Warplanes: China Trains To Surge


December 20, 2012: China has begun training its air force squadrons to carry out high intensity operations on airports or air bases with two runways and supporting multiple types of aircraft while doing so. This is a critical capability for “surge” operations, in which aircraft carry out the maximum number of sorties for a day or so. This is the kind of capability that gives Western air forces a big advantage.

To make this work Western air forces have the "maintainers" (of the aircraft) working 12 hour shifts. These well trained ground crews can turn a returning aircraft around in 15 minutes, complete with a new pilot, fuel, and weapons, plus a quick check for equipment problems. For example, an F-16 squadron has 12 aircraft and a unit of 120 maintainers, including 37 NCOs ("Crew Chiefs") who supervise and do a lot of the work. One American F-16 squadron used its 20 aircraft, forty pilots, and very energetic and will trained ground crews to fly 160 sorties in 12 hours. This was an exceptional performance and not representative of combat conditions, where many aircraft would come back with combat damage. This also points out the need to have more pilots than aircraft, as the pilots are more fragile than the aircraft they fly.

The most capable of these maintenance personnel are from the U.S. Air National Guard. Unlike active duty maintainers, the National Guard airmen have three to four times the years working on the aircraft and have often worked on the same aircraft for 5-10 years. This gives the Guardsmen an edge, as they know the quirks and weak spots of individual aircraft. The maintainers become quite knowledgeable about individual aircraft, if only because hours of work go into checking out an aircraft that has completed a day of heavy operations. Dozens of maintenance panels have to be opened so that items and lubricants can be checked for problems. Every 300 hours a more thorough check is made, and during combat operations this usually means removing the engine to check even more components. Even seconds before an aircraft takes off, maintainers are rushing around the aircraft, running down checklists for access panels that must be closed and pins that must be removed. This final check includes visual inspection of bombs and missiles hanging off the aircraft and moveable parts that must be in the right position.

When a squadron goes into surge mode it can mean round the clock operations (as F-16s can operate day and night because of their night vision sensors) that can result in individual aircraft flying half a dozen or more sorties. The maintainers have to be particularly careful during a surge because missing a problem can result in a lost aircraft, or at least an aborted one as the pilot discovers something isn't working once the aircraft is airborne. A surge usually takes place after the squadron has moved to a base in a combat zone. In these situations the maintainers often sleep in tents near the air strip, meaning they have to sleep through takeoffs and the other noises of a wartime base (alarms going off for various emergencies and frequent small arms fire from a range that is always set up so the Air Force security troops can maintain their proficiency). If there's bad weather, you just work through it. This is the sort of thing China is now preparing for.

China has also been making strides in recruiting higher quality recruits to be maintainers and upgrading logistics systems so that the maintainers don’t run short of fuel, spare parts, and other essential supplies. China also has lots of modern aircraft that can surge and carry out the kind of surge efforts Western air forces train for and carry out in wartime. Most Western aircraft can fly three or more sorties per day for two or three days and one or two per day indefinitely, as long as the spare parts and ground crews hold out. Western air forces practice high sortie surge tactics far more than less affluent nations. China now has more money, and they are spending it to move maintainers from several squadrons to a base and have them practice generating a lot of sorties quickly on dual runway airports. That’s how you win wars.




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