U.S. Navy SEALs Want Kamikaze Drones

What’s that object circling the terrorist hideout?

Is it a drone? Is it a missile? No, it’s a loitering munition, otherwise known as a “kamikaze drone.”

And the U.S. Navy wants them.

Loitering munitions (the U.S. military actually doesn’t like the name “kamikaze drone”) are among the more peculiar weapons of the Drone Age. They can be described as either missiles with a drone-like capability to orbit a target area until commanded by an operator on the ground to dive into the target. Or, they are drones with warhead and a camera, that loiter over an area until ordered to take a final explosive – and self-destructive – plunge.

The U.S. Marine Corps has already ordered the AeroVironment Switchblade, a small, backpack loitering munition that rifle squads can instantly deploy to take out, say, an enemy mortar on a reverse slope that can’t be hit by the squad’s direct-fire rifles and machine guns.

Navy SEALs have something else in mind: a kamikaze drone that can be launched by their small boats. The goal is to provide “Naval Special Warfare Combatant Craft with an organic precision-strike mission package to engage targets over-the-horizon when conventional methods cannot be employed,” according to the Navy’s Request for Information (RFI), which is meant to ascertain what the defense industry can provide. The weapon is “designed to be a non line-of-sight missile system with man-in-the-loop flight controls, multi-mode seeker, loitering, and scalable effects warhead/payload options that minimizes collateral damage.”

The Navy RFI offers no desired technical specifications. But Switchblade, for example, weigh 5.5 pounds (including the launch tube), has a range of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) and endurance of 15 minutes.

The Navy’s requirement for minimizing collateral damage is important. One of the attractions of loitering munitions is their precision for delicate tasks such as urban warfare. Instead of calling in artillery or air strikes that are likely to pulverize an entire house – or a city block – the soldiers and sailors on the spot can call in their own mini-missile.

“You can fly this into the window of a room and have almost a 100-percent probability of not injuring anyone in the next room,” a U.S. Army program manager told me in 2015. For Navy commandos conducting a raid on a terrorist base nestled among civilian homes, that kind of precise firepower will come in handy.

Or, if enemy ships try to intercept the SEALs’ small craft, a small guided missile aimed at a key spot like the bridge of an hostile patrol boat might make the difference between escape and capture.

The Navy RFI envisions ordering about 1,200 loitering munitions over the next 10 years. Interestingly, the RFI, “while focused on currently fielded, new/up and coming, and future loitering munitions, will discover vendors interested in a unique opportunity to catalyze maritime precision strike and associated capabilities for a number of different customers.”

Who those other customers might be isn’t specified. But it’s easy to envision a variety of potential uses for a maritime kamikaze drone, such as highly accurate shore bombardment by warships, or perhaps a destroyer on blockade or anti-piracy duty can position a loitering munition over a suspicious vessel.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Is China Too Scared to Risk Its Navy in Combat?

By the time the First World War erupted in 1914, Imperial Germany had spent a fortune building a potent fleet of battleships to challenge the Royal Navy.

And what did these battleships do for most of the war? Nothing, because Kaiser Wilhelm II feared the humiliation of losing his battlefleet.

Will today’s China also hesitate to risk its vaunted new aircraft carriers?

In recent years, Beijing has invested much in its navy. Not just money, but also prestige as Chinese propaganda has crafted an image of a high-tech armada that can challenge the U.S., Japan and other nations for naval primacy in the Western Pacific.

Like the Kaiser’s battleships, the most visible symbol of this transformation is the PLAN’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers, which now comprises an old ex-Soviet carrier, plus the newly commissioned Shandong – China’s first domestically-built carrier. Beijing reportedly has plans to build additional carriers, backed by new cruisers, destroyers and submarines, that has some Western experts warning that China’s naval power will overtake America’s by 2035.

“Beijing’s naval prowess has buoyed its confidence, a mindset that had been absent in previous discourse,” according to a new study of the China-Japan naval rivalry by the U.S-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“China is increasingly convinced that it possesses the means and skills at sea to bend Japan to its will. Such confidence will increase the likelihood that Beijing would act on its threat of violence. The convergence of China’s hardening national will and growing naval power thus bodes ill for the future stability of the Indo-Pacific.”

