The Three What-Ifs

It’s my 600th post on Fuldapocalypse. I’ve gotten a lot of books recently on never-were aircraft. Thus it’s fitting to make this post about a pattern I’ve seen in equipment that never was. From least to most interesting, here are the three big categories I’ve seen.

The first is “a different proposal for the same requirements”. This is often the least interesting, because the different proposals are still designed to meet the same goals. Most of the time you get something that just looks different but has similar (theoretical) performance, and sometimes not even then. There can be real and appreciable differences, but they especially aren’t noticeable on the outside.

The second is kind of related to the first, and that’s “a proposal that lost, and whose reasons for losing are obvious”. For instance, it’s very easy to see why the T-8 design won handily for what would become the Su-25 compared to its competitors-and not just from other bureaus. It faced the anachronistic Il-40/102, and some shoved-in kitbashes of existing aircraft (Yakovlev put forward a variant of its not-exactly-ideal existing designs, Mikoyan used something based off the classic Fishbed, and even Sukhoi itself had a derivative of the Su-15 interceptor that looked very little like its “parent.”).

The third is the real fun part, and that’s stuff made with totally different goals. This is where you get all the giant napkinwaffe planes. But you also stuff that’s knowingly lower-performance for the sake of affordability.

The increased effectiveness of smart bombs firsthand

I decided to indulge my inner VVS target planner and do some (very basic) calculations for air power against opposing targets. What I found made me smile. The methodology is extremely simple-I used a regiment of 36 paper-strength aircraft, carrying 4 PGMs each (a proposed upgrade for the MiG-29 had a targeting pod on the centerline and up to 4 KAB-500L laser bombs). Then I used the 60% hit rate estimated for smart bombs in the Gulf War. Then I had only 25 aircraft actually launched to simulate attrition and realistically low readiness.

So that gets 100 drops and 60 targets plinked. That’s one-two battalions worth, if we’re talking about armored vehicles. And even that’s ideal and doesn’t take stuff like aborts, aircraft getting shot down before reaching their target, and hitting the wrong thing into account. But this is an oversimplified spherical cow exercise anyway.

What makes this more interesting is the 1969 claim that “a fighter-bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two or three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20% losses) on one to two enemy brigades”. Meaning at the very least, even earlier PGMs can have an air regiment do what used to take a division three times its size.

This was a fun little thought exercise to do.

Weird Wargaming: Supersonic VIP Jets

Every so often, a supersonic business/VIP jet proposal emerges, often derived from high-performance fighters. One of the most interesting was a plan to use the MiG-25 of all airplanes to make a very fast transport. (It wasn’t that serious of a design, but still…)

Now, I can think of a few legitimate, cost-is-no-deterrent users (both governmental and private) who would benefit from moving a few people or a small amount of material around very quickly. But other than that, in private hands I can honestly see supersonic bizjets as being knowingly ridiculous status symbols. Like the supercar that never goes above the speed limit or the SUV that never navigates anything more than a small hill on the road, it’s the symbolism that counts.

And then there are the Jon Land-style super-conspiracies, who of course would have the fastest, shiniest, most capable aircraft imaginable…

Review: The Iraqi Threat

The Iraqi Threat And Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Stephen Hughes released an unofficial sort of OPFOR compilation called “The Iraqi Threat And Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.” As the intelligence forces of the world found out after the war, getting any kind of accurate information on a country both as secretive and as slapdash as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a very difficult challenge. So I can forgive Hughes for any inaccuracies in the book, just as how I can forgive pre-1991 western sources on the USSR for not having information that was only unclassified/found out later.

What is significantly harder to forgive is the layout of the book. It’s, to be frank, a total mess. A lot of the most important parts on Iraqi (conventional) capabilities are lifted from an NTC document but strewn about in a way that makes them less understandable. Likewise for his pieces on Iraqi equipment. And militias. And so on. About the only thing really interesting and coherent is a huge section on mountain formations and defenses, which is applicable to far more than just Saddam’s Iraq.

But that can’t save the rest of the book, which is just too poorly organized to be much good. Even accepting it as a product of its time, it’s still effectively unusable, unlike many other OPFOR documents.

Review: Unflown Wings

Unflown Wings

I was somewhat critical of Yefim Gordon’s book on the MiG-29. Yet for his Unflown Wings, showing nearly a century of never-built Soviet/Russian aircraft, I’m far less so. This is an amazing book about amazing aircraft. It’s rightfully massive, covering every major design bureau.

People looking at the weird “Luft 46” German aircraft often overlook that every country had its similar oddball paper planes. And so it is with this book. With many illustrations, one can see everything from the redundant to the too expensive to the too out-there. It’s a lot to make you wonder what could have been, from the cancelled jet-powered maritime patroller to giant seaplanes to my personal favorite, the overambitious “Backfiretomcat” Tu-148 multi-role fighter.

The very nature of this book means that the issues I had with the Fulcrum one are far less so. Because the aircraft here never actually entered service in any event, it means there’s less need for total rigor and one doesn’t have to be “deep”. Breadth is required for this overview, and it’s very, very broad indeed.

