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Airpower disruption in the age of the F-35

written by Max Blenkin | August 11, 2018
What future threats will RAAF F-35s face? (Defence)

Australia is building its future air power capabilities around the F-35. What future threats might the fifth-gen fighter face?

As tensions rise over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, Australia deploys a squadron of F-35A Lightning Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs), to the Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth.

This is a location very familiar to many Australian defence personnel from decades of deployments, going back to the dark days of World War 2.


For the Australian Defence Force (ADF), this is the first regional deployment of the F-35, an aircraft far better than anything operated by any regional air force. Initial combat air patrols, out into the South China Sea, though nowhere close to the disputed territory, demonstrate F-35’s knowledge superiority.

Aircraft track People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Chengdu J-20 aircraft conducting their own combat air patrols, monitoring and classifying their radar emissions and also those from a variety of air defence radars operating from PLA-Navy ships as well as from the island bases. That’s all without registering more than some faint returns on the PLA radars.

China’s PLAAF is beginning to field the Chengdu J-20 fighter. (Alert5/Wikimedia)

But undetected they aren’t. As one aircraft makes its final approach to land at Butterworth, a small quad-rotor unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) zooms into its path.

The pilot avoids a collision – just – but his wingman isn’t so fortunate. A second UAV goes straight into his engine. The pilot safely ejects but a $150 million aircraft has just fallen victim to a UAV worth at most a couple of thousand dollars.


Worse is to come. As smoke from the burning aircraft rises into the sky, dozens of small suicide UAVs rise from scattered backyards and bush clearings and converge on the base, each carrying an explosive payload about the equivalent of a hand grenade – quite sufficient to damage or destroy an expensive aircraft.

These UAVs are flying autonomously in a swarm, heading to coordinates based on satellite imagery taken in the previous half-hour. Many fall to base defences – electronic jamming and good old-fashioned gunfire – but enough get through to destroy one aircraft and damage two more.

At a crucial time, a squadron of modern combat aircraft is rendered combat ineffective.

Everyone knows precisely who was responsible but actual evidence is scanty. Recovered UAVs, readily available commercial models, don’t carry PLAAF markings and their operators, quite few in number, disappeared the moment their little aircraft were airborne.

Round one goes to the PLA – a classic case of disruptive technology where the traditional exercise of air power was constrained by imaginative application of a new capability.

This scenario is wholly fictitious and it might not play out this way at all. Practically everyone is now aware of the risk of weaponised unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and much research is being devoted to counter-UAS technology.

This ranges from basic electronic counter-measures – most commercial UAVs operate with common command protocols on known frequency bands – through to kinetic means including net-throwers, guns, missiles and even hunter-killer UAVs and trained falcons. Directed energy weapons defences would appear to have significant potential.

But the risk of a mass UAV attack on an air base is real, as was demonstrated in January when 13 bomb-carrying drones attacked two Russian bases in Syria. Ten headed for Russia’s main Syria base at Khmeimim in Latakia province. Another three hit the Russian naval base at nearby Tartus.

This attack, apparently launched by anti-Syrian regime rebels caused no damage or casualties, with all attackers downed, six by missiles and seven by electronic counter-measures.

Russian images of one downed drone show what appears to be a large fixed-wing model aircraft powered by a small petrol engine, armed with small bomblets.

It would appear Russian forces were ready and well-prepared for such an attack – hardly surprising as the conflict in Syria and Iraq has featured extensive use of small UAVs for tactical surveillance and armed strike.

So, in any future deployment the ADF can reasonably expect to encounter hostile UAS, with the potential for them to disrupt or constrain the freedom of operations we might once have fully enjoyed.

UAS need not even be hostile to be disruptive. How about UAS operated by news organisations transmitting imagery of troop dispositions in real time?

VIDEO – This Chinese news report by CCTV+ shows the new J-20 fighter exercising with other PLA-AF elements.

Disruptive technology is scarcely new, although the expression in its modern guise was created by US business consultant Clayton Christensen in an article in 1995. Various iterations of this concept had been articulated by earlier authors.

Disruptive technology is essentially any new technology which stuffs up an existing market or means of operation. There are abundant examples.

The introduction of the automobile in the late 19th century did not end horse-drawn transport, and all that went with it, as early cars were expensive, unreliable playthings of the rich.

What did was the introduction of the Model T Ford in 1908, an affordable and reliable vehicle which introduced motoring to the masses.

More recently, Finnish company Nokia dominated the global market for mobile phones, at one time selling more handsets than any other company. Then along came the iPhone. Nokia phones still exist but how many do you see these days?

