry crippled its air power as the war progressed, just as American observers had predicted. The accurate assessment that Japan could not win a prolonged war of attrition in the air against the United States was what mattered most. However, the errors in assessing Japanese tactics and technology caused serious problems over the short term. In their haste to predict the setting of the Sun, the Americans failed to appreciate the danger of its rise.

Header Image: A Mitsubishi A6M2 ‘Zero’/‘Zeke’ at the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Langley Research Center, Virginia on 8 March 1943. On 4 June 1942, a Japanese task force launched a strike against Dutch Harbor, Alaska from the aircraft carriers Ryujo and Junyo. Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga was flying an A6M2 from the Ryujo. On the way back to his carrier, he discovered of bullets had pierced his fuel tanks and he headed for an emergency landing on Akutan Island. However, the plane flipped over on its back during the landing, and Koga was killed. The A6M itself was only slightly damaged. A Japanese submarine failed to locate Koga or his plane, but five weeks later an American naval scouting party found the Japanese fighter. The A6M2 was salvaged and shipped back to the USA where it was repaired, and went through an exhaustive series of tests in order to gain information about its strengths and weaknesses. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] A-1-m 15776, Dive Bombing in the Japanese Aviation, July 27, 1938, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 68, RG 38, NA; Japanese Naval Activities in China, July 29, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA; Comments on Naval Aviation by Japanese Naval Aviators, August 23, 1941, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1941 File 62, RG 38, NA.

[2] Expansion of Aircraft Manufacturing Industry, July 21, 1937, Selected Naval Attaché Reports Relating to the World Crisis, 1937-1943, Roll 2, RG 38, NA, p. 1.

[3] The Aircraft Industry in Japan, August 5, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA, pp. 1-2.

[4] Mark R. Peattie, Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), p. 100; Erich Pauer, ‘Japan’s technical mobilization in the Second World War,’ in Erich Pauer (ed.), Japan’s War Economy (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), pp. 54-5; Hagiwara Mitsuru, ‘The Japanese Air Campaigns in China, 1937-1945,’ in Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van de Ven (eds.), The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 243; Jonathan B. Parshall and Anthony P. Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), p. 89; Eric M. Bergerud, Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific (New York: Basic Books, 2009), p. 21, 46; Sakai Saburo, Martin Caidin, and Fred Saito, Samurai! (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991), p. 242.

[5] Greg Kennedy, ‘Anglo-American Strategic Relations and Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1934-1941,’ The Journal of Military History, 74:3 (2010), p. 772.

[6] William M. Leary, ‘Assessing the Japanese Threat: Air Intelligence Prior to Pearl Harbor,’ Aerospace Historian, 34:4 (1987), p. 274; 2085-947, The Capabilities of Japan in Military Aviation, June 23, 1939, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 31, University Press of America, p. 1.

[7] Airplane Characteristics – Mitsubishi Type Zero Fighter, November 9, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 125-202, RG 38, NA; New Dive Bomber in Production, August 2, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA.

[8] New Types of Aircraft, July 17, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 89-164, RG 38, NA; Type 97 Torpedo-Bomber, November 16, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 234-281, RG 38, NA; Specifications of Japanese Naval Bomber, Model 97, June 4, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 59-124, RG 38, NA.

[9] Richard M. Bueschel, Mitsubishi/Nakajima G3M1/2/3 96 Rikko L3Y1/2 In Japanese Naval Air Service (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1997), p. 20; Description of Navy Heavy Bomber, Type 96, July 26, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; René J. Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War, Second Edition (London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1979), p. 350.

[10] Thomas G. Mahnken, Uncovering Ways of War: U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 79-80; Horikoshi Jiro, Eagles of Mitsubishi: The Story of the Zero Fighter, trans. Shojiro Shindo and Harold N. Wantiez (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), p. 107.

[11] Leary, ‘Assessing the Japanese Threat,’ pp. 275-76; Horikoshi, Eagles of Mitsubishi, p. 85; John B. Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), p. 486; Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau, Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012), p. 13; Sakai et.al., Samurai, p. 83.

[12] John B. Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), pp. 535-36.

[13] See: Francillon, Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War; Richard M. Bueschel, Nakajima Ki.84a/b Hayate in Japanese Army Air Force Service (Canterbury: Osprey Publishing, 1971).

[14] Notes on Japanese Naval Aviation, August 4, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; Dropping of Aircraft Torpedoes by Japanese Naval Aircraft, September 26, 1939, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1939 File 165-233, RG 38, NA; A-1-m 15776, Aerial Operations, August 2, 1940, Naval Attaché Reports, 1886-1939, Box 68, RG 38, NA; 2085-956, Handbook on the Air Services of Japan, September 27, 1940, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 31, University Press of America, p. 36, 79.

[15] 2085-908, Military Aviation – General, July 29, 1937, US Military Intelligence Reports, Japan, 1918-1941, Reel 30, University Press of America, p. 3; W.D. Puleston, The Armed Forces of the Pacific: A Comparison of the Military and Naval Power of the United States and Japan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941), p. 231.

[16] Fletcher Pratt, Sea Power and Today’s War (New York: Harrison-Hilton Books, 1939), pp. 177-78.

[17] 2085-947, The Capabilities of Japan in Military Aviation, pp. 1-3.

[18] Comment on Japanese Air Force by Chinese Aviators, September 17, 1940, Naval Attaché Records, 1939-1941, 1940 File 125-202, RG 38, NA; Peattie, Sunburst, p. 110, 123.

[19] Peter Harmsen, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (Havertown: Casemate Publishers, 2013), p. 30.