Russian A2/AD: Overrated, underrated, *and* poorly understood

Quite a few readers will likely make the connection between the headline and a recent post by Michael Kofman over at his Russian Military Analysis blog. The post, titled “Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood”, has received quite a bit of both praise and pushback in the few days since it was published, and certainly deserve a closer look.

To begin with, last autumn Kofman published a long read over at War on the Rocks. Titled “It’s time to talk about A2/AD: Rethinking the Russian Military Challenge”, it was without doubt one of last year’s best texts on the topic. I recommend anyone not familiar with it to go over there and read it, as it gives a very good overview of why the adoption of terminology originally dealing with a Chinese concept of operations and inserting it into an unrelated Russian context will lead us deep into the land of wrong conclusions. It also details well how the Russian long-range systems fit into the Russian operational concept.

A 9A83 TELAR of the S-300V system operated by the 202nd Air Defence Brigade. The unit is co-located with the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Armoured Division in Naro-Fominsk outside Moscow. The system a good example of a high-end capability found within the Russian Ground Forces structure, as opposed to the VKS/V PVO PRO. Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin via Wikimedia Commons

“Russian A2/AD: It is not overrated, just poorly understood” instead looks at the question on a tactical level, and takes issue with what Kofman describes as “technology fetishism and threat inflationism [seemingly] giving way to a dismissive attitude”. There often exist a very real possibility of overcompensating when the first wave of panic-induced threat inflationism is receding, but I am not quite convinced that is what is happening here. Before starting, it should also be pointed out that whenever discussing the “general consensus” or “the discussion” as I do here, it can easily qualify as debating a strawman, since the average opinion, much as the average person, doesn’t exist.

There are several valid points in Kofman’s piece, perhaps the most important of which is that the focus on the strategic long-range systems* of the Aerospace Forces (VKS), which control the Air and Missile Defence Troops (V PVO PRO), leave out a sizeable number of Russian Air Defence assets. This include not only the Russian Air Force, but also the vast number of air defence systems of all kinds and ranges, some of which are very capable, that are subordinated to the Russian Ground Forces’ air defence units (PVO-SV). Another issue is whether Russia in a conventional war against NATO really would think in terms of a limited war, or whether the smallest size would be something along the lines of a conflict stretching along the full span of Russia’s western land border. Perhaps the most important point raised is the importance of discussing how well the Russian systems would work in a Western setting. As was evident especially during the post-Cold War thaw of the 1990’s when Russia shared the thinking behind their weapons programs more openly (though it frankly should have been evident both before and after), the Russian concept of operations differs from NATO’s CONOPS. This in turn means that their development and procurement decision are driven towards solutions that might seem strange or underperfoming in a Western context, but match the requirements of the Russian Armed Forces (ask yourself where all the Russian targeting pods are, just to give one brief example).

However, other issues raised by Kofman aren’t quite as clear-cut in my opinion. Yes, the Russian Air Force did receive 402 new tactical fighters and strike aircraft between 2008 and the end of 2019 (88 of which were Su-35 and 125 of which were Su-34). However, that ten-year run can be contrasted to the deliveries of 134 F-35 in 2019 alone (a year in which the Russian Air Force received 20 new fast jets), with another 140+ planned for next year, not to mention the production figures of other western fighter programs currently running. It should also be noted that the Russian Air Force of 2008 was sorely outdated, and that the aircraft since delivered, while modern, dosen’t necessarily provide the Russian Air Force with a qualitative edge compared to the current western inventory. Big questions surround the Russian fighters when it comes to key areas such as sensor fusion and man-machine interfaces, two fields that have grown in importance over the last decade with the increased amount of information available to the pilots.

The most serious issue for the Russian Air Force however is their weapons. For decades nothing much happened in the field, to the extent that the main air-to-air weapons still are the R-27 family of medium-range and the R-73 short-range missiles, both of which entered service well before the end of the Cold War. The situation is so dire that when the Russian Air Force first went to Syria, they had to resort to the ‘export-only’ RVV-SD to get a medium-ranged missile with an active radar seeker. Deliveries of updated weapons such as the R-77-1 (on which the RVV-SD is based) and the R-74M have now started (though the R-74M is still somewhat uncertain as far as I am aware), but it will take time until they have become the standard load of the fighters.