People will always need to get from one place to another and how else could they do it other than aboard a taxi?

Uber showed there was another way, which was frequently cheaper and more convenient, underlining Christensen’s fundamental thesis that it wasn’t the new technology which caused the disruption – it was the underlying business model which the technology enabled.

For the ADF, rapid technological change and the growing availability of new and inexpensive capabilities to all comers, certainly raises one fundamental question – are we preparing to fight the right war?

The answer probably has to be no, with the qualification that, with a few exceptions, no-one has ever been fully prepared for the war they found themselves fighting.

The US military triumphed over Saddam Hussein in the Kuwait war, a graphic testament to the success of post-Vietnam reforms. Then it got bogged down in insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq and had to relearn the lessons of Vietnam.

Australia emerged from Vietnam a seasoned counter-insurgency force, then struggled to mount a stabilisation operation to East Timor because underlying enabling capabilities had withered, seemingly not that important in a period of modest peacekeeping missions.

It has to be said the ADF is now in good shape, with well-trained capable forces and excellent equipment, either in service or soon to be.

In just about every industry sector on earth and especially in defence, smart people are paid to think hard about future trends. Their success rate is often pretty ordinary, even from people you think would know better.

How’s this gem, cited by Forbes magazine in a 2015 article, from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in 2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

With the rise of a professional military class, there have long been predictions as to how some new technology will revolutionise warfare.

In 1921 Italian air power theorist Giulio Douhet published his treatise on air power, arguing that the bomber would always get past defences and that strategic bombing of a city and its industry would so erode the population’s will to resist that capitulation would speedily follow.

With the experience of strategic bombing from World War I and the expectation that future bombers could deliver a far greater weight of bombs, his theory proved highly influential.

The next war proved he was mostly wrong. The RAF discovered early its bombers couldn’t always get through and even when they did, they couldn’t reliably strike a target even as large as a city. Bombing of cities in the UK and Germany, if anything, boosted the population’s will to resist.

So strategic bombing wasn’t the disruptive technology it was pitched to be. But there were other disruptive technologies which affected the outcome and had a marked impact on what came later.

Think radar, the jet engine, strategic rockets and first-generation precision weapons.

In the 1991 Iraq war, precision weapons came of age and US air power dominated the battlefield, so completely that it seemed US dominance over traditional adversaries such as the former Soviet Union was assured almost indefinitely.

Yet, as air power analyst Dr Alan Stephens of the Williams Foundation observed, Israel also believed it had absolute air supremacy over its Arab neighbours following its stunning victory in the 1967 Six Day War.

This one-sided victory led Israel to assume its air power would always triumph.

Six years later in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Egypt launched its assault over the Suez Canal and Syria into the Golan Heights under an effective ground-based air defence (GBAD) system, comprising latest Russian SA-6 and SA-7 missiles and radar-directed ZSU-23-4 gun systems.

These proved highly effective with Israel initially suffering unsustainable losses. Ultimately Israel won, with a combination of improved measures to supress air defences and fast-moving ground forces which overran Egyptian and Syrian GBAD.

The enduring lesson is that for all the superiority of Western air forces, with their advanced aircraft, well-trained pilots, knowledge advantage and effective command, control and support, enemy GBAD may again turn out to be shockingly good.

How good? Until there’s an actual conflict which pits western air power against Russian GBAD, we won’t really know.

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets talked up their capabilities. So did many in the West, who didn’t know about Russian capabilities and weren’t about to say anything which could have reduced their budgets for new equipment.

Eastern Bloc GBAD worked OK in Vietnam but was well outclassed in later conflicts.

More recently Russia has used the Syrian conflict to combat-prove some of its newer equipment, including a pair of S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile systems.

The Russian S-400, “the most lethal long-range air defence system on the planet”? (Nosint)

Russia has been quite happy to sell these to anyone with the cash, including India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and also China, where deliveries started in January. There’s rising prospects that these will be encountered in some future conflict.

S-400 features an AESA radar and four different missiles with various ranges out to a maximum 400km. Russia claims it can hit anything in the US inventory, including F-22, F-35, B-1 and B-2, plus Tomahawk and ballistic missiles. A single battalion carries more than 100 missiles, which is a lot of air defence.

In an article last May about Turkey’s proposed acquisition of S-400, The Economist magazine described S-400 as one of the best air defence systems currently made.

US commentator Scott Wolff went further.

“Simply stated, of all the surface-to-air threats being faced by coalition air power over Syria, the Russian S-400 SAM, known as the Triumf at home and better known to NATO as the SA-21 Growler is the most capable and lethal long-range air defence missile system on the planet,” he wrote on the website.

