It has long been known that the forte of an unmanned device is to undertake “dull, dirty and dangerous” missions. No pilot can ever hope to equal the staying power of a UAV while orbiting a target for several hours at a stretch, just waiting for something to happen. UAV endurance may soon be specified in days. Then there are other dirty missions such as flying over areas suspected to be affected by radiological, chemical or biological contamination. Dangerous missions include probing enemy air defences or operating over a target where the risk of the pilot being shot down is high. To these three Ds, “difficult and different” are sometimes added. If there is a mission considered too difficult for a pilot to undertake, a UAV is often the machine of choice. And any new or different mission that a pilot may not have trained for may also be assigned to a UAV. All-in-all it seems the future of UAVs is assured.
Currently, only manned combat aircraft have the capability to penetrate sophisticated air defences…
Fixed wing aircraft were first used in war in 1911 when the Italian Army Air Corps bombed a Turkish camp at Ain Zara, Libya. A hundred years later, questions are increasingly being asked about how much longer manned combat aircraft will remain relevant to the war-fighting capabilities of major militaries.
The US, by far the world’s foremost military, economic and technological power, is grappling with its latest combat aircraft, the fifth generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The product of the most expensive military-industrial programme in history, the F-35 is needed to replace a host of long-serving combat aircraft such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the F/A-18 Hornet and the AV-8B Harrier II that are nearing the end of their useful life. These iconic aircraft have proved their worth in many operational theatres yet the US Air Force (USAF) demanded and obtained vastly enhanced capability for the F-35A conventional version. The US Marine Corps wanted a Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) version designated as the F-35B, while the US Navy opted for the F-35C conventional carrier-launched version. However, over the years, this exposed the F-35 programme to the criticism that it was too ambitious and complicated and that the fighter’s optimum performance had been compromised in an attempt to meet far too many specifications and roles. For instance, the supposedly highly stealthy combat plane was quickly downgraded from “very low observable” to “low observable”.
Besides, the F-35’s design and production schedule was overly optimistic. It is now expected to enter service only in 2016, seven years behind schedule. The average cost per plane has zoomed from $69 million in 2001, the year the programme was launched, to over $137 million today. If development costs are added, the cost per aircraft would touch $160 million. Criticism is growing louder. Some observers even believe the F-35 may be entering the “death-spiral”. In order to keep the cost low, a manufacturer needs to build and sell a large number of machines. But the US government and most other foreign buyers of the F-35 are facing tough choices. Their instinctive response is to slash orders in an effort to cut costs. That, in turn, forces the manufacturer to increase unit cost resulting in even more cancellations which in turn, leads to further cost escalation.
UAVs are generally far more fragile than manned aircraft and their attrition rates are still fairly high…
The Pentagon still insists that it plans to buy 2,443 F-35s over the next 25 years or so and together with projected foreign sales, the total order could exceed 3,150 aircraft. But if recent history is anything to go by, the signs are ominous. The USAF initially ordered 120 Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit long-range stealth strategic bombers but had to be content with just 24. It planned to buy 750 Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors but production of these extremely stealthy air-superiority fighters was terminated at 187. Why should the F-35 fare any better when Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are knocking at the door?
Europe’s combat aircraft industry still looks healthy but its future prospects seem gloomy. Three advanced combat aircraft are currently on offer. These are the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and the Saab Gripen. Production of the Rafale and Typhoon is unlikely to continue beyond 2020, though the existing aircraft will probably need to be upgraded. The Gripen, though less technologically advanced, is expected to continue for some years beyond that, thanks to a mid-life update of the basic design called the Gripen NG. But then what? European industry seems convinced that the role of UAVs will continue to expand, at least in uncontested airspace and that manned combat aircraft may be on the way out. It has no new combat aircraft on the drawing board and several European air forces are opting to buy F-35 variants from the US instead.
Further afield, however, the outlook for combat pilots is brighter. Russia, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Brazil are all pursuing fighter aircraft projects with unmitigated enthusiasm. Development of the Indo-Russian Sukhoi T-50 Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), also known as the Perspective Multi-Role Fighter (PMF), is progressing well. China has developed its own stealth fighter prototypes, the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31 and they are reportedly making good progress. Aviation experts believe that these are unlikely to be anywhere near as stealthy as the US F-22 Raptor or as capable. Yet they will provide a significant increase in capability for their respective countries inducting the platform – a capability that should come at far lower cost and without many of the strings attached to purchases of US hardware.
India, through Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), is a partner in the T-50 development project, and plans to buy 144 of these low-observable fighters. In addition, the country claims to be planning to develop an indigenous “fifth generation” twin-engine fighter called the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Japan has already committed to buying 42 F-35s from the US.