Yet Chinese leaders are also haunted by the painful defeats of China’s recent naval history. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, China’s antiquated navy was smashed by a Japanese fleet that had built to resemble Western navies. The war “arguably deprived China of a capable navy for over a century,” CSBA noted. “The naval defeat also exposed the Qing government’s incompetence and delivered a major psychological blow against the regime. It set in motion massive social turmoil, such as the Boxer Rebellion, that would grip China and eventually bring down Manchu rule. A naval loss of similar magnitude today could thus do unspeakable harm to the personal reputations of Chinese leaders and the Party’s credibility.”

As Winston Churchill said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.” Military defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and the Falklands War of 1982, resulted in revolution and the eventual overthrow of the government.

“Chinese strategists, who study the past closely, know this history well and see this correlation,” Toshi Yoshihara, who co-authored the CSBA study, told Uncommon Defense. “I suspect Chinese leaders, obsessed as they are about staying in power, would be alert to this correlation.”

CSBA argues that the U.S. and Japan can exploit this sensitivity. “The United States and Japan must possess the capacity and capability to inflict crippling losses on China’s entire naval fleet in a war at sea. A credible posture that can deliver on the promise of fleet destruction— to reprise the fate that befell the Beiyang Fleet in 1894—could go far to influence Chinese calculations and to deter Beijing.”

On the other hand, there is a danger in mirror-imaging: just because the U.S. fears humiliation if a high-value target like an aircraft carrier is sunk, doesn’t mean China is equally sensitive.

“The task before us is to better understand how the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] understand and evaluate risk at sea,” Yoshihara said. “Is the Party and the PLA more or less risk averse when it comes to the fleet? Under what circumstances would the Party leadership risk the fleet or not?”

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Think Drone Swarms Are Scary? The Newest Weapon May Be “Drone Meshes”

One potentially fearsome new weapon is the drone swarm, a flock of hundreds of small unmanned aerial vehicles working together like a hive mind to overwhelm a target.

But U.S. thinktank RAND has another idea: a “targeting mesh” of small, unarmed drones that would saturate a target area with sensors that would identify high-value targets for stand-off anti-ship missiles.

The low-cost attritable aircraft technology (L-CAAT) concept envisions small 600-pound drones equipped with short-range electro-optical cameras, synthetic aperture radars and electronic intelligence collectors. These small L-CAAT drones, naturally dubbed “kittens,” would tote a tiny 60-pound payload.

“They would only carry a sensor and a radio,” RAND researcher David Ochmanek told Uncommon Defense.

Each drone in the targeting mesh would scan a narrow slice of territory. The RAND study cites an example where 500 UAVs fly at 30,000 feet over a coverage area in the Taiwan Strait that measures 100 by 100 kilometers (62 by 62 miles).

Their drones would be equipped with cheap, off-the-shelf cameras and synthetic aperture radars, which means the probability of an individual kitten’s sensors identifying a target is fairly low. But as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all its own. In the Taiwan scenario, RAND calculates that any given target in the coverage zone – such as a Chinese warship – would be under observation by 15 different drones, thus vastly increasing the probability of success.

In turn, the kittens would provide targeting data to 3-ton “missile truck” drones, armed with a 1,200-pound payload of stand-off anti-ship missiles that would enable them to stay out of range of enemy defenses. These larger drones would be similar to the Kratos XQ-58A, an experimental UAV that resembles a scaled-down F-35 stealth fighter. Or, the kittens could cue in missiles launched by manned aircraft, ships or land-based coastal defense batteries used by nations like Taiwan.

The kittens would be controlled by human operators, though they would have sufficient on-board AI to function if communications were jammed or interrupted. But while the kittens work loosely together, they are not a drone swarm, “This is not a ‘swarm’ in the sense of a group of objects coordinating their tactical movement,” explains the RAND study. “The UAVs are spreading out to cover the required area. They are continuously communicating with one another to ensure that they are not all concentrated in one area, but they are not otherwise attempting to coordinate their behavior.”

