Two Contrasting Trends in Military Aircraft Development
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AIRBORNE platforms are arguably among the most technologically advanced and impactful military equipment, considered by many to have shifted paradigms of warfare over recent different historical periods. During the First World War, it took time for combatant nations to figure out how to use aircraft in battle, from dropping crude bombs on enemy targets to working out how to fire bullets through the front-mounted propeller! Aviation technologies developed at rapid pace during and after Second World War with the introduction of jets and rockets. With each new stage of advancement of military aircraft, anti-aircraft countermeasures too have been developed, acquiring ever greater sophistication.
Importantly, aircrafts themselves became significant weapons against opposing aircraft. Power, speed and maneuverability compared to rival aircraft became key design and performance characteristics. Aerial combat between opposing fighter aircraft has been an important and evolving part of warfare, with each combatant seeking dominance in the air. Put together, these aerial weapons platforms are major parts of the burgeoning global arms industry.
SETTING THE CONTEXT
Missiles increasingly came into use both as offensive weapons to hit stationery targets from land, sea or air, and as weapons to bring down enemy aircraft or missiles. Missiles, along with other identification, tracking and networking systems, have gradually evolved into theatre-defences or what are known as anti-access or area-denial systems. There is thus a constant race between the capabilities of military aircraft and those of anti-aircraft systems. Given the high cost of advanced fighter aircraft, at say several hundred million dollars each, armed forces would hesitate to throw them into battle scenarios where the opponent has effective missile defence systems at 15-20 million dollars per missile. We have therefore seen high deployment of fighters, during the conflicts in the middle-east by the US, its allies and Russia, in a context when their opponents were not equipped with sophisticated anti-aircraft systems. On the other hand, use of fighter aircraft over Ukraine has been limited with Russia preferring to use missiles and drones, given that Ukraine is being supplied increasingly advanced missile defence systems by the US and other NATO countries, now reportedly likely to include the US Patriot systems.
At the sophisticated end of fighter aircraft, such as those used or being developed by rich and technologically advanced nations, aerial combat between aircraft is increasingly viewed as being less important than overcoming anti-aircraft and area-denial systems. In many theatres, countries have preferred to buy and rely on fourth generation fighters such as the Boeing F/A 18 or Rafale considering these to be adequate given their likely adversaries, rather than the far more expensive fifth generation fighters such as the US F-35 fighter which are broadly restricted to close US allies in NATO, Japan etc. However, this does not prevent the most advanced countries such as the US to pursue development of the next generation of aerial weapons platforms in pursuit of global dominance over all possible adversaries.
In the meantime, drones or pilotless aircraft have come into their own. The US is widely recognised as the world leader in drone technologies, having developed and used a variety of large unarmed and armed long-endurance drones for surveillance and attack over the past two decades, with the active assistance of satellite and other tracking, target acquisition and precision-guided weapons. Many less developed countries are often defenceless against such drones. Drones are relatively less technologically complex than aircraft, the sophistication lying more in the autonomous flight capabilities and networked sensors, tracking and targeting systems. Drones are far less expensive than fighter aircraft and are not designed for aerial combat. At the lower end of the spectrum, other less developed countries have been developing smaller, less sophisticated and even less expensive drones for both surveillance and ground attack which, , as seen in Ukraine, can be used with great effect under certain battlefield conditions. Defence analysts predict a dramatic increase in the use of drones in the years to come.
These two contrasting trends have been underlined in recent days and deserve closer examination.
A fortnight ago, the US unveiled its highly secretive futuristic next generation bomber, the B-21 Raider made by Northrop Grumman at its Palmdale, California facility. The live-streamed unveiling before an invited audience was itself dramatic, with the B-21 emerging from a shroud as it emerged from its hangar, backlit in ghostly blue light! Only this front view was available, with no top or plan view seen, nor a rear view which would have shown the exhaust system from which some insights into the engine and flight performance characteristics could have been extracted. This is not completely unusual for top-secret US aircraft projects. Even the B-21’s predecessor, the B-2 ‘Sprite’ stealth bomber also made by Northrop Grumman, and the Lockheed F-117 Night Hawk stealth attack aircraft, officially retired in 2008 but still seen with the USAF, were revealed to the public only years after they were first announced, therefore being termed ‘black hangar queens.’