However, as part of its efforts to rejuvenate its once formidable aerospace industry it is pursuing the ATD-X stealth fighter technology demonstrator project. South Korea’s KF-X fighter programme hopes to develop a stealthy F-16-class fighter. Brazil too would like to capitalise on its successful civil aviation industry to develop a modern fighter in partnership with a friendly country.
Hope or Hype?
Then why are manned combat aircraft losing some of their sheen? Apart from the undeniable fact that they have become almost too costly to afford, even by some of the world’s richest nations, there is the seductive promise of UAVs. Since America’s global war on terror was launched following the terrorist attacks of 09/11, UAVs have acquired a larger-than-life image. Of course, Israel is where the UAV revolution began. Its Beqaa valley campaign of June 1982 saw the first large-scale use of UAVs in the surveillance and other tactical roles and Israel hasn’t looked back since then. Impressed by the Israeli successes, the US adopted the same techniques using UAVs in many theatres to collect vital operational intelligence at every level in the chain of command. It went a step further and armed its UAVs like the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper and used them with devastating effect, especially in the Af-Pak theatre to eliminate hundreds of terrorists.
Current UAV technology simply doesn’t have the flexibility and versatility to accomplish most air missions…
The USAF is in the process of acquiring a huge fleet of unmanned aircraft, seemingly putting manned planes on the backburner. Nowadays things have practically reached a point where the only reported advances in military aviation concern UAVs. And ardent supporters of UAVs are helped not a little by the mess that the F-35 has gotten itself into. There are plenty of military experts nowadays who believe that the F-35 could be the last manned fighter the West will build.
UAVs on the Popularity Charts
It has long been known that the forte of an unmanned device is to undertake “dull, dirty and dangerous” missions. No pilot can ever hope to equal the staying power of a UAV while orbiting a target for several hours at a stretch, just waiting for something to happen. UAV endurance may soon be specified in days or weeks. Then there are other dirty missions such as flying over areas suspected to be affected by radiological, chemical or biological contamination. Dangerous missions include probing enemy air defences or operating over a target where the risk to the life of the pilot is high. To these three Ds, “difficult and different” are sometimes added.
If there is a mission considered too difficult for a pilot to undertake, a UAV is often the machine of choice. And any new or different mission that a pilot may not have trained for may also be assigned to a UAV. In the final analysis, it seems the future of UAVs is assured. But are the claims of the UAV enthusiasts justified? How do unmanned aircraft stack up against manned combat aircraft?
The tasks that manned combat aircraft are designed for can be better accomplished by cruise missiles or UCAVs…
- Situational Awareness
Modern surveillance UAVs such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk have an advanced sensor suite that can take a very detailed look at a small area. However, the UAV and its operator are perfectly blind to anything that lies outside the field of view of the aircraft’s sensors. On the other hand, the pilot of a manned aircraft can rapidly scan a much larger 3-D volume, then focus on the most significant details and decide how to react in near-instantaneous fashion. In respect of situational awareness, pilots win hands down.
- Connectivity Woes
The constant need for connectivity is currently the UAV’s greatest limitation. Unmanned aircraft are critically dependent on secure two-way satellite communication. If the link is broken or even temporarily disrupted, the remote pilot may lose control of the aircraft. Although the situation may not be catastrophic during routine missions, the UAV would become highly vulnerable in defended airspace. Loss of connectivity may result from electronic jamming, a direct attack on a communications satellite or even a technical fault. Whatever the cause, the UAV may be in serious trouble.
- Lamentable Lag
Known as latency, the small but crucial interval between the remote pilot passing an instruction to an unmanned aircraft and its physical execution is another connectivity related problem. By contrast, an airborne pilot can detect and react to a threat very quickly.
- Flying Eggshells?
UAVs are generally far more fragile than manned aircraft and their attrition rates are still fairly high. Most UAVs are not capable of the kind of manoeuvering taken for granted in manned combat aircraft. It is common to lose UAVs even in peacetime due to technical problems, loss of command links, loss of control, bad weather and other causes. Accident rates on UAVs may be up to ten times those of manned aircraft. While such losses may be tolerable for small and inexpensive UAVs, they can scarcely be accepted in the case of sophisticated Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) whose cost rivals that of manned fighters.
The global value of UAVs produced today is just 2.5 per cent of the amount for manned aircraft…
- Defenceless Warriors
Currently, only manned combat aircraft have the capability to penetrate sophisticated air defences. UAVs are slow-moving and cannot defend themselves against missiles and other forms of attack whether emanating from the ground or from interceptor aircraft. Neither can they elude an attacker. Even a decade or so into the future, it seems unlikely that unmanned aircraft will become truly autonomous and capable of surviving in a hostile environment. If American UAVs operating in Iraq and in Afghanistan did not seem particularly vulnerable, it was only because the US enjoyed air dominance and dozens of friendly aircraft were always on call to keep the enemy at bay. But the situation could be vastly different when dealing with a well-armed adversary like China that has advanced, integrated air defences. If GPS is jammed, data-links are lost and long-range sensors are degraded, the UAV’s fate can only be imagined.