Significantly, the goal here isn’t target detection but rather identification. RAND reckons that a massive operation such as a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan, or a Russian invasion of the Baltic States, would be detected by spy satellites or other surveillance platforms. But with a limited stockpile of expensive smart munitions to draw upon, the trick is figuring out which targets are worth a missile, and which should be ignored. Is that blip on the radar screen a high-value aircraft carrier or troop transport, or a small minesweeper that should be ignored?

“It’s separating the wheat from the chaff,” says Ochmanek.

Unfortunately, a flock of non-stealth drones flying at 30,000 feet will probably be easy prey for anti-aircraft missiles. “You could imagine losing several hundred air vehicles in a rather short period of time,” Ochmanek says. “If you wanted to sustain a mesh of 500 UAVs, you might have to launch 700, 800, 900 over a period of several hours.”

But flying at high altitude would keep the drones safe from anti-aircraft guns, which means the enemy would have to target them with surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Yet putting hundreds of UAVs over the target area that force the enemy to either ignore them, or expend their SAM stockpile and leave themselves vulnerable to attack by other aircraft. It’s the same problem faced by missile defense systems such as Iron Dome, where Israel found itself launching $100,000 interceptor rockets at homemade Hamas rockets that were little more than metal tubes filled with explosives.

“If the kittens can be produced at a price point of something like $300,000 to $500,000, and if we can keep them flying at high altitudes, then we don’t see a cheap way to kill them,” Ochmanek says.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: U.S. Army

Flying Bomb Trucks: Will “Arsenal Planes” Make Bombers Obsolete?

Suggesting fighter and bomber pilots are truck drivers isn’t very nice. But military aircraft are essentially delivery trucks. They fire cannon, drop bombs, take photographs or haul cargo. But ultimately, their utility is a function of the payload they carry.

So if a lumbering transport aircraft can haul missiles as well as a sophisticated bomber, then isn’t it more economical to use the cargo plane?

That’s the idea behind the U.S. Air Force’s embrace of the “arsenal plane” concept in which older multi-engine aircraft, such as C-17 and C-130 cargo planes, are transformed into launch platforms for salvoes of missiles and drones. The idea is that arsenal planes will support manned aircraft by suppressing enemy air defenses.

The Air Force has just publicly announced a test of the concept. In January 2020, an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J Commando II —  a special operations transport and tanker – airdropped a wooden pallet carrying simulated cruise missiles that would have been launched in flight.

“This successful Phase I operational demonstration represents a milestone in executing a palletized munitions airdrop, which refers to the delivery of a large volume of air-launched weapons at any given time,” said the Air Force announcement. “In this case, munitions stacked upon wooden pallets, or Combat Expendable Platforms, deployed via a roller system. AFSOC used an MC-130J Commando II since its cargo area supported the release of multiple, relatively large munitions.”

“AFSOC aircrew released five CEPs rigged with six simulated munitions, the same mass as the actual weapons, including four Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range [CLEAVER] across a spectrum of low and high altitude airdrops. These long-range, high precision weapons destroy moving and non-moving targets.”

CLEAVER, under development by the Air Force Research Laboratory, seems to be some sort of unpowered glide bomb along the lines of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).

But what’s interesting here isn’t the technology, which is using familiar (and the whole point of exploiting older systems to save money). It’s the concept that’s intriguing in its long-term implications.

The idea of turning transports into bombers isn’t new. Several nations did so during World War II, including the Soviet Union, which turned American Lend-Lease C-47s into bomb carriers. But the most famous example is the C-130, which the U.S. Air Force has transformed into a fearsome cannon-armed gunship since the Vietnam War. More recently, Pentagon research agency DARPA has tested the C-130 as a mothership for X-61A combat drones.

