What’s the future for crewed aircraft in combat?
28 Feb 2023|

Russia’s war on Ukraine, with its images of helicopters trailing flames, has demonstrated their vulnerability to effective air defences and triggered debate on the future of crewed aircraft sent to penetrate enemy airspace.

Former Australian Army major general Mick Ryan, who has studied the conflict closely since Moscow’s 2014 invasion, says Russia is no longer flying crewed aircraft over Ukraine because of its potent air- and missile-defence regime.

‘I think attack helicopters are very vulnerable and have an uncertain future,’ Ryan says.

‘Crewed fighter aircraft are unlikely to penetrate enemy airspace and complex air-defence regimes in the future. That’s an important conversation to have.’

The Russians have a sophisticated air force, he says, but unlike the Americans, they’ve never undertaken a large-scale air campaign. ‘We’ve seen the Americans from World War II onwards conduct these major campaigns, and they learn. After Vietnam, you saw a much greater focus on suppression of air defences.’

The Russians have not got this right, says Ryan. They tried it in the first days of the war, striking air-defence radars and missile sites.

The Ukrainians were able, with a much smaller and less sophisticated air force and air-defence framework, to outfox the Russians and bought their country time. ‘If the Russians had been able to suppress Ukraine’s air-defence system, they’d have better supported their ground forces, and we could be in a very different war now.’

Ryan says it’s likely that only the US Air Force could mount an integrated air suppression regime on the scale required in Ukraine.

While the Royal Australian Air Force has very sophisticated capabilities like its Growler electronic attack aircraft and stealthy F-35 joint strike fighters, they’d be operating in an environment where adversaries have seen how to integrate military and non-military sensors into a secure network.

‘The Ukrainians have, for instance, enabled civilians to report missiles or aircraft much more rapidly than we’ve seen before,’ Ryan adds.

‘Regardless of how sophisticated crewed aircraft are, they’re going to find it much more difficult to penetrate enemy airspace, and if they can, it will be a much more lethal environment for them.’

Ryan finds it hard to believe systems such as attack helicopters will be survivable in the future.

‘The Ukrainians and the Russians now use them to lob rockets from long range. That’s the only way they can survive. We’ve seen massive losses of Russian and Ukrainian attack helicopters, even the most sophisticated Ka-52 Russian helicopters. They’re slow and easy to detect.’

So, what replaces the crewed attack helicopter?

‘A system of things,’ says Ryan. ‘Different forms of ground reconnaissance, crewed and uncrewed ground combat systems with uncrewed aerial systems, loitering munitions and ground-based loitering munitions. Uncrewed ground vehicles can carry munitions. This is a question of imagination, rather than technology.’

Uncrewed aircraft are likely to have a role if they are smaller with lower profiles and are harder to detect. But it’s also about loitering munitions that are very small and expendable and can be procured in large numbers quickly.

‘Companies in Australia make those things, but we’re just not buying them. The Ukrainians certainly are, so you can operate over an enemy ground force that doesn’t involve crewed aircraft or even large uncrewed aircraft.’

It has been demonstrated often that ground and naval forces need air support and air cover to survive. Has that changed?

‘I don’t think that’s changed at all,’ Ryan says. ‘We need to be able to operate across all domains at the same time. If an enemy has an air force, you want your own air force and an air-defence regime to allow you freedom of movement and to deny the enemy freedom of movement. It’s how you affect control of the air in a modern environment.’

Most of the fighting and dying in Ukraine involves soldiers on the ground and civilians. But Ryan says air campaigns are critical, whether they involve helicopters providing resupply and casualty evacuation, attack helicopters or crewed aircraft from Ukraine operating defensive missions or Russian crewed aircraft flying over Belarus and Russia to launch long-range missiles.

He says the role of autonomous systems should not be overemphasised because over the past two decades investment has gone into autonomy and not counter-autonomy. ‘Smart countries will acquire counter-autonomy systems cheaper than the autonomous systems being used against them.’

The world’s air forces need the capabilities to support naval and ground forces with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and with transport, and the RAAF may well be part of a strategic strike capability, Ryan says. ‘But as other countries have done, you may allocate that to an independent long-range missile command instead of giving it to an air force.’

Ryan says the opportunity to act on lessons from Ukraine will be in implementing the recommendations of the defence strategic review by former defence minister Stephen Smith and former Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston, now with the government.

‘I hope they do so quickly,’ Ryan says. ‘There’s little point in running a review and then having the Department of Defence spend a year or two mulling it over before they take any action.’

