Military & Aerospace

Evolving Trends in Aerial Combat
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Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

The air combat engagement between the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) during the PAF riposte after Balakot air strike in February 2019 is being discussed among air forces across the world to draw lessons for future trends in air combat. One thing that came out clear was the need for long range sensors and high speed, long range aerial weapons, with high no-escape zones and the ability to operate in electronic and electro-optical threat environment for ‘air superiority’. Farther and speedier is the mantra. Agility and high-rate-of-turn close-combat could become less important. A study by the United States Air Force (USAF) that analysed over 1,450 air-to-air engagements since 1965, found that long-range weapons and sensors have dramatically decreased instances of dog-fighting. The introduction of stealth-designed, sensor-fused aircraft with new secure communication systems with multi-domain combat assets would be the foundation for what comes next.

In the recent past, aided by technology, there has been a fundamental shift in the character and conduct of war and the ability of air power to rapidly adapt to emerging combat situations. The unique combination of evolving capabilities, new operational concepts and technology are shifting the entire warfare into the aerospace domain. Even the surface and sub-surface forces require aerial platforms, weapons and sensors to support operations. Air power and future of all warfare are intertwined. Air superiority will still be a pre-requisite for all operations to succeed. Very accurate, long-range, short-notice, air strikes will continue to make significant contribution to the end-result of any conflict. At a strategic level, quick response sizeable airlift could be a battle-winning requirement and an element of national power. Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) has become even more crucial for decision-superiority in net-centric warfare. Sensor data fusion through advanced computing, and presenting meaningful solutions using Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already changing the way air power is applied.

Air power has been the first to take to the ‘system of systems’ concept approach that uses capability functions resident in separate airborne platforms and exploits them as a single system. Sensor-rich Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) operating as part of, or in close conjunction with manned strike aircraft are making the air power seamless and create vulnerabilities for adversaries. The formidable combination of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the ability to loiter for very long periods, merged with precision-strike capabilities, create a very potent system. Currently a ‘human-in-the-loop’, is considered desirable for kill decisions albeit technology exists for full autonomous operations. As in the use of autonomous killer-robots, there are legal and ethical issues for UCAVs. Air power delivered by a combination of machine and AI is the future.

Attributes of Air Power

Air power offers strategic flexibility in terms of the ability to quickly reconfigure for different kinds of missions. The overarching air operations give the capability to project power over long distances without risking one’s own motherland. Air power offers the political leadership strategic choices and alternatives for sustainable and easily scalable levels. Air campaigns can be executed against different target systems simultaneously. Air power has the inherent capability to provide both kinetic and non-kinetic options with pin-point accuracy. Air power can directly influence outcomes and actions of the ground forces. Air power has the ability to simultaneously produce physical as well as psychological shock.

Dominating Aerospace

In the future, one who controls the space will control the air. Aerospace craft will aim to seize control establishing dominance/supremacy over the enemy’s aerospace assets. They will operate under the control/co-ordination of space-based Early Warning and Control satellites with increased AI. Satellite/aircraft-based kinetic and Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) will soon be a reality and will be used for aerial or surface attack. In its quest to dominate the air battlefield of the future, the USAF is looking at replacing the traditional fighter jet with a network of integrated systems disaggregated across multiple platforms. It could be a ‘family of systems’ to address the range of threats in a highly contested environment.

Meanwhile, Russia and China continue to close the capability gap with the US through developments in hypersonic and AI, building long-range missiles, anti-satellite and anti-aircraft weapons to foil US forces’ ability to penetrate. The USAF’s new strategy includes both stand-off capability and penetrating forces with increased dependence on space and cyber to infiltrate enemy defences and secure own networks. The USAF is looking at concepts such as the arsenal plane, hypersonic weapons, directed energy, autonomy and electronic attack.

The USAF and the US Navy (USN) are leading the evolution of next-generation platforms and technologies. The USAF’s new aerial platforms will have the most effective combination of speed and manoeuverability, payload, range and the “right level of stealth” or low-observability. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), US Air Force Research Labs (AFRL), Boeing ‘Phantom Works’, Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk Works’ and NASA are all aiding the work on concepts of ‘Air Dominance’ for 2040 and beyond. The Americans, Chinese and Russians are all working on the sixth-generation fighters which will be inducted from 2028 onwards. The fighter-bomber as a platform is still here to stay. More and more of these will become uninhabited or optionally manned. The clear line dividing the atmosphere and space is already getting blurred. Aerospace will soon become a common domain with more aerospace craft routinely transiting up and down taking advantage of each. Combat engagements will be at much higher speeds and over greater distances.

Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) Conceptual Approach

In its ‘Air Superiority 2030’ study released in 2016, the USAF described a long-range, stealthy sensor-shooter called Penetrating Counter Air (PCA), which would act as NGAD’s central node networked with sensors, drones and other platforms. There will be a networked family of fighters with different core capabilities with the best technologies. One fighter might be optimised for an airborne laser, another fighter may have state-of-the-art AI-based sensors yet another may be an unmanned weapons laden platform. This will be a much easier approach than having a single platform with many capabilities resulting in dilutions or compromises. The timelines will be shortened having open architecture with plug-and-play hardware. Also, software will be developed in parallel for interchangeable hardware. 3D tools will be used for both design and manufacture processes. In the T-X trainer, Boeing has demonstrated taking its design from concept to first flight in three years. They were also able to reduce by 80 percent, the human labour engaged in its production.

Concepts from the USAF and the industry for the sixth-generation fighter have so far revolved around supersonic tail-less aircraft. Aircraft will feature advanced sensor fusion and AI-aided decision making. They will also have Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT), and communications that allow big data movement between the inter-service’s aircraft. The system of systems would include communications, space capabilities, stand-off, and stand-in options. The USAF’s and USN’s common design and technology efforts could include engine, airframe moulds, broadband and IR stealth and new ways to dominate the electro-magnetic spectrum.

Large Platform Concept

Another study has concluded that the next-generation USAF fighter should be larger and more resembling a bomber than a small, manoeuverable traditional fighter. Building a significantly larger fighter relying on enhanced sensors, signature control, networked situational awareness, very long-range weapons to complete engagements before being detected or tracked and having power-intensive lasers and DEW weapons makes sense. Larger planes would have greater range that would enable them to be stationed further from a combat zone, have greater radar and IR detection capabilities and carry bigger and longer-range missiles.

The USAF Scientific Advisory Board has suggested that the PCA platform should combine long-range, supersonic speed, stealth and manoeuverability. The PCA would have substantially longer range to fly long distances over the Pacific, especially in a situation where airbases in the vicinity of China are not available. It would also escort bombers deep into Russia or China, where the anticipated threat includes advanced networked air defence radars. It would include stealth against low or very high frequency radars. Another requirement is significantly larger payload than the current air superiority aircraft such as the F-22.

Next Generation Fighter of the US

The next-generation fighter of the US will initially be led by DARPA under the Air Dominance Initiative to develop prototype X-planes. The USAF and the USN will each have variants focused on their mission requirements. The USAF seeks a fighter with “enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration and weapons effects.” It would have to operate in the anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 timeframe. China’s quick aerospace advancement pace is driving the USAF to react. Similarly, the USN has a much higher priority on range and speed. AI and optionally manned are becoming critical requirements generally. There is a need for survivability. Stealth is just one piece of the survivability equation; others such as ultra-lightweight armour and counter-directed energy capabilities are required.

Uninhabited Aerial Systems

Uninhabited aircraft technologies are already proven, and the future is in Uninhabited Aerial Systems (UAS). The world is in transition. There are some who see the JSF F-35 as the last ‘manned-only’ fighter/bomber. Dual use (optionally manned) aircraft are already flying. The USAF has already modified F-4s and F-16s to fly remotely. In France, Dassault leads a multi-nation delta wing UCAV ‘Neuron’ of the size of Mirage 2000. The UK has a Strategic UAS programme called ‘Taranis’. In November 2014, a two-year feasibility study was announced by the French and British governments to combine the two programmes and call it “Future Combat Air System”.

UCAVs such as Northrop Grumman X-47B are autonomously taking off and landing including on moving aircraft carriers. Autonomous air refueling has been tested. Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS drone ‘Sea Ghost’ looks rather like a stealth bomber and is expected to carry 1,000-lbs class weapons. The US is also working on Hypersonic (Mach 6) Strike Bomber which is likely to be optionally manned. Uninhabited helicopter convoys will deliver supplies to troops deployed on combat frontlines. The US Army’s dramatic shift to a nearly all-unmanned flight over the next three decades is embedded in the UAS roadmap. The USAF’s UAS vision document indicates that by the year 2047 every mission would be unmanned.

