war on the rocks

The Phantom Menace: When Threat Capabilities Are Made Up

September 21, 2016

The propeller-driven OA-X would be configured mainly for “permissive” environments, meaning places where enemies have no air forces and no air defenses. Those kinds of places are fast disappearing, because cheap surface-to-air missiles are ubiquitous in global military trade. 

                                                                                                     –The National Interest, 22 July 2016

There’s nothing quite like justifying a position by making up a threat. Governments do it. Generals do it. Politicians do it. The methods and motivations vary, but the common thread is that people need to make a case for a specified course of action that must be taken in order to deal with the threat, constraining other choices that won’t deal with the supposed problem. It happens at the strategic level (the Iraq War) and for situations that are far less important, such as the on-base threat posed to visiting dignitaries. Sometimes it is a lack of intelligence, sometimes the context is bad, and sometimes people haven’t done their homework. It can be difficult to detect threat inflation because of an information deficit in which one side possesses a clear advantage in information, not because of what they do have, but because of what they might have, often shielded behind access barriers such as security classifications where the availability of information to confirm or debunk an assessment is not equally shared. However, there are other cases where information is commonly available, and yet completely unsupported threat inflation is allowed to stand unchallenged. That kind of falsehood, highlighted by the opening quote, should be easiest to shatter. Arguments can be made against the Air Force’s proposed light attack aircraft (OA-X), but a global phantom surface-to-air missile (SAM) menace is not one of them.

If I made the assertion that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was soon going to operate a battleship surface action group in the Pacific, it would be obvious that I was making it up. Similarly, if I bemoaned the newly formed Taliban armored division poised to sweep through Jalalabad, I would be rightly labeled as the kind of writer who needed to find a home in the now-defunct Weekly World News. But if I assert that the world is populated by bad actors swimming in a surplus of advanced surface-to-air missiles? Nary a ripple of correction or dissent. Somehow, while I wasn’t paying attention to world air defense developments, the globe was absolutely overrun by advanced air defense systems that require very expensive and capable stealthy fighters to overcome. They’re everywhere, and the future of airpower hangs in the balance.

Actually, they aren’t, and it doesn’t. It’s a poor reflection on the state of defense commentary and journalism that the article quoted above was widely disseminated. It’s also a poor reflection that other statements made in a similar vein were not immediately challenged. So just to make the point clear: The world is not overrun with advanced air defense systems any more than it is with laser-equipped sharks. Violent extremist organizations do not have the cash, the market access, or the infrastructure to purchase the advanced air defense systems that Russia and China field. The presence of advanced air defense systems that might arguably require “fifth generation” fighters to deal with is pretty much limited to Russia and China, and fielding these systems requires a massive investment in sensors, command and control, training, personnel, and infrastructure. For smaller nations, some of which cannot even deliver electricity 24 hours per day, even limited air defense capabilities are a stretch. For ISIL, which lacks the ability to keep basic machinery running, the idea is a joke.

There is no question that shoulder-launched man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) can be purchased. The ubiquitous SA-7B GRAIL has been available for decades, and the dissolution of governments in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq increased the supply of this and similar weapons. But aside from the maintenance issues associated with old weapons that have been poorly stored and widely mishandled, these systems are just not that capable, even in trained hands. The combat record of the GRAIL was poor in both the Vietnam War and the Yom Kippur War, to say nothing of Desert Storm. The Soviets shifted to more advanced systems 30 years ago, and after their experience in Afghanistan, the Russians have been well aware of the dangers posed by proliferation, and are learning that lesson again in Syria, where the primary method of shooting down Russian aircraft is Russian weapons.

Proliferation aside, these infrared-guided shoulder-launched weapons are essentially low-altitude weapons that are difficult to employ and relatively easy to defeat with decoy flares. In the tens of thousands of sorties flown in the last two decades by U.S. and NATO aircraft in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, only four fixed-wing combat aircraft have been hit (and two downed) by MANPADS. None of the losses was an American aircraft. This suggests that we are not facing an advancing wave of SAM-driven doom, despite their occasional success against helicopters, airliners, and transport aircraft. If the black-market missile threat were so ubiquitous, we would expect to see massive losses of remotely piloted aircraft like Reaper and Predator (we do, actually, but to malfunction or error, not to SAMs), light reconnaissance and utility aircraft, and cargo aircraft, all of which the U.S. military flies extensively in combat zones. The fact that we don’t see any such thing is a reflection of the fact that the majority of global airspace is either undefended or lightly defended, and the majority of the conflict raging worldwide occurs under minimally contested airspace.

If anything, the very nature of the actual threat posed by irregular adversaries is precisely the kind of threat that turboprop light attack aircraft are best designed to handle. The infrared signature of a turboprop-powered aircraft is substantially lower than that of a fast jet. Not only do turboprops mix their hot exhaust with large volumes of ambient air, but their slow speed means that aerodynamic heating due to friction is substantially lower, reducing the heat signature of both the powerplant and the airframe. Small size is a bonus when dealing with antiaircraft guns that are aimed by eye because small targets are a lot more difficult to hit. Since radar systems are too resource-intensive for non-state actors (and many state actors) and the black-market systems are limited in capability, an aircraft that minimizes its vulnerability to black-market systems should be well-positioned to operate in the real world.

The threat to American airpower is real, and there is reason to believe that defended airspace exists that cannot be effectively penetrated with the aircraft now at our disposal. But that threat is limited geographically in the same way that stealth fighters are limited — the threat is expensive, requires a deep well of resources, and is manufactured in limited numbers by a relatively small group of vendors. The majority of the conflict zones in the world are overlaid with airspace poorly defended that will remain so. Airpower advocates should not let unsupported pronouncements of onrushing technological doom sway them any more than other made-up threats of killer tomatoes, zombie hordes, or one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people-eaters. At least the last one potentially posed a threat to air operations.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Dave Neve