Ryan says the review will be the first indication of what Australia might have learned from Ukraine.

‘I hope it has incorporated those lessons—profound ones for strategy, for air forces, for naval forces and for ground forces, as well as the logistics and national indigenous defence industry that we should heed. We should be looking at how we develop strategies, and if they’re based on good assumptions. We’ve seen the Russians perform very poorly at the strategic level with bad assumptions about Ukraine.’

Ukraine, a technologically sophisticated nation, is performing magnificently, he says. As part of the USSR, Ukraine built Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva, and Ukrainian missiles sank it.

Also important, Ryan says, will be the capacity to take risks.

‘Some things in the review may seem like good ideas but won’t work out. We need to learn even from failures. And we must ensure we have an ADF postured to learn and adapt once a conflict begins.’

Ryan says the ADF can’t put all of its eggs into one basket, as with long-range strike.

‘Combat is now conducted at longer range but, once you’ve run out of missiles, is the enemy deterred? History shows that’s unlikely. We must be able to engage in combat on the ground, in the air, on the surface of the ocean and under the ocean, in space and with cyber. We need balance.’

The Ukrainians manufacture munitions and equipment that allowed them to survive until Western support kicked in.

‘Australia does not have that capability. We don’t produce weapons or munitions in the quantities we’d need in any significant conflict.’

Ryan says those implementing the defence review must consider survivability of land forces and air forces and the need to integrate air and ground operations in a way the Russians have found difficult.

‘There’s a lot in the non-kinetic realm, like cyber operations, strategic influence operations, and the need for good leaders at every level knowledgeable about their profession and their people.

‘These are not new lessons, but whether we learn them or not is another question.’ Ryan identified early in this war a Ukrainian strategy he calls ‘corrosion’. ‘They’ve targeted the key elements of Russian fighting power, the physical means with which they fight, the intellectual means such as their tactics and techniques, and their morale and unit cohesion. They’ve corroded the Russian military from within, collapsed its capability, morale and cohesion.

‘When the Ukrainians are not attacking the Russians directly, they corrode them with long-range strikes to deny them their logistics, break down unit cohesion and destroy morale. Then they attack.’

ASPI senior analyst Marcus Hellyer agrees with Ryan on these issues.

‘We need to be cautious about extrapolating directly from Ukraine to our own situation since our geographies are very different, but there are valuable lessons to be learned,’ he says.

The extremely vulnerability of helicopters on the modern battlefield was demonstrated in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the threats have proliferated greatly since then. Hellyer advocated long ago for replacing the Australian Army’s Tiger helicopter with a combination of systems such as uncrewed aerial vessels and long-range rockets rather than another crewed helicopter. He’s not convinced that the planned Apache replacement is the way to go.

‘We can imagine situations where an aircraft like the Apache is useful, but is it a value-for-money solution? At a certain point, the cost outweighs the benefits compared to other solutions.’

Another lesson, Hellyer says, is that very deep magazines will be needed for munitions, from bullets to long-range missiles. ‘We need to back Australian industry to provide this. Setting up local production lines for US missiles here is part of the solution, but Australian companies can also design and build their own.’

Is the day of the crewed combat aircraft over? It’s likely to be a similar situation to armoured vehicles, Hellyer says.

‘If you use armoured vehicles and fighters as the Russians have in Ukraine, you will suffer losses at a rate that Australia will not be able to endure or replace. But as part of an integrated system of systems that leverages the advantages of each component to mitigate their vulnerabilities, then they will likely remain survivable and effective. That means integrating cheaper, disposable uncrewed systems with crewed systems to provide greater mass, firepower and resilience.’

In some ways Australia is ahead of the game, Hellyer says. The RAAF has a fifth-generation mindset, integrating advanced systems across the air and space domains. ‘It will not send fighters on a doomed, Charge of the Light Brigade mission without the support of sophisticated enablers.

‘In other ways, we are well behind. We will run out of munitions in days, if not hours, and our main combat systems have limited range—and are significantly out-ranged by adversary systems.’

Robust, contestable analysis is needed to determine whether the solution is longer range crewed aircraft like the B-21 bomber, longer range strike drones or large numbers of strike missiles.

Ultimately, this is as much a matter of cost as of capability. It doesn’t matter how good your $50 million aircraft is if runs out of $1 million missiles in a few missions or is destroyed by swarms of $100,000 missiles.

At present, by pursuing small numbers of exquisitely expensive crewed platforms, we are losing the cost calculus, Hellyer says.