Drone Swarm and Counters

Due to recent advances in chip technology and software for robotics, it has become feasible to design machines exhibiting complex behavior, achieve mutual coordination and accomplish complex tasks. Aerial robots can ascend synchronously, communicate with each other in mid-air and create cross-references. Fixed formation group flights and complex group manoeuvers are possible. The swarm of drones behaves and functions somewhat like swarms occurring in nature, for example, honeybee swarms flying in coordination, displaying collective intelligence and each executing a small share of the collective task. Very small drones, some weighing less than five pounds can cause devastation if they are armed with weapons and flown in a swarm of large numbers. Because of their size, these drones are difficult to see, difficult to catch on the radar and hard to shoot at with conventional weapons, particularly in swarms. Countering them is critical air combat ability. Drone swarms have some weaknesses and limitations too. First and foremost, their offensive could be blunted through the use of counter measures such as electronic warfare techniques, cyber attacks, laser and microwave weapons systems, small arms fire, camouflage and concealment or pitching a counter drone swarm.

Sixth-Generation Fighters

Sixth-generation fighters call for greater speed, range, stealth and self-healing structures; developments that will require new breakthroughs in propulsion, materials, power generation and weapons technology. Self-healing structures in particular, would pose a significant advantage over modern day aircraft, remaining airborne despite heavy enemy fire. The system comprises pockets of epoxy resin and a hardener, installed around vulnerable parts of the aircraft such as the underbelly, hatchways and wheel wells. If the area is damaged, the contents of the pocket are released to form a temporary plug, helping the aircraft to operate in spite of the damage. New generation of engines will allow ultra-high altitude super cruise. The avionics are supposed to withstand next generation electronic attack and cyber-attack as well as have passive detection, and integrated self-protection. The tail-less flying wing, ‘cranked kite’ design concept currently appears the way forward for future fighter aircraft.

New Engine Technology

Advanced engines such as Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (ADVENT) will allow longer ranges and higher performance. These engines are expected to be ready when new fighters are introduced around 2028. The engines could vary their by-pass ratios for optimum efficiency at any speed or altitude. This would allow an aircraft much greater range, faster acceleration and greater sub-sonic cruise efficiency. A variable cycle engine could configure itself to act like a turbo-jet at supersonic speeds, while performing like a high by-pass turbofan for efficient cruising at slower speeds. A low by-pass configuration would be used for take-offs and supersonic flight and a high by-pass configuration would have high propulsive efficiency for cruising.

Evolving Future Weaponry

Future weaponry would utilise scramjets for the faster missiles. On November 18, 2011, the first Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) glide vehicle was successfully tested by the US as part of the Prompt Global Strike programme. Russia announced that its first regiment of Avangard hypersonic missiles had been inducted into service in December 2019. Earlier in 2018, China has successfully tested three types of scaled-down hypersonic aircraft models together whose speed will be adjustable for a precision strike towards an unstoppable nuclear-capable weapon. China declared on October 01, 2019, that the DF-ZF Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) was operational. At these speeds a missile cannot be stopped by conventional air defence technology. The Trump administration had allocated $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons research in its 2019 defence budget to keep pace with Russia and China.

Reusable DEW and lasers, used for defensive as well as offensive measures delivering effects at the speed of light, would be the weapons of the future. The USAF’s new Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM) for 2030s would use an improved solid rocket motor having synergised thrust vectoring. It will have an improved ‘high off bore sight’ for rear hemisphere kills and ‘lower cost per kill’. The Miniature Self-Defence Munitions (MSDM) will enhance the self-defense capability kinetically of future platforms without impacting the primary weapons payload. The long-range missile replacing AMRAAM would be survivable, and combine air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. Range would be a big factor to counter potential adversaries with Chinese PL-15 with a claimed range of 400km. It will be multi-band, broad spectrum, which aids it in survivability and reaching the target. DARPA’s Triple Target Terminator (T3) programme envisions the combined capabilities of Raytheon’s AIM-120 and AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM). The new solid-state laser systems would defensively create a sanitised sphere of safety around the aircraft, shooting down or critically damaging incoming missiles and approaching aircraft with the laser turrets. Lasers will also be used for attacking targets on the ground with pin-point precision, and shooting down ballistic missiles. Controlling the aircraft’s heat signature while using laser weaponry is being evolved. Newer liquid based lasers promise enough energy to bring down an aircraft (about 150kW) yet are small enough to be mounted on a jet fighter. A laser weapon is expected to be mounted on next-generation air dominance fighters by the 2030s.

