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This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Fighting the Next War, Part II

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 25, 2009

The F-22, which the Air Force has alleged to be the fighter that could not be shot down, has been destroyed on the ground by the American Congress, two days before the news broke that the F-35– the Joint Strike Fighter– is at least two years behind schedule and won’t enter the production phase until at least 2016.

It’s been a bad week for the Air Force.

Where does this leave American air power as we head into the second and third decades of the century? Not in a particularly good place in the short term but, if the Air Force brass can get their heads around it, in a very good position for the mid to long term.

In the first part of this article I touched upon the F-22 suffering from many problems, the most critical of which was timing. Not only was the insanely expensive F-22 up for review during a financial crisis, but at a time in which unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have been constantly in the news for their outsized role in the Afghan theater of the war. Every week we see stories of Reaper or Predator strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and hear the virtues of this style of aerial combat– extremely long loiter times, no American pilots in danger or captured in sketchy places in the event of a shootdown, reasonably stealthy… and relatively cheap. If these drones work so well in the air-to-ground role, what can they do for air supremacy?

The idea of taking the human pilot out of the cockpit holds several advantages, not the least of which is taking the risk of dead American pilots off the table. From an aircraft design standpoint, removing the pilot, cockpit controls, life support system and ejection seat is a dream for the weight savings, allowing greater loiter time, greater deliverable payload and overall cost savings.

In modern fighters, the pilot is always the weakest link; fighters can pull far more Gs than the pilot can tolerate without losing consciousness. While it is true that could make UCAVs incredible dogfighters, that isn’t nearly as important in modern aerial warfare as is the fact that the higher G load the aircraft can handle, the better chance it has of avoiding  advanced SAMs You also eliminate the problem of limited mission duration by taking fatigue, food, and discomfort out of the equation. From a mission planning standpoint you can take greater risks; although these planes will be expensive, they will also be more disposable as you aren’t losing pilots when you lose airframes. It’s politically a lot easier to send a fleet of robots against a highly defended target than it is to send someone’s kids to do the job.

There are significant downsides to UCAVs in the air supremacy role; the control systems would be extremely complex, especially if any autonomy is expected. Active control systems are potentially subject to interference and jamming, and the technology to actively control these aircraft in the split-second environment of aerial combat may not even be possible due to broadcast lag time, demanding the aforementioned complex autonomy. When you take humans out of the loop, you also have the problem of the computer choosing incorrectly and destroying the wrong targets or making other mistakes. The “creepiness factor” of robots killing humans is going to inspire a Russian, Chinese and Iranian campaign amongst lesser developed nations to outlaw these things, and it is undeniably going to gain traction as America will likely be the only ones deploying autonomous systems like this for several years.

The biggest problem facing the move to UCAVs, though, isn’t technological– it’s oh so very human. The biggest obstacle is the revulsion with which UCAVs are viewed by the Air Force, which of course is run primarily by fighter pilots whose entire identities are invested in the fact that they have piloted high performance jets. Ever have a conversation with a fighter pilot? They talk about flying a fighter the way a 17 year old boy talks about sex– it’s the ultra-idealized, be all and end all of human existence. They cannot, for the most part, conceive of, first, a computer doign their job in the cockpit and second, of not spreading their profession to a next generation of fighter pilots. That’s a problem when these men and women are the ones who need to set strategic and tactical policy for the Air Force and as well as making the research and procurement decisions about future aircraft.

The Air Force has run up against a wall every bit as imposing as the limits of a human to withstand Gs– the potential of the next generation of planes has outstripped the costs that Americans are willing to pay for them. A plane that can cruise at supersonic speeds rather than only sprint at them, that can engage a dozen targets simultaneously while being nearly invisible to radar, that can maneuver like no plane before it– those are the features of the F-22. So is the $361,000,000 price tag per plane, for a plane that is designed to operate in units measured in multiples of 12. The next plane up, the F-35 JSF, is rumored to be significantly less capable int he air-to-air role than advertised and is getting very expensive itself; if its primary role is to be that of an air-to-ground attack plane with a secondary air-to-air capacity, then one has to question the wisdom of buyign it when UCAV technology has already been demonstrated to handle that role very well.

This week we’ve heard the Air Force make the argument that to deny the F-22 is to fight the last war rather than the next as the F-22, while useless in Afghanistan could be a huge difference maker in a more symmetrical war against a major power. The reality may well be that procuring the F-22 and F-35 may indeed be the move rooted in the last war, as technology has eclipsed the need for the human pilot in the cockpit; the Air Force may finally, unwillingly, be dragged into that realization by the White House quaterbacked drive that ended the F-22’s procurement cycle.

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3 Responses to “Fighting the Next War, Part II”

  1. PGP said

    Enjoy the midterms – I know I will.

  2. PGP said

    Enjoy the complete rebuke of the Obama Admin in Tuesday’s Massachusetts Senate special election — I know I will.

  3. PGP said

    Enjoy the death of the putrid healthcare reform legislation — I know I will.

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