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Command of the air in the 2030s

The SC

Feb 13, 2012
7 October 2016

How will crewed and uncrewed platforms work together in the future? (Dassault Aviation)

Test pilot VIANNEY GONCALVES, Jr* looks into the future of air combat tactics as it stands on the cusp of a new era in manned-unmanned teaming.
(*Test Pilot, Aerospace & Defence Analyst/Consultant for Brazil's DefesaNet. Aircraft Evaluation Pilot 12k+ flt/hrs 80+ types, fixed/rotary wing.)

The year is 2035. The F-35 is close to becoming the only piloted fighter of the US Air Force, Navy and Marines. ‘Exercise Linked Flag’ is the current advanced aerial combat training exercise to push pilots and machines to the limit. Struggling to keep a secure connection under intense cyber-attacks, UCAVs (unmanned combat air vehicles), share information and acquired targets with the few remaining human pilots via a high-speed tactical data exchange network. At this point in time, stealth technologies are now struggling to keep some margin of ‘invisibility’ against new radars based on reshaped VHF technologies. Adversaries are now deploying integrated and networked capabilities as part of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies in highly contested environments. It is thus hard for conventional C4ISR platforms like the large AWACS to perform battle management in this electronic and kinetic threat environment.

Unmanned systems have thus become a critical component to ensure a sustainable information network, enabling dispersed command and control. We now observe that air combat resembles a pack of hyenas chasing down their prey. (The species is not that glamorous but the effectiveness of its fighting tactics is unquestionable). These pack tactics, where the targeting aircraft (sensor) is constantly changing while sharing target data via quick-beaming links, disperse the focus of an enemy even greater in number and technology, disrupting their situational awareness, breaking the tactical formation of the entire group and freeing the attacking one (shooter) to a clear and mortal shot. The ‘hyena’s game’ has become a masterstroke.

Even with all these training and realistic exercises, the situation in 2035 is that advanced air and surface threat capabilities are available to many countries around the world. Far distant from the air power advantage it enjoyed in the 1990s, in the 2030s, the US force structure is not capable of fighting and winning outright against the array of potential adversary capabilities.

Saving a place for the human?

Boeing ‘sixth generation’ fighter concept - both a manned and unmanned variant. (Boeing)

More and more we see that autonomous ISTAR/combat/attack capabilities of unmanned systems are becoming ever stronger. They have established their presence in aerial warfare and there is no going back.

However, when we look to the employment of UAVs or drones by the US military, for example, we will find clear conceptual differences. The Navy is moving toward artificial intelligence (AI) and its drones are operated basically under a preprogrammed mode. The Air Force, meanwhile prioritises human remote piloting. In the nomenclature of the Navy, the term is ‘drone operators’, while in the USAF, they are ‘drone pilots’ – a subtle difference.

The forthcoming interaction between drones and manned fighters have recently been the subject of studies by air warfare thinkers, militaries and industry. One interesting question is to ask whether drones are better teamed with single-pilot or dual-crew fighters? For example, France deploys Dassault’s dual-seat Rafale especially for missions of greater complexity, against enemy A2/AD capabilities in highly contested environments. With a strong ‘backseater’ legacy of the Naval Flight Officer (NFO) function and decades of experience, the US Navy knows the advantages of a combat aircraft configured for two crewmembers. However, with the F-35C and autonomous flight capabilities of their UCAVs, a single pilot will have to fly their fighter while acting as a forward air controller (FAC) to a group of drones at the same time.

Specifically, to understand the Navy’s transformation, you may recall that an X-47B is about the same wingspan as the F/A-18 Super Hornet, which brings back to your mind, that ‘no two objects can occupy the same place at one time’ (except in quantum physics). As a consequence, for each UCAV embarked aboard an aircraft carrier there is a corresponding removal of a piloted fighter. Thus, one manned aircraft could lead between one and four UCAVs. A kind of tactical formation that keeps the decision-making in the hands of the human leader (for how long?) while at same time it reduces human exposure to enemy threats.

Approaching a threatening future

The threat environment of the 2030s will be highly contested with aircraft such as the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA. (Sukhoi)

In May 2016, the Chief of Staff of the USAF released Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan (AS 2030), a paper by the Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team (ECCT), which assessed capability options to enable joint force air superiority in the highly contested environment of 2030 and beyond.

According to the US-centric point-of-view expressed in this paper, threat capabilities are likely to advance along two major vectors over the next 15 years: (i) the traditional threat systems, like advanced fighter aircraft, sensors, and weapons are becoming more accessible to more countries which spreads these threats across a wide range of locations and scenarios; (ii) increased threat capabilities negate the US advantages in the space domain, like increased quantity and sophistication of cyberspace threats and air threats including hypersonic weapons, low-observable cruise missiles, and sophisticated conventional ballistic missile systems.

