USAF chief still prefers invisibility (stealth) to invincibility (lasers)

The fact that an unidentified B-1B bomber pilot stuck his neck out this morning isn’t news. After all, B-1B pilots fly a non-stealthy aircraft with a defective defensive suite. What else do you expect?

But this B-1B pilot stuck his neck out by challenging the chief of staff of the air force on a fundamental point of the service’s strategy. Namely, the pilot asked, since stealth is so expensive, why don’t we do something else?

Gen Norton Schwartz, to his credit, did not reward the pilot’s boldness with an automatic Article 15 disciplinary action and a reassignment to the Adak weather station. Instead, Schwartz heard him out.

What if, the B-1B pilot suggested, the air force equip non-stealthy aircraft, such as the B-1B, with high-energy lasers? The pilot cited the example of the Electric Laser on a Larger Aircraft (ELLA), which involves exactly such a concept. If such non-stealthy aircraft could be more cost-effective than a stealthy platform, could that change the paradigm?

Schwartz wasted no time making clear such a concept would never happen — not during his own tenure, nor the B-1B pilot’s. Why?

“There are those who would say that ‘I’m very comfortable being shot at because I can sort of interrupt the process. I feel comfortable with that scenario,’” Schwartz says. “Well, frankly, I’d just as soon not be shot at.”


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9 Responses to USAF chief still prefers invisibility (stealth) to invincibility (lasers)

  1. Chris 30 March, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    While I think Schwartz has a point, I think he runs afoul of the adage “”Best” is the enemy of “Good Enough”.”

    Stealth is part of the huge increase in costs for aircraft, and at their going rate, none of them will ever be shot at, because we won’t be able to provide the enemy with anything to shoot.

  2. SMSgt Mac 30 March, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    Ackk! I agree with General Schwartz, (although since I’ve expressed the same philosophy years ago, it could be said he agrees with me [;-)

    But some clarification and additonal points are in order:

    1. The B-1B IS stealthy compared to the B-52, B-1A. Tu-95 etc.Ref:
    “Overview of Low Observable Technology and Its Effects on Combat Aircraft Survivability”, John Paterson, Journal of Aircraft 1999,0021-8669 vol.36 no.2 (380-388). Note: the F-18E/F is ‘stealthy’ as compared to F-18C/D, so what we are talking about is degeess of stealth.

    2. Directed Energy weapons and low observables are not mutually exclusive

    3. RE: “If such non-stealthy aircraft could be more cost-effective than a stealthy platform…”
    In a high threat environment they would have to be ‘magic’ airplanes.

    4. RE: ” stealth is so expensive” Not compared to the alternative (losses). It just isn’t “free”, and the services are still wrestling with how to best operate LO systems..

  3. James 31 March, 2010 at 2:02 am #

    As the Germans said, interesting.
    But dumping all your eggs in one basket is a bad idea. If the premisis is to win a “war”, then you must have the most, not necessarialy the best. You should have the mud pounders, the cap and the the several forms of attack and defense weapons. From this you can devise a attack/defense of an area, such as the USA, without starving the people that you need to form your paying base (the taxpayer), and that idea is as old as Sun Tsu. But it still works.
    You don’t need to destroy the aircraft attacking, just momentarly blind the piolet. If it continues on, its a drone, or missle, then your defense people can take it out. And I’ve seen low power lasers go to 100 miles, and the item your history people may enjoy. How did the germans make invisable aircraft during world war two. Which the US abd British were copying toward the end of the war.

  4. mike wheatley 31 March, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    I wonder if the US voter regards the survival of their Air Superiority aircraft as a major performance metric for those aircraft?

    Alternatively, maybe they think the main role of Air Superiority is to defend ~everything else~ ?
    Or, to put it in another way, “interupting the process” of the enemy firing upon everone else?

    And if they did, then the question would be:
    is stealth on your F-22 (or F-whatever) the most cost-effective way of protecting your non-stealthy AWACS, tanker, (see RAND 2008, RAND 2009) or carrier (see USN procurement, Falklands 1982*) from the enemy?

    I did say “F-whatever” there, deliberately: the F-117 – which should really have been called the A/B-117 – was very effective at protecting the “everything else” from Iraq’s airforce, by “interupting the process” of (i.e. bombing the crap out of) them being able to opperate.

    * Falklands 1982: most of the time, the Argentine Mirages & Super Etendarts abandoned their attack runs when the detected the inbound RN harriers.
    Like they wouldn’t have done, if they had been stealthy.
    Sure, more would have been shot down – the aircraft kill/loss metrics ratio would have looked better – but some of them would have got to firing range before they got shot down.

  5. aeroxavier 1 April, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    stealth was good if the potential enemy don’t have technology for fight that like irak in 2003, no plane,no missile,nothing.arround the world all country developped that

  6. PBAR 2 April, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    I disagree with the assertion that the B-1 has a defective defensive suite. It has matured into quite a capable system, though to be fair, it still has a lot of affordability/maintenance issues.

  7. Big D 2 April, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    Note that laser cannons are good at *offensive* counter-air, too…

    Imagine how those Taiwan scenarios change when a flight of B-1Rs (yes, I went there) carries enough ammunition to shoot down hundreds of fighters in a single sortie.

    There’s a catch, of course… tactical laser cannons can go BVR, but not by much (yet). Most missiles still outrange them, and relying on the same laser cannons to stop dozens (hundreds?) of inbound AAMs while trying to get in range, doesn’t seem too smart. But, hey, that’s where stealth PLUS lasers makes for an interesting combination.

    There’s also the danger that the first B-1 crew to get a laser cannon will use it to fill a house with popcorn, but I think that risk can be mitigated.

  8. johnny 3 April, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    Good luck with your 3 plane air force.

  9. "B-1 Guy" 12 April, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    I was the “B-1 Guy” who asked the question of the Gen Schwartz a couple of weeks ago. I am just glad that this has at least generated some discussion in order for our leaders to consider all options for dealing with future threats to our nation. I was not questioning our current tactical and strategic posture. I was merely bringing up an idea to consider for discussion concerning the future of our defenses.
    One additional point to consider…we do rely upon “engineers and scientists” and technology to blindly protect us when we fly a low observable aircraft into an enemy‚Äôs contested airspace. Just as we could trust a system like ELLA Electronic Laser for Large Aircraft) to defend our aircraft, we currently trust that the engineers have designed our low observable platforms properly to not be “seen” and therefore tracked and shot at by the enemy.
    For consideration…consider equipping partial low observable platforms with ELLA-style defensive weapons (once they become practical) in order to defend our aircraft.

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