Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Strategic Minerals

Whether you believe we are on an inexorable path to war with China (we are) or merely observing them as they rise benevolently to friendly and helpful world neighbor status, one thing is certain: we are engaged in a peer level competition, at the moment, and in such a competition you don’t want to find yourself dependent on anything that your competitor has a monopoly on.

We learned this the hard way when we were dependent on Middle East oil and those oil producing countries were able to dictate prices, manipulate our economy, and create financial and societal disruptions that led to gasoline shortages and long lines for what gas there was.  We have since become largely energy independent to our significant betterment.

China, it turns out, has a monopoly on rare earths and minerals that we need for weapons manufacture.  The Trump administration initiated a study and report on the defense industry from a strategic viewpoint.  The results were previewed in a Breaking Defense article. (1)

“The review promises to be the most thorough look at the entirety of the manufacturing and production of defense materials ever attempted, involving several government agencies, surveys of large and small players in the supply chain, and a study of foreign materials used in the production of American weaponry.” (1)

The results are disturbing.

“China will likely loom large in the report, given the country’s dominance of the rare earth minerals market so critical to the U.S. defense industry, the pumping of billions in Chinese investments into U.S. tech startup firms, …

Last month, Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, said that once her team started taking a hard look at the reliance the American defense industry has placed on China for critical minerals, the results were “quite alarming…we have an amazing amount of dependency on China.“

“The United States defense industry relies on Chinese producers for 100 percent of its rare earth materials …” (1)

For example, Gallium and Germanium, used in the production of radars, infrared devices, and fiber optics, are sole sourced from China, according to the article. (1)

How bad is the situation?

“The entire global market now flows through China, and “China can always underprice competitors,” he told me, as “they view this as part of their global industrial and defense policy. This is part of their industrial and defense strategy. No matter how many rare earth mines you open up, China can undercut them on price.” (1)

“Rare earth metals are so critical and in so many defense components for guided missiles, smart bombs, targeting lasers, sonar, radar, night vision and high temperature resistant metals for military jet engines, that if China cut us off, the U.S. could not replace or build most of our advanced weapon systems.” (2)

“These materials are also found in smart phones, small electric motors, sensors and catalysts in automobiles, computers, commercial aircraft and most green technology. If China embargoed these materials the U.S. would be forced to shut down all or most of our nation’s technology manufacturing assembly lines.” (2)

Was this always the case?  No.

“Rare earth materials are the byproduct of almost all normal mining activities, and while they can be mined and produced in the United States — which until the 1980s was meeting all of its domestic needs — a series of rules, and Chinese moves to undercut the market, dried up most domestic production.” (1)

The reality is that we are already at war with China – or, at least, they are at war with us.  China views war as the totality of a nation’s actions, unlike the US, and holding a monopoly on defense-critical rare earth minerals is just another weapon in China’s war chest.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the threat of being cut off from our sole supplier of critical defense manufacturing resources makes it very difficult for us to take actions in other areas such as trade, tariffs, patents, cyber espionage, etc.  In other words, China’s monopoly makes it difficult for us to act in our own best interests.

This monopoly needs to be broken and decisively so.  We had production capacity once and we can re-establish it again.  The Trump administration has taken the first, vital step of recognizing the problem.  Whether you like Trump or not, his investigation into this area is of vital national strategic importance.  He has done what several previous administrations have failed/refused to do.

The Obama administration, for example, failed badly, as noted in the article.

“The focus of the Obama administration when it came to rare materials was “reduce, reuse, recycle,” he added, “what was missing was production.” (1)

Make no mistake, China will use our dependence against us.  It is a matter of national security to break China’s monopoly over us.  We must begin taking the same view as China regarding the totality of war and start fighting back on every front.  Trump is quite correct on this issue.  It’s not even debatable.  It’s a matter of national security not politics.



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(1)Breaking Defense website, “DoD, White House Likely To Fight Chinese Monopoly on Rare Earth Minerals”, Paul McLeary, 18-May-2018,

(2)The Hill website, “China's secret trade war option: A rare earth embargo”, Victoria Bruce, 2-Apr-2018,





Monday, May 21, 2018

Marines Drop 120 mm Mortar

One of ComNavOps recurring themes is that we are making a mistake by focusing on information at the expense of firepower. 

Now, before you start typing out an ignorant reply, go back and reread that sentence.  I’ll wait …   …   …

Okay,  Did you take note that I DID NOT say that we shouldn’t pursue information systems?  What did I say?  I said that we are focusing on information AT THE EXPENSE OF FIREPOWER. 

