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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Image credit: Wikipedia

Why Russia Loves “Flying Tank” Helicopters

credit: Creative Commons

Yet another “flying tank” helicopter is entering Russia’s arsenal. The Spetznaz commandos are getting a new flying machine that will combine the troop-carrying capacity of a transport helicopter, the immense firepower of an attack helicopter, and the protection of an armored vehicle.

Except the Mi-8AMTSh-VN, which is scheduled to begin testing in the autumn, is not exactly new. It’s based on the venerable Mi-8 (NATO code name “Hip”) transport helicopter, which first flew in 1961. The ubiquitous Mi-8 has been flown by dozens of nations, from Algeria to Mexico. The 7-ton helicopter has a speed of 150 miles per hour, can carry 24 soldiers, and can be armed with machine guns, unguided rocket pods and anti-tank missiles.

But what Russia has in mind seems closer to the legendary Mi-24 Hind, a 1970s derivative of the Mi-8. The 9-ton Mi-24, flown extensively in the Soviet-Afghan War, was a fearsome beast armed with machine guns, 23mm and 30-mm cannon, rockets, six anti-tank missiles and capacity to haul a dozen soldiers. It was essentially a rotary-wing version of the famed World War II Il-2 Sturmovik, a heavily armored ground attack aircraft designed to survive dense curtains of German low-altitude flak.

The Mi-8AMTSh-VN sounds like a Hind on steroids, capable of hauling troops, hunting tanks and shooting down enemy aircraft. “This innovative machine will transport Spetsnaz and provide them with supporting fire,” claims Russian newspaper Izvestia. “In its most heavily-armed version, it will carry up to four extended-range Hermes missiles, up to eight supersonic Ataka missiles, or up to two tons of aviation bombs. This payload will enable the helicopter to engage ground, maritime, and aerial targets at a range of up to 20 kilometers. Modern avionics, electro-optical systems, radar, and thermal imagers will ensure all-weather day and night operation.”

Why does Russia love these big all-in-one helicopters? The U.S. and other Western militaries specialized machines: the American AH-64 Apache is an attack helicopter that doesn’t haul troops, and the UH-60 Blackhawk is a transport chopper that doesn’t hunt tanks.

But to the Russians, it makes more sense to have the same helicopter capable of performing both missions. For lightly armed Spetznaz commandos, a helicopter that can drop them behind enemy lines and then stay in the area to provide massive fire support is invaluable.

“A multirole helicopter combining a wide range of combat and assault landing capabilities is vital for special operations and Spetsnaz subunits,” said Colonel Valeriy Yuryev, deputy chairman of the Russian Union of Paratroopers. “In Afghanistan, Mi-8s would deliver troops to their destination and depart. Cover would usually be provided by a pair of Mi-24 helicopters flying a race-track pattern. The modern helicopter should have sufficient firepower, plenty of ammunition, and good transportation performance. Desirably, it would land a team and then, while the commandos are approaching their assigned location, start engaging targets. What we need is a kind of flying tank. That is more effective than having infantry fighting vehicles or tanks supporting the commandos. You see the situation better from the air.”

To accomplish all this, the Mi-8 will have to be heavily modified. “With an increased payload, it will be noticeably heavier,” Izvestia noted. “Consequently, it will have a more powerful version of the engine currently on the Mi-8AMTSh.”

Which helps explain why other nations don’t combine such disparate functions in one helicopter. A jack-of-all-trades machine can perform many functions, but less capably at a specific function than a specialized machine. Nothing is free in the marketplace of aerodynamics: combining armor, lots of weapons and troop-carrying capacity means a bigger, heavier – and clumsier – helicopter. Compare the bulky shape of the Mi-24 to lithe attack helicopters like the AH-64 Apache or Russia’s Apache-lookalike the Mi-28 Havoc.

Which approach is better? High-tech Western attack helicopters like the Apache are more like race cars: sleek, highly efficient at a narrow range of tasks, and usually a little more fragile and expensive. Russian helicopters are built to inflict damage and take damage, perhaps not surprising given Russia’s history of massive and bloody battles with everyone from Napoleon to Hitler.

Both types of helicopters reflect the values and expectations of those who design them.

— Michael Peck

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Could Iran’s New Spy Satellite Trigger An Israel-Iran War?

credit: Tasnim News

The undeclared war between Iran and Israel has reached new heights.

