Note: The following is a rework and compilation of theories and strategies outlined previously.
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A Modern Muslim Light Cavalry
By the (Steeds) that run, with panting (breath),And strike sparks of fire,And push home the charge in the morning,And raise the dust in clouds the while,And penetrate forthwith into the midst (of the foe) en masse―(100:1-5, Al-Quran)
He sees a long, dark line of horsemen emerge from behind a rise in the ground and charge galloping at a body of Roman troops. The cloaks of the warriors fly behind them and the hooves of their horses pound the earth pitilessly. Some carry lances; others brandish swords; and the Romans standing in the path of the charge tremble at the sight of the oncoming terror, for they are standing in the way of the Mobile Guard, whom none may resist and survive to tell the tale. The line of charging horsemen is not straight, for it is impossible to keep it straight at such a mad, reckless pace. Every man strives to get ahead of his comrades and be the first to clash with the infidel; strives to get ahead of all but the Leader, for no one may, or possibly could, overtake the Leader.
The Leader gallops ahead of the Muslims. A large, broad-shouldered, powerfully-built man, he is mounted on a magnificent Arab stallion and rides it as if he were part of the horse. The loose end of his turban and his cloak flutter behind him and his large, full beard is pressed against his chest by the wind. His fierce eyes shine with excitement-with the promise of battle and blood and glory- the glory of victory or martyrdom. His coat of mail and the iron tip of his long lance glint in the clear sunlight, and the earth trembles under the thundering hooves of his fiery charger.
I am the noble warrior;
I am the Sword of Allah
Khalid bin Al Waleed!
Extract from The Sword of Allah, Lieutenant-General A.I. Akram of the Pakistan Army
Bismillaharrahamanaraheem (In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful). The problem this paper attempts to address is that today’s battlefields heavily rely on an air-component and combined arms philosophy that has significant gaps both in theory and when applied in practice. CAS (Close Air Support) aircraft and attack helicopters have shown themselves as highly critical in the modern battlefield, clearly demonstrated over Iraq during the two Gulf Wars.
However, they have been a major issue of concern on a number of fronts, from being too expensive, having separate logistic chains from other combined arms components, and having a fundamental de-link in tactical communications because of differing operational radii. Another issue is that the role of CAS aircraft have tend to be a reactive rather than proactive, – the controller calls in air support, rather than CAS aircraft proactively fighting the battle. This paper describes the problem, attempts to bridge and define the doctrine, and design an aircraft that can fulfill that doctrine.
For the last sixty years, we have not moved much further than Rommel's North Africa campaigns. Even with network centric warfare, the basic doctrine has not changed the employment of armor, infantry, artillery and air-power. They remain essentially the same. We need to look beyond the combined arms concepts rehashed for the last sixty years to a new standard. For such an undertaking, one possibility could be that air-power not be seen as a reactive support force but rather taken to a new level of proactive integration and coordination. In fact, the word "Close Air Support" is inherently flawed – the air-war should be an arm onto itself of a combined arms military force and a proactive force rather than merely 'support'.
We must understand that when Rommel galvanized the air components of his various divisions and employed it as a unitary command, he emphasized the importance of air-to-air combat over close air support. He lamented this later but the tactic was effective for him at that point in time; the technologies were such that CAS and air-to-air combat could utilize similar aircraft. However, this convergence of technologies and combat role has steadily become divergent.
To an extent, the West has been blind to this, focused on "multi-role" aircraft that can do everything. But it’s harder to understand the logic of providing CAS with multimillion dollar platforms like the F-35 or previously the F-16. The answers are often political rather than built on sound military principles, for one because of inter-services rivalry and the separation of roles at the inception of the air force. So now we have the RAF, otherwise a reasonable air arm, bombing grad launchers using Tornado aircraft.
To the benefit of Muslim resisters in Afghanistan and Iraq this has been the case, for if they had better coordination between their CAS and their ground forces, the freedom fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq would be far more restricted.
To conceptualize how close air support should ideally operate, we must consider 4 elements - armor, motorized infantry, artillery and CA-AC (Combined Arms Air Component. NOTE: I shall continue to use the term CAS interchangeably for the sake of familiarity, but will be meaning CA-AC, emphasizing proactive engagement over the reactive). Now, to explain the fundamental dynamics between the forces at the simplest level, consider a medieval army - one with:
1. Foot soldiers;
2. Heavy armored knights / war elephants / Roman cataphracts;
3. Archers; and
4. Light cavalry.
In the past, we have assumed that the tank played the role of the cavalry, without distinguishing between light and heavy cavalry, creating a triad rather than a quartet. Yet, light cavalry was employed differently from heavy cavalry for most of known military history.