For air-to-ground, a more or less similar situation exists, not aided by the fact that Russian ‘dumb’ bombs aren’t easily kitable to become smart due to their general construction. The most common air-to-surface missile is the laser-guided Kh-25ML, a weapon with a 10 km range that was in production between 1982 and 1997. Several other air-to-ground systems exist, in fact the Russian arsenal include more diverse weapons/seeker capabilities than the NATO air forces, but the numbers for modern systems are generally low.

This is not to suggest that the air component of a NATO-Russian clash would be easy, especially once considering the possibility of preemptive strikes against NATO air bases and the low stocks of weapons held by the western air forces. It certainly would be a complex and messy affair, of which the SEAD/DEAD mission would be just one aspect.

EA-18G Wingfold

While much has been written about the Russian focus on electronic warfare, there are still a number of very capable platforms in the west as well. The EA-18G Growler would be a key asset in any US air campaign within the foreseeable future that was faced with modern air defences. Source: Own picture

I do agree that the greatest benefit of ground-based air defences often aren’t their kinetic capabilities, but the fact that their presence on the battlefield causes the enemy to alter tactics and divert resources to managing the threat from these long range systems (or, as Kofman put it, they become McGuffins). There is an inherent value in these systems, but the question is if we haven’t left A2/AD territory a long time ago by this point, and are back to the issue of how to pick apart a multi-layered air defence system made up of multiple components, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. This in itself is nothing new, Vietnam and the Yom Kippur War are probably the two most well-known examples, both in part due to the seemingly superior air force suffering serious losses when trying to get around one kind of threat and running into another one. However, it should be pointed out that the examples to the contrary are also found. The Lebanon War of 1982 and Operation Desert Storm both saw seemingly robust integrated air defence systems supported by serious fighter and interceptor components destroyed with fairly limited losses.

How the Russian air defences stand up against a concentrated air offensive is anyone’s guess. One of the key questions is who really dominates the electronic warfare spectrum? The Russian capabilities have been on test in Ukraine and Syria, but while the focus in west can be said to have been elsewhere during the post-9/11 period, there is still several capable systems and platforms in operational service. The effect they would have on the modular structure of the high-end Russian air defence assets is one of the key unanswered questions.

In the end, if I would have to guess, I find the high-end Russian systems such as the S-400 to likely be overrated. The same goes for the capabilities of active seekers of individual missiles, especially as their ranges grow. The medium-range systems such as the latest versions of the Buk and the Tor, are likely underrated, due to their combination of being easier to hide while still packing a serious punch. The whole A2/AD bastion concept makes little sense for most of Russia (the Murmansk area being the exception). What is completely open to me is how modular the Russian ground-based air defences really are, and how robust this modularity is in the face of a squadron of Growlers. In general, it can also be noted that history hasn’t been kind to ground controlled intercept-based tactics post-WWII.

*These are the S-300PM1 and S-300PM2, S-400, and their close-defence 96K6 Pantsir-systems, as well as the A-135 anti-ballistic missile system defending Moscow.

Eurofighter goes Electric

When a European country without a domestic candidate looks for a multirole fighter, I usually rank the chances of the Eurofighter somewhere between “low” and “abysmal”. It’s not that it’s a bad aircraft, but the decision by the partner nations to focus on air-to-air performance, and to first roll it out into service for the air-to-air role, has meant that the aircraft has been weighed somewhat differently than what your average F-16AM operator wishes for.

Often overlooked is the fact that BAE Systems is one of two companies whose fast jets currently are in service with the Finnish Air Force. The humble Hawk might be a far cry from the Typhoon, but it offers BAE Systems decades of experience of working with the Finnish Air Force. Picture courtesy of BAE Systems

However, not every country in Europe is a F-16 operator. Finland is a very happy F/A-18C Hornet operator, and looks at fighters in a somewhat different way from many otherwise comparable European air forces. Part of this is down to history, part of it is the lack of a military alliance, and eventually it all translates into doctrinal differences. The gist of the argument is that the air-to-air mission always comes first, and once that can be handled, the rest will take care of itself. Or as HX programme director col. Keränen puts it:

These scenarios [according to which HX contenders are evaluated] include counter air (air defence), counter land (air to ground), counter sea (air to sea), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting, and long-range strike.

