War Tech: SAMs and Stealth

Would American aircraft suffer the same losses of jets and helicopters as Russia is experiencing, if they were engaged in a similar conflict such as Russia’s attack on Ukraine?

It depends: the devil is in the details and those who operate them. Everything indicates that the Ukrainians are extremely well trained and very smart. They may be poor in GDP per capita, due to a number of actors out of their control, but they are first world in engineering. Ukrainians are not illiterates from the desert, just the opposite, and have been building their own planes for generations.

Well operated, S300 category missiles can be devastating. During the war against Serbia, a single Serb S300 SAM battery escaped destruction for many weeks, by moving around the country, observing the patterns of NATO planes, and turning on its radar at the last instant. It shot down at least two US planes, one “stealth” …and was never destroyed. Its commander later retired, became a baker and friend with the F117 pilot he had shot down.

Reciprocally, twenty years later, the French air force in Libya attacked ten hours before US SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses), using French Rafales fighter bombers to suppress flak while killing Qaddafi’s armor entering Benghazi. The bombing itself was done by Mirage fighter bombers that the Rafales protected with their active stealth (basically counter frequency jamming).

The action in Ukraine seems to show that high maneuverability of fighter planes is extremely useful. Narratives from Ukrainian pilots show that old dogfighting techniques change everything. Just like the legendary Serb SAM commander, they turn on their missiles at the last moment. Time is at such a premium that some basic commands are just one word, such as the command to get in the plane and take off. 

Another important fact coming out of Ukraine is that the small but lethal Bayraktar TB2 Turkish drones, which seems to have a radar return larger than a Rafale, are hard to spot for Russian SAMs. This means several things: Rafale passive stealth is enough. F35 passive stealth is overkill, especially as it comes while inflicting losses of carrying capacity and lack of maneuverability (a slow going F35 with a giant fiery exhaust will be perfect for Stinger style MANPADs; reciprocally if it does not approach the ground, to avoid MANPADs, it will be ineffective for its measly bombing and fall prey to S300 style SAM).

Unsurprisingly, two months into the world war, Ukrainian ace pilots ask for F16s, F18s, and… Rafales. Conventional, highly maneuverable fighter bombers with plenty of radar absorbing material without reduction of capability.  They do not ask for F35s… (Nor do the Ukrainians ask for Typhoons or F15s… which have their own problems, being too much of high altitude interceptors…)  

Thus the West should augment the production of these highly capable jets. Unfortunately, to please Uncle Sam located in Washington DC, every country in the West is ordering F35s, which, all seem to indicate, would not be very useful in Ukraine fighting Putin’s forces.

Russian Cruiser Moskva burning after being hit by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, in combination with “other equipment” (probably spotting and distraction by BT2 Turkish made drones). The ship later capsized and sank. The Moskva was one of the three carrier-killers cruiser of the Russian Navy. It was also the flagship of the Russians in the Black Sea. Its anti-aircraft capabilities had been used earlier off Syria, and were probably used off the Ukrainian costs, where Ukraine said it shot down Russian superiority fighters in the past… This is the largest capital ship sunk since World War Two (the Argentinan cruiser sank by UK nuclear submarine 200 miles from the Falklands, 40 years ago, was much smaller…)

When the US engaged the North Vietnamese, it suffered heavy aircraft losses, due to confrontation with experienced pilots (some Russian instructors) in nimble planes. Another problem was that the US planes depended too much on missiles (F4 Phantom had no canon, so found themselves in dog fight with armed Migs, while having no weapons). Ukrainian pilots claim they can out maneuver Russian missiles, and in particular outrun them (this is in theory possible with many missiles, given a fast jet, and if the missile exchange start at large distances… F35 partisans mumble arguments about non detectability, but France, for example has long range infrared missiles… And then it becomes a question of how fast can the prey run away, radar stealth or no radar stealth…).

So it may be that the F35 doctrine is another silly idea which has overcome the US Air Force. One notices that recent orders for F35s were cancelled and replaced by orders for F15 (a large, but fast third generation jet).

Not to say the F35 is useless: it could be very useful in some situations, in a role somewhat reminscent of the Growler… But as the end-all, be-all? Big mistake, for sure.

Patrice Ayme

I sink therefore I special… The jets of water in the back are from fire fighting equipment of a tug behind…

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