Consider the employment of the medieval heavily armored knight, always moving in closed formation, often employed to charge and break enemy lines, can be susceptible to well disciplined and well-formed infantry with pikes. Countering such infantry, heavy cavalry moved on to incorporate ever greater ranged assault and ever greater armor. Consider how well this fits the role that tanks have played and how they have evolved. How tanks, like their erstwhile predecessors, also are best employed en mass and not individually or in small groups. How, for instance, they are used to drive a wedge into enemy lines but can be devastated when well trained and well formed infantry can effectively deploy their anti-tank arsenal (i.e. pikes).
Consider how ranged attack and greater armor have increasingly become important with the increasing lethality of anti-tank weapons.
However, if modern armor equates with heavy cavalry, then what can be considered as the light cavalry component? The modern MBT cannot optimize mobility and surprise, as opposed to firepower and armor. Perhaps the combined sequel of weapons in the modern battlefield made light cavalry obsolete. Or possibly such a weapon system is merely waiting to be found. I believe the latter, and equate traditional light cavalry with what can be called Combined Arms Air Component 'CA-AC'.
The four components should ideally be part of one integrated army and work with seamless operational unity. To be truly effective they would need to be employed organically and share, as close as possible, a logistics base and operational deployment.
However, as a game changer the importance of CAS must remain paramount. Air-power is extremely effective and must not be neglected. Light cavalry was our forte during Muslim ascendancy, Khalid bin Waleed was unsurpassed in his mastery of light cavalry and the Romans and Persians never had an answer to it. Insh’Allah this will once again be true someday soon.
The Modern Compromise
Today's multi-role aircraft attempt to compromise between a fighter, a deep strike and a CAS aircraft. The disconnect between them is particularly stark vis-a-vis CAS, where a cheap, slow flying but agile aircraft is needed, a plane that does not need to fly anywhere near the sound barrier, or have a sophisticated radar. What is needed is an aircraft that can fly low, maneuver at below tree top height, retain an ability to 'hang in the air' when needed, and land on the shortest strips or gravel or paddy field.
Instead of this, what we see is that combat aircraft are increasingly becoming more complex, larger, poor performers at low altitudes and low speeds and able to land only on specialized runways. Focus then has turned to dropping JDAMs from altitude, negating proactive engagements, and being employed such only because no one wants to risk the multimillion dollar combat aircraft, nor the pilot, leaving the foot soldiers on the ground with the proverbial buck.
Furthermore, while in an overly mismatched battlefield one side can dedicate a portion of its air force assets to CAS, in a more even battle,air forces focus almost all of their assets in winning the air-war first. Given the cost and value of fighter aircraft this makes sense. However, given the need for a truly combined arms operation and a cheap CAS aircraft, it makes less sense to have the ground forces commander left without CAS when CAS can be the difference between victory and defeat.
The present response to fill this widening gap is to increase the component of attack helicopters and look to UAVs/UCAVs to fulfill the role. However, helicopters fundamentally are more complex, have far less range and are more expensive to build and maintain on a payload delivery basis. Moreover, today’s helicopters cannot fulfill a complete vision of a seamless combined arms operation;they have separate logistics chains, tactical deployment requirements and are very low on endurance.
UAVs/UCAVs appear to be a panacea here, particularly because they can avoid casualties. Yet, they have increasingly faced bottlenecks of communications bandwidth, even while only fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, a problem likely to multiply against any competent conventional enemy. They also have complex chain of communication lines and connection to the operator. The time lag in controls, although a fraction of a moment, is enough to not enable true nap-of-the-earth flight, critical in keeping the CAS battle ground bound rather than becoming targets for a viable enemy air force. The present lack of a competent technologically sophisticated enemy means that they face no significant jamming threat, an issue likely to be critical as jamming could render these planes utterly ineffective. The fact that Iraqi insurgents could hack into Predator drones is an eye-opener and so is Hezbollah’s tapping into Israeli drones. Imagine what a more sophisticated enemy could do. Situational awareness from a camera-view is far inferior to that from a cockpit. Further, assuming the pilot of the UAVs are not putting their lives at risk, they are not likely to be as inspired as those that are, and are less likely to relate and bond with the ground forces that they are operating with. Lastly, dependence on satellite communication can be fatal given ASAT (anti-satellite) capabilities now available to China and by extension, Pakistan.
If we look at finding an easy solution such as a smaller aircraft like the Tucano and arm it with missiles, some armor and optimize it for short takeoffs and landings, we would have something like the Brazilian ALX. We would still need to build an engine to run on either diesel or at least petrol. We are essentially better off designing a new aircraft.
Defining the Role of the Combined Arms Air Component, CA-AC
True Combined arms operation is not about calling in air support. In my opinion, it is about having a military force, one arm of which is CAS aircraft. Thus, we would have Armor, Motorized Infantry, Artillery and "Air Cavalry". All ideally sharing a single logistics chain and tactical deployment basis. In other words, an aircraft designed for this role will run on diesel, take-off and land from ordinary fields and road strips, and fire largely the same ammunition that the logistics supply chain provides to the other components. This at least is the doctrinal ideal that we wish to reach.