Carlo Kopp on the Air Power Australia website said the S-400 was often termed Russia’s Patriot but it was in many ways more capable.

“From an Australian perspective the deployment of large numbers of the S-300P/S-400 family in Asia is of major concern. Rapidly deployable, highly survivable and highly lethal these weapons are especially difficult to counter and require significant capabilities to robustly defeat,” he wrote.

“The US Air Force currently envisages the F-22A Raptor as the primary weapon used to defeat these capable systems.”

Dr Kopp said no Hornet variant or F-35 was designed to penetrate S-400 coverage and their survivability would be no better than legacy combat aircraft.

So Russian GBAD could be the disruptive technology of the next conflict but there are other possibilities.

On the plus side, North Korea – the most likely venue for a major conflict – doesn’t have S-400 but it does have a very comprehensive GBAD based around a domestic missile system similar to the older S-300.

It’s not just GBAD. US power projection capabilities are based on its carrier battle groups and China has developed a series of weapons with no role other than to kill US carriers.

That’s the DF-21D, a ground-launched ballistic missile intended to target a moving aircraft carrier at a range of more than 1,500km, penetrating air defences at hypersonic speed and obliterating the target with either a conventional or nuclear warhead.

China’s ‘carrier killer’ DF-21D ground-launched ballistic missile. (Chinese internet)

Beijing was apparently stung to develop this weapon system following the 1995 Taiwan crisis, when China reacted badly to prospects that the island nation would elect a pro-independence president.

To defuse the crisis, the US sailed carrier USS Nimitz and its battlegroup through the Taiwan Strait in an effective show of force.

Would DF-21D work as claimed? We just don’t know. Would Washington take a gamble and sail a carrier battlegroup through the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea next time a spot of sabre-rattling is needed? Again we don’t know. Whether this works or not, China still has a very significant anti-ship cruise missile capability.

It could be that China has mostly achieved its aim of denying free use of these seas to the US Navy.

Since we don’t know what we don’t know, science fiction provides some thoughts on the disruptive technology of the future, in particular the novel Ghost Fleet by Peter Singer and August Cole.

The premise is a future war between China and the US, which opens with a massive cyber attack which cripples many vital US systems. The advantage of US submarines is eliminated as China has developed a means of detection based on emissions of Cherenkov radiation from their reactors.

F-35s are blown out of the sky – compromised microchips start emitting a radio signal as a homing beacon for Chinese missiles. Chinese anti-satellite weapons destroy US surveillance and GPS capabilities.

The novel also features UAV swarms and naval railguns. Ultimately the US wins, sort of. The book comes highly recommended as a primer on future war.

The USS Zumwalt stars in the techno-thriller Ghost Fleet. (US Navy)

The recent Air Power conference canvassed some other possibilities. There’s artificial intelligence (AI), not an easy concept to grasp as the potential applications aren’t that clear and this has a long way to go.

Yet everyone is taking this extremely seriously. Russian President Vladimir Putin went so far as to say whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.

AI, according to the Wikipedia entry, is the ability of a computer system to perceive its environment and then take steps to achieve nominated goals. That’s pretty much what humans do all the time but AI does it faster and on a vastly greater scale.

This has applications in seemingly every area of society – health, finance, transport (autonomous cars and flying taxis) to nominate a few, and certainly the military. The Pentagon’s Project Maven aims to use AI to analyse the vast and ever growing amount of intelligence data and imagery from UAVs, satellites and manned aircraft.

AI will increasingly feature in unmanned platforms, whether aircraft, ground or maritime surface or undersea systems.

There is an energetic debate going on in the West about deployment of lethal autonomous systems. So far the answer is no – a human remains in the loop. But our future opponents may not be so constrained and neither might we.

AI, coupled with quantum computing, could revolutionise the battlefield. The decision cycle for an action – termed the OODA loop for observe, orient, decide (which mostly takes the longest) and act – could be reduced to fractions of a second.

AI could well manage a swarming drone attack, involving thousands or tens of thousands of small simple UAVs, directing to nominated targets, bypassing resistance and reinforcing success.

The US has already successfully trialled an autonomous unmanned combat aircraft, the Northrop Grumman X-47B, able to takeoff and land on an aircraft carrier and conduct missions without human involvement.

X-47B and other contenders emerged from the US Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program which changed scope several times along the way but finally settled on the unmanned tanker role.

That’s certainly useful but the final potential would appear far greater, with unmanned aircraft accompanying Super Hornet or F-35 on strike missions, refuelling, providing extended sensor coverage and releasing weapons at the behest of the manned aircraft.

