by Bart Schmidt
While the world observes the significant losses of aircraft in the Russo-Ukrainian War, we are given the opportunity to learn from those experiences to ultimately preserve combat power in Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO). Dr. Robert Ball’s landmark text, The Fundamentals of Aircraft Combat Survivability Analysis and Design, discusses the importance of combat damage collection and analysis, including combat loss investigations. Through these information-gathering techniques, we can better inform aircrews and understand current system vulnerabilities, allowing us to provide enhanced capabilities and preserve combat power.
The preservation of combat power, of course, requires both fully mission-capable aircraft and aircrew. Russia has been able to maintain the required number of aircraft after significant losses, but many of these replacements are not outfitted with a mission-capable survivability equipment. Additionally, Russia is struggling to continue to provide fully trained pilots to outfit their combat aviation regiments. They are thus learning a difficult lesson: they should have used their most experienced aircrews as trainers instead of than sending them to the front line. This monumental loss of experience means their aviation units are far less combat-effective, a problem which could take years to rectify.
Aircraft combat forensics provides considerable information vital to the preservation of combat power in conflict and informs the design of future aircraft in competition. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect science, as many of the variables that affect aircraft vulnerability (such as aircraft performance, tactics, and terrain) are often difficult or impossible to duplicate in a laboratory setting. Likewise, data collected from combat damage investigations are often fragmentary and difficult to interpret, as they are often collected in and around the “fog” of war. Nonetheless, the value of combat damage data cannot be underestimated, as they provide a unique opportunity to study aircraft vulnerability in a real-world environment.
Effective aircraft combat forensic investigations begin with an understanding of the fundamental principles of aircraft combat survivability. These principles include comprehensive knowledge of the threat environment, the ability to characterize the effects of various weapons, and expert understanding of the aircraft design and mission profiles to identify vulnerabilities. By analyzing damage sustained by an aircraft, we can identify areas of weakness and develop new technologies to strengthen those areas. Maintenance crews can also leverage battle damage assessments in prioritizing their efforts and allocate resources more effectively. The Joint Combat Assessment Team (JCAT) has proven these concepts through the analysis of hundreds of incidents over the past 23 years, resulting in numerous new techniques, survivability equipment and/or software, and maintenance procedures.
We continue to train personnel across the Department of Defense to conduct battle damage assessments. In January, JCAT provided initial training at Fort Rucker, AL, with its largest class yet. Students from the across the Joint Force learned foundational techniques in conducting combat damage assessments. The training event discussed incident site exploitation, data sources, photography, and weapon systems effects. The week culminated in a practical exercise where the entire class rose to the occasion. Great job, both students and instructors.