As a bomb or missile carrier, transport planes have two impressive attributes: range and cargo capacity. The tradeoff for them is lack of speed, maneuverability, armament and defensive systems. But with standoff missiles and drones, arsenal planes should be able to remain at a safe distance from enemy fighters and missiles.

Can arsenal planes replace high-performance combat aircraft like fighters and bombers? Perhaps not. There will be cases where strike aircraft have to penetrate hostile air defenses to get close enough to the target to observe or destroy it. And a clumsy four-engine cargo plane is going to need fighter and electronic warfare escorts as protection against enemy fighters and long-range anti-aircraft missiles that will try to pick off the arsenal planes.

Nonetheless, the advent of drones, smart bombs, advanced sensors and hypersonic missiles point toward a conclusion: the payload is more important than the platform. And if any platform can haul missiles and drones, then a C-130 that can haul 20 tons of cargo is going to have the edge over an F-35 that can haul 10 tons.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Tired of Jet Lag? DARPA’s Bioimplants May Help

Jet lag is nature’s reminder that while humans can fly around the world, they still leave their body clocks at home. It’s taxing enough for most of us, but particularly so for military personnel — such as pilots and special forces — who may be deployed to distant locations on short notice.

DARPA, the Pentagon’s pet research agency, thinks it has a solution: bioimplants that will not just fight fatigue and disorientation, but also stop bacteria that afflict soldiers with diarrhea.           

Home remedies for jet lag abound, such as taking melatonin tablets or adjusting a traveler’s sleep schedule before the flight. But none of them are practical for military use. “Current mechanisms for physically adapting circadian rhythms to new environments focus on extensive pre-deployment preparation, sleep hygiene, and exposure to intense light; however, these interventions require precise timing and fixed equipment that can limit maneuverability and are impractical when coordinating large numbers of people,” according to the DARPA research solicitation. “Consequently, such interventions rarely exceed the body’s natural acclimation rate of one day for every hour the clock is shifted.”

The Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness (ADAPTER) project aims to develop jet lag-fighting technology based on existing medical implants such as pacemakers, pumps and ingestible sensors. DARPA envisions a “travel adapter for the human body, an implantable or ingestible bioelectronic carrier that contains therapeutic cellular factories and biomolecules which can provide warfighters control over their own physiology. The integrated system will house multiple capabilities that typically require lengthy preparation or cold chains such as instant antibiotic production, in vivo toxin removal from ingested resources, and enhanced warfighter acclimation to jet lag or shift lag.”

And that other scourge of overseas travel: adapting to local food and water that disagrees with your tummy? DARPA has reason to fix that, too. One study found that 77 percent of troops in Iraq, and 54 percent in Afghanistan, suffered from diarrhea, with 40 percent of the victims requiring hospitalization.

“ADAPTER will manage a warfighter’s circadian rhythm, halving the time to reestablish normal sleep after a disruption such as jet lag or shift lag,” DARPA promises. “It will also provide safe food and water by eliminating the top five bacterial sources of traveler’s diarrhea.”

There may be a few obstacles to military bioimplants, such as the right of soldiers to not insert medical devices into their bodies, or the possibility that these implants could be hacked. That the ADAPTER project will span 4.5 years suggests the challenge of designing a safe, effective device to combat jet lag and bad food will be a formidable one.

Yet if successful, this is technology that many a weary traveler – military or civilian – will appreciate.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Boeing

Why Did China Put Its New Howitzer on Wheels Instead of Tracks?

Artillery pieces were once towed by horses – until the truck was invented. Then the big guns were pulled by trucks – but the guns needed time to set up, and the trucks couldn’t keep up with the tanks in rough terrain.

Then in World War II, howitzers were put on a tank chassis to create tracked self-propelled howitzers, which had the mobility and armor protection to keep pace with tanks. The problem is that a tank-like howitzer comes with all the problems of tanks, such as a heftier price tag and more maintenance, as well as extra weight that chew up roads and precludes crossing many bridges.

But in recent years, wheeled howitzers have become an option. Placing a big gun on what is essentially  a heavy truck aims to create an artillery piece that combines affordability and mobility.