The B-21 is a genuine sixth generation aircraft, the world’s first, fully digitally designed and made using advanced materials, flexible software and digitally-guided manufacturing techniques. It builds on more than three decades of experience and knowledge of stealth technology in the US military industry, and takes stealth to a whole new level, specifically designed to overcome current and anticipated anti-access and area-denial systems. It is built using an open systems architecture, that is, a design and systems configuration with in-built capability for modification or upgrading in response to evolving needs. New technology, capabilities and weapons to deal with future threat perceptions will be seamlessly incorporated through agile software upgrades and built-in hardware flexibility. The B-21 is envisaged more as a flying weapons platform and the lead component of a larger family of systems than as a stand-alone aircraft, and has advanced networking capabilities for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, multi-domain networking with land, air, and space assets. The aircraft will have long-range precision-strike capability of reaching any part of the world. During operations, it is likely that the B-21 would be accompanied by unmanned drone fighters for defence and to supplement networking.
Development costs are estimated to be between $20billion and $80billion.
Meanwhile, the US military is also developing the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighters expected to enter service in the 2030s and replace the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. NGAD too is visualised along the lines above, as the centre-piece of a “family of systems” accompanied by unmanned “loyal wingman” platforms with Manned-Unmanned-Teaming (MUM-T). The aircraft are likely to have advanced “adaptive propulsion” engines.
Both these aircraft are likely to have shorter and longer-range version for the European and the Indo-Pacific theatres respectively.
Simultaneously, the UK, Japan and Italy have announced plans to develop their own sixth generation Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) so as to have their own capability independent of the US, and pooling resources for the development costs. This aircraft is expected to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon, and merge the separate sixth generation programmes of BAe Systems Tempest of the UK, and Mitsubishi F-X from Japan.
These efforts are clearly aimed at global dominance and pre-empt efforts by either Russia or China to develop comparable systems, both the latter already behind as regards networking, avionics, electronic warfare systems and so on.
At the same time, the first war being fought in the European mainland involving the major powers Russia and the US, UK, Germany, France and other NATO countries, have revealed the limitations of fighter aircraft and have exposed battlefield scenarios not earlier envisaged. The US has exercised restraint by, till now at least, not giving advanced fighter aircraft to Ukraine for fear of triggering an escalation to aerial warfare and maybe even nuclear war. On its part, Russia has also limited use of its massive air force over Ukraine, deterred by Soviet-origin anti-aircraft missiles whose capabilities Russia well knows, and the potentially high costs of fighter aircraft losses. Russia has preferred to use cruise missiles on a large scale, now finally prompting a US agreement to supply potent Patriot missile defence systems to Ukraine, with unknown ramifications.
Russia has surprisingly used low-cost, small, low-flying Iranian Shahed-136 drones, often geared for suicide missions smashing into targets with their payloads. In theory, such drones, almost like model aircraft with piston engines and wooden propellers, should be relatively easy to shoot down using even fairly ordinary weapons and anti-aircraft guns, provided of course they are detected in time. Issue is that since they cost only around $25,000, they can be used in large numbers so that if even 25 per cent get through, they can cause serious damage. And it does not make sense to use anti-aircraft missiles costing $2-3 million apiece to attack these cheap drones. Russia is believed to have acquired around 2000 such drones from Iran. Russia is also believed to have received larger Mohajer-6 Drones with 20-metres wingspan which fly at around 18,000km, often beyond the range of usual short-range air defence systems.
Iran is known to be a leader in drone technology in its region despite all the US sanctions against it. Iran has developed several types of drones for different ranges and uses as a weapon to be used against adversarial ground forces and for longer-range reach in the wider region.
Ukraine and its western allies are yet to work out tactics and systems to use against these drones.
On the other hand, Ukraine has received and effectively deployed Turkish drones by Bayraktar, a private start-up in Turkiye. These are more conventional, larger drones with relatively high ceiling and long endurance. Initially they inflicted serious damage on Russian ground forces especially large, slow-moving targets like tanks and armour, often spread too thin to be provided effective air defences. Later, however, Russian forces learned to shoot them down using anti-aircraft defences and by blocking satellite signals provide by the west. Recent reports suggest a plan to manufacture these drones in Ukraine is likely to fructify, having encountered trouble earlier.
The broad lesson here is that even low-tech equipment has a role in specific battlefield scenarios.
India would do well to question its failure hitherto to develop suitable drones despite its known aeronautical capabilities, and its consequent dependence on US and Israeli drones.
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