Or more specifically, a height of 270 miles, which is the altitude of Iran’s first spy satellite. It’s more than a nice vantage point for Iran to keep an eye on its arch-enemy Israel. Lacking advanced reconnaissance aircraft and drones to penetrate Israeli air defenses, a satellite may be the only way for Tehran to gather real-time intelligence on Israel.

Which raises the question: will Israel be tempted to destroy Iran’s eye in the sky?

While Iran’s space agency has previously placed communications and civilian imaging satellites into orbit, the Noor spy satellite launched on April 22 from the Shahroud missile range in northeast Iran is an explicitly military project run by the hardline IRGC. The satellite’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) path takes it over North Africa and the central Mediterranean (you can see the current orbital track here), which puts Israel within a space camera’s field of vision.

For a beleaguered Iranian regime caught between U.S. economic sanctions and the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, Noor was a reminder to domestic and international foes that the regime has muscle. More ominously, the satellite was lofted atop a three-stage Qased (“messenger”) rocket that reportedly combines both solid and liquid fuel propulsion, which suggests that Iran has the potential to develop solid-fueled, nuclear-tipped ICBMs to replace cumbersome liquid-fueled ballistic missiles.

Just as the beep-beep-beeping of Sputnik in 1957 announced the Soviet Union was a technological power, Noor is a signal that Iran is a player to be reckoned with. “Today we watch the Earth from the sky, and this is proof that a global power is in the making,” proclaimed  Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Major General Hossein Salami.

To be fair, Noor is technologically unimpressive compared to other satellites. As a precursor to a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, the Qased rocket has such limited capacity that it can only deliver a satellite into low orbit rather than a higher vantage point for surveilling the Earth, Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted. More important, it’s too small to carry a nuclear warhead.

Yet Iran’s space shot deserved better than to be dismissed by U.S. officials as a useless “tumbling webcam in space.” Recall that the early American satellite launches of the 1950s exploded on the launch pad, but NASA still managed to land humans on the Moon a decade later.

For Iranian strategists, the celestial snoop is heaven-sent. Iran has a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles aimed at enemies such as Israel, while its proxy Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets in Lebanon, including GPS-guided weapons and newly developed kits that convert unguided rockets into smart munitions. What Iran and Hezbollah lack is real-time intelligence for targeting those missiles, but a satellite passing over Israel every couple of hours could provide updated imagery of Israeli troop movements, airbases and critical infrastructure.

Yet unfortunately for Tehran, Israel has an even more advanced space program that has already placed spy satellites in orbit, developed interceptors that can shoot down ballistic missiles and even conducted a near-successful attempt to land an unmanned probe on the Moon. So far, only the U.S., Russia, China and India have demonstrated anti-satellite weapons. But if a nation can launch a satellite, it can also figure out how to shoot one down. Indeed, in 2009, Israeli officials raised the possibility that the Arrow 3 – an interceptor that can shoot down ballistic missiles streaking through outer space – could be turned into an anti-satellite weapon.

Should a major clash erupt between Israel and Iran or Israel and Hezbollah – or even if there are ominous signs that a war might be coming – Israel might be tempted to neutralize Iranian satellites. However, destroying a nation’s satellite is an act of war. Indeed, in 2018, the Trump administration indicated that an attack on American satellites could be grounds for nuclear retaliation.

Iran has endured Mossad assassinations on Iranian soil, airstrikes on its forces in Syria and possibly even Israeli F-35 stealth fighters flying over its territory. But destroying a satellite like Noor might be an escalation from which Tehran couldn’t back down.

— Michael Peck

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Aircraft Carriers Aren’t Sitting Ducks for Russian Missiles, Says New Report

Image: Wikipedia

Britain’s new aircraft carriers are sitting ducks for Russian anti-ship missiles, according to the worst fears of Western critics and the loudest boasts of Russian. If that’s true, then British warships don’t dare venture into northern European waters for fear of Russian weapons such as the hypersonic Khinzal and Zircon ship-killing missiles.

But Royal Navy carriers actually do have a fighting chance against Russian missiles, according to a new report by a British think tank. Because Russia can’t sink ships if it can’t find them.

“There is room for qualified near-to-medium-term optimism about the utility of aircraft carriers using the North Sea, Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea as a maneuver space,” writes Sidharth Kaushal, an analyst for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) who mathematically modeled the potential impact of Russian anti-ship weapons.