To further elaborate, flight endurance, flying nap of the earth, the ability to fly slow when necessary and maneuver rapidly are also key characteristics. Flight endurance is necessary in the event that the air arm is to stay with a rapidly moving armored force; constant preparation of landing and refueling is disruptive. Flight endurance perhaps should be between 5-6 hours at cruise speeds.
Low flight profiles will help evade enemy fire as well as keep the battle ground-bound rather than attracting enemy fighters. A slow and low flying small aircraft is unlikely to even show up on a fighter aircraft's radar. This will be critical in staying out of the air campaign. The ability to fly slow will help on a number of fronts: enable short take-offs and landings, help stay with the pace of the armor and other ground components, identify and attack enemy units, and help with endurance by being a more fuel efficient method of staying up in the air.
The aircraft must also be able to maneuver rapidly and be nimble enough to evade enemy fire. Designing such an aircraft should not be beyond the realms of possibility.
The evidence that the gap exists is beyond doubt; with all the "lookers" and satellites and even boots on the ground, modern armies (and the modernest army the US) still have very poor situational awareness as exemplified in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan particularly, where US and NATO forces have come to a point where they are close to clueless. The primary problem roots from attempting to substitute direct "human" situational awareness; either flying away in jets watching the countryside go by in a blur, or traveling in APCs and tanks with eyes elsewhere than the surroundings. The fallback then is to "there being no substitute to boots on the ground" which to this author is the truth but only half of the truth. The critical element is having "eyes" on the ground rather than "boots" - in essence, true "human", real time, actionable, situational awareness. Truly organic CAS can solve this problem, at least for the Muslim army.
Concept Design of a CAS Aircraft
The following key characteristics / roles have been identified:
1. Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing (VTOL/STOL).
2. Be able to withstand a burst of up to 12.7 caliber weapons in vital areas. Be invulnerable to small arms fire. Kevlar panels used for armoring.
3. Be able to carry up to 6 TOW or Hellfire or similar weapons for a stand-off anti-armour role.
4. Have a 20mm main cannon.
5. Capable of flying at exceedingly low speeds and maintaining high manoeuvrability at such speeds. Speed range of 10 mph to 200 mph.
6. Ability to operate at night. FLIR.
7. Run on diesel.
8. Turbo-prop / Turbo-fan single engined aircraft.
9. Have provision for flare cartridges, effective RWR, basically a good passive and active deco arrangement, to counter man-portable SAMs
10. Ease of maintenance and a basic low-cost solution.
11. Persistence, ability to operate for 6-8 hour shifts.
To make Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) possible from unprepared strips, it is proposed that the aircraft have an angled wing and an angled propeller.
Another proposition is to have large, very low aspect ratio, thick and slightly forward sweeping wings (by about 5 degrees). This has shown to decrease take offs and landings as well as enable even slower flight (while maintaining agility and maneuver). This will also help towards condition 5, particularly towards the kind of agility required for Nap of the Earth flight. Lastly, the aircraft should have a strengthened under-carriage, landing gear with large low pressure tires and air brakes.
Mounting the wings high would give great visibility for the ground attack role and will aerodynamically provide better streamlining for cruising, provide more lift at less drag for climb and glide efficiency. Clearance will also be better and a useful attribute in semi/unprepared landing strips.
The use of composite armor and new materials like Kevlar should make protection against up to .50 caliber weapons easier. The wing design characteristics of thick, low-aspect ratio wings should also ensure greater survivability.
The attached diagrams illustrate sketches of such an aircraft. A more conventional design along the lines of the IL-2 is an alternative design possibility.
Our Improvisation is a Strength
A truly remarkable feature of the FC-1 / JF-17, the joint fighter project between Pakistan and China, has been the willingness of its development team to improvise. Significant changes have been made mid-program and even at the very end of the program timetable.
This is in contrast to Western design houses where original frameworks are strictly maintained – notice the F-22 and the Eurofighter, where certain design parameters were doggedly followed when they could have clearly done better by changing course midway.
The Western style of planning is culturally different from the eastern style – objectives are fixed at the beginning while in the East, we are willing to move the objective around a bit. Obviously, neither is “better” than the other but each has its benefits and costs. However, I think the JF-17 benefited from this immeasurably. Otherwise Pakistan would be taking delivery of the original Super 7 airframe at perhaps $20 million per plane.
The Eurofighter took 20 years from contract signing to production. The Swedish Gripen and the Rafale took 14 and 15 years, respectively. In comparison, the JF-17 took 10 years. The new Block II JF-17s have also been prepared in record time. We must be willing to continue doing things our way in all future weapons developments. We only have to see the handling of the F/A-18E/F, V-22, F-22 and F-35 programs to see how the West is losing competence.