What scares the US Air Force

  • Low-tech surveillance. Illustration by Francisco "Pac23" Perez
  • Over-the-horizon radar. Illustration by Francisco "Pac23" Perez
  • Anti-aircraft missiles. Illustration by Francisco "Pac23" Perez
Date:1 February 2010 Tags:, ,

A Pentagon official warns that American warplanes might not always rule the sky.
By Joe Pappalardo

The United States Air Force is the best trained and most expensively equipped in the world. So what is there to worry about? Plenty, says Lt-General David Deptula, the USAF’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. US warplanes are not threatened by insurgents, but other potential foes are developing hardware that could change the equation.

Discussing such threats in public, as Deptula did during a recent briefing outside Washington, DC, is a familiar tactic to drum up government support, but public briefings are also opportunities for key Air Force officials to honestly state their top priorities to defence contractors, academics and uniformed service members.

Airfields in or near the theatre of operation

A pair of binoculars and a cellphone can threaten modern warplanes. In 1999, Serbian airplane spotters watched US aircraft leave an air base in Italy. The spies alerted antimissile battery crews in Serbia to aim their long-wave length radar overhead, enabling the crews to destroy a stealth F-117A Nighthawk. Airfields are also at risk from a growing number of shortand medium-range missiles, which can be tipped with explosive, chemical or biological warheads.

In neutral and enemy airspace en route to the target

Conventional radar ranges are increasing, and that’s just the start of the problem. Over-thehorizon radar can detect aircraft by bouncing signals off the ionosphere, 90 km above Earth, while passive radar can provide enemies with rough tracks of an aircraft’s location, direction and altitude. If enemies know that the aircraft are coming and where they are heading, they can fire up their radar, hide military assets, warn targets and scramble warplanes.

Target engagement
Enemy airspace

There is an international boom industry in anti-aircraft missiles and warplanes that are designed to defeat US stealth technology. Surfaceto- air missiles are good and getting better – Russia’s S-300 tracks up to a hundred targets from more than 200 km away. Large numbers of new Russian and Chinese fighters – with great radar and stealthy features, and sold on the open market – could overwhelm superior American planes such as the F-22 Raptor and the yet-to-enterservice F-35 Lightning II.

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