The Missile Technology Control Regime establishes a performance of a 300
kilometer range with a 500 kilogram payload as a threshold of concern for
proliferation. These standards, which are readily applicable to combat aircraft,(1)
encompass virtually the entire range of military combat aircraft, down to some the
Combat aircraft elude ready classification. Important categories include the size and
warload capacity of the aircraft, which can range across several orders of
magnitude, as well as the vintage of aircraft, since more recent variant typically
possess greater resistance to hostile action. In contract to missiles, placing combat
aircraft into a precise category is a rather difficult task. Ballistic missiles are
generally characterized by unique and fixed range and payload characteristics. But
combat aircraft can trade between fuel carried for range and munitions carried for
air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, with the maximum or ferry range of an aircraft
typically being at least twice as great and up to ten times as great as the normal
combat range, and maximum payloads up to four times greater than normal combat
payloads. In addition, the flight profile of the aircraft can have a major impact on
range, with low altitude missions easily cutting combat radius in half.
Combat aircraft are generally divided according to its primary assigned mission:
* Attack - designed or outfitted for air-to-ground attack;
* Dual-Role - designed or outfitted for both air-to-ground and
* Fighter - designed or outfitted for air-to-air attack;
* Other - including trainers, reconnaissance, tankers, and
Airborne Early Warning.
Although older classes of aircraft are obviously not the equal of the latest products
of the designers art, it would be a mistake to imagine that they are without
significant military potential. Upgrades, including addition of state-of-the-art
avionics, guided weapons, and more powerful modern engines, can significantly
enhance the combat capabilities of older aircraft.(2) Some observers contend that even
the venerable A-4 Skyhawk, with the addition of certain air-defense
countermeasures, "remains as effective today as it was a quarter of a century ago."(3)
Indeed such upgrades are the rule, rather than the exception, for the air forces of
all countries.(4) Grumman signed a $245 million contract with China to substantially
re-engineer the F-8 interceptor to the F-8 II standard, and several other Chinese
aircraft incorporate Western systems, including the H-7 and Q-5 attack aircraft.
Singapore and Israel do a brisk trade in modifying the F-5s, as well as the A-4s
and F-4s (respectively) of a number of other states. Both France and Israel offer
upgrades to various versions of Mirage aircraft.
While stealthy aircraft such as the A-12, F-117A and F-23, which have been
designed from the outset to reduce their detectability, will undoubtedly retain an
advantage over their more conventional brethren, upgrades are available to reduce
this margin. Modifications to the Tornado include addition of radar absorbing
materials and improved electronic countermeasures.(5) Upgrades to the F-14 could
also significantly reduce its radar signature.(6) And stealth modifications have begun
on some F-16s.(7)
Strategic bombers are the high end of combat aircraft, capable of delivering tens
of tons of ordnance over intercontinental ranges. Older versions equipped with long-range cruise missiles include the Russian Bear and American B-52, while newer
penetrating bombers armed with short range air-launched ballistic missiles and
gravity weapons include the Russian Backfire and Blackjack, and the American B-1B and B-2. Unit costs of several hundred million dollars place such aircraft beyond
the reach of most countries, and their intercontinental ranges place them beyond
the interest of most operators. Thus these aircraft are essentially restricted to the
United States and Russia, although the Soviet Union exported a handful of
maritime patrol versions of the Bear to India.
ADVANCED STEALTH AIRCRAFT
These aircraft are currently being developed and produced by the United States.
These extremely expensive aircraft a greatly reduced vulnerability to air defenses
at the price of unit costs of $50 million to over $100 million, several times as high
as those of more conventional aircraft. The first American stealth aircraft to enter
service was the F-117A, which saw service in Panama in Saudi Arabia. A more
capable stealth attack aircraft is the US Navy's A-12 Avenger II Advanced Tactical
Aircraft, which will offer significant performance improvements over the current A-6.(8) The YF-22 and YF-23 of the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program combine
low-observable stealth designs with advanced engines and aerodynamics for
sustained supersonic cruise.(9) There is little expectation that these aircraft will be
available for export any time soon.(10)
MODERN HEAVY ATTACK AIRCRAFT
Modern heavy attack aircraft include both theater range strategic bombers, as well
as the largest and most capable tactical aircraft. American examples include the
F-111 and F/B-111, the F-15E Strike Eagle, as well as the Navy's carrier-based A-6. European members of this class include the Tornado and Mirage IV, as well as
the Russian Tu-22 Blinder and Su-24 Fencer. These aircraft, which can cost from
$30 to over $500 million, generally carry 5 to 10 tons of ordnance to a combat
radius of over 1,500 kilometers at supersonic speeds. Fewer than 100 of these
aircraft are in service in Third World countries, including Tornado's in Saudi
Arabia, and Tu-24 Blinders and Su-24 Fencers in Libya and Iraq.