That’s why China has mounted its new howitzer on wheels. The PCL-181 is a 155-mm howitzer mounted on a 6-wheel off-road truck chassis. It is aimed at replacing the People’s Liberation Army’s  towed PL-66 152-mm and Type 59-1 130-mm howitzers.

“The PCL-181 features ‘fastness’ as its most prominent technical advantage — to be specific, its ‘fastness’ in response, marching, and aiming,” declared the official China Military Online site. “Within three minutes, the PL-66 152-mm towed gun-howitzer can only complete the transition from marching state to combat state; while thanks to its integrated wheeled chassis and highly automated electromechanical hydraulic servo system, the PCL-181 can realize the whole process from parking to combat state, then to launching six projectiles, and finally to withdrawing and transferring.”

“This means a qualitative leap for the tactics of the PLA Army artillery troops,” Chinamil.com said.

The PCL-181 also features a computerized fire control system rather than the manual controls of the older towed howitzers. Interestingly, the Chinamil announcement suggested the self-propelled weapon is less prone to traffic accidents than the towed models, “with no need to worry about the rollover accident caused by overspeed, which is hardly possible for the PL-66 152-mm towed gun-howitzer.”

Interestingly, Chinese military media made a point of noting that the Chinese army already has a self-propelled howitzer, the PZL-05 155-mm weapon. So why opt for a wheeled howitzer?

The biggest reason seems to be mobility. At 25 tons, the PCL-181 is half the weight of the tank-like PZL-05. It can use roads, bridges and railway cars that can’t support the PZL-05, and it can fit inside a Y-9 cargo plane.

Indeed, the PLA seems very concerned about building mobile artillery that can operate across the vast geographical size and diversity of China, which encompasses deserts, jungles and mountains. “The total mileage of China’s expressway network has exceeded 100,000 kilometers [62,000 miles] at present,” according to China.mil. “Therefore, the PCL-181 can quickly reach designated areas by using its wheeled chassis of long-distance rapid maneuverability in North China, East China, and South China where the expressway network is relatively dense. In addition, the PCL-181 is also superior to the PLZ-05 in terms of maneuverability and operational flexibility in mountainous areas, deserts, Gobi deserts, and plateaus.”

China isn’t the only nation embracing wheeled howitzers. For example, France has its CAESAR 155-millimeter gun, Israel has the 155-mm ATMOS and Russia is developing a truck-mounted 152-mm weapon. Even the U.S., concerned that its artillery is outgunned by Russia’s big guns, is exploring truck-mounted howitzers to meet its future artillery requirements.

But are wheeled howitzers really better than tracked guns? There are pros and cons to either approach, according to a 2017 study by U.S. think tank RAND Corp. Wheeled vehicles are cheaper, easier to maintain, and have better mobility when operating on roads. Tracked vehicles are superior in maneuvering off-road, and a tracked chassis can bear more weight and more armor protection than a wheeled chassis.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: China Military Online

German Tanks Conquered France In 1940. So Why Are France and Germany Building a Tank Together?

Call it a sign of enemies reconciling. Or, an ironic twist of history.

Just days before the 80th anniversary of the German mechanized blitzkrieg that conquered France in six weeks, Germany and France signed an agreement to jointly build a new tank.

The Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) idea has been floating around since 2012 as a replacement for Cold War-era German Leopard II and French Leclerc tanks. Last month, German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and her French counterpart Florence Parly inked an agreement that lays out organization and management of the project, which includes a two-year study.

Not surprisingly, the German Ministry of Defense announcement emphasized that both nations would equally share the cost of building a next-generation tank.

“Both countries should benefit equally from the cooperation, which is why the contracts to be concluded are based on a 50 percent financing between Germany and France,” said the announcement. “In addition, both nations are to receive sufficient intellectual property rights for the intended future use of the work results,” The ministers have therefore also signed an Implementing Arrangement 1, which forms the basis for commissioning a system architecture definition study. Only recently, the Budget Committee of the German Bundestag cleared the way for commissioning this two-year study. Again, Germany and France share the costs. The system architecture is a prerequisite for the development of a technology demonstrator with which the German and French requirements for the MGCS can be verified.”

