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 – 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.

55771864

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.

From Balloons to Drones – One Year On

From Balloons to Drones – One Year On

By Dr Ross Mahoney

It has just been over a year since From Balloons to Drones was established as a platform for the discussion of air power broadly defined. Since our first post, we have published 40 pieces on a variety of subjects ranging from the historical to the contemporary. We have had articles dealing with issues related to the efficacy of air power, the topic of military education and the future of air power. We have also recently started a new series, Air War Books, that explores the books that have influenced air power writers. Contributors have come from around the globe including contributions from Finland and Australia. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the site. Without them, there would not be much here. However, most of all, we have received regular traffic from people interested in reading what we have written, and for that we are grateful.

Just as a bit of fun, here are the top five posts by views:

  1. ‘Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria’ by Major Tyson Wetzel;
  2. ‘Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces’ by Dr Jacob Stoil and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle C. Burley;
  3. ‘Commentary – The RAF and the F-117’ by Dr Ross Mahoney;
  4. ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training’ by Jeff Schultz;
  5. ‘‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice’ by Dr Ross Mahoney.

These are just a selection of the articles that have appeared over the past year, and we look forward to adding regular content as we continue to develop. To do this, we need to expand our list of contributors continually and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions, then please leave a comment here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: English Electric Lightnings of No. 56 Squadron RAF during an Armament Practice Camp at Akrotiri, c.1963. In the foreground, a technician is preparing a Firestreak missile for loading. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

Has Air Power Reached its Zenith?

Has Air Power Reached its Zenith?

By Dr Sanu Kainikara

In the past few decades, air power, and its application as a weapon of war or force projection capability has seen an enormous improvement in capabilities. In keeping with the current global ethos of avoiding excessive use of force while fighting a war, air power now has the ability to deliver extreme destructive power with precision, proportionality, and discrimination. Based on this capability, air forces have also developed into deterrent and coercive forces second to none. Considering that the military employment of air power is only a century old, these are great achievements. Even so, military forces are continually looking to improve their effectiveness through fine-tuning already sharp force application capabilities. This brings out the question—how much more effective can air power become?

The answer is not straightforward, and the term ‘effectiveness’ needs to be understood in a nuanced manner to arrive at a reasonably argued answer. Effectiveness—the ability to serve the purpose or produce the intended or expected result—in air power terms involves not only the ability to create the necessary effect but to do it while minimising the chances of own forces being placed in danger. Therefore, the increasing efficacy of the application of air power should be tempered with ensuring that the safety of own forces is also assured to a minimum accepted level. This dual requirement led to the development of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have now become armed with precision strike weapons to become uninhabited combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), a misinterpretation of the word ‘combat’.

boeing_x-45a_ucav
The X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle technology demonstrator on its sixth flight on Dec. 19, 2002. (Source: Wikimedia)

The introduction of UCAVs into the battlespace opened a hitherto unknown and uninvestigated arena of military operations. Not only were there technological hurdles to overcome, but a whole plethora of moral, ethical, and legal aspects of warfare also started to be questioned. In the beginning, the UAVs were considered to be purely intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, which could be employed in benign airspaces where long-term ISR collection was required. By arming them, the technologically advanced military forces changed the existing equation of applying lethal force.

Going back to the primary reason for the introduction of UAVs, the need to safeguard one’s own combatants, there should be no argument regarding the arming of these vehicles. However, the so-called ‘drone strike’, a misnomer if ever there was one, has become an emotive issue not only with the people at the receiving end of the strike but also with the ‘politically correct’ media. Why is this so? Before analysing this, it must be stated here that an air strike can now be carried out with equal efficiency and precision by either a manned fighter or a UCAV. The only difference is that the human in the decision-making loop that permits the release of the weapon is placed at different places in each case. In the case of the manned fighter, the human is at the sharp end of the loop whereas, in the case of a UCAV, the human is almost at the beginning of the loop. In other words, in one case the human is placed in immediate danger while in the other, there is no danger to the human from the repercussions of the actions that are being initiated.

If there is no danger to own forces in the second case then why is there such a hue and cry regarding strikes carried out by UCAVs? Here, the survivability of the UCAV in a contested airspace, because of its low speed, restricted manoeuvrability, and lack of self-protection measures, is not being analysed since it is extraneous to this discussion. The fundamental reason for the discomfiture with the use of UCAVs is the fact that in the majority of cases, the opposing parties do not have air power capabilities and therefore such strikes are considered unethical. When the instances of collateral damage are added to the dialogue, the pendulum of public opinion decisively swings away from the use of UCAVs and air power. The real reason, however, is that in most of the Western democratic nations, the public opinion regarding national security and the employment of defence forces has been dominated by left-wing, anti-war groups. Once again, this discussion does not need to go into political debates and is curtailed here.

htv-2_image_2
HTV-2 on the upper stage of the launch vehicle after jettisoning of the payload fairing. (Source: Wikimedia)

So, what is going to be the next breakthrough in terms of air power efficacy? Currently, the accuracy achieved by air-launched weapons, the clarity of airborne ISR and the global reach of air transportation are such that no further improvement seems possible or warranted. There can definitely be improvements in the speed with which response options can be provided and delivered. The realm of hypersonic flight is already very close to becoming a reality.

The next step change in the functioning of air power and related systems will take place when artificial intelligence (AI) becomes operational and is accepted as such. This statement needs clarification. AI is already a reality in many applications. However, complete autonomy has not yet been granted to AI in the case of weapon release functions. It is also true that AI has already proven to be fail-proof when tested under controlled conditions. There are many reasons for AI not being granted complete autonomy—capable of individual thought and decision-making rather than a pre-programmed response—the fundamental one being the question whether it is ethical to permit a ‘machine’ to make the decision whether or not a human being is to be ‘killed’ or eliminated.

In the case of fully autonomous airborne systems, further complications arise. In combat situations would it be ethical for a manned fighter to be destroyed by a ‘machine’? Would it be possible to program the machine only to destroy another machine, and in that case, does it mean complete autonomy for the AI? The question of legality in the use of fully autonomous combat systems is another area that has not been clarified. In fact, the process of creating laws that could govern the use of AI has not even got under way, and there is certainty that under the current geopolitical environment, agreement will not be reached.

In these circumstances, where ethics are being questioned, and there is no legal coverage for its employment, it is highly unlikely that AI will be employed to its full capacity in the near to mid-term future. In turn, it would mean that developments in air power capabilities and more importantly in its application will remain curtailed for the foreseeable future. Yes, the missiles will go further; space will become more pervasive; airborne platforms will fly faster, compute solutions at a much more rapid pace; and air power will entrench its place as the first-choice weapon in the vanguard of power projection. However, these are but refinements of what air power already does. For example, when a hypersonic flight becomes a normal reality, how much more effective will air power become? A reasonable answer would be, not by very much from what it does now.

The future of air power is going to be the same as it is today unless the next step-change takes place—AI is going to be the next technology that elevates air power further into being the most potent capability that the human race has yet invented.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Header Image: A three-ship formation of F-22 Raptors flies over the Pacific Ocean 28 January 2009 as part of a deployment to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The Raptors were deployed from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. (Source: Wikimedia)