Air Warfare Today

My last post summarised the ins and outs of the missile weaponry used by most modern air forces today, and the impact that this had on fighter technology with the development of the interceptor and fighter-bomber as separate classes. This technology was flashy and rose to prominence during the Korean war, but the powers-that-be still used large bomber aircraft during that conflict and were convinced that carpet bombing was the most effective strategy for a large-scale land campaign. And who knows; if WWIII ever ends up happening, maybe that sheer scale of destruction will once again be called for.

However, this tactic was not universally appreciated. As world warfare descended ever more into world politics and scheming, several countries began to adopt the fighter-bomber as their principle strike aircraft. A good example is Israel, long-time allies of the US, who used American fighter-bombers early on during the 1970s Middle East conflict to take out the air bases of their Soviet-backed Arab neighbours, giving them air superiority in the region that proved very valuable in the years to come as that conflict escalated. These fighters were valuable to such countries, who could not afford the cost of a large-scale bombing campaign; faster, precision guided destruction made far better fiscal sense and annoyed the neighbours less when they were parked on their doorstep (unless your government happened to be quite as gung-ho as Israel’s). Throughout the 1960s, this realisation of the value of fighter aircraft lead to further developments in their design; ground-assault weapons, in the form of air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs, began to be standard equipment on board fighter aircraft once their value as principle strike weapons was realised and demand for them to perform as such increased.  Furthermore, as wars were fought and planes were brought down, it was also realised that dogfighting was not in fact a dead art when one’s opponents (ie the Soviet Union and her friends) also had good hardware, so maneouvreability was once again reinstated as a design priority. Both of these advances were greatly aided by the rapid advancements in the electronics of the age, which quickly found their way into avionics; the electronic systems used by aircraft for navigation, monitoring, and (nowadays) help flying the aircraft, among other things.

It was also at this time that aircraft began experimenting with the idea of VTOL: Vertical Take Off and Landing. This was an advantageous property for an aircraft to have since it limited the space it needed for its take off and landing, allowing it to land in a wider range of environments where there wasn’t a convenient long stretch of bare tarmac. It was also particularly useful for aircraft carriers, which had been shown during WW2’s battle of Midway to be incredibly useful military tools, since any space not used for runway could be used to carry more precious aircraft. Many approaches were tried, including some ‘tail-sitting’ aircraft that mounted onto a vertical wall, but the only one to achieve mainstream success was the British Harrier, with two rotatable engine vents that could be aimed downwards for vertical takeoff. These offered the Harrier another trick- it was the only aircraft with a reverse gear. A skilled pilot could, if being tailed by a hostile, face his vents forward so his engines were pushing him in the opposite direction to his direction of travel, causing him to rapidly slow down and for his opponent to suddenly find himself with an enemy behind him eyeing up a shot. This isn’t especially relevant, I just think it’s really cool.

However, the event that was to fundamentally change late 20th century air warfare like no other was the Vietnam war; possibly the USA’s biggest ever military mistake. The war itself was chaotic on almost every level, with soldiers being accused of everything from torture to drug abuse, and by the mid 1960s it had already been going on, on and off, for over a decade years. The American public was rapidly becoming disillusioned with the war in general, as the hippy movement began to lift off, but in August 1964 the USS Maddox allegedly fired at a couple of torpedo boats that were following it through the Gulf of Tonkin. I say allegedly, because there is much speculation as to the identity of the vessels themselves; as then-president Lyndon B. Johnson said, “those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish”. In any case, the outcome was the important bit; when (now known to be false) reports came in two days later of a second attack in the area, Congress backed Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which basically gave the President the power to do what he liked in South-East Asia without making the war official (which would have meant consulting the UN). This resulted in a heavy escalation of the war both on the ground and in the air, but possibly the most significant side-effect was ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, which authorised a massive-scale bombing campaign to be launched on the Communist North Vietnam. The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, Curtis LeMay, had been calling for such a saturation bombing campaign for a while by then, and said “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”.