A 2018 document by a Franco-German research institute describes an MGCS concept that sounds much like American or Russian next-generation armored vehicles: a highly automated family of light, medium and heavy tanks equipped with advanced sensors, and designed to work in a manned-unmanned team with robot vehicles and aircraft. It could be armed with a laser cannon, though French defense firm Nexter has developed a 140-mm cannon – far more powerful than the 120-mm cannon on current NATO tanks – that could give the MGCS a formidable punch.

Cold War designs such as the Leopard II, Abrams and T-72 have served well for decades. While the panzers of 1940 were obsolete by 1941, constant upgrades in sensors, defensive systems and armament have enabled Cold War designs to remain viable even today. But time marches on, and inevitably Europe will need new tanks to keep pace with 21st Century U.S. and Russian models.

Given the coronavirus and the resultant global economic depression, whether Berlin and Paris will actually spend the money to develop a new tank remains to be seen. Will other European nations join to spread out the costs? What are the export prospects of the vehicle versus American and Russian competitors? Note that France, along with Germany and Spain, have announced plans to develop a sixth-generation fighter that would be more advanced than the fifth-generation U.S. F-35 stealth jet. Even nations with far larger defense budgets have had problems: the U.S. has spent years trying to find an affordable and reliable replacement for the M-1 Abrams, while Russia’s military has balked at the cost of the cutting-edge T-14 Armata.

But perhaps money – or even military effectiveness – isn’t the point. France and Germany were bitter enemies for centuries, including two horrific world wars. A hundred years ago, the thought of them allying to build a tank – or just allying at all – would have been considered insane. With the U.S. stepping back from its role as Europe’s protector, Europe will have to be prepared to defend itself. What better symbol than a French and German tank?

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Did Iran Convert a Dumb Rocket Into a Guided Aeroballistic Missile?

Did Iran convert an old ground-launched artillery rocket into a new air-launched ballistic missile?

A YouTube video, allegedly taken by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), shows an Iranian Su-22 – a Russian-made fighter-bomber — launching what appears to be a long, slender missile (the launch begins at about the 30-second mark in the video). Pro-Iranian media claims the weapon is an air-launched version of the Fajr-4, a big, long-range, truck-mounted artillery rocket.

A Russian defense news site compared photos of the missile in the Iranian video to the Fajr 4 – and they indeed look similar.

What exactly is a Fajr-4? It’s a 333-mm rocket that’s part of the Fajr family of truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers, comprising unguided rockets in 240-mm and 333-mm calibers and with ranges of up to 30 miles. Some are based on Russian, Chinese and North Korean designs, with Hezbollah using the Fajr 3 against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War.

In a 2007 report on the Iranian military by the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Fajr-4 – also known as the Shahin-1 – is described as a “a trailer-launched 333-mm caliber unguided, high-explosive artillery rocket. Two rockets are normally mounted on each trailer, and they have a solid propelled-rocket motor, a maximum range of 75 kilometers [46 miles], and a 175-kilogram [386-pound] conventional or chemical warhead. The Shahin evidently can be equipped with three types of warheads: a 180-kilogram high-explosive warhead, a warhead using high-explosive submunitions, and a warhead that uses chemical weapons.”

This isn’t the first time that Iran has turned a ground-based rocket into an aerial weapon. The Oghab, a 230-mm artillery rocket, may have been modified for launch from Iranian F-14 and F-4 fighters. But there are a few interesting twists to the Fajr-4 story. The Iranian video shows the rocket being dropped from an Su-22, and then the rocket falling through the air – and then a big explosion on the ground. But there is no footage of the rocket motor igniting. This could mean a static airdrop test, which in turn suggests the weapon is far from being operational.

More interesting is the description of the air-launched Fajr-4 as a guided weapon, though the ground-launched version is unguided. An air-to-surface missile would certainly have a guidance system: trying to destroy targets with giant unguided rockets would require the launch aircraft to fly dangerously close to the target.

