Towards an unmanned air combat capability (part 1)
30 Jan 2014|

The AAI Shadow 200 tactical unmanned aerial system is deployed at Multi National Base - Tarin Kot by Able Seaman Aviation Technician Avionics Steven Kerswell.

Malcolm Davis’s recent post considered unmanned air vehicles (UAV) and falling tactical fighter fleet numbers. The issues raised are worth exploring further as they directly relate to the ADF’s future air combat capability.

Simply put, air combat encompasses air-to-ground and air-to-air. The two different activities used to involve specialised bomber and fighter aircraft, although most fighters were also pressed into a secondary fighter/bomber role. But in the immediate post-Cold War period, multi-role aircraft were favoured, although they’re not as effective in individual roles as specialised aircraft. Strategically, this made sense: the Soviets had vanished, air superiority was challenged only by a few surface-to-air missiles and the operational need was for interventions in foreign climes using high-precision air-to-ground weapons. It was the age of the strike fighter: think Super Hornet, Rafale and the aptly named Joint Strike Fighter.

This era is now ending with the sharp acceleration in UAV development. This quickened pace has been driven by real-world operational demands that have stressed air-to-ground roles, broadly defined. Modern precision strike is more than just smart bombs and needs integration with sophisticated intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for success. Australia’s Strike/Reconnaissance Group, which operated the F-111C strike aircraft and the RF-111C reconnaissance aircraft, reflected this symbiotic relationship.

UAVs now offer strike and ISR capabilities that manned aircraft can’t emulate. Firstly, UAVs are persistent. The major shortcoming of airpower has always been its transitory nature; no more. Secondly, they can be more survivable in high threat environments. A UAV can be stealthier then a comparable manned aircraft. Thirdly, they’re expendable. Fourthly, they’re scalable and able to be operated by small air, land or naval tactical units in austere locations right up to the national level from big home bases.

For bean counters there’s a fifth! UAVs are potentially more affordable, especially in terms of lower life cycle costs. The price of manned tactical fighters has risen alarmingly raising concerns that they might be more costly than their military utility. This is often how weapon systems end. Battleships would still be militarily useful today but they’re too expensive for what they can do; they’ve priced themselves out of the market. Observations that JSF program costs now exceed Australia’s annual GDP suggests similar worries.

In the last decade, thousands of UAVs (PDF) were used with considerable success by American air and land forces in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and across the Middle East. While these have often been rudimentary aircraft, they were good enough for the job given the permissive extant air environment.

The rush to UAVs is now being embraced by middle powers. In the last seven years, the UK’s Reaper force in Afghanistan has flown some 54,000 hours and released more than 450 precision-guided weapons. The Italians used Predators in the recent Libyan conflict and now fly them in Afghanistan. The French have begun flying Reapers from Niger to support their Mali operations. The Dutch are now also buying Reapers for similar expeditionary force support roles. And of course, Israel has flown UAVs for many years while selling and leasing them to many, including Australia (PDF), Canada (PDF), Singapore and India.

Today, it’s impossible to envisage future intervention operations by Western forces without the extensive use of UAVs, although some worry about their survivability in high air threat environments. This shortcoming reflects the last decade’s operational drivers. The need has been for persistence, operations from austere locations and the fielding of large numbers rather than survivability, but this is changing.

The rapidly developed RQ-170 Sentinel seems to have operated undetected in South-West Asia and perhaps across the Pacific for several years. The USAF is now about to field a small fleet of large, long range, highly survivable UAVs and the USN intends to operate the stealthy UCLASS from its aircraft carriers from around 2020. Meanwhile, the British are flying the BAE Systems Taranis at Woomera and a pan-European team is developing the comparable stealthy nEUROn.

Arming UAVs is always an option, but even without weapons UAVs will still have a dramatic impact. Having a survivable UAV which can accurately locate and track defended targets allows their engagement by long-range missiles fired from other land, sea or air platforms. The firing platforms can stand-off hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away, well outside hostile defences. Strike missiles—not strike aircraft—can now deliver the warhead payload.

Some concerns remain. In the ISR role, UAVs need to transmit sensor information back though data links that could potentially be jammed. This is also an issue for the JSF, given its extensive use of data-links. But electronic warfare will be of concern to all future manned or unmanned aircraft and isn’t in itself a reason to discount UAVs. The lowest datalink requirements might actually be UAV ‘bomb trucks’ attacking known fixed targets, where only a go/no go transmission may be necessary.

But what about fighter UAVs? Not just yet. The operational drivers haven’t been there to force development. (And there are organisational drivers that have worked against them.) But JSF advocates stress that the aircraft will fight air-to-air using beyond-visual-range missiles cued by advanced data fusion from onboard and offboard sensors. That suggests the pilot could be sitting remotely. The Russians now think the next fighter generation will probably be unmanned, while America and Israel are undertaking research. Even so, an unmanned fighter is unlikely to directly emulate a manned fighter but rather undertake air-to-air roles in new and different ways. Already, the USN is thinking about using its new UCLASS as a robot wingman.

In the next decade, air-to-ground will increasingly be the province of UAVs. Air-to-air may have to wait another decade or so, unless a pressing need suddenly arises. So what for Australia? There’s a clear technology push for the ADF to move into the new era of Strike/ISR UAVs. But is there a strategic pull, and will we follow other middle powers? Lets examine that in the next post.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.