Information is vital.  Recon, recon, recon, right?  But, when we begin dropping firepower to pay for information we’re making a huge mistake.  That path will lead us to having perfect knowledge of the enemy who is raining heavy artillery on us as we die, unable to muster the firepower to fight back.

The Marines have cut tanks and artillery and are continuing to reduce firepower to pay for UAVs, 3D printing, information specialists embedded in companies and squads, etc.  One of the latest reductions is the elimination of the 120 mm towed mortar (Expeditionary Fire Support System) (1).  The towed mortar was a lightweight system that provided significant firepower at low organizational levels.

“The EFSS, fielded in the early 2000s, was designed to be extremely portable, small enough to be towed by an all-terrain vehicle that fits easily inside anMV-22 Osprey.

Made by General Dynamics, the full system weighs roughly 18 pounds and can fire high-explosive, smoke and illumination rounds.” (1)

All the information in the world is of no use if you haven’t got the firepower to take advantage of it.  A corollary to that is that firepower can make up for a LOT of information shortages.  For example, you don’t need to know what’s waiting for you over that next hill if you can simply conduct an area bombardment and kill whatever might be there.

120 mm Mortar

During combat, information is a very difficult thing to master and use.  Recall the recent destroyer collisions and groundings despite the ships having many information sources such as radars, satellites, transponders, electro-optical sensors, and old fashioned lookouts – and yet the collisions and groundings still occurred – during peacetime!  Or, recall the Vincennes shootdown – a massively capable Aegis system rendered useless because the operators couldn’t properly interpret the data in the adrenaline rush of combat. 

In contrast, firepower is simple, effective, and easy to master and use.  Firepower is an example of the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) philosophy while information is the epitome of complexity and failure-prone systems.  Which do you want to depend on in war?

A mortar is an outstanding example of a dirt-simple weapon system that is incredibly cheap and provides firepower all out of proportion to its size.  It’s exactly the kind of KISS weapon system we should be acquiring and yet we’re dropping it.  When we face the Chinese with our tiny, squad level UAVs and 3D printing while they’re raining heavy artillery down on us, we’ll quickly regret the decisions we’re making today.

The people making these decisions have clearly never engaged in peer combat against a foe who emphasizes great big gobs of heaping, steaming firepower.  To be fair, that kind of combat hasn’t occurred within their lifetime so they couldn’t have faced it.  However, they’re supposed to have studied warfare and learned the lessons from those who have faced it – and they’ve failed to learn the lessons.



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(1)Military.com website, “Marine Corps Ditches Towed Mortar System in Push to Fund Modernization”, Hope Hodge Seck, 19-Dec-2017,


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Chinese H-6K and AKD-20 ALCM

China Defense Blog has published a report with pictures of a Chinese bomber and Su-35 escort fighter conducting patrols out and around Taiwan (1).  The interesting aspect of this is the photo of the bomber carrying an AKD20 Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). 

The AKD20 ALCM is derived from the CJ-10 land based cruise missile and the new air launched variant is reported to have a range of 930 – 1550 miles (1500 – 2500 km), depending on its payload. (4)

The bomber was the H-6K which is an updated version of the H-6 which is, itself, a license built version of the Soviet Tu-16 Badger.  Upgrades include new engines, new radome, improved ECM and defensive measures, EO/IR sensors, datalinks, composite materials of construction and improved avionics and a glass cockpit, search and attack radar, navigation, and fire control.  The bomb bay was eliminated to provide additional fuel capacity for longer range. (2)(3)  The bomber carries air launched cruise missiles on 6 wing hardpoints and is reported to have a combat radius of 2170 miles (3500 km). (3)


H-6K Bomber with AKD20 ALCM and Su-35 Fighter Escort (1)


Given that the bomber has a combat radius of 2170 miles and can carry the AKD20 ALCM with a range of up to 1550 miles, that gives the aircraft a strike range of 3720 miles.  Guam is 1952 miles (3148 km) from Fujian Province on the east coast of China, just across from Taiwan.  That puts Guam within easy unrefueled, ALCM strike range.

If the US hopes to use Guam as a significant forward base in the war with China, we need to greatly increase our defenses.  It is obvious that Guam will be a major Day-1 target.  The question is what will be left of Guam on Day-2?  