However, Iran has developed a kit that turns unguided surface-to-surface rockets into guided weapons. The U.S. Joint Attack Direct Munition (JDAM) takes the same approaching by affixing a GPS guidance kit to iron bombs to turn them into smart weapons.

Whatever we know about the Fajr-4, we know it’s not an air-launched ballistic missile like Russia’s Kinzhal, a nuclear-tipped hypersonic (faster than Mach 5) missile that may be too fast for Western air defenses to stop. Fajr-4 seems more like an old Katyusha-type rocket launched from an airplane.

Iran does have a history of announcing weapons with more bark than bite, such as a stealth fighter that apparently is neither stealthy nor much of a fighter.

Indeed, some Western experts aren’t impressed with the new Iranian weapon. Anthony Cordesman, who coauthored the Center for Strategic and International Studies report, noted that the name “Fajr” covers both missiles and artillery rockets.

“We constantly see new announcements with new and sometimes duplicative names,” Cordesman told Uncommon Defense. “Sometimes they are real and sometimes they simply are a way of hyping Iranian military power.”

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

This Russian ICBM Will Punch Through Arctic Ice

The Arctic makes a great hiding place for submarines. Sailing under the polar ice caps, subs can avoid detection and attack by surface ships and submarines. For Russia in particular, with much of its navy based in the far north, the Arctic offers its ballistic missile subs a sanctuary from Western sub-hunters.

The problem is, what if a ballistic missile sub actually receives the command to launch its nuclear-tipped ICBMs? The missile can’t penetrate the ice, which means the sub must either search for a hole in the ice before it can launch, or sail outside the ice cap. Or, if time is pressing during a nuclear war, the sub can try find a weak spot in the ice cap, attempt to surface, and hope that breaking through the ice sheet doesn’t damage the vessel.

So, the Russian Navy has an idea: use a rocket to punch a hole through the ice, fire the ICBM through the hole, while the sub remains snugly under the ice and can quickly make its escape before the sub-hunters arrive.

“These unguided rocket-propelled projectiles punch a hole through the pack ice at the required location,” says Russian newspaper Izvestia. “These special munitions support the launch of strategic missiles while submerged and also in the surface recovery of floating rescue capsules, which the crews use for evacuation during an accident. The submarines will be able to fire rockets from both the under-ice position and also on the surface.”

The ice-busting rockets, which will be armed with high-explosive warheads, are being developed for the Russian Navy’s new Borei- and Yasen-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The rockets were first tested in 2014.

During the Cold War, Soviet attempts to use regular torpedoes to blast a hole in the ice “were not as effective as expected,” Izvestia admitted.

“All of these nuclear submarines must operate in any situation and not depend on the conditions of the environment,” Rear Admiral Vsevolod Khmyrov, a former nuclear submarine captain, told Izvestia. “Upon receipt of the command to launch, they are obliged to execute it as soon as possible. Ice should not be an impediment. Making ice holes is a tactical technique which permits the missile launch on time. A submarine can use the hull to punch through the ice but, in the process, risks getting damaged. Therefore, if time permits, the missile submarines usually look for already existing ice holes or sail out beyond the edge of the ice.”

Presumably the submarine will have a way to determine whether the rocket successfully punched a hole though the ice before launching an ICBM: a nuclear-tipped missile smashing into a 5-foot-thick ice sheet could have unfortunate consequences for the sub.

But if the concept does work, it could prove advantageous for Russia as it competes with other nations over Arctic resources and shipping routes emerging as the ice cap shrinks. A Russian sub could launch conventional cruise or hypersonic missiles through the ice at enemy ships and installations.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Think China Could Defeat India In a War? Think Again

India fears that it is militarily inferior to China.

But are those fears overblown? A new study argues that if another Sino-Indian conflict erupts, India is much stronger than it appears.