Out of these five scenarios, counter air is the most critical one and therefore takes precedence. Counter air is where a candidate’s capability to perform in combats both with fighters and ground based air defence is evaluated. This is a critical capability: the HX multirole fighter may get engaged in air combat or be attacked by ground based air defence in addition to other tasks.

The official translation of the Finnish text might not be the best, but you get the point.

For Finland, the Eurofighter actually does make sense in quite a few different ways. The focus on speed and semi-recessed missiles is just what’s needed for the air policing mission, which is the key operational mission of the Air Force in peacetime. Especially after Kuopio-Rissala became the most important base for the intercepts over the Gulf of Finland, cruise speed is of the essence. For the long-range strike role, even operating solely on internal fuel the Eurofighter/Storm Shadow-combination could easily replace the JASSM equipped Hornet. The Eurofighter also has a large number of operators, all with slightly different outlooks on how to meet the need of the modern battlefield, providing several development paths to choose from.

One of the more interesting changes to appear this autumn has been the renewed focus on electronic warfare in general and the SEAD/DEAD-mission set in particular. The Eurofighter feature the DASS (Defensive Aid Sub-System), but it has generally been regarded as inferior to the SPECTRA of the Rafale or to the upcoming Arexis of Gripen E. Whether this is a correct judgement or simply an effect of the focus placed on the EW-part of their aircraft in the marketing by Dassault and Saab is impossible to judge conclusively based on open sources, but it is now clear that the Eurofighter consortium has decided to step up their game in this area.

Eurofighter Typhoon
Nothing quite says ‘electronic warfare’ as having the shape of the aircraft outlined in turquoise mesh. Image courtesy of BAE System, created by Werbeagentur

A key item here was the announcement of the Praetorian Evolution concept for a thorough upgrade of the DASS. Part of the larger Typhoon Long Term Evolution activity, in the words of a BAE Systems representative the “Praetorian Evolution is a conceptual roadmap that presents a number of options for a future DASS architecture”. As such, it isn’t a set package, but an assortment of options that can be picked by the operating countries to move forward with. A key part enabling this is the the ‘all digital architecture’ of the updated DASS. Elements of this already exist within the current DASS, but Praetorian Evolution would see the digital coverage increased within the system to take advantage of recent advances in the field. The idea is to turn the cranks to eleven, creating what Eurofighter has dubbed “digital stealth”.

Yes, it’s a marketing term. But as Eurofighter has decided to use the moniker for it’s EW-concept, it’s worth looking into what they mean with it to understand how they envision the Eurofighter will operate to stay survivable and lethal on the future battlefield.

The approach is two-pronged:

First, the situational awareness has to be good enough to supply the pilot with an accurate picture of the threat environment to highlight which emitters are where, allowing the pilot to make informed decisions to keep the aircraft out of range from SAMs and enemy fighters. A key part here is the mission data set (including the database allowing the correct identification of emitters), which can be updated within ‘hours’ to ensure that the aircraft understands what the sensors see. On a slightly longer scale, the software behind key subsystems such as the radars will be updated every few months. This is also a feature of the Eurofighter’s lack of locked black boxes and unforgiving IP’s that is a strong selling point compared to the transatlantic competition.