We need to start preparing for major Day-1 defensive combat.  We have not had to fight to defend an airbase since the very early days of WWII and we have not only forgotten how but we have forgotten even the necessity.

We need to quickly learn how to defend against modern cruise and ballistic missile threats. We not only need to defend but we need to learn how to mitigate damage.  No defense will be perfect and we need to learn how to take hits and come out of an attack with a still functioning base.  We need to figure out how to protect the aircraft and facilities that are hit so that something functional is left.  We also need to give some intense thought to how to construct easily repaired bases as opposed to the exquisitely constructed bases we currently have.  We need to disburse fuel, spare parts, power sources, computer facilities, etc.  We need to construct hardened shelters for aircraft and facilities.  No amount of hardening can totally prevent damage but sufficient hardening can mitigate damage and make the enemy's task much more difficult.

It's time to wake up and begin serious defensive preparations.



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(1)China Defense Blog, “Routine patrol with AKD20 ALCM”, 13-May-2018,

(2)Military Today website,

(3)The National Interest website, “China's H-6 Bomber: Everything You Want to Know about Beijing's 'B-52' Circling Taiwan”, Sebastien Roblin, 18-Dec-2016,

(4)Defence Bog, “China H-6M carrying two AKD20 missiles”, Dylan Malyasov, 10-Feb-2015,

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Reversing the Trend

A recent anonymous comment pointed out that while we have been focused on fighting third world terrorists for the last decade or so, our peer competitors have been developing advanced electronic warfare capabilities, new families of armored vehicles, new cluster munitions, and so on.  We lost focus on what our military is supposed to be doing which is preparing for high end combat.  ComNavOps has unceasingly criticized military leadership for allowing our readiness and combat capability to atrophy.  However, ComNavOps is nothing, if not fair and so it is time to note and acknowledge the first glimmer of the beginning of the reversal of that trend.

We’ve noted several instances of the Army recognizing high end combat shortcomings and beginning to take action to rectify the situation.  The Army is currently far ahead of the other services in correcting the situation. 

That said, the Navy is also beginning, just barely, to recognize and correct the deficiencies and I would be remiss not to take a moment to list a few of those efforts and acknowledge them as baby steps in the right direction. 

LCS/Frigate – The Navy finally terminated the LCS and has initiated a frigate program to take the place of the LCS as the small combatant.  Despite ComNavOps’ reservations about the usefulness of a frigate, it is still a step towards a more capable surface force.

LRASM – The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile is a long overdue replacement for the venerable and obsolete Harpoon.  This will greatly increase our anti-surface lethality.

Manning/Tempo/Training – The Navy identified insufficient manning as a contributor to the recent collisions and groundings and noted that excessive operational tempo and the concomitant lack of training were also factors.  Having identified these factors, the Navy is saying all the right things about correcting them but has yet to implement any significant corrective actions.  We’ll have to wait to see what, if anything, develops from this.

Tanker – The MQ-25 unmanned tanker program will alleviate the dependence on F-18 Hornets as tankers.

VPM – The Virginia class submarine Payload Module will add additional Tomahawk cruise missile capacity to the submarines.  This will help offset the pending loss of the SSGN cruise missile subs as they retire without replacement.  To be clear, this a poor solution but it is a recognition of the impact of the loss of 600+ Tomahawk launch cells and an attempt, if a suboptimal one, to mitigate that loss.

Hornet Upgrades – The Navy is adding IRST, conformal fuel tanks, and other upgrades to the F-18 Super Hornet.  These are welcome, if long overdue, additions that will allow us to get the maximum out of the Hornet that it has to give.

These are all peripheral items that will have no significant impact on the overarching problems (inept leadership, inappropriate fleet composition, huge maintenance issues,  runaway costs, quality issues, tactical atrophy, lack of warfighting focus, etc.) plaguing the Navy but they are, potentially, the first steps to reversing our decaying lethality, firepower, and readiness trends.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Carrier Vulnerability and Operational Reality

There is a persistent faction of naval thinkers out there who believe that a carrier is an outdated, obsolete, vulnerable target just waiting to be sunk by Chinese “carrier killer” ballistic missiles, submarine torpedoes, massive supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and all manner of converging, lethal weaponry that can’t be stopped.  In fact, if one listens to these people, the only question one comes away with is, how can the vast array of attacking weapons not collide among themselves as they approach the carrier!  I guess they probably will but there will be so many that it won’t matter.

