America’s dominance of the sky slowly erodes – inevitable or avoidable?
How can the USAF leaders write these things without risking laughter by their readers? It does not take a Billy Mitchell or Doolittle to see that the rise of UAV’s — unmentioned by General Deptula — begins a new cycle in air warfare, ending the dominance of manned fighters. Perhaps someone reading this either explain, or link to an explanation.
“U.S. Air Dominance Eroding“, DoD Buzz, 15 September 2009 — Excerpt:
The U.S. military’s historic dominance of the skies, unchallenged since around spring 1943, is increasingly at risk because of the proliferation of advanced technologies and a buildup of potential adversary arsenals, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the service’s chief for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Speaking today at the Air Force’s annual convention in the Washington area today, he provided a wide ranging assessment of what the QDR team is calling “high-end, asymmetric threats.”
Emphasizing the increasing capabilities of “anti-access weapons,” such as long range precision missiles, Deptula said pilots in future wars will not operate in the “permissive” threat environments of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Deptula, best known for crafting the Desert Storm air campaign, said potential opponents have learned from U.S. operations and will use precision arsenals to stop a buildup of U.S. airpower near their borders before a war even begins.
… Because of improvements in over the horizon and passive radars, U.S. aircraft will be detected long before they reach their targets. “The area that we operate in free from detection is rapidly shrinking,” Deptula said, “our adversaries are going to have capabilities that we’ve never operated against.” The newest generation surface-to-air missiles, such as the Russian SA-21, have ranges exceeding 300 miles and the ability to target low flying aircraft, and will likely be exported.
Speaking to the more traditional realm of air-to-air combat, so dear to his audience’s heart, Deptula contends that the U.S. technological edge there is eroding. While “fourth generation” fighters are no match for the most advanced U.S. fighters, Deptula reminded the audience of the Russian export success with the MIG-21, some 12,000 of which were built, and operated by over 50 countries.
Russia and China are both developing “fifth generation” fighters that will be widely exported at prices that will undercut the F-35 price tag. Both nations will thus acquire “near F-22 performance… while attempting to proliferate the [aircraft] to perhaps near F-35 like quantities,” he said. “We may be facing a fighter threat capability in quantities we’ve never experienced before.”
UAV’s have — or eventually will have — other advantages over manned fighters:
- Smaller signature, making detection more difficult.
- No human crew onboard to limits its ability to maneuver.
- Lower costs, allowing construction and operation of more aircraft.
- Lower cost and no crew allows taking more risks.
The last might be the most important. The increasing cost of manned aircraft and the ever-lower willingness to take casualties perhaps limits the use of manned aircraft more than any other factor. Warcraft are useless unless they can be put in harms way. UAV’s can be expended like ammo, assuming the targets are cost-effective.
UAV’s lower construction and operating costs, plus the far lower cost of training operators, once again opens the context for command of the sky. UAV’s will move along the characteristic declining cost- increasing capability curve of modern tech, allowing even a medium-sized nation to deny its sky to US manned aircraft.
A look into the future
“The Last Manned Fighter: Replacing Manned Fighters with UCAVS“, Robert B. Trsek (Major, USAF), Air Command and Staff College, April 2007 — Excerpt from conclusion:
The age of UAVs is upon us, and as technology advances exponentially, the Air Force must decide what the next fighter will look like. How will we replace the F-22 and F-35 twenty or thirty years down the road? There are no technological barriers that prohibit the design and use of UCAV fighters on a large scale. They are capable of cooperative employment, air refueling, WVR and BVR engagement, AI and CAS. There are anticipated limitations in bandwidth and concern for performance in WVR if MITL is the ultimate solution to command and control, but this can be overcome with automated sequences once permission to engage has been authorized.
The range and endurance of UCAV fighters offer persistence and attractive options in a world of growing anti-access strategies. They offer advantages in performance, altitude, and employment without the limitations of human physiology. UCAV fighters deny the political use of POWs by our adversaries and deny them a great tool in a media campaign.
Ultimately, UCAV fighters are not a panacea, but offer the presence of force in a threat environment that twenty years from now will be extremely lethal. The costs and risks associated with UCAV fighters are significant but surmountable. The single point of failure may be in our command and control through the RF spectrum for over-the-horizon operations. If sufficient bandwidth can be secured, and the control of remote vehicles can be assured, there are immense dollar costs to be saved in their employment. While we cannot place a price on the human element, the value of our pilots is demonstrated in the training they receive and the assets assigned to recover them.
In the context of future threat systems and anti-access strategies, the Air Force would be foolish not to pursue UCAV fighter technology.
Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the change in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.
— Giulio Douhet, ‘The Command of the Air.’
George Friedman of Stratfor said that “The Air Force, which was built around the concept of air superiority and strategic bombing, has a visceral objection to unmanned aircraft.” In the comments Duncan Kinder expanded on this and pointed to a solution:
There is a poetic / psychological dimension to this. The fighter pilot is a mythic figure dating back to the Bloody Red Baron. As such, he captures one’s imagination.
The trick is to find a poetic substitute. To me, the image of falconry works. The idea of sending birds of prey to swoop down upon one’s target jives with the UAV.
Some Articles about military UAVs
- “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles – Likely Missions and Challenges for the Policy-Relevant Future“, Manjeet Singh Pardesi, Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2005 — A contrary (or conservative) perspective.
- “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047“, UASF, 18 May 2009
- “US now trains more drone operators than pilots“, The Guardian, 23 August 2009
- “AF Intel Head Embraces 4GW“, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired), Defense and the National Interest, 20 September 2009
- Fighter UAV’s, an excerpt from The Spectrum of Future Warfare by Carlton Meyer (Captain, USMC, retired) — Vivid, although the author is not an expert in this field.
- Wikipedia entry about Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles and the History of Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles.
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