However, it isn’t always possible to simply hide and stay out of harms way. In those situations, the EW suite will do its best to either hide the signature of the aircraft, or create enough noise to make the picture confusing as to deny the enemy a targeting opportunity. For this part, the aircraft not only employ onboard, towed, and podded sensors, but will also feature the upcoming SPEAR EW. This is a stand-in jammer based on the same hardware as found in the BriteCloud expendable active decoy (also integrated on the Eurofighter), but mounted in place of the warhead on a SPEAR missile. This lighter and smaller load compared to the warhead allows for up to three times the range of the normal SPEAR, and ones fired the missile can fly towards the enemy and either simply blind the enemy radars, or spoof them by creating one or several (50 being mentioned) false targets. The triple-carriage of the baseline SPEAR is also available for the EW-variant, and allows the operators to mix and match however they want (a total of twelve can be carried on four hardpoints while still leaving the two ‘wet’ wing stations free for drop tanks). As the SPEAR is the RAF’s SEAD-weapon of choice, this allows for interesting combinations, where a pair of Typhoons can release a SPEAR EW acting as a false target to bait the enemy air defences into action, allowing the fighters to map the current positions of the enemy radars. These are then jammed by a salvo of a few more SPEAR EWs, while at the same time a dozen (or more) standard SPEAR missiles target the radars in saturation attacks. However, the SPEAR EW isn’t just a SEAD/DEAD weapon, but also plays an interesting role in air-to-air scenarios, where the ability to spoof enemy fighters create interesting tactical opportunities. While the SPEAR EW was officially unveiled only this autumn, it is part of the Eurofighter-package for HX.

Electronic combat capability is offered to Finland in our proposal in a different way [compared to the ECR] through developments in electronically-scanning radar technology and the integration of electronic warfare weapons such as SPEAR EW, which is being developed through a UK-funded programme.

Which brings us to another recently unveiled project that caused quite a stir, the Eurofighter ECR concept offered to the German Air Force.

The German Air Force is one of three NATO air forces to operate a dedicated SEAD/DEAD platform, in the form of the Tornado ECR operated by the TaktLwG 51 “Immelmann”. These will bow out together with the rest of the German Tornado-fleet during the next decade, and a replacement for the Tornado IDS and ECR fleet is sought either in the form of more Eurofighters or F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, with EA-18G Growlers providing the Tornado ECR-replacement. The Eurofighter ECR concept is tailored to meet the German requirements, and include signal-homing missiles in the form of the AGM-88E AARGM, new large podded jammers, two more ‘wet’ stations to allow the drop tanks to move out of the way for said jammers, and a new decoupled rear cockpit for the WSO. The ECR as such is not part of the offer to Finland, but “as with any technology developed by the Eurofighter consortium, the option of an ECR will be available to Finland as a future growth option.” The options also include picking just the parts of the concept deemed suitable for Finnish needs. This could e.g. translate into acquiring just the jammers without the new ‘wet’ stations and accepting the range and endurance limitations it causes.

The Eurofighter consortium’s claim is that “digital stealth” is more flexible and adaptable than traditional low-observable technologies which are built into the aircraft itself, and can more easily be adapted to face new threats. This largely follows the same line of reasoning presented by Boeing, Dassault, and Saab, and on paper hold serious merit. If there is a breakthrough in some “anti-stealth” technology, the F-35 might lose it’s most important unique selling point. However, for the foreseeable future the X-band radars will continue to play an important role in most engagements, especially for the crucial step of producing an accurate enough fix on the target’s location that it can be shot down, and here a smaller radar cross section is always smaller than a larger radar cross section. The question is how big a difference that makes compared to other features? Currently the answer is “quite a lot”, but will the same answer hold true in 2035?

Spanish Tiffie
The large number of users is perhaps the best argument for the Eurofighter continuing to be updated into the late 2050’s. Here a Spanish aircraft touches down on Finnish ground. Source: Own picture

The Eurofighter is still an underdog in the HX programme. The largest question continues to be if, and in that case how, BAE Systems can guarantee that Finland won’t be left as the sole operator trying to keep the aircraft at the cutting edge past 2050. The aircraft itself likely isn’t the issue, the space and raw power certainly is there, but the question is if the other operators will be interested in spending money on it after the FCAS and Tempest programs sees new aircraft entering service sometime after 2040. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time an underdog scores big in a Finnish defence programme, and the Eurofighter does have a few really strong cards on hand. Played right, and the competition just might turn out to the benefit of the large eurocanard.