Obviously, the rest of this post is going to be about how wrong these people are and the lead in to that discussion is the question, why are these people so very wrong?  How did they come to such an incorrect conclusion?

The answer is one of ComNavOps pet peeves:  they consider the carrier in isolation rather than in its true operational form.

If one considers a lone carrier, sitting out at sea, presumably motionless in these thinker’s minds, with no support and no purpose other than to survive, fighting off wave after wave of attacks, then, sure, it is inevitable that, sooner or later, the carrier will be sunk.  So, that’s it then.  The carrier is obsolete and unsurvivable.  We need to say goodbye to the carrier, the mainstay of naval power since WWII and move on in our naval thinking to the next mainstay – networks, perhaps?  Or small UAVs?  But, I digress …

The problem with this line of thinking, as I noted, is that it considers the carrier in isolation rather than in its true operational form.

We need to keep firmly in mind the true nature of a carrier. It's not a carrier - it's a carrier GROUP. That's an incredibly important distinction. One lone carrier is somewhat vulnerable. However, a wartime carrier group would consist of 3-4 carriers, 300 some aircraft, and 30 or so Aegis cruisers/destroyers (you’re not going to risk 3-4 carriers without substantial escorts, are you?  Check the WWII historical escort ratios) with multiple Hawkeyes out in all directions providing situational awareness. It is an immensely powerful, LAYERED, defense.

The layered defense includes long range carrier fighters, long range Standard missiles/Aegis, medium range ESSM, short range SeaRAM/CIWS, passive ECM and decoys, and more. Nothing is getting through all of that easily. Nothing is invulnerable but a carrier group on a wartime footing is as close as you can get to invulnerable.

Regarding escort numbers, consider our WWII experience and Adm. Marc Mitscher’s description of a carrier group composition..

“Said Mitscher: "The ideal composition of a fast-carrier task force is four carriers, six to eight support vessels and not less than 18 destroyers, preferably 24. More than four carriers in a task group cannot be advantageously used due to the amount of air room required. Less than four carriers requires an uneconomical use of support ships and screening vessels." (1)

Even this description is a bit light.  Every carrier group had multiple cruisers and, often battleships attached in addition to the listed destroyers.

We’ve gotten so used to single carriers sailing around in peacetime with only 3-4 escorts that we’ve come to believe that’s how carriers will fight in a war and that’s just plain wrong.  We’ve also gotten so used to a numerically tiny navy that we’ve come to believe that escorts of up to 30 vessels is unthinkable.  Well, combat will change our thinking quickly enough.  We learned all this in WWII and have completely forgotten it.

Multiply This By Four !


There is another, almost always overlooked, layer to the carrier’s defense and that is that a carrier group's best defense is a good offense. We all think of a carrier, on its own, sitting in the middle of the ocean trying to fight off wave after wave of attackers and we conclude that the carrier, ultimately, has no hope. The reality, however, is that the carrier group has a mission. It doesn't stay in one place. It moves at high speed to a mission execution point, executes the mission, and returns to base. During that movement and execution, rather than passively playing defense and hoping to survive long enough to execute the mission, the group would be launching massive Tomahawk cruise missile attacks against all likely enemy bases and missile sites to suppress attacks before they even begin. This is the part of the layered defense that most people overlook and the part that, properly planned and executed, can be the most effective.

If each Aegis escort (Burkes) had 30 Tomahawk missiles, the group of 30 escorts would have an inventory of 900 Tomahawks.  That’s a lot of suppression over a thousand mile radius!

Recall, typical WWII carrier strike operations.  The carrier group would dash into aircraft range of the strike target, launch fighter sweeps to suppress enemy counterattacks, strike the target, and leave before effective counterattacks could be mounted.  The same holds true today except that we now have thousand mile suppression attack capability.

The submarine is probably the carrier group's greatest threat and we'll come to regret the loss of the S-3 Viking. Still, a carrier group is going to be moving at 30 kts and no submarine, unless it gets lucky and finds itself dead in the group’s path, is going to catch up to a carrier group without giving itself away.

Even if a submarine managed to launch a salvo of torpedoes at a carrier, none would make it to the carrier.  With an escort of 30 vessels, the torpedoes would latch on to the escorts rather than the carriers.  That would be tragic for the unlucky escort but that’s part of their job description.  Again, the group is a very tough nut to crack.