This is a very fun, very thick book, and I recommend it to any aviation fan in spite of its size and expense.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35

Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35: Famous Russian Aircraft

The MiG-29 was the last hurrah of the legendary Cold War bureau. Aviation authors Yefim Gordon and Dimitry Komissarov write about it in the extensive Famous Russian Aircraft: MiG-29 book. The book is both a wonderful treat and a bitter “what could have been”. First, the obvious needs to be stated. This is a book for aviation enthusiasts and not a general audience. If you don’t know much about the MiG-29 or military aircraft already, it’s not a good first choice.

But even as a niche in-detail work, it’s uneven. Gordon has a reputation online for not being the most reliable source, but I wouldn’t know enough to comment in that regard. Whatever the veracity, the book is extremely broad, covering each and every prototype, variant, and proposal of the Fulcrum complete with excellent pictures and once-rare photographs. You want to know the exact radar designations? This is for you. You want to know the slight visual differences? This is also for you.

Yet while it’s broad, this book also feels shallower than it could have been. This manifests most visibly in the section on the actual service of the MiG-29. There, it’s a combination of more lists and stuff that I’d already heard about. It was disappointing and could have used a little more doctrinal meat.

Finally, the book feels a little, well, inefficient. It’s a very long impressive paperweight of a hardcover, but its layout and formatting doesn’t look very space-effective. The pictures are good, but their organization isn’t. That being said, take this book for what it is-something meant for serious aviation fans. It’s what you’re getting, for better or worse.

A Thousand Words: Stealth

Stealth

2005’s box office flop Stealth has become a cult classic for all the wrong reasons. This military thriller feels like what would would happen if you took someone who once read a Dale Brown novel and watched a few old war movies as his sole references, gave him a $100,000,000 budget, and turned him loose. It has “stealth” aircraft behaving in the least stealthy way possible, a haywire robot plane, and a bunch of jumbled plotlines that end with the characters just walking casually across the Korean DMZ.

I’ve long felt that the movie would be better if it was either smarter or dumber. If it was smarter, it could be prescient look at drone warfare. If it was dumber, it would be a much more focused Iron Eagle-style funfest. Instead it’s just a bizarre mess with the occasional attempt at a serious point mixed with advanced jets fighting like it’s 1916 and product placement music.

Still, I can’t bring myself to truly dislike this movie. The sheer excess of it in all directions means that it’s at least interestingly bad. And it does have explosions in it.

In Memoriam, Pierre Sprey

It took me some time to find out that Pierre Sprey, the legendary face of the “Pentagon Reformers”, passed away. RIP, and all sympathies with his friends and family. His life as a person (and music producer) has little to do with his life as an analyst. But it’s Sprey as an analyst that the military internet knows, and that legacy is, sadly, mostly for the worse.

As an analyst, Sprey symbolized a lot of trends, most of them negative. What he was most known for was his faulting any aircraft beyond a YF-16 as being slow, clunky, expensive, and that wouldn’t even work. One can take a sympathetic view and point out that it made much more sense in the 1960s with bulkier, objectively less effective early sensors. Once solid state electronics developed, one could have one’s cake and eat it too. Sprey still kept designing an air force that would make perfect sense-for a third world country in 1962.

Sprey also had a McNamara Pentagon (of which he was a member)-style fascination with numbers for their own sake. Thus the F-86 was good because of its (inaccurate) 10-1 kill ratio, as opposed to the lower rates of Vietnam-era fighters. SAMs were overhyped just because they didn’t shoot down that many aircraft directly. While some of it was grounded, it felt like spherical cow analysis from someone who didn’t understand context.

To me the extra-sad part was his decline. This can happen to people in all circumstances. Joe Morgan the baseball player was an ahead-of-his time figure whose style was a sabermetrician’s dream. Joe Morgan the baseball analyst was a traditionalist cliche-spouter who became a sabermetrician’s nightmare. Bill Belichick was one of the more sensible coaches when it came to going on fourth down. Now he’s one of the most timid. Tom Clancy dropped significantly in quality. You get the idea.

What wasn’t Sprey’s fault was that he ended up in a media environment where he had no incentive to be accurate and every one to continue his initial statements. What was his fault is that he embraced it. He could just keep citing his (somewhat exaggerated) credentials and repeating all of his soundbites. He could get sloppy to the point where he couldn’t even display the right system (using a Stryker MGS to symbolize a 175mm M107). He could sound credible to people who had entirely reasonable suspicions about military equipment-and not enough knowledge to counter him. But to people who did have enough knowledge, he became a mildly annoying irrelevance.

In fact, I could probably argue that Sprey hurt his own cause. Because too many people with legitimate concerns about legitimate technological overreach cited or sided with him, it likely harmed their own credibility. What I’ve read is that there was a surprising amount of common ground between the Pentagon Reformers and those actually in the military who wanted “good enough now” solutions and a focus on human improvement over trying to tech past problems. They squandered it by going completely outside.

Sprey should have been remembered as a man who did some defense commentary a long time ago and spent the rest of his life as an eccentric music producer. Instead he willingly became, in the words of military Youtuber “Lazerpig“, a “rent a critic”.