The F-35 in Context

So, the F-35 has had both its first USMC attack in anger and its first outright loss. Context needs to be considered with two of the claims I’ve heard floating around about it.

  • “Why is it attacking targets in a low-intensity war?”
  • “If it crashed, does that mean it’s unsafe?”

For the first, the answer is that it’s simply far easier for a high-end aircraft, especially one with the mega-sensors of the F-35, to do low-end activities than it is for a low-end aircraft to do high-end activities. That and it’s fresh, unlike the rest of the US’s very, very battered airframes.

For the second, it’s the first crash in the program’s entire history. This is astounding. Especially compared to say, the Harrier the F-35B in particular is replacing.

It’s been over a generation since the US has embarked on such a gigantic replacement of its fighter fleet. The “teen series” fighters break-in period was not the most efficient or pleasant either. This isn’t to say there’s never been any problem with the F-35’s development, but it needs to be viewed in the monumental context it’s in.

Alpha Kat and 90s Cheap Thrillers

So, I just finished breezing my way through the cheap thriller novel Alpha Kat by William Lovejoy. The book was first published in 1992, and it shows. it’s a very early 90s thriller, which is to say that it has to desperately dig for antagonists (in this case a drug lord poised to take over Southeast Asia) and ways to weaken the heroes (they’re commissioned to use their prototype super-planes rather than being part of the regular military). The book itself isn’t terrible, especially by cheap thriller standards. But it is awkward in terms of pacing and the ending is a little too “quick”.

Now it says something about the kind of books I read that I’ve read enough 90s cheap thrillers to really get “ah-ha, this isn’t just a 90s technothriller, it’s an early 90s technothriller.”

And yet, I don’t mind this. It’s endearing to see something flawed instead of something playing it safe all the time. It’s inspiring, even, because of my love of the unconventional in Command scenarios. So yes, two cheers for the early 90s technothriller.

 

Command Fiction: The Challenge

This is based on my scenario “A Day At Red Flag”. That scenario was intended to be a brutally difficult challenge. And it succeeded. I’m intending a revision to make it more diverse, but in the meantime, enjoy this in-universe challenge.

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The MiG-28s of the Krasnovian Frontal Aviation served as the first line of defense. If anything limited them, it was that they had been too successful. Their ground-intercept radars were intact, while those of their enemy had long since been reduced to scrap. The war was going well. But not well enough that they didn’t have problems. An array of contacts appeared on the radars. The enemy was trying something.

The CAPs were doing their job. As skilled as the Krasnovian pilots were, the F-4 Phantom could simply fire more weapons at more angles than their own light fighters. More importantly, the dogfights were keeping the MiGs off the strikers.

Of course, the strike craft had their own problem, as they flew right into a hail of Yastreb-U missiles and AAA. To their credit, the Weasels had managed to hit a surprisingly large number of radars-but it was a far from bloodless victory.

Then the few surviving Phantoms dropped their bombs on the fuel depot. The result was-very little damage, with only a handful of AA guns destroyed for good. Analysts revealed that the bombs released were not intended for such a hardened target.

In all, the mission was a success. At the cost of a few replaceable light fighters and radars, they had obliterated a high-end strike package.

For years afterwards, Krasnovians would celebrate “The Wipeout of ’77.”

_ _ _ _ _

In fact, this was all a simulated but intense exercise. The Wipeout of ’77 over Nellis would go a long way to minimizing the odds of a similar one in real life. Many lessons could be learned.

Behind the scenes:

  • Krasnovia (from “Krasny-red”) was a common placeholder name for a Warsaw Pact-styled force in Cold War exercises.
  • MiG-28s are from Top Gun, played by F-5s. Since I used F-5s as Aggressors in the scenario, the name works.
  • Yastreb-U is a crude translation of “I-Hawk”, the missile I used in the scen.

Unconventional Army Formations

I’ve been looking at two unconventional military formations. The High-Tech Light Division proposals of the 1980s (brought to life in the form of the 9th Infantry Division), and the various plans to mechanize the US’s airborne infantry.

This led to me reading the book “AIR-MECH-STRIKE” by the infamous Mike Sparks.

The failure is when they stop talking about mechanizing airborne forces (which does have a lot of precedent behind it) and start talking about “AIR MECH STRIKING” the entire military, ripping apart heavy armored units in favor of their zippy-airborne operations, and yanking the helicopters away from existing divisions. Aviation assets would be concentrated at high levels similar to Cold War Soviet practice of focusing on the operational level.

Out of fairness, they do keep M1 and M2 AFVs in the proposal. Which begs the question of how often the AIR MECH units would go deep in practice. That is a question the authors shy away from. The three hypothetical scenarios given in the book are an attack against a ragtag force threatening Afghanistan with a handful of T-55s, a North Korea scenario which is tailor-made for the AIR MECH forces to jump in and save the day, and a Kosovo scenario that is laughable in its overoptimism (easy and over in ten days, against an enemy that showed that they weren’t to be underestimated).