“Consideration in isolation” is one of the major problems with modern naval thought and analysis and its application leads inexorably to incorrect conclusions.  It’s at the root of the win-a-war-singlehanded school of thought that leads to massively capable (only on paper) and massively expensive ship designs such as the Burke.  Instead of recognizing that a Burke is just one ship and should have only one main function as part of a group of other ships, each with their specialized functions, we load it up with every function we can think of because we consider it in isolation.  Seriously, does anyone think a single ship has the time to train to perfection as an AAW, BMD, ASW, ASuW, group air defense controller (when the Ticos are gone), and land attack platform?  Good grief, the acronyms alone would take a year to master!  It’s been demonstrated that we can’t even train to perform basic seamanship proficiently yet we believe that a single ship will master all those disparate combat functions?  That’s a fantasy that Walt Disney would be proud of.

A carrier, when considered in its proper operational form as a group, is the most survivable military asset there is.  It’s time to put the misguided, incorrect notions about carrier vulnerability to rest.



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(1)Taylor, Theodore, “The Magnificent Mitscher”, Naval Institute Press, ISBN 1-59114-850-2, p. 316


Friday, May 11, 2018

2017 Commissionings / Decommissionings

Here’s an informational post documenting last year’s commissionings and decommissionings as reported listed in the May 2018 Proceedings magazine.


Commissioned

Gabrielle Giffords, LCS-10, 10-Jun-2017
John Finn, DDG-113, 15-Jul-2017
Gerald R. Ford, CVN-78, 22-Jul-2017
Rafael Peralta, DDG-115, 29-Jul-2017
Washington, SSN-787, 7-Oct-2017
Little Rock, LCS-9, 16-Dec-2017


Decommissioned

Enterprise, CVN-65, 3-Feb-2017
Albuquerque, SSN-706, 23-Feb-2017
City of Corpus Christi, SSN-705, 3-Aug-2017
Houston, SSN-713, 24-Aug-2017

Ponce, AFSB-15, 14-Oct-2017

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Stealth Air-to-Air Combat Story

The F-35C pilot was all too aware of the reason for this mission.  The latest Hawkeye shootdown had been just like the others.  The Chinese VLRAAM (Very Long Range Air to Air Missile) had used the American E-2D Hawkeye’s radar transmissions for detection and guidance and made its approach at Mach 6+ from well over 200 miles away.  The 350 kt Hawkeye had attempted to evade but the Hawkeye’s utter lack of stealth and slow speed made escape impossible.  For the Chinese, it was like shooting a turtle with a rifle – escape just wasn’t an option. 

The Chinese had shot down two of the carrier group’s Hawkeyes, so far, and forced the remainder to operate 50-100 miles behind the group instead of out in front and offset to the sides where they should be to provide early warning and long distance situational awareness.  The Chinese VLRAAM had effectively blinded the carrier group or, at the very least, substantially degraded their “vision” and shifted the operational and tactical advantages from the Americans to the Chinese.  U.S. carrier groups were not used to operating from a tactical disadvantage and it had unsettled the group and blunted its operational usefulness.

That was about to change.  The analysts on board the carrier had calculated the range of the Chinese VLRAAM and, combined with the location of known Chinese air bases, had predicted the launch point for the J-16 strike-fighter that carried the VLRAAM.  The point was above a somewhat sizable island that neither side had bothered to occupy.  Now, a U.S. F-35C had been tasked with ambushing the J-16. 

The F-35C carried two AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles in its internal weapon bays.  The small combat load was one of the weaknesses of the F-35 but, for this mission, it shouldn’t matter.  A simple ambush against an unsuspecting J-16 carrying a very large missile, which rendered the aircraft not very maneuverable, ought to be a straightforward affair.

The J-16 was China’s version of the Sukhoi Su-35, itself an advanced and upgraded version of the venerable Su-27.  To be sure, the base Su-35/J-16 was a very capable strike fighter with excellent maneuverability but it wasn’t terribly stealthy and, saddled with the VLRAAM, it wouldn’t be very fast or nimble.

As the F-35C closed to within 100 nm of the anticipated location, the pilot opted for a quick scan with the APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar in LPI (Low Probability of Intercept) mode.  The pilot was only expecting a single enemy aircraft but it didn’t hurt to be safe and sure.  The LPI mode ought to prevent detection with limited use.  As expected, the radar found its target and not more than 20 nm from the anticipated location.  The pilot smiled.  This was going to be a classic ambush.  The J-16 would never know what hit it.