Technology Driven Operations

Technologies are offering enhanced capabilities that are driving operational employment and tactics. Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart structures and hybrid systems will dictate the future. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth which involves innovating sensor/processing systems. Thermally efficient, high-performance computing and processing enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Next-generation avionics would be smaller, more efficient and capable of operating under extreme conditions. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semi-conductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool and improves reliability for radars. Systems must maintain a competitive advantage in an austere budget environment. The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter and more structurally efficient compared to the conventional wings. This wing will maximise structural efficiency, reduce weight and conserve fuel.

Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and bio-mimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory are under development. Things will be built faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. Additive 3D manufacture would create a world with spare parts on demand, faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics, and customised weapons. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change ability to respond to conflict. Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions and significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, while driving down costs.

Capability-Based IAF

The IAF’s transformation is being driven from being platform-based to capability-based. Effects based, network-centric operations is the new norm. The advantage of air power is the ability to exploit swing-role capabilities. Modern platforms are critical. Induction of high technology assets is on and existing fleets are going through mid-life upgrades. Any modern air force must have at least 40 percent of combat fleet comprising high tech all-weather multirole platforms, 40 percent under upgrade and remaining 20 percent under changeover, but still giving strength through numbers.

The IAF today has fourth generation plus fighters in the upgraded Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and SU-30 MKI. With the exception of the Mirage-2000, all are twin engine. The soon-to-induct Rafale is of fourth generation ++ class. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) production is slow and the initially planned 123 aircraft could take at least eight to ten years to fructify. The IAF needs more fourth generation ++ aircraft. The Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) ran into serious developmental and cost road-blocks and has been abandoned. The HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fifth-generation fighter aircraft is planned to be a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth super-manoeuverable all-weather multi-role fighter aircraft.

Lessons learnt from the LCA programme need to be imbibed and used to get the AMCA become a success to propel India into the new league. As on date, the AMCA is still at project definition stage. At best, the first flight could be around 2028, and induction around 2035. With fast depleting squadrons, the IAF will require 500 new fighter aircraft of fourth generation ++ aircraft. The IAF also urgently needs additional AEW&C and Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA).

Time to Act

Future conflicts will be short, swift and intense engagements against a nuclear backdrop which may be followed by long stabilisation periods. A quantum jump in precision and lethality of weapon systems may result in non-linearity and increased tempo of operations. Technology-intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. The future air combat environment consists almost exclusively of BVR missile duels or eventually, directed-energy weapons engagements.

India must accelerate developing the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and long range aerial missiles. India is still slow in developing advanced Infra-Red Search and Track Systems (IRSTS), and the widespread adoption of electronic data-links that eliminate the need for slow and easily misunderstood voice communications between aerial platforms. Lack of encrypted radio was visible, to India’s peril, during the air engagement after Balakot. Advanced IFF systems, including a completely new encrypted Mode 5, are also crucial. It is also very important for India to ride the AI-based UCAV bandwagon. Meanwhile, stealth is an area where India seems to have little expertise. Hypersonic missiles are crucial for future combat and technologies may be imbibed from BrahMos. India has a long way to go for modern electronic warfare systems which are crucial for air combat of the future. There is normally a long cycle for airframe development, but there is a very short cycle to the evolution of software upgradeable electronics, avionics and weapons. Such an approach to upgrades should help. Involving a major foreign player in Joint Ventures may also accelerate the process.

The IAF will have to build deterrence and have the ability to dominate the air. It will have to induct modern systems for situational awareness, intelligence and precision strike ability. It will require fixed and rotary wing tactical and strategic air transport assets. Transformation would be spread over a period of time, and the IAF is looking at a horizon of 15 years. Technological advancements and evolving changes would have to be factored in. Future security challenges will be more and more complex, multi-dimensional and non-traditional in both kinetic and non kinetic form. The IAF would need to think differently to be able to tackle the various asymmetric and non-traditional security threats and would require more innovative, out-of-the-box solutions to leverage the prevalent technology. For India to be secure, the IAF must continue to touch the sky with glory. It is time to act and think ahead, lest India get left behind once again.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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