February 2010 - Posts
In a previous post I talked about the need for the UK to maintain strong conventional military forces. The recent news from the South Atlantic appears to offer us a good case study in how a conventional military can be utilized. I'm not talking about large task forces or anything; I don't think anybody is expecting this to blow up into anything like a repeat of 1982. But two elements of the situation down there are, I think, good examples of two points of my earlier argument: ensuring free passage of trade on the high seas, and deterring conflict through overwhelming forces and capabilities.
Firstly, ensuring the free passage of shipping to and from the Falkland Islands. Essentially, this means overcoming or preventing a blockade or quarantine. Argentina has announced of increased controls over shipping through it's claimed territorial waters to the Falklands, and has detained a Falkland-bound ship, MV Thor Leader, which was carrying oil drilling parts. What Argentina claims to be its territorial waters are themselves much disputed since they include the islands themselves. At the heart of it, Argentina is threatening to blockade commercial shipping traffic to and from the islands at its leisure, with an apparent focus on oil-related shipping. Diplomacy will take its course on this issue, but at the end of the day, the UK has to be prepared to defend its shipping and its own territorial waters around the Falklands. By maintaining a strong military presence in the Falklands since 1982, the UK should be able to do this. British aircraft in the air, ships on the surface and even subs below will provide reassurance and ought to prevent Argentina from getting to close to where the UK does not want it. The quest for oil reserves in the Falklands is a strategic national interest for both the UK and of course the islands themselves. Being able to get on with the task of exploring and utilizing those resources without being forced to make concessions to a protesting neighbor is what makes a strong conventional military so valuable. Anything like an effective blockade will simply not materialize because the UK ultimately has the strength to overcome it and Argentina should know that.
This brings us to my second point: deterring conflict through overwhelming forces and capabilities. The reason we are not heading towards a repeat of 1982 is conventional deterrence. The UK garrison in the Falklands is over ten times larger than in 1982, with the benefit of a modern airfield with four Typhoons and support aircraft, and a Type-42 destroyer is at hand. In addition, there may be one or two nuclear submarines in or approaching the area - these were some of the first responders to the 1982 conflict and arguably had one of the biggest impacts in that war. The ability for Argentina to successfully attack (let alone invade) the islands is really a non-starter, and any attempt to do so would probably turn out to be political suicide for leaders in Argentina. Despite much reduced size of the RN and RAF, Britain's ability to strike back at Argentina is probably much improved since Operation Black Buck. Submarine-launched and even air-launched cruise missiles will offer a very real and scary deterrent to anyone in Buenos Aires who thinks aggression is the way for Argentina to settle this issue.
And so we have yet another real world, post-cold war case study of the value of conventional military forces. Through a strong capabilitiy and presence, the UK is able to defend it's strategic commercial and national interests, and potentially save lives by deterring any outright aggression. It would be a pity to let those long-term capabilities go as the result of near-term budget cuts, and I hope this spat in the South Atlantic reinforces that fact.
So it looks like India may be set to take a significant role in the Sukhoi T-50 (aka PAK-FA) fifth generation fighter program. This would obviously strengthen India's position as a regional power in Asia, with the T-50 allowing it to retain an edge over its neighbors in a region which is increasingly acquiring advanced 4.5 generation fighters. It also offers a counter to any advanced 5th generation Chinese aircraft in the works.
It will be interesting to see how the T-50 would be operated alongside India's future medium multirole combat aircraft, and how early progress and agreements with the T-50 may influence the delayed MMRCA program. Will India go for a lighter MMRCA winner, like the F-16IN or Gripen, potentially allowing higher numbers and ultimately creating a true high-low fighter force mix, or could a heavier type such as the Rafale or Typhoon come through to give a more medium-high fighter force (like the mix which the US is moving towards with the F-35 and F-22)?
It could be a moot point however - the development timeline for the T-50 is a big unknown right now, and if the schedule takes any slides to the right like we have seen with the US F-22 and F-35, then India's MMRCA winner could be approaching the mid-life upgrade time when the T-50 finally starts coming into service in real numbers. So will the MMRCA be a (potentially lengthy) stopgap measure, or a long-term and deliberate supplemental platform to the production T-50?
It will of course depend on how much the T-50 eventually costs and more importantly, how well it performs compared with other 5th generation fighters. Based on what I've been reading so far about the T-50, we are not seeing a Russian F-22, but really an evolutionary 5th generation Flanker. I would expect many of the qualities of the 4.5 generation Flankers - high aerodynamic performance, extreme maneuverability and long legs. In terms of radar cross-section, I foresee something that's stealthy but not super stealthy, more F-35 levels than the all aspect stealth of the F-22. This is Russia's first stealth aircraft after all, so you can't expect them to make up for three decades of US manufacturing and operational experience in stealth aircraft, even if money was no object as with the F-22. But will that be good enough? Against the F-35, I would say more than enough; the performance and range of the T-50 would make any F-35 operator pause for thought, and leveling the stealth advantage of the F-35 is icing on the cake. At least in a reasonably even battle scenario this is. But the US and allies are not out to create a battle of equals, and short of Russia or India themselves going into direct conflict with the US, the smaller T-50 operators that pick up some export models, the more likely adversaries, will simply not have the numbers to take charge in the air.
What might be the Achilles' heel of the T-50? Network-centric technology. The US has far out-paced Russia in this field. It's not a new rule of war that knowledge is power, but the 21st Century will see that power become greater than ever. Air battles will be won and lost before the planes take off. In a real battle, a force of F-35s, Typhoons or Rafales should fare well against any potential T-50 threats, because it's not just the aircraft with the missiles, it's the whole information system of AWACS, C3 and intelligence that supports that aircraft. The T-50 promises to be a great fighter, but it can't win a war by itself.
Just caught this one this evening. Seems NASA's Project Constellation has finally met its end (unless the US Congress somehow resurrects it). It's certainly no real surprise that the program fell under the budget axe - though I am surprised that it looks like NASA is to give up manned spaceflight altogether for the foreseeable future. Per the President's Budget, "...the program was behind schedule, could not achieve its goals without multi-billion dollar budget increases, and was not clearly aimed at meeting today's national priorities." Personally, I'm disappointed to see the end of Constellation. Alas I'm too young to have seen the Apollo landings, and July 20 1969 is a day I wish I was alive for to witness that historic moment. But that last bit in the budget quote about national priorities sadly rings a sad truth in many respects with Project Constellation. Back in the 50's and 60's, the US public, and the world, couldn't hear enough about spaceflight, and astronauts like Alan Sheppard and John Glenn were treated as national heroes. But how many astronauts can you name today? Going to the Moon just isn't a priority for the American public, and to be honest, it hasn't been since 1969. The fact that the US had a massive budget deficit simply added to the inevitable. I remember during his State of the Union address last week, President Obama talked about having to make difficult cuts on programs that the US simply doesn't need right now, and can't afford. Constellation wasn't the first thing that came to my mind when at that point (that was the JSF alternate engine, no surprise there either), but it fits the bill. At very least it should free up some funds for other equally if not more important projects at NASA. And if America can move itself, as the President envisions, from purely government-funded space flight programs to private and commercial ones, then it probably makes good long-term sense and it could drive forward some aspects of space flight without burdening the US federal budget. Look at the likes of Virgin Galactic; I know that they only get as far into space as the first Mercury missions, but with more direct support and incentives to such private enterprises, commercial space flight to earth orbit could be a reality sooner than I would otherwise imagine. (PanAm space planes might be a bit too far off yet to get excited about...)
And if it doesn't work out, then we may be back here in 2020 discussing the new plan to return to the Moon by 2040.