“We assess that India has key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks,” write scholars Frank O’Donnell and Alex Bollfrass in a report for Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

That assessment comes even as China and India engage in yet another military faceoff along their disputed border, where China seized territory during a brief war in 1962. Indian planners fear that China has military superiority along the border.

“For example, one Indian expert has observed that ‘India’s ground force posture and strength is not really comparable to that of China in their border regions,’” the Belfer report notes. “China has better military infrastructure, capabilities, and logistics.’”

But this underestimates Indian strengths. For starters, China has a larger military, with about 2 million active-duty personnel versus 1.4 million for India. But the Belfer report estimates that China and India have roughly equivalent forces in the border region, with 200,000 to 230,000 troops apiece in the military commands responsible for the area. In the air, India actually has numerical superiority, with almost 350 Indian fighters and ground attack aircraft facing 157 Chinese fighters backed by about 50 armed drones, according to the study.

These numbers also mask more subtle Indian advantages. For example, some of those Chinese troops and aircraft in border commands will be tasked with keeping an eye on Russia, or keeping a lid on insurrection in Tibet and Xinjiang, the report argues. “In the event of a major standoff or conflict with India, it [China] would have to rely upon mobilization primarily from Xinjiang and secondarily from the Western Theater Command forces deeper in China’s interior. By contrast, Indian forces are already largely in position.”

“While an opportunistic Russian attack upon China in this areas is unlikely, a significant proportion of these Chinese forces will remain unavailable for India contingencies and still be directed to guard against this eventuality,” O’Donnell told Uncommon Defense.

Chinese airpower in the region operates from four major airbases, which can be neutralized by Indian bombardment. And while holding the high ground is normally a good thing, that’s not true for Chinese pilots operating from mountainous Tibet. “The high altitude of Chinese air bases in Tibet and Xinjiang, plus the generally difficult geographic and weather conditions of the region, means that Chinese fighters are limited to carrying around half their design payload and fuel. In-flight refueling would be required for PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force] forces to maximize their strike capacity,” the report says. “Against these underpowered fighters, IAF [Indian Air Force] forces will launch from bases and airfields unaffected by these geographic conditions, with maximum payload and fuel capabilities.”

The Belfer study also points to a geographic reality: the Himalayas are a long way from the centers of Chinese power. “China could surge air and ground forces from its interior toward the border. However, what our analysis suggests is that the IAF’s superiority would mean that critical logistical routes—such as air bases and military road and rail links—could be cut by bombing or standoff missile strikes, limiting the extent to which China’s position could be reinforced. Such a Chinese surge would also attract attention from the United States, which would alert India and enable it to counter-mobilize its own additional forces from its interior.”

Then there is the nuclear balance between China and India. The Belfer study estimates that 104 nuclear-capable Chinese missiles are within range of all or parts of India, versus 18 Indian Agni II and III missiles that can reach all or parts of China. India has also three squadrons of nuclear-capable Mirage 2000H and Jaguar fighters that can reach China – assuming they can penetrate Chinese air defenses.

“China believes it has mutual nuclear deterrence against India, but Indian assumptions tend to be more pessimistic, and instead assume that effective nuclear deterrence will only be generated against China once India has fielded an Agni-V missile force, able to reach Beijing, Shanghai and other east coast targets, and a full nuclear-armed submarine fleet,” O’Donnell, co-author of “India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine, and Dangers,” told Uncommon Defense.

Yet in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, O’Donnell and Bollfrass argue that instead of developing new nuclear missiles and submarines, India would be better off improving the survivability of its existing nuclear platforms while advocating global nuclear arms control. This would also free up funding to beef up conventional forces.

What’s interesting is that the Belfer report isn’t the first American study to conclude that India has a fighting chance to defeat China. An analysis earlier this year by the Center for New American Security argued that India could use China’s own tactics from the Korean War to offset Chinese numerical superiority.

India’s military still has problems to overcome, including a corrupt and inefficient system for designing and procuring weapons. Nonetheless, All of which suggests that despite all the buzz over China’s impressive growth in high-tech military capabilities, Indian military power should not be underestimated.

— Michael Peck

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