It is impossible not to associate the F-35’s protracted development with one of the conclusions presented in AS 2030: The ECCT firmly concludes that the USAF must reject thinking focused on ‘next generation’ platforms. According to the ECCT paper, “such focus often creates a desire to push technology limits within the confines of a formal programme”. The AS 2030 also warns that ‘pushing those limits in a formal program increases risk to unacceptable levels, resulting in cost growth and schedule slips.’ Again, the paper singles out fifth generation fighter challenges when it describes the ‘risk of cancellation due to their nearly inevitable underperformance, and results in delivery of capabilities ‘late-to-need’ by years or even decades.’

In August 2016, the USAF is now beginning to talk about its next fighter jet, instead of its ‘sixth or seventh generation’ fighter, for a F-35 follow-on. It has been termed the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) or Penetrating Counter Air (PCA). For this platform, the major differences from legacy fighter jets will be the method of acquisition, and the 'sensor node' self-definition of this new weapon which reveals the assumption that we are at the end of an era. The fighter pilot as we used to know them is an endangered species.

Meanwhile, Russia is developing sixth and possibly seventh generation fighter jets, according to recent public statements by Colonel General Viktor Bondarev, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force. “If the research and development phase stopped now, it would stop forever,” said Bondarev. Russia has already decided that its sixth generation fighter is being designed in both manned and unmanned versions. Russia's AF chief highlights the limitations of human body, noting that unmanned systems: “are much more functional and can withstand any G-force.” Bondarev provides a glimpse of Russian unmanned aircraft potential: “Can you ever imagine what capabilities an unmanned fighter, bomber or attack jet could have?”

Finding a way to fight (and win)

Who needs fighters? DARPA's Gremlins concept would see transport or bomber aircraft launch drone swarms to overwhelm the enemy. (DARPA)

At this point, Eastern and Western views reach convergence: teamed manned and unmanned platforms will play a key role in the struggle to achieve the ‘Command of the Air’ in the highly contested skies of the 2030s.

However, on the USAF side, there is no belief in a single capability that could provide a ‘silver bullet’ solution. A multi-domain focus on capabilities and capacity is required. The ECCT gathered users and operators from all Air Force domains and core functions together with the requirements, acquisition, and science & technology (S&T) communities. Employing independent modelling, simulation, and wargaming they identified five major capability development areas to achieve air superiority in support of joint force mission:

(1) Basing and logistics;
(2) Find, fix, track and assess (gathering and analysing data from sources in all domains, extracting operationally important information, and reliably distributing information to critical decisions);
(3) Target and engage;
(4) Command and control; and
(5) Non-Materiel (doctrine, organisation, training, materiel, logistics, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P)).

The practical outcome of AS 2030 was the development of strategic level courses of action to mitigate capability gaps as well as provide opportunities for greater effectiveness and efficiency.

The lesson behind USAF’s Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan is thus valid to air forces all around the world. The optimising current and future investments requires a holistic understanding of an air force’s capabilities and missions in order to ensure that the service in question meets warfighting requirements adapted to the complex threat scenarios in 2030 and beyond.

Moving goalposts

Northrop Grumman X-47B. Will the US Navy's first UCAV be an aerial tanker? (Northrop Grumman)

The way in which the future of unmanned systems is evolving ultra-rapidly and constantly changing is easy to observe. For example, despite the flight test success of Northrop Grumman's X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) the US Navy is aiming that its first stealth UCAV will be an aerial tanker. Originally conceived as a low observable, lethal, and deep penetrating strike platform in 2006, the program morphed in 2011 to the less stealthy and lightly armed Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) programme that could serve as a stopgap for counter-terrorism operations if the US lost its UAV bases in Afghanistan. Now, in 2016, the project has been recast to serve primarily as an unmanned tanker, (which sounds much more as a smoke screen to the development of its primary concept than a goal itself). It has now been officially designated the MQ-25A Stingray. For countries developing their own UCAVs, the shifting requirements and mission of the US Navy's plans may be a case in point – at what stage do you commit to a firm mission and design when technology is now moving so fast?

Ethical issues

BAE Systems UCAV mission concept demonstration at this year's Farnborough Air Show. Will the human always be in the loop where lethal violence is concerned?

There is no doubt now of the importance of UAVs in today's conflicts – particularly in low-collateral pinpoint strikes of high-value targets. Yet, effective as they have been for the US, it has also raised ethical questions that will only get bigger as autonomous systems become more capable.