- Flexibility Forgotten
Overall, current UAV technology simply doesn’t have the flexibility and versatility to accomplish most air missions. And this shortcoming is most clearly exposed when it comes to air combat. The UAV operates best in simple uncomplicated roles in uncontested airspace where time is not at a premium and manoeuvring is placid. Aerial combat is perhaps the most difficult and challenging mission for manned fighters and not all pilots qualify to be fighter pilots. Trying to design and manufacture a UCAV that can replicate what a trained pilot and weapon-system officer in a modern fighter aircraft can do, that too while operating in completely autonomous mode, may not be theoretically impossible. After all, it is mainly a question of harnessing enough artificial intelligence and processing power. But this will take some decades to achieve. And the trade-off costs are likely to be high. A faster and more manoeuvrable UCAV, for instance, needs a larger engine. A truly autonomous UCAV requires many more sensors to cope with the entire spectrum of ground and airborne threats which in turn “dirties” its profile and reduces its stealth characteristics thus rendering it more vulnerable to detection and engagement from ground as well as airborne forces of the enemy. And these features relentlessly increase the size and weight and require more fuel to be carried. All this, in turn, affects loiter time.
Unmanned aircraft, contrary to popular belief, are not necessarily cheap…
- ‘Toys’ Come at a Price
Finally, unmanned aircraft, contrary to popular belief, are not necessarily cheap. The smallest and lightest UAVs are indeed reasonably priced but as size and capability increases, the cost shoots up. A single MQ-9 Reaper comes for about $36 million while the Boeing X-45 UCAV is estimated to cost about $25 million apiece. Add the cost of the ground control station, satellite data-links and other subsystems essential for combat operations and the cost is certainly not low. A typical Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft may cost over $100 million. But it comes with a service life of 30 years or more and will be able to autonomously execute a wide variety of missions. In contrast, even the most advanced UCAV currently available can perform only a very limited range of missions and comes with the handicap of a short-service life. Against a capable adversary it is likely to experience high loss rates that quickly nullify the lower unit cost as against manned aircraft.
The Optionally Manned Option
So which is preferable – manned or unmanned? Some experts feel that the tasks that manned combat aircraft are designed for can be better accomplished by cruise missiles or UCAVs. However, even in the US, which has the world’s most advanced UAVs and UCAV development programmes, manned combat aircraft will remain at the cutting edge for at least 30 years, perhaps longer. For a country like India that figure may be at least doubled.
With each passing year, unmanned aircraft will be able to accomplish more types of missions and offer greater tactical and strategic options. But that does not necessarily mean they will completely replace manned aircraft because UAVs are also subject to severe limitations, some of which are unlikely to disappear in a hurry. Unless UAVs capable of operating autonomously in heavily defended airspace (so-called anti-access area-denial or A2/AD environments) are developed, they will continue to be deployed only against ragtag opponents like terrorist outfits where the airspace is relatively benign. That is why, despite the growing excitement they generate, the global value of UAVs produced today is just 2.5 per cent of that of manned aircraft. Even by 2020, their value is expected to be below five per cent.
An unmanned device scores because it can dispense with crew support systems and increase range and endurance…
Meanwhile, the fate of the Lockheed Martin F-35, which seems to increasingly resemble a white elephant, is unlikely to be too dismal. It cannot be scrapped because there is no other replacement for the current generation of fighters that are nearing 30 years in service. The only viable alternative may be the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Although the Super Hornet is based on relatively old technology, Boeing claims to have sufficiently upgraded it without grossly increasing its cost, to give the F-35 a run for its money.
One interesting possibility is to avoid committing to either purely manned or unmanned aircraft. A manned combat aircraft is most suitable for highly contested environments where command-and-control is limited or autonomy is required. An unmanned device scores because it can dispense with crew support systems and increase range and endurance. If it is shot down there is no risk of loss or capture of valuable aircrew. Optionally, manned aircraft permit planners and commanders to undertake a cost-benefit analysis and decide whether it would be better to launch the same aircraft with crew or without. Such aircraft may also be safer in testing because human test pilots offer significant redundancy and flexibility and can swiftly take over in situations where automation fails or fails to cope. Gradually, as unmanned control systems become more dependable, robust and autonomous, the crew may increasingly be rested and more unmanned missions can be launched.
An optionally manned approach however, would only be worthwhile for large aircraft like strategic bombers where the weight and cost of the crew support systems pales into insignificance when compared with the overall weight and cost. The clearest indication of the appeal of such a route is that the USAF is reportedly considering an optionally manned design for its new Long Range Strike – Bomber (LRS-B). Other military forces may be tempted to follow suit.