The problem isn’t with Russia’s missiles, but rather with Russia’s lack of ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities needed to locate a ship and guide the missile close enough to the target to use its onboard sensors. For example, Russia’s Kinzhal – a hypersonic Mach 10 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) launched from MiG-31 fighters or Tu-22M3 bombers – has an estimated range of 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), which would enable Russian aircraft to threaten U.S. and British carriers operating in the North Sea. But as a rough guess, the RUSI study assumes the Kinzhal’s onboard sensors can detect a target within 40 square kilometers (25 miles), just like China’s DF-21D ASBM. Which means to get that within that distance of a moving ship, the missile would need to be vectored to the target’s location by a land-based over-the-horizon radar or radar-equipped maritime patrol planes like the Il-38N and Tu-142.

In turn, those lumbering patrol planes would need to get within about 200 miles of their target to acquire it on their sensors, which means a strong chance of being shot down by carrier-based fighters. That leaves land-based radar, which can’t be shot down but only has a range of about 25 miles. Thus, even though a Kinzhal may have a thousand-mile range, Russian ships and aircraft would have to get dangerously close to their target.

Similar problems apply to older supersonic Mach 3 P-800 and subsonic Kh-35 anti-ship missiles launched by bombers and submarines. “To get within 120 kilometers [75 miles] of a carrier, Oscar IIs [attack submarines] would have to safely escape their Arctic bastions and potential ASW [NATO anti-submarine] pickets in the high north,” Kaushal writes. “Moreover, given the limitations of submarine onboard sensor suites, questions regarding the ability to track targets such as carriers on the basis of off-board data such as ELINT [electronic intelligence] remain. While missiles such as the P-800 offer a target little warning time at sea-skimming mode, the ranges at which they can be effective in this mode require launch platforms such as the Oscar II – of which there are only two – to take significant risks. As such, submarine-launched P-800 salvos may be comparable to ASBMs – lethal and difficult to intercept, but difficult to cue in and dependent on high-value launch platforms of which Russia does not have many.”

However, if a Russian anti-ship missile can find its target, that ship is in trouble. “The PK [probability of killing a target] of an individual missile, assuming it does acquire its target and evade the defenses of the carrier battle group, is likely reasonably high,” Kaushal told Uncommon Defense. “For quasi-ballistic missiles, and some of the faster cruise missiles, the odds of evading defenses may be reasonably good, though less so for slower missiles like the Kh-35 which still make up the bulk of Russia’s arsenal.  The major strain on Russian resources is the problem of ISR which forces Russian commanders to saturate an area with very large salvos- which is likely to be a strain on limited stockpiles particularly if we are talking about the newest missiles.”

RUSI estimates that the probability of an individual Russian missile hitting a Western carrier is so low that 20 missiles would be needed to ensure a kill. For a high-value target like a carrier, the effort might be worth it. But like NATO, Russia only has a limited supply of expensive smart weapons. “Of course, if a Russian commander can coordinate a salvo of 20 ASBMs and deems the risk of expending large numbers of scarce assets worthwhile, he may score a strategic success,” Kaushal notes.

Interestingly, Kaushal argues that China’s vigorous efforts to defeat American carriers, such as DF-21 “carrier-killer” ASBM, don’t necessarily translate to the European theater. Russia “has no equivalent to the Chinese SAR [synthetic aperture radar] satellite constellation and sources of data such as maritime patrol aircraft have to be used from closer in, where they are at risk of being shot down, as well as facing competing demands from other missions like ASW patrols.”

The RUSI study admits that its calculations are rough and that conditions can change, such as Russia deploying radar satellites. “Speculatively, one might wonder how the ISR network on which the Kinzhal depends might be improved by some form of Sino-Russian agreement that gave Russia access to data from China’s growing orbital SAR network,” Kaushal ponders.

The RUSI study is good news for the U.S. Navy, whose carriers are increasingly endangered by Chinese  weapons like hypersonic missiles and the DF-21, a land-based strategic nuclear missile now adapted for ship-killing. But while a DF-21 may be difficult to shoot down, it still has to find a ship in constant motion across the vastness of the Pacific.In the end, the RUSI study reminds us that apocalyptic fears of fleets pulverized by super-missiles need to be taken with a healthy grain of salt. “Russian commanders will have to think long and hard about how many risks they are willing to take for an uncertain chance of scoring a hit on a carrier,” Kaushal says.

— Michael Peck

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