by DAVID AXE
Dave Dietsch from the U.S. Air Force Association advocacy group is worried about the future. Specifically, he’s worried that the U.S. military will lose its traditional air-defense prowess, rendering vulnerable thousands of American drones, attack planes, spy planes, transports and helicopters. “Without enough modern fighters to control the skies over future battlefields, American soldiers and Marines will lose the vital information and support these systems provide,” he wrote in a newspaper editorial. “Losing the air power edge — ever — would be inconceivably costly in the lives of American ground troops.”
Dietsch isn’t the only observer to sound the alarm over a perceived decline in U.S. air dominance. Last year, when the Pentagon opted to end production of the Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter at just 187 copies, Air Force General John Corley told the Senate that the decision “puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid term.”
In reality, the U.S. Air Force still maintains the world’s largest and most sophisticated fleet of air-to-air fighters, including not the F-22s, but more than a thousand F-15s and F-16s solely or partially dedicated to air defense. The U.S. Marine Corps’ fleet of just under 200 first-generation F/A-18s is alone larger than the entire fighter fleets of most of the world’s air forces. Add these Marine fighters to the Navy’s force of first- and second-generation F/A-18s — never mind the Air Force — and still you’d have the largest modern air superiority force in the world, by a comfortable margin. As existing F/A-18s, F-16s and F-15s age out, the should be replaced by a like number of Lockheed F-35s currently under development. Clearly, doomsayers are misinformed — or motivated something other than patriotism.
Still, the U.S. will eventually need to replace its air-to-air fighters — a reality the Pentagon has considered in its long-range plans. For the F-22, “a successor aircraft would be needed about 2025,” the Defense Department’s 30-year aviation plan notes. “In the far term, the Air Force will retire its fourth-generation fighter/attack fleet. In evaluating replacement options, it will consider both manned and unmanned options.” In fact, a mix of the two — a so-called “manned-unmanned teaming” — could offer the best performance.
The Department’s track record for new manned aircraft development is not a good one. The F-22 program cost more than $60 billion over 20 years for just 187 airframes. The successor F-35, meant to cost just $60 million apiece for nearly 2,500 copies, now costs roughly twice that. Unmanned aircraft programs, by contrast, have generally out-performed their manned counterparts, in terms of cost. The MQ-1 and MQ-9 built by General Atomics have been particularly successful. The California-based firm funds much of its own development work. Plus, the drones with their long endurance “do, in fact, give you a qualitative edge,” Marine Corps General James Cartwright said.
For that reason, a large number of drones complemented by a small number of manned fighters could represent the best business case and operational model for future air superiority.
There’s precedent for such manned-unmanned teaming. The U.S. Army’s new Block III version of the AH-64D gunship helicopter is fitted with data-links and controls allowing the chopper crew to control drones while in flight. A drone can act as an extension of the helicopter’s weapon and sensor suites, effectively doubling the effect of each. Similar equipment could turn manned fighters into drone “mother-ships.” Boeing is already considering a basic level of manned-unmanned teaming for future modifications of the F/A-18E/F.
Aside from a single incident in 2002 when an RQ-1 armed with a Stinger missile tried, and failed, to shoot down an Iraqi fighter, drones have not engaged in air combat. But robot aircraft — especially the current generation of jet-powered, flying-wing drones such as the Lockheed RQ-170 — could be modified to act as flying arsenals and sensor craft, boosting the abilities of traditional fighters.
Consider, the biggest weakness of the U.S. fighter force in a projected air battle over Taiwan is the missile capacity of individual jets. “The defender simply cannot put enough missiles in the air to keep large numbers of Chinese penetrators from getting through,” think-tank RAND observed in an exhaustive analysis. If each U.S. fighter had an unmanned “partner” — or several — that could potentially double the number of missiles it could fire.
Raytheon has already studied techniques for firing AMRAAM air-to-air missiles from a drone — albeit in the AMRAAM’s anti-ballistic-missile model. If one AMRAAM version can be fired from a drone, surely so can another. If helicopters can control drones, surely so can fighters. It shouldn’t be a stretch to combine aerial missiles, drones and manned fighters in such a way as to build the world’s most powerful air superiority force — all at reasonable cost. Manned-unmanned teaming could usher in a renewed era of U.S. air dominance.