MODERN MEDIUM COMBAT AIRCRAFT
These models, which can cost from $15 to over $50 million, generally carry 2 to 5
tons of ordnance to a combat radius of about 1,000 kilometers at supersonic speeds.
While most are designed primarily for air-to-air combat, many of these aircraft can
carry bomb loads greater than those carried by the B-17 and B-24 bombers of the
Second World War.(11) Leading examples include the F-14, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18,
the Jaguar, and the Russian MiG-27 and Su-29. More than 500 of these aircraft are
in service in the air forces of over a dozen Third World countries.
MODERN LIGHT COMBAT AIRCRAFT
Modern light aircraft, which can cost up to $15 million, generally carry 1 to 5 tons
of ordnance to a combat radius of about 500 kilometers, usually at supersonic
speeds. Leading examples include the F-5, Alpha Jet, Hawk, MiG-23 and MiG-29,
the Su-20 and Su-22, and various versions of the Dassault Mirage. Over 3000 of
these aircraft are in service in the air forces of more than five dozen Third World
Older bombers generally carry anywhere from 2 to 10 tons of ordnance to a combat
radius of from 500 to 3,000 kilometers at subsonic speeds. Primary examples
include the Russian Il-28 and Tu-16, the Chinese H-5 and H-6 versions of these
aircraft, as well as the B-57 Canberra of American and British origin. Although
these aircraft typically lack the advanced electronic and other countermeasures
needed to survive in a high-threat environment, they continue to pose a significant
challenge to less sophisticated foes lacking in modern air-defenses, or deprived of
air defenses by combat. Somewhat more than 100 of these aircraft are in service
in seven Third World countries.
OLDER MEDIUM COMBAT AIRCRAFT
This type generally carries anywhere from 1 to 5 tons of ordnance to a combat
radius of from 500 to 1,000 kilometers at supersonic speeds. Leading examples
include the A-4 Skyhawk and the Su-7 Fitter. Nearly 800 these aircraft serve in
air forces of over a dozen Third World countries.
OLDER LIGHT COMBAT AIRCRAFT
Aircraft in this category generally carry anywhere from 1 to 2 tons of ordnance to
a combat radius of from 300 to 700 kilometers at supersonic speeds. Primary
examples include the Russian MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21, as well as the Chinese
J-5, J-6 and J-7 versions of these aircraft. The air forces of nearly five dozen Third
World countries deploy in excess of 3000 of these aircraft.
TRAINERS/LIGHT ATTACK AIRCRAFT
Trainers/light attack aircraft are primarily designed and used for pilot training.
They also generally carry anywhere from 1 to 2 tons of ordnance to a combat
radius of from 300 to 700 kilometers at supersonic speeds. Leading examples
include the Hunter and L-39, and 400 these aircraft are in service in a nearly a
dozen Third World countries. The trainer/light attack aircraft market is predicted
to grow as defense budgets become tighter.
CLOSE AIR SUPPORT AIRCRAFT
Similar to trainers/light attack, close air support aircraft carry anywhere from 1 to
2 tons of ordnance to a combat radius of from 300 to 700 kilometers. But these
aircraft are usually propeller-driven, in contrast to the turbo-jet engines used on all
of the other aircraft previously discussed. The archetype of this class is the
American OV-10 Bronco, used extensively in Viet Nam. And while most of these
aircraft remain concepts or test prototypes, the Argentine Pucara saw combat use
in the Falklands conflict. In the United Kingdom the British Aerospace has
evaluated prop and jet versions of the Small Agile Battlefield Aircraft (SABA)(12)
which could carry up to 2 tons of ordnance.(13) A 1987 study of options to replace the
A-10 by the Institute for Defense Analysis recommended a 5 ton unducted-fan
aircraft carrying one ton warload.(14) This study eventually led to DARPA tests of the
ARES (Agile Responsive Effective Support) aircraft, built by Burt Rutan's Scaled
Aerial tankers are central to increasing the range and capabilities of attack aircraft, and are found in the inventories of all modern air forces. Refueling aircraft can be roughly divided into two categories; dedicated tankers and contingency or "buddy" tankers.