The F-35C carried the AIM-120D AMRAAM with a claimed range approaching 100 nm but the pilot knew that was under ideal conditions.  Realistically, the probability of a hit increased with every mile closer to the target.  The pilot continued to close.  There was no need to rush the shot.  The pilot knew that his Chinese counterpart couldn’t see the F-35 at this range so the F-35 was in no danger.  As the range closed, the F-35 pilot attempted to establish an infrared track but was having trouble.  Several times he thought he had the J-16 but he couldn’t hold track. 

At 45 nm, the pilot opted for one more quick radar scan.  Sure enough, the J-16 was still there but it appeared that the aircraft had turned and was headed away at high speed.  Well, the pilot thought, this was why he hadn’t fired sooner.  At this range, the J-16 couldn’t outrun the F-35’s AMRAAM even though he was already headed away.  As the pilot readied the shot, alarm lights and audible missile warnings startled him out of his calm routine.  Frantically glancing at his threat warning screen, the pilot saw that a missile was approaching from ahead and to the left, at the 10 o’clock position.  The pilot was momentarily frozen with surprise.  There had been no aircraft there and yet a missile was rapidly approaching.  It wasn’t possible.  Shaking off the surprise, the pilot yanked the F-35’s nose into the threat to present the aircraft’s best stealth aspect, the front, waited a few more seconds to allow the missile to approach close enough, and began ejecting chaff and flares.  Having received no radar warning, he assumed the missile was an infrared heat seeker but he wasn’t going to take chances and, besides, he had chaff and flares to spare.

As the chaff and flares bloomed, the pilot rolled inverted, pulled maximum G’s, and dove down to get out of the flight path of the incoming missile and its sensor’s field of view.  He tried to twist his head back to look behind and see if the missile had been fooled but the F-35’s high fuselage and low canopy provided very poor rearward visibility – the F-35 was an aerial sniper not a dogfighter. 

After a couple of seconds that seemed to last forever, the pilot realized that the missile must have missed since he was still alive.  The frontal stealth and decoys had done their job. 

Unfortunately, he still had no idea who or what had shot at him.

Recovering from the dive, he pulled level and quickly initiated a radar scan.  There was still no target to be seen.  Glancing at the IR display, he noted a target indicator marker ahead and below him but the indicator was not updating continuously.  He knew from experience that kind of intermittent target was likely due to an aircraft with infrared suppression and a reduced heat signature.  The intermittent contact occurred as the enemy aircraft maneuvered and changed aspect.

A sickening awareness quickly crept over the pilot.  The only time he had encountered this type of situation had been during a series of training exercises against friendly F-22 Raptors.  Then, he hadn’t been able to get usable radar returns and only intermittent IR indications.  With a start, the pilot realized that he was likely facing a Chinese stealth aircraft.

The F-35 pilot was correct.  Ahead and below him, a Chinese J-20 was maneuvering for a second shot on the F-35.  In recognition of the F-35’s front aspect stealth, the J-20 had not even attempted to obtain a radar lock but had, instead, used its all aspect infrared search and track capability to find and track the F-35.  Low on the deck, the J-20’s own heat and visual signature had been lost in the ground clutter while the F-35, high above, had been highlighted against the cold and clear sky.

The entire encounter had been a setup.  The VLRAAM toting J-16 was actually a J-16D electronic warfare version mimicking a J-16 VLRAAM shooter and was now broadcasting both specific APG-81 jamming signals and broadband electronic noise to render the F-35’s radar ineffective.  The Chinese had anticipated an American ambush and turned the tables.  The stealthy J-20 had waited, low on the deck, watching for the F-35. 

Having evaded the first missile shot from the J-20, the engagement was rapidly developing into a close range, turning encounter.  The F-35’s radar couldn’t track the J-20 but neither could the J-20 track the F-35.  Both aircraft were now depending on their IRST tracking and, again, neither could maintain a track long enough to generate a high probability kill shot. 

The F-35 dove for the deck to negate the Chinese aircraft’s infrared advantage.  As he did, he got a momentary IR indication and launched one of his two Sidewinders.  Even as he launched, he saw the IR track fade as the enemy aircraft maneuvered and knew that the Sidewinder would miss as, indeed, it did.