Operation Rolling Thunder ended up dropping, mainly via B-52 bombers, a million tonnes of bombs across North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail (used to supply the militant NLF, aka Viet Cong, operating in South Vietnam) across neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, in possibly the worst piece of foreign politics ever attempted by a US government- and that’s saying something. Not only did opinion of the war, both at home and abroad, take a large turn for the worse, but the bombing campaign itself was a failure; the Communist support for the NLF did not come from any physical infrastructure, but from an underground system that could not be targeted by a carpet bombing campaign. As such, NLF support along the Ho Chi Minh continued throughout Rolling Thunder, and after three years the whole business was called off as a very expensive failure. The shortcomings of the purpose-built bomber as a concept had been highlighted in painful detail for all the world to see; but two other aircraft used in Vietnam showed the way forward. The F-111 had variable geometry wings, meaning they could change their shape depending on the speed the aircraft was going. This meant it performed well at a wide variety of airspeeds, both super- and sub-sonic (see my post regarding supersonic flight for the ins and outs of this), and whilst the F-111 never had the performance to utilise them properly (since it was turboprop, rather than purely jet powered) the McDonnell F-4 Phantom did; the Phantom claimed more kills than any other fighter aircraft during Vietnam, and was (almost entirely accidentally) the first multi-role aircraft, operating both as the all-weather interceptor it was designed to be and the strike bomber its long range and large payload capacity allowed it to be.

The key advantage of multi-role aircraft is financial; in an age where the massive wars of the 20th century are slowly fading into the past (ha, ha) and defence budgets are growing ever-slimmer, it makes much more sense to own two or three aircraft that can each do five things very well than 15 that can only do one each to a superlative degree of perfection. This also makes an air force more flexible and able to respond faster; if an aircraft is ready for anything, then it alone is sufficient to cover a whole host of potential situations. Modern day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon take this a stage further; rather than being able to be set up differently to perform multiple different roles, they try to have a single setup that can perform any role (or, at least, that any ‘specialised’ setup also allows for other scenarios and necessities should the need arise). Whilst the degree of unspecialisation of the hardware does leave multirole aircraft vulnerable to more specialised variations if the concept is taken too far, the advantages of multirole capabilities in a modern air force existing with the modern political landscape are both obvious and pressing. Pursuit and refinement of this capability has been the key challenge facing aircraft designers over the last 20 to 30 years, but there have been two new technologies that have made their way into the field. The first of these is built-in aerodynamic instability (or ‘relaxed stability’), which has been made possible by the invention of ‘fly-by-wire’ controls, by which the joystick controls electronic systems that then tell the various components to move, rather than being mechanically connected to them. Relaxed stability basically means that, left to its own devices, an aircraft will oscillate from side to side or even crash by uncontrollable sideslipping rather than maintain level flight, but makes the aircraft more responsive and maneouvrable. To ensure that the aircraft concerned do not crash all the time, computer systems generally monitor the pitch and yaw of the aircraft and make the tiny corrections necessary to keep the aircraft flying straight. It is an oft-quoted fact that if the 70 computer systems on a Eurofighter Typhoon that do this were to crash, the aircraft would quite literally fall out of the sky.

The other innovation to hit the airframe market in recent years has been the concept of stealth, taking one of two forms. Firstly we consider the general design of modern fighters, carefully designed to minimise their radar cross-section and make them less visible to enemy radar. They also tend to shroud their engine exhausts so they aren’t visually visible from a distance. Then, we consider specialist designs such as the famous American Lockheed Nighthawk, whose strange triangular design covered in angled, black sheets of material are designed to scatter and absorb radar and make them ‘invisible’, especially at night. This design was, incidentally, one of the first to be unflyably unstable when in flight, and required a fly-by-wire control system that was revolutionary for that time.

Perhaps the best example of how far air warfare has come over the last century is to be found in the first Gulf War, during 1991. At night, Nighthawk stealth bombers would cross into Hussein-held territory to drop their bombs, invisible to Hussein’s radar and anti-aircraft systems, but unlike wars of old they didn’t just drop and hope at their targets. Instead, they were able to target bunkers and other such fortified military installations with just one bomb; a bomb that they could aim at and drop straight down a ventilation shaft. Whilst flying at 600 miles an hour.

We Will Remember Them

Four days ago (this post was intended for Monday, when it would have been yesterday, but I was out then- sorry) was Remembrance Sunday; I’m sure you were all aware of that. Yesterday we acknowledged the dead, recognised the sacrifice they made in service of their country, and reflected upon the tragic horrors that war inflicted upon them and our nations. We gave our thanks that “for your tomorrow, we gave our today”.