Most of the book talks about organization and the exact gizmos employed, with little space devoted to how they’d be used. As a contemporary critique in Armor Magazine by LTC Steve Eden (page 48) noted, the buried secret to the AIR-MECH unit’s success is precision indirect weapons-which, if working as well as claimed, would turn any unit, regardless of organization, into a juggernaut.

Then there’s the secret weapon-the M113 GAVIN. (Yes, this is where the meme got started). Now, in the book’s context, it’s a lot more forgivable, since the term Gavin is only used to refer to a heavily modified M113 that I’m still skeptical could be airdroppable and have the equipment upgrades they want at the same time. Sparks later retconned it into being a name for the APC overall.

I just have the gut feeling that the AIR-MECH units would, the majority of the time, fight as conventional mechanized infantry in vehicles scrunched-up to fit a requirement that they would rarely execute. Either that or be deployed in an overambitious 21st century Market Garden.

_ _ _ _ _ _

The HTLD is more interesting. There’s a plan for an “assault gun” (either the Stingray or AGS could work), buggies, and zipping Humvees containing the line infantry. While it’s still a little dubious in terms of facing a combined arms force, the Cold War background makes it more tolerable. After all, it was raised along with the heavy divisions and didn’t pretend to be a substitute for them. (That the requirement was for air-transportability rather than droppability helped a little).

What doomed it was interservice politics-to be truly effective, it needed new specialized equipment, but that came at a time when the Army wanted every M1A1 it could get. So it limped along with stopgaps such as TOW-Humvees and conventional M60 tanks until being disbanded post-1991.

I do like to imagine a “semi-objective” HTLD, with the in-production Stingray and commerical buggies being used. While I don’t think the HTLD was still a good idea, it’s at least an interesting one.

Command Fiction: All Minus One

This is from an in-progress scenario/editor experiment. I haven’t decided on the details, where this post-Soviet conflict should be, or even who it’d be against (either a real or fictional amalgamated former SSR), but figured I’d have too good an idea.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

199X.

As a foreign journalist, I was very lucky to be able to witness the oncoming offensive at all. I was-sitting at an airbase in central Russia, taking pictures of the red-starred fighters as they roared into the sky. While it wasn’t as dangerous as the frontline (to which I was incredibly thankful to be away from), I wasn’t exactly going to be getting infamous scoops, like the crazy gonzos who were going deep.

So, when six bomb-laden Sukhois roared down the runway, all that meant was footage of them taking off. Just like the last time they took off. Then it was back to sitting around and hearing the well-rehearsed official claims.

A few hours later, we were taking more pictures of the unit returning. The unit of five fighters. Now, this would not be the first aircraft lost in the conflict, but they were understandably tight-lipped about it.

I reported the loss anyway. Somehow I got away with it. The loss of a single fighter aircraft wasn’t really worth covering up, especially as ten had fallen already.

SU-17 FROM (REDACTED) AB HAS NOT RETURNED TO BASE ENEMY ACTION SUSPECTED.

Years later, I was sitting in retirement, reading about the war I’d played a small part in covering. There it was. A credible picture of the wreck, and a listing. On that day in question, Su-17s from the air base I saw launched an attack. One was hit by an enemy SAM and shot down. The pilot was killed on the ground-likely inadvertently, as regulars and other aviators were prized POWs. I learned that Su-17s were pushed extra hard because they’d soon be retired anyway.

But at the time, all I saw was six aircraft leaving and five returning.

Command Semi-Fiction: Pearl Harbor

Today is a Command Fiction day, but it’s also the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. So, what should I do?

Link back to the old Final Countdown reenactment in Command, of course. And ponder something about the date the movie was made. If it had been made a few years later and/ or been a potboiler book with no need to worry about budgets, would it have been, like the scenario was, a triumphalist tale of 1980 airpower crushing the 1941 IJN with the carrier strike going through? (Given the infamous Japan Inc fears of the time, it might be included just for that purpose.)

Interesting how pop culture can change quickly.

Air Force Coups

So, one of my endeavors in Command has been to make a scenario where the player controls the plotters of a coup attempt. At first, the main stumbling block was what country to set it in, and at what time. I figured that out.

The problem is that fixed-wing aircraft are inherently the worst tools to use for a coup. Coups are about seizing, even more so than conventional battles. Because of this, there have been only a handful of historical coup attempts that relied largely on aircraft and all of them failed.

The paradox is this-if the circumstances make the coup likely to succeed, the fighter aircraft are superfluous. If the circumstances make it likely to fail, they’re irrelevant no matter what their performance.

I do have an idea of how to model their niche, so that’s not an issue with making the scenario.

Just an observation that shows why an unorthodox situation is unorthodox.