Emerging technologies and the capabilities of latest computer-based systems to: see first, better evaluate a situation, and make instantaneous decisions, now are starting to put in question human abilities as being the ultimate warrior. Recently a fighter pilot artificial intelligence (AI), called ALPHA, and developed by Psibernetix, not only beat other AIs but also an experienced retired USAF colonel. In a series of flight combat simulations, the AI successfully shot him down every time in BVR scenarios. The conclusion after the simulated combat: the AI was capable of better positioning itself after detected its manned enemy, waiting for the optimal distance to launch its missiles to obtain a higher probability of kill (Pk), executing a beaming manoeuver to break human pilot's lock-on, and disengaging. Each calculus is at least 250 times faster than the time its human opponent needed to find it as a diamond depicted in his radar display.

How long, then will it be before a UCAV shoots down a human fighter pilot for real? What will be the consequences? While the West's militaries pride themselves as ‘keeping the human in the loop’, when it comes to the decision to kill, other nations (or even non-state actors) may have no such qualms. Unleashing ‘unbeatable’ AI flying UCAVs on the first day of war may create an uncomfortable ethical dilemma for any opponent – either follow suit, or lose quickly.

These technologies raise a delicate balance of ethical issues. There is a perception that robotic combat can lead to the false impression of a remote detachment from war, or perhaps even a 'video game' view of deadly consequences of the battles. Moreover, this awakens ethical reflections where conflicts involving UAVs are asymmetrical scenarios. With this aspect in particular, a troubling side effect of the use of drones is the increased possibility of terrorist actions in retaliation for the operation of ‘aerial robots.’ The lack of a direct exposure of the UAV operators to the risk of injury or death, perhaps while thousands of miles away, gives credence to those who say that for just ethics of war ‘one who claims the right to kill, has to be willing to die.’ Ever since the first caveman fashioned a spear, killing has taken place at further and further distances – but does autonomy alter the questions?

Can your budget afford it?

Laser equipped fighters - but how much might they cost? (DARPA)

Finally there is the question of financial cost. “We’re making the same mistakes today that precipitated us having to start Top Gun originally: Enamoured with the latest and greatest technology, unopposed in the air for a couple of wars, and everyone is banking that it will stay that way forever. I’m banking on China; they will bring 6,000 aircraft into play in a single day.

Then what will we do…?”. These wise words by Dan Pedersen, creator and original Commanding Officer of the USN ‘Top Gun’ Fighter Weapons School, make us remember that we have seen $100m weapons fighting $100k ‘made in Farfromherekhstan’ equivalent systems. Of course, we cannot suppose they have quality equivalence but, even if you consider a overwhelming kill ratio, there will still come the time where your pockets will be empty and you won’t have your ‘better weapon’ at the end of the assembly line in time to enter service.

Breaking paradigms

What will be needed for command of the air in the 2030s and beyond? (Lockheed Martin)

The Command of the Air prophesied by Giulio Douhet in his treatise came true, and it has much evolved since its publication in 1921. Now (and in the future) more than ever, gaining control of the air is a fundamental condition to provide friendly forces an asymmetric advantage to achieve victory. Air superiority provides freedom from attack, freedom to attack, freedom of action, freedom of access, and freedom of awareness.

As total air superiority in highly contested environments may be unrealistic in most of predicted theatres of operations by 2030 and beyond, it is rational to consider how to achieve a lower level of control of air for a limited time and over the geographic area required to enable the intended operation. Accordingly, capability development for future air superiority must provide options for commanders to array their forces across a range of time and space.
The rapidly changing operational environment demands the old paradigm be broken. It is no longer affordable to develop weapon systems able to counter the opposing forces capabilities using traditional approaches. The current development of weapon systems on the linear acquisition and development timelines leads to a ‘late-to-need’ delivery of critical warfighting capabilities.

A tech timing cost (TTC) analytical concept can be used to assess technical readiness levels, gap mitigation, cost, and level of dependencies, and reinforces the need to leverage experimentation and prototyping. An efficient modelling, simulation, and wargaming effort, which can lead to determine an effective S&T portfolio, is considered by the USAF's paper as the key to successfully provide future commanders with options through fielding of the integrated and networked family of capabilities in the AS 2030 force structure. It must rapidly be proven through effective prototyping, harvesting technologies when mature to a sufficient level for transition and then infusing advanced capabilities into the force.

Although this comprehensive and holistic approach has undoubtedly benefited thinking about air superiority in the 2030s in highly contested environment, it is still necessary to continuously elaborate, adding up non-specific military issues to the analysis. Besides the pressure of economics issues, we have seen in the latest global events how increasingly the influence of public opinion, boosted via a real-time share of information impacts on decision-makers. The side effects of an operation conducted abroad, can echo in homeland security. At the end of the day, the fears, the expectations, the demands of taxpayers will mean votes on the next election.

Back to the beginning of this text, we conclude that that the exercise to the war which will be fought after 2035, begins today.


The SC

Feb 13, 2012
They are doing just that.. with modern designs and technology..


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