OPINION: Where is air warfare going in the 21st century?
Despite the tumultuous events of recent months, the global COVID-19 hiatus offers the chance to look ahead at the shape of air warfare as the 21st century progresses.
As in the civil aviation sector, technology and interconnectivity for military aircraft are moving at an astonishing rate despite the industrial shock of COVID, allowing new doctrine and tactics to enter the battlespace.
How have we got to where we are today, as we leave the 20th century in the rear-view mirror? What tools are available to air warfighters today, and what lies ahead?
The Cold War coincided with the start of the jet power age, creating an air warfare stalemate in which NATO/Western and Eastern Bloc technology evolved in 15-year cycles through five generations of combat power.
Air war was conducted in a highly structured C2 hierarchy, while refresh rates were ponderous and expensive in a period when the number of manufacturers shrunk from hundreds to around ten serious players, enabling a broad sharing of the spoils with each new generation of fighter.
Prices climbed in $20 million increments to exceed $100 million per aircraft today for a fifth-generation F-35B fighter.
In terms of modern fighters, the F-35 is increasingly dominant in the market with more than 500 aircraft delivered today, pulling away from rival Chinese J-20 and Russian Su-57 platforms.
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Smarter and faster technologies are now emerging to reshape the nature of air warfare. Mission payloads including radar, EO sensors, weapons and self-defence suites are being fused with the aircraft, be it piloted or unmanned.
Airframe life will extend from a baseline of 25 years to 50 years in this century, given greater use of light but stiff carbon fibre structures, while ceramics are helping to increase turbine temperatures (and thus engine thrust).
The offboard dimension is increasingly important, with manned/unmanned teaming allowing piloted aircraft to control UAVs, loitering missiles and cruise missiles, which will increasingly be called upon to do the really dirty work.
The next epoch in unmanned warfare will be air defence UAVs carrying long-range missiles ahead of the manned force, clearing and maintaining airspace control and dominance. Intelligence aircraft like the E-3 AWACS and P-3 Orion are being replaced by highly efficient bizjet derivatives.
These provide huge coverage, but at a much-reduced cost of ownership; indeed, many of these ‘high-value’ capabilities could well be seen in future 21st century combat aircraft.
But the key aspect of 21st century warfare will be less about hardware and more about invisible networks. Take the award of the US Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract to Microsoft in October 2019; this is not just about secure cloud storage and data recall, but the provision of battlespace information.
Increasingly sophisticated AI algorithms will sift through terabytes of data to analyse and spot common threats, with the aim of providing a unitary air picture, probably filtered at strategic (governmental), operational (HQ) and tactical (aircraft) levels.
The outcome should be greater accuracy and clarity, leading to less ambiguity in decision-making and greater freedom of action at a lower level of control. This translates into a faster observe/orient/decide/act (OODA) loop.
However, the rub of bringing all these developments together is demand for much greater ‘support fabric’ around 21st century air warfare. Training, simulation and mission rehearsal will need to increase, developing further LVC-type initiatives using current data from cloud sources already noted.
Equally, coordinated intelligence from secure and open sources will need to form an integrated part of the mission planning cycle, together with pre-flight ‘squirting’ of threats and secure communication codes into platforms prior to flight.
A further layer of complexity will be offboard tasking and tactical re-tasking during operations, all of which will need to be coordinated prior to execution. Bringing this planning infrastructure together, while decisive, is expensive and will take time to manage and execute.
Technological progress is impressive, but what are the implications for rules of engagement? While the potential still exists for air conflict between nation states, many adversaries (in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Mali, for example) no longer wear identifiable uniforms.
In the rush to maximise the benefits of new technology, often derived from the civil market, we are leaving behind the Geneva Convention and other traditional rules of war; instead, conflict is becoming more remote and disconnected.
Increased maturity in the five stages of automation, from manual to full autonomy, is possible in the automotive sector – but setting a loitering Harpy one-way munition ‘free’ is a different proposition that is increasingly seen in the unmanned domain.
Ultimately, governments do not want to see their aircrew captured and paraded (or worse) by the enemy, but the evolution of autonomous air warfare will continue to test decision-making processes and rules of engagement.
We can see that air warfare is more reliant now on the preparation and fusion of data into an integrated package, rather than the conventional binary mission that largely uses manned aircraft as the delivery vehicle.
Incredible technological advances are occurring in very short lifecycles, which will progressively move the pilot away from the actual battle. Platforms will last longer, hence fewer will be procured, and upgrade cycles will be more progressive: for example, the Saab Gripen E/F has separated its mission software from air vehicle software to enable a ‘spiral’ development approach.
Greater data fusion via secure cloud technology should simplify tasking and common understanding in terms of command, control and mission options. However, the price of entry for this level of sophistication will likely be within the grasp of fewer than 20 countries worldwide, given the often-prohibitive costs of procurement and delivery.
Finally, we need to be conscious of the greater complexity of ethics and accountability in delivering this 21st century mantra, particularly with adversaries who have no uniform and operate to different standards.
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