The F-35 had catapulted from the carrier with its maximum stealth air-to-air load of 2 AMRAAMs and 2 Sidewinders.  With radar useless against the J-20 stealth aircraft, that left the F-35 with only 2 Sidewinders and the pilot had just wasted one.  In contrast, the J-20 had a large central belly bay which held 4x PL-21 medium range radar guided missiles, comparable to the US AIM-120 AMRAAM, and two smaller side weapon bays which held a total of 4x PL-10 short range, infrared, heat seeking, high off-boresight missiles.  At this point, the Chinese aircraft had three heat seekers left to the F-35’s one.

By now, the engagement had closed to gun range and devolved into a turning and maneuvering dogfight – exactly the kind of engagement that the US Air Force had bet would never happen again in aerial combat.  Unfortunately, for the US F-35’s, when two stealth aircraft meet, neither can effectively use their radar guided missiles and infrared missiles are unlikely to be able to track reliably enough to get a clean, high percentage shot from any aspect but the rear – the classic 6 o’clock position.  This mandates the classic maneuvering dogfight in order to obtain the required position.  This should have been easily predictable but the US Air Force had chosen to ignore the possibility.  Now, the lightly armed and poorly maneuverable F-35 was paying the price.

With the F-35 now down on the deck and neither pilot wanting to go vertical and highlight their infrared signature against the cold upper atmosphere, the fight became a one dimensional, level turning contest just like the ancient WWI dogfights.  Unfortunately, it was a dogfight the F-35 was ill-suited for with its poor turning performance, low g-limits, and poor maneuverability.  The F-35 had been designed with maneuverability on par with the legacy F-16/18 and now was facing a stealth fighter equivalent to an F-22.  Worse, the F-35C didn’t have an internal gun!  If the pilot couldn’t get the 6 o’clock firing position for his missile, he had no other option and with only one missile remaining, even that was only a one-time option!

As the dogfight wore on with ever tighter turns, the F-35’s airspeed bled off faster than the J-20’s and the F-35 reached a point where it had no choice but to break out of the turn and go vertical or else get outturned and become a sitting duck.  Getting another momentary IR lock, the F-35 pilot fired off his second and last Sidewinder and yanked back on his stick with full throttle to climb out of the turn – it was time to run for home!  The pilot could only hope that the Sidewinder would occupy the Chinese pilot just long enough to allow a clean break from the engagement. 

However, thanks to extensive pre-war intel obtained through cyberespionage, the Chinese pilot knew the F-35 almost as well as the US pilot did.  He knew that the F-35’s Sidewinder couldn’t reliably track his fighter from this aspect.  He ejected a series of flares but otherwise ignored the Sidewinder.  Seeing the F-35 go vertical, he waited a heartbeat to allow the F-35 to establish its direction and then turned his nose across the F-35’s path.  With better maneuverability, the J-20 was lined up and waiting as the F-35 momentarily settled on its hoped for escape path.  The J-20, with an internal 30 mm autocannon, fired a three second burst which shredded the F-35 and sent it cartwheeling toward the ground.

Leveling off, the Chinese pilot released a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding and released the stick to shake the cramps out of his hand which had had been maintaining a death grip.  The fight really hadn’t been a fair one given the F-35’s small weapons load and poor maneuverability but the pilot would gladly accept any advantage he could get.

The Americans would have to come up with another way to negate the Chinese VLRAAM advantage.  In the meantime, the carriers would have to be pulled back, out of range of the deadly Hawkeye-killing missile.


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The VLRAAM is real. 

Launched by J-16, a multi-role strike-fighter that is roughly equivalent to the Russian Su-35.  The Very Long Range Air to Air Missile (VLRAAM) is 19 ft long and 13 in. diameter with a range of 250-300 miles.  Missile speed is Mach 6+.

“… large active electronically scanned (AESA) radar, which is used in the terminal phase of flight to lock onto the target. The AESA radar's large size—about 300-400% larger than that of most long range air-to-air missiles—and digital adaptability makes it highly effective against distant and stealthy targets, and resilient against electronic countermeasures like jamming and spoofing.” (1)



VLRAAM Mounted Underwing

The J-20 stealth fighter is real, however, its performance is somewhat speculative.


J-20 Stealth Fighter

The point of the story was to explore air to air combat between two stealth fighters and what I see as the inevitable degeneration of the combat to traditional dogfighting.


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(1)Popular Science, “China is testing a new long-range, air-to-air missile that could thwart U.S. plans for air warfare”, Jeffrey Lin and P.W. SingerNovember 22, 2016,

(2)Air Force Technology website, “Chengdu J-20 Multirole Stealth Fighter Aircraft”,