One trend in dedicated tankers is toward converted wide body airliners, since they
can usually dispense about 135,000kg of fuel with spare space for cargo or
passengers. The latest generation dedicated tanker is the KC-10, based on the
McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which can carry 156,820 kg of fuel and dispense
118,000 kg 1,000 nm from its base.(16) There are, however, several platforms
available, and the recent Japanese search for tanker aircraft illustrates this wide
range options. Alternatives considered include the KC-707 for about $14.5 million,
KCE-3J (similar to the KC-135R at a cost of $48 million) or KC-10J tanker aircraft,
for about $100 million.(17)
Contingency tankers are fighter or attack aircraft carrying the maximum extra fuel
and a refueling pod. The technique is not a very efficient means of refueling
because it diminishes the number of available attack aircraft and the ratio of
"refuelees" to refueler is low. Contingency tankers are most commonly used deep
in hostile airspace where the threat to dedicated tankers is too great. The use of
contingency re-fueling may grow however, as new aerial tactics focus on low-level
all weather missions.
Tankers disseminate their goods either through a telescopic boom or a hose and
drogue system. The boom is positioned by an operator on board the tanker into a
receptacle on top of the receiving aircraft. When using the hose and drogue system,
the receiving aircraft maneuvers its probe into the brogue trailing the tanker. The
boom was developed by the US Air Force during SAC's hey day. Its advantage
over the hose and drogue system is its massive fuel transfer rate. The KC10A, for
example can dispense 5680 liters per minute through its boom and only 2270 liters
per minute from the hose and drogue system. The boom's limitations are that only
one aircraft can be refueled at one time, there is no back-up if the boom fails, and
it must be adapted to refuel the hose and drogue aircraft flown by the US Navy
and most other air forces. The majority of air forces employ the hose and drogue
system. During Operation Desert Storm the lack of flexibility in US Air Force
refueling dispensers caused operational problems, since several aircraft were
incompatible with the boom apparatus. Thus, the Air Force is adapting its tankers
to facilitate the refueling of more than one aircraft at a time.(18)
Type Fuel offload # of refuel- Max fuel flow (liters) ing points lit/min boom/drogue boom/drogue KC135A 43,000 1/2 4540/1590 707-320 72,000 0+1/2+3 4540 Il-78 52,000 -/3 - KC130H 27,000 -/2 - KC.Mk1 120,000 -/4 -/2330 KC10A 160,000 1/3 5680/2270 KA-6D 10,000 -/1 -/1325 Tornado IDS Buddy pod 7,000 -/1 -/1590
AIRBORNE EARLY WARNING
Airborne early warning aircraft are a central element of competent modern air
defenses. Compared to ground-based radars, AEW aircraft can more than double the
range at which high altitude aircraft can be detected (from 450 Km to 900 Km for
a target at 10 Km altitude), while the improvement for detection of low altitude
targets is even more striking (from 60 Km to 450 Km for an aircraft traveling at
an altitude of 200 meters).(20) These aircraft are flying control towers. The crew of
the E-3 AWACS, for instance includes 13 dedicated specialists including a tactical
director, fighter allocator, two weapons controllers, surveillance controller, link
manager, three surveillance operators, communications operator, radar technician,
communications technician and computer display technician.(21) The Sentry's 9.14
meter in diameter rotodome acts either as a pulse and/or doppler radar for
detection of aircraft targets. Recent upgrades have doubled the aircraft's
performance against small targets such as cruise missiles and UAVs.(22)
The E-2c Hawkeye is the US Navy's AEW platform. To be suitable for aircraft
carrier operations, the Hawkeye is much smaller than the AWACS. Its wing span
is about half that of the E-3, and it is 127,264 kg lighter. The E-2c is powered by
two turboprop engines as opposed to the AWACs four jet engines. The rotodome
is 7.32 meters in diameter.(23) The E-2c also costs about 25 percent of the E-3. One
important operational difference between the two aircraft is that the E-2 features
a passive detection system that allows it to detect and locate up to 300 emissions
from enemy radar transmitters, such as SAM sites, and air defense radars
simultaneously. It also enables the E-2 crew to know when it has been painted by
hostile radar, allowing for more responsive defensive action.(24)
Initially developed by the United States during the Second World War, today these
aircraft are operated by more than a dozen countries. Manufacturing AEW aircraft
is extremely challenging. Britain, for example, found it too challenging, and
canceled its Nimrod AEW program in favor of purchasing US systems.
