Air force general discusses effect of new technology on redefinition of aerial combat

General Jack Chain, Jr., USAF, retired, presented a talk entitled “Air Power in the 21st Century” on Thursday. Chain, who had a distinguished career in the United States Air Force, entered the military in 1956 and served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. By his own admission, many of his opinions and attitudes were shaped by the conflict, which inflicted large-scale trauma on the American military establishment. Chain went on to become the Chief of Staff of the European Command and held several other important posts. His lecture centered on the tactics and weaponry of the Air Force in a post-Vietnam context.

Chain’s first point was that the development of the guided weapon was a major milestone for battlefield techniques, and equated it to the invention of the cross bow or steam ship. According to Chain, the guided missile significantly increases the combat capability of fighter aircraft, while reducing the danger to the pilots delivering the weapons.

However, Chain tempered his comments by mentioning that even the most accurate bomb or missile is useless without proper target intelligence. Without proper intelligence about the disposition and location of an enemy, the accuracy of a weapon is insignificant. It does not matter which tree a bomb hits if there is no enemy nearby for it to kill. However, with proper intelligence, Chain said that guided weapons are incredibly accurate. The importance of accurate weapons placement is shown by the change in bombing techniques from carpet-bombing to surgical strikes after the development of the laser guided bomb.

Chain also presented a historical component of guided weapons. When he joined the Air Force in 1956, fighter pilots were required to be able to place a single bomb within 140 feet of a target. In Vietnam, dive-bombing fighters delivered most of the weapons. The fighters carried 2000 lb. “dumb” bombs and the plane needed to pull up to 5000 ft. after the weapon was dropped to ensure the survival of the pilot. At such low altitudes, fighters were exposed to heavy anti-aircraft fire and antiaircraft missiles.

In 1973, however, the first laser-guided bombs were introduced. A regular 2000-lb. bomb was fitted with a laser guidance system in the nose and a set of adjustable fins on body of the bomb. The beam that the bomb would follow to its target was produced by another airplane flying in formation with the attacking aircraft. Laser-guidance provided an escape from small arms fire, which could destroy attacking aircraft.

The first use of laser-guided weapons

proved to be a great success. Guided weapons development continued through minor conflicts involving American military action, including Granada, Lebanon and Panama. With the deployment of the next-generation of guided weapons during the 1991 Gulf War, however, military doctrine had to be radically restructured when it became evident that the weapons multiplied force projection abilities in a way that resembled science fiction.

According to Chain, the guided bombs of the Vietnam era had certain limitations. Their most glaring flaw was that they were only effective in good weather, when clouds did not obscure the concentrated laser light. The Global Positioning System, which allows one to pinpoint one’s position in the world based on a constellation of many satellites located in geostationary orbits, was developed to circumvent the line-of-sight requirement for laser-guided missiles. When equipped with GPS, bombs could be delivered accurately to targets in almost all weather conditions.

Another technological development displayed in the Gulf War was stealth technology. Stealth aircraft, which use secret low-observable technology that makes them invisible to radar, were used to systematically destroy the Iraqi anti-aircraft and radar installations. Once the air defense systems were destroyed, conventional jet fighters were able to destroy the Iraqi infrastructure. In 83 days of air strikes using PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions), Iraq was rendered incapable of an effective defense against the ground attack that followed. However, despite the efficacy of PGMs, they constituted only ten percent of all bombs dropped during the conflict. By the time the ground war commenced, Iraqi soldiers were begging to surrender. Apparently the B-52 conventional bomber, which can deliver 82 unguided 500-lb. bombs on a small target, destroyed the morale of the soldiers in the trenches.

Chain then addressed the latest-generation of PGMs. The next major conflict to utilize this technology is the current conflict in Afghanistan. To date, 70 percent of munitions dropped have been PGMs. The reasons for the increased use of PGMs include better command and control and increased availability of such weapons.

Chain related the story of an Afghan commander who asked for a strike on a Taliban position overlooking the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. The commander asked an American military advisor to call in an air strike on the position within 24 hours. 19 minutes after the initial call, a B-52 arrived on the scene and destroyed the position. The ability of ground forces to call in timely and effective air strikes is an unprecedented and lethal power now placed in the hands of American infantry. The only problem that has developed with PGMs involves incidents of friendly fire. When possessing the ability to aim weapons closely, infantrymen are increasingly comfortable to call for airstrikes on enemy installations close to their own positions, but human error can cause disaster. In most of the cases of friendly fire in recent conflicts the wrong coordinates were given to the bombers. The bombers delivered their bombs on target, but the target they were given was the position of friendly soldiers. More careful attention to position on the battlefield can prevent such tragedies.

Chain then shifted focus and discussed weapons systems in the pipeline that are scheduled to be introduced in the immediate future. Currently the U.S. Air Force is designing a new generation of fighter aircraft. The F-22 is being designed as an air superiority fighter with stealth characteristics. The F-35 is primarily dedicated to ground strike missions. Several versions of F-35 aircraft are planned, including a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) for the Marines.

Several older aircraft are also being incorporated into the new Air Force. The Joint Star, which looks like a Boeing 707, is designed to carry side-facing radar that enables it to stay in friendly airspace while looking up to 120 miles into enemy territory.

The Air Force also continues to use the venerable U–2 spy plane for observation missions. Despite being forced down over the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the U–2 remains the most effective photographic reconnaissance plane ever produced.

In addition to conventional aircraft, the Air Force is developing several unmanned aircraft with combat capabilities. The Predator is the first of the new unmanned vehicles. It is currently in use as a reconnaissance vehicle but can also be armed for combat missions. A more advanced robotic craft under development is the Global Hawk, which can travel up to 400 mph and can stay in the air for 40 hours at 63,000 ft. It is also designed to carry a significant arsenal of bombs and missiles. In a recent test, it successfully flew across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, where it participated in a military exercise.

Chain concluded his remarks by noting that the United States has the largest combat capability of any nation on Earth. He
believes that our political leaders should use our military ability to promote national interests. However, he encourages us as citizens to utilize the power of the vote and ensure that politicians do not abuse the new power-projection abilities developed over the past decade.

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