Air Force Pacific Pursues New Weapons to Destroy Enemy Surface-to-Air Missiles
Apache Attack Helos & B-21 Stealth Bombers Could Share Raytheon Common Computing
By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) The Air Force wants to make sure it can destroy advanced enemy Surface to Air Missile Systems and sustain a decided measure of air superiority against rivals now engineering much more advanced air-defenses likely to include AI-enabled target processing, faster digital networking, longer ranges and a wider sphere of frequency detections.
Given this evolving and troubling reality, the Air Force’s Pacific Commander says “SAMS” represent a threat scenario growing in priority, inspiring an “urgent operational need” for new E-7 surveillance planes and the now airborne 6th-Gen Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft.
PACAF Commander Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach described this need recently at the Air Force Association symposium as “taking away an enemy’s domain awareness.”
“We need to get into those anti-access/area-denial zones and operate in those areas so we can create effects and take down SAMS that are on the land or at sea .. and take away our adversaries' domain awareness,” Wilsbach said.
Wilsbach made a point to emphasize a two-fold approach, meaning that defeating a new generation of SAMS presents a pressing need to sustain and upgrade current air-superiority capabilities such as the B-2, F-35 and F-22 … while also accelerating a new generation of systems such as a 6th-Gen fighter and of course B-21.
“Air superiority is foundational to most other things we would want to be able to do, so if you don’t have air superiority, most of the things we want to do are being held at risk. Establishing air superiority more permanently is improving the capability we already have,” Wilsbach told reporters at the AFA symposium.
This is significant in several respects, given ongoing upgrades to the B-2 and F-35. For example, in part for the specific purpose of eluding and defeating Chinese and Russian air defenses, the Air Force is now adding new Defensive Management System sensors to its existing fleet of B-2s. The concept is to ensure that the stealthy aircraft, engineered to elude both surveillance and engagement or targeting radar systems, has an increased ability to identify the location of advanced air defenses and simply seek to avoid them. The B-2 is also getting new computer processors that are 1,000-fold faster as well as upgraded weapons, as part of a clear effort to mitigate increased risk of detection presented by new air defenses. Longer-range, more precise sensors, coupled with advanced weapons, could perhaps be better positioned to attack and destroy enemy SAMS from better stand-off ranges should their locations be identified. Certainly enemy SAMS present structures detectable to EO-IR cameras and may emit a detectable RF frequency or heat signature identifiable by sensors.
The F-35 is also being massively upgraded with clear mind to sustaining a decided measure of air-superiority in a more advanced threat environment. Of course new applications of AI-empowered advanced algorithms likely being built into the jet are continuously able to process, identify and analyze threat information more quickly and accurately, but the platform is also slated to get new weapons in the next several years as well. Many of these weapons not only likely include new multi-frequency and frequency-hopping EW weapons but also greatly improve range and targeting precision. The Stormbreaker air dropped bomb, for instance, operates with a target-tracking two-way data link, tri-mode all weather seeker and an attack range as far as 40-nautical miles; the weapons is now being integrated and tested on the F-35 and is slated to deploy in just the next few years. It takes virtually no imagination to recognize this as the kind of weapon likely to be more successful against sophisticated air defenses.
While both the F-35 and the B-2 are slated to fly for decades into the future, in part due to the series of anticipated ongoing software and weapons upgrades, this does not preclude the Air Force’s vigorous push for fast-emerging new platforms such as the now-underway B-21 and already airborne 6th-Gen fighter. The B-2’s future may not be quite as long as the F-35s, given that there are far-fewer B-2s and that the F-35 is slated to fly well into the 2070s, yet its upgrades are expected to propel the aircraft into future war in coming years as larger numbers of the B-21 arrive. While virtually nothing is known about B-21 technology for security reasons, it is reported to incorporate a new generation of stealth technologies, computing and sensor systems designed to defeat the most advanced current and expected air defenses for many years into the future.
Details regarding the Chinese HQ-9 air defense systems, reported to be operational in certain areas of the South China Sea, may not be available, yet the system is reported to be capable of “engaging multiple aircraft,” according to an interesting report years ago from DW. The Pentagon did acknowledge Chinese weapons placed in sensitive areas of the South China Sea years ago, however there does not appear to have been any statements of the exact kind of weapons.
“While not the most advanced SAM system in the world, if it has indeed been deployed to Woody Island then this would be the most advanced long range air defense missile currently deployed to an island in the South China Sea. The HQ-9 is capable of engaging multiple aircraft, including combat aircraft. It resembles the Russian S300 system but China is assessed to have developed variants of the system with a longer range, potentially up to 230 kilometers,” the DW report writes.
Air defense and missile threats are of pressing relevance in the Pacific because China is known to possess mobile-air defenses which can shift positions, emerge from locations hidden by terrain and relocate based upon areas of intended attack. Weapons that find and hit moving targets at long ranges, therefore, certainly introduce new tactical advantages for the F-35 and F-22. Some of these road mobile missiles were cited in a Congressional report as being able to contain nuclear missiles with multiple re-entry vehicles, a circumstance presenting an even more pressing threat. The kind of maneuverability and sensing resident in the F-35 could indeed make that an ideal platform to track and take out these kinds of launchers.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.