Israel, however, is in the process of manufacturing its own AEW aircraft
indegenously. If successful, the Phalcon could represent a significant advance in
early warning technology. Instead of employing a rotodome, the Israelis intend to
conform six phased array antennas to the 707's airframe. This more aerodynamic
shape would result in fuel savings and increase flight time. The Phalcon will also
carry a host of non-radar sensors.(25) In an effort to stave off this foreign
competition, Grumman and Lockheed announced in June 1991 that they would
collaborate on marketing Grumman's E-2c radar on Lockheed's C-130 and P-3
aircraft. This would open a very large market of existing C-130s and P-3s to AEW
What AEW aircraft do for aircraft's aerial operations, JSTARS (Joint Surveillance
and Target Attack Radar System) will do for aircraft ground attack operations.
Based on a Boeing 707-323C, JSTARS employs a synthetic-aperture/Doppler radar
to detect stationary and slowly moving ground targets up to 175 km behind the
FLOT (front line of troops). Cruising for eight hours, JSTARS is capable of
covering one million square km of area and can instantaneously transmit to ground
stations or direct attacks through JTIDS (joint tactical information distribution
system). Two JSTARS were deployed to the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm,
where it was reportedly key to locating and tracking the movements of Scud
launchers.(27) Considering the apparent ease with which the Iraqis were able to
avoid detection and launch their mobile Scuds, it appears that further refinements
to JSTARS will be required before its operational deployment date of 1997. In
light of the high cost and questionable survivability of the aircraft, following the
highly successful Israeli example and developing remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs)
to do the same mission would be worth consideration.
1. "Panel Disputes U.S.-Soviet Arms Parity," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 28 June 1976, page 19.
2. Cook, Nick, "Ultimate Upgrades," Jane's Defense Weekly, 19 December 1987, pages 1429-1433.
3. Richardson, Doug, Modern Warplanes, (Crescent Books, New York, 1982), page 124.
4. Costello, Robert, "One Way to Extend the Pentagon Dollar," Christian Science Monitor, 30 July 1990, page 19.
5. "Tornados go 'Stealthy'," Flight International, 29 August 1990, page 7.
6. Morrocco, John, "Grumman Offers Tomcat 21 As Alternative to Navy ATF," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 7 November 1988, page 18-19.
7. Lok, Joris, "Stealth-modified F-16s in Service," Jane's Defense Weekly, 27 January 1990, page 133.
8. "A-12 Leading Contender for ATS," Aerospace Daily, 20 August 1990, page 281-283.
9. Scott, William, "YF-23A Previews Design Features of Future Fighters," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 2 July 1990, page 16-21.
10. "Israel Considers Fighter Replacement Options," Flight International, 1 August 1990, page 11.
11. Rhodes, Jeffrey, "Improving the Odds in Ground Attack," Air Force Magazine, November 1986, page 48-52.
12. Wood, Derek, "BAe Seeking Partners for Small Agile Battlefield Aircraft," Jane's Defense Weekly, 5 December 1987, page 1294-5.
13. "BAe Shows SABA Alternative," Flight International, 12 December 1987, page 8-9.
14. Morrocco, John, "Study Supports Call for Design of New Close Air Support Aircraft," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 28 September 1987, page 29-30.
15. Goold, Ian, "Rutan Prepares for First Flight of Agile Close-support Fighter," Flight International, 7 February 1990, page 18.
16. Wanstall, Brian, "Tankers boost combat credibility," Interavia, June 1989, p.561.
17. Ebata, Kensuke, "Japan Considers Contenders for Air-Refueling Tanker," Jane' Defense Weekly, 23 February 1985, pages 313-318.
18. Capaccio, Tony, "USAF Tankers To Be Adapted For Use By Navy and Marine Jets," Defense Week, 25 March 1991, p.3.
19. Chart derived from: Coniglio, Sergio, "Modern Air Refueling Systems," Military Technology, June 1991, p.93.
20. Hirst, Mike, Airborne Early Warning, (Osprey, London, 1983), page 40.
21. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1991-92, Jane's Information Group, 1991, Surrey, UK, p.364.
22. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1991-92, Jane's Information Group, 1991, Surrey, UK, p.364.
23. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1991-92, Jane's Information Group, 1991, Surrey, UK, p.406.
24. Mohr, Charles, "Radar Aircraft Built in US Play Role In Israel's Success," The New York Times, 12 June 1982, p.7.
25. Leopold, George, "Competition Rises for Early Warning Gear Makers," Defense News, November - December 1991.
26. Leopold, George, "Competition Rises for Early Warning Gear Makers," Defense News, November - December 1991.
27. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1991-92, Jane's Information
Group, 1991, Surrey, UK, p.366.