However, as the greatest wars ever to rack our planet have disappeared towards the realm of being outside living memory, a few dissenting voices have risen about the place of the 11th of November as a day of national mourning and remembrance. They are not loud complaints, as anything that may be seen as an attempt to sully the memories of those who ‘laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom’ (to quote Saving Private Ryan) is unsurprisingly lambasted and vilified by the majority, but it would be wrong not to recognise that there are some who question the very idea of Remembrance Sunday in its modern incarnation.

‘Remembrance Sunday,’ so goes the argument, ‘is very much centred around the memories of those who died: recognising their act of sacrifice and championing the idea that ‘they died for us’.” This may partly explain why the Church has such strong links with the ceremony; quite apart from religion being approximately 68% about death, the whole concept of sacrificing oneself for the good of others is a direct parallel to the story of Jesus Christ. ‘However,’ continues the argument, ‘the wars that we of the old Allied Powers chiefly celebrate and remember are ones in which we won, and if we had lost them then to argue that they had given their lives in defence of their realm would make it seem like their sacrifice was wasted- thus, this style of remembrance is not exactly fair. Furthermore, by putting the date of our symbolic day of remembrance on the anniversary of the end of the First World War, we invariably make that conflict (and WWII) our main focus of interest. But, it is widely acknowledged that WWI was a horrific, stupid war, in which millions died for next to no material gain and which is generally regarded as a terrible waste of life. We weren’t fighting for freedom against some oppressive power, but because all the European top brass were squaring up to one another in a giant political pissing contest, making the death of 20 million people the result of little more than a game of satisfying egos. This was not a war in which ‘they died for us’ is exactly an appropriate sentiment’.

Such an argument is a remarkably good one, and does call into question the very act of remembrance itself.  It’s perhaps more appropriate to make such an argument with more recent wars- the Second World War was a necessary conflict if ever there was one, and it cannot be said that those soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan are not trying to make a deeply unstable and rather undemocratic part of the world a better place to live in (I said trying). However, this doesn’t change the plain and simple truth that war is a horrible, unpleasant activity that we ought to be trying to get rid of wherever humanly possible, and remembering soldiers from years gone by as if their going to die in a muddy trench was absolutely the most good and right thing to do does not seem like the best way of going about this- it reminds me of, in the words of Wilfred Owen: “that old lie:/Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori”.

However, that is not to say that we should not remember the deaths and sacrifices of those dead soldiers, far from it. Not only would it be hideously insensitive to both their memories and families (my family was fortunate enough to not experience any war casualties in the 20th century), but it would also suggest to soldiers currently fighting that their fight is meaningless- something they are definitely not going to take well, which would be rather inadvisable since they have all the guns and explosives. War might be a terrible thing, but that is not to say that it doesn’t take guts and bravery to face the guns and fight for what you believe in (or, alternatively, what your country makes you believe in). As deaths go, it is at least honourable, if not exactly Dulce Et Decorum.

And then, of course, there is the whole point of remembrance, and indeed history itself, to remember. The old adage about ‘study history or else find yourself repeating it’ still holds true, and by learning lessons from the past we stand very little chance of improving on our previous mistakes. Without the great social levelling and anti-imperialist effects of the First World War, then women may never have got the vote, jingoistic ideas about empires,  and the glory of dying in battle may still abound, America may (for good or ill) have not made enough money out of the war to become the economic superpower it is today and wars may, for many years more, have continued to waste lives through persistent use of outdated tactics on a modern battlefield with modern weaponry, to name but the first examples to come into my head- so to ignore the act of remembrance is not just disrespectful, but downright rude.

Perhaps then, the message to learn is not to ignore the sacrifice that those soldiers have made over the years, but rather to remember what they died to teach us. We can argue for all of eternity as to whether the wars that lead to their deaths were ever justified, but we can all agree that the concept of war itself is a wrong one, and that the death and pain it causes are the best reasons to pursue peace wherever we can. This then, should perhaps be the true message of Remembrance Sunday; that over the years, millions upon millions of soldiers have dyed the earth red with their blood, so that we might one day learn the lessons that enable us to enjoy a world in which they no longer have to.