The future of Airpower and the strategic outlook
3 Feb 2014|

An early F4-E Phantom in 1967, showing its gun + missile armament - rectifying the biggest shortcoming of previous modelsPeter Layton’s recent post promoting UAVs in response to my earlier comment makes some very good points, but it’s important to remain cautious of UAVs until they’ve proven themselves at all levels of military conflict. UAVs have been used very effectively in low air-threat environments like Afghanistan, where the adversaries lack sophisticated integrated air defence systems and sophisticated sensor capabilities. For waging counter-insurgency (COIN) and undertaking counter-terrorism (CT) operations against unconventional opponents in failed states, armed UAVs are a clear solution. But trends in Asia’s strategic environment suggest Australia should plan for a full spectrum of conflict, including high intensity interstate conflict. Any future manned/unmanned mix must contribute to the ability of the ADF to carry out its primary tasks across the entire breadth of this spectrum, rather than constraining it to being able to contribute only on the lower end.

In a higher threat environment—near or inside the airspace of a peer competitor or a well-armed rogue state—some of the positive characteristics of current UAVs generate greater operational risk rather than offering advantage. In undefended airspace like that encountered over Afghanistan, persistence is a real advantage for COIN and CT operations. But in well-defended airspace, a slow target like a Predator UAV is a clay pigeon. Within a highly contested airspace, getting to a target area quickly to avoid air defences, gathering vital information or striking a target such as a mobile missile launcher, and dashing out before an adversary can react makes much more sense. Survivability in these environments depends on speed and stealth.

The latter remains vital, but is now being challenged by improvements in adversary counter-stealth systems, such as low frequency and multi-static road mobile radar systems as well as electronic and cyber-attack. Chris Lo comments that ‘governments around the world are pouring investment into stealth aircraft development programmes, but it remains to be seen if these costly paragons of modern military hardware will end up undone by the evolution of comparatively modest radar systems’.  And as Bill Sweetman points out in Aviation Week‘… it would be reassuring to know that the stealth technology upon which the Pentagon plans to base air dominance for the next few decades has been thoroughly, recently, and aggressively ‘red Teamed’ against multiband AESAs and passive systems’.

The erosion of stealth as a decisive advantage demands an adequate response, which Lockheed Martin responds to with the tag-line ‘speed is the new stealth’ in promoting their proposed Mach 6 SR-72 UAV. In contrast, the proposed stealthy Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike Program (UCLASS), is a slow, subsonic platform more vulnerable to adversary ground-based missiles in high threat environments. Add to this vulnerability to adversary electronic warfare and cyberwarfare—as demonstrated in 2011 with the loss of an advanced USAF RQ-170 over Iran, and ‘survivable’ is not how I’d describe current or near term UAVs in a sophisticated anti-access environment.

Layton suggests UAVs are expendable—no doubt because there’s no human in the cockpit. I’d argue that while they’re ‘more expendable’ than manned aircraft, they’re hardly a throwaway item. Operating UAVs like Reaper and Predator over Afghanistan from a control room in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas is a new way to fight war—but it also depends on vulnerable satellite data links which must be deployed into orbit on expensive rockets. Thus the success of UAVs also depend on defeating an adversary in cyberspace, as well as demanding assurance of continued access to critical Space-based C4ISR systems. These will be expensive capabilities as well. So the issue of ‘cost’ is not at all clear cut.

Finally, UAVs lack the immediate situational awareness of a highly skilled pilot in the cockpit to respond to a rapidly changing operational environment. This limits their operational utility to purely Strike and Tactical ISR. As Layton acknowledges, there are no ‘fighter UAVs’, although UCLASS could eventually be armed with air-to-air missiles. Even so, that wouldn’t presage the replacement of the manned fighter because it’s a mistake to assume that all future air to air engagements will involve only ‘beyond-visual-range missiles cued by advanced data fusion from onboard and offboard sensors’.

That’s certainly a preferred mode of attack, but it’s an assumption that ignores the reality of air combat. Sukhoi chief test pilot Sergey Bogdan, in explaining the value of ‘supermaneuverability’ after demonstrating the Sukhoi Su-35S Super Flanker in the 2013 Paris air show, said ‘the classical air combat starts at high speed, but if you miss on the first shot—and the probability is there because there are manoeuvres to avoid missiles—the combat will be more prolonged’.  In other words, don’t bet on long-range air to air engagements always obviating a requirement for ‘dogfighting’.

History shows that visionary but untested ideas are risky, and ignore the axiom that the enemy always gets a vote. In the 1950s, at the beginning of missile age, airpower advocates dismissed the need for a gun on future fighters, and claiming that all future air to air engagements would be at long range with missiles. The USAF paid dearly for this argument in the skies over North Vietnam.

Malcolm Davis is assistant professor in International Relations and post-doctoral research fellow in China-Western Relations at Bond University. Image McDonnell Douglas, via