How long before it would be decided the unmanned aircraft could do all that was needed and possibly better than ultra-expensive manned aircraft and their highly trained pilots – maybe not long at all.

US private sector intelligence group Stratfor says as the power competition between Russia, China and the US intensifies, the emergence of disruptive weapons technologies will drive them deeper into a destabilising arms race.

Increasingly capable missile defence systems will contribute, specifically anti-ballistic missiles.

That goes both ways. Russia views the SM-3 – likely to be eventually acquired by Australia – with grave suspicion, along with the US THAAD and Ground Based Interceptor, as potentially neutralising their nuclear arsenals.

Add to that the new US super‑fuze installed on nuclear warheads of submarine-launched Trident ballistic missiles under the decade-long nuclear weapon modernisation program.

This doesn’t make the missile itself any more accurate. The fuze detonates the missile warhead at the optimum location to cause most damage to a target such as a missile silo. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says that it boosts the killing power of US nuclear warheads by a factor of around three.

General Atomics’ developmental Predator C Avenger points to the future of unmanned combat aircraft. (General Atomics)

“Because the innovations in the super-fuze appear, to the non-technical eye, to be minor, policymakers outside of the US government (and probably inside the government as well) have completely missed its revolutionary impact on military capabilities and its important implications for global security,” it said in an article in March 2017.

But there’s more. The US is looking to field more of what are termed low-yield nuclear weapons, with explosive power of less than 20 kilotons. These are also termed tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons.

By nuclear standards their yield is modest but at the upper end it’s still equivalent to the bomb that devastated Hiroshima.

The logic is that large bombs, in the megaton range, would be so catastrophic that their use would be unthinkable and so they pose no effective deterrent, unlike smaller bombs. It’s not just the US – both India and Pakistan possess low-yield bombs as do other nuclear powers.

Any use of any nuclear weapon by anyone would be profoundly disruptive to the human race. If it didn’t lead to immediate escalation, it would have the effect of lowering the nuclear threshold for next time.

This feature article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Australian Aviation.

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  • Michael


    I don’t know which source is more reputable; Peter Singer or Karol Kopp.

  • Adam Dormer


    Interesting article, yet I think there are some major flaws here. The author suggests that strategic bombing was not a disruptor during WW2. Most of Germany’s largest cities totally flattened leaving the population to either leave or live in the ruins. Also, transport infrastructure was severely damaged crippling movement of troops, military equipment, and supplies. USAAF strategic bombing had a even greater effect particularly on petroleum production. So, air power had a massive effect on Germany’s wartime production of pretty well everything – a huge disruptor verified by senior German military leadership during post war interrogation. I also think the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan were very serious if not the most serious “disruptors” ever used to finish a war.

    Then the discussion of the S-300/400 systems. Whilst no doubt these systems pose a serious risk, the “West” does very much have tactics and weapons to counter these systems. When ever in history have ground based defences bettered aerial attack – answer is never of course. Just how many Syrian SAM systems as the Israeli Air Force destroyed in recent times? There is also no mention for instance of the Tomahawk and then later attack using Storm Shadow and JASSM-ERs in Syria and the total lack of effective response by either Syria and Russia who had vowed to protect its ally after the first Tomahawk attack.

    With respect to Dr. Kopp, suggesting that the F-22 is the primary weapon for use against S-300/400 systems I think is wrong. What about stand off missiles as mentioned above? What about the EA-18G Growler and its EA/EW systems and weapons ? What about F-35s c/w SDB, JSOW, JSM and AARGM-ER (some of these weapons coming with Block 4 of course). I’m not sure when Dr. Kopp made those comments used in this article – perhaps some years ago now? There is plenty of commentary suggesting that F-35s would be well able to get close enough to launch stand off weapons against S-300/400 SAMs. Without conclusive evidence which is no doubt classified, who can actually say for certain.

    Interesting commentary though about potential drone attacks at air bases and one I’m sure the RAAF takes very seriously – perhaps even more so given that drone attack at that Russian air base in Syria. There are of course countermeasures for drones and one can only hope that the RAAF and its airfield security forces are all over this threat.

  • Mick C


    I stopped reading this Article when it got to $150m Aircraft, The first 2 Jets the RAAF got in 2014 cost around $120m, the F-35s currently being delivered are below $100m the next ones to be ordered will be less than $90m as production ramps up, so where are you getting $150m from.
    I expect better out of AA than this.

  • CD Xbow


    I nearly stopped reading this Article when it quoted Dr Kopp. Not a credible source.

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