That’s the conclusion of a wide-ranging study by the respected Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments. Breaking Defense obtained a copy of the report from a source not affiliated with CSBA.
Here’s the study’s main finding: “The overall conclusion of this study was that over the past few decades, advances in electronic sensors, communications technology, and guided weapons may have fundamentally transformed the nature of air combat.”
The conclusions are based on author John Stillion‘s analysis of a database of “over 1,450 air-to-air victories” around the world from 1965 to the present.
According to Stillion’s study, the ability to build an aircraft that can find, surprise and then kill enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft systems using speed and maneuverability is rapidly meeting the physical limits of range, speed and useful capability.
“The increased importance of electronic sensors, signature reduction, RF [radio frequency] and IR [infra-red] countermeasures and robust LOS networks in building dominant SA [situational awareness], and the potential reduced tactical utility of high speed and maneuverability could mean that, for the first time, the aerial combat lethality of large combat aircraft may be competitive or even superior to more traditional fighter aircraft designs emphasizing speed and maneuverability,” the study says.
Put another way, missiles can now often outperform most fighter aircraft, although stealth and electronic warfare help even the score.
Trends from the database of air combat since 1965 show the rise of long range missiles and a steep decline in dog-fighting. Of the 33 U.S. kills in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, only four involved any maneuvering at all. 25 years on, the power of long range sensors and missiles is only greater, meaning that traditional fighter attributes such as speed, thrust-to-weight ratios, and turn radius are even less important to success today and in the future.
Stillion concludes that speed will not help future aircraft because higher speeds mean higher heats from engines and along leading edges and other aircraft surfaces. More combatants will rely on Infrared Search and Track Systems (IRST) because Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jammers will disrupt search radars. (See page 36 of the study). So enemies will be looking for heat with those IRST sensors and fast planes will be easier to spot.
What does this mean for the Pentagon as it explores building the next generation fighter, the so-called sixth generation fighter?
Stillion says the Pentagon should consider “‘radical’ departures from traditional fighter concepts that rely on enhanced sensor performance, signature control, networks to achieve superior SA [situational awareness], and very-long-range weapons to complete engagements before being detected or tracked by enemy aircraft.”
That requires, he said in an email to me, that, “we should take a broad, objective and imaginative look at how to achieve air superiority in the decades beyond 2035. This may, or may not, result in a preference for non-traditional platforms rather than improved fighter aircraft, but more likely it will show we want a mix of both types of capabilities. The important thing is to do the objective assessment.”
The Pentagon has launched its Defense Dominance Initiative and the related Air Innovation Initiative, a DARPA-led effort to come up with approaches to the F-X and its engines. Stillion’s study will clearly be read by DARPA and Frank Kendall, head of Pentagon acquisition as it mulls what to experiment with.
The Ultimate Multirole Plane?
One industry source who has read the study said that, “Stillion makes a very good case that we should rethink our strategy. Why invest in the sixth generation fighter to create a ‘super F-22’? Such an aircraft will only offer marginal improvements over the F-22 at great cost. But it will still be fairly short-ranged (at least considering the operational distances in the Pacific and other theaters). Wouldn’t it be better instead to focus on a bigger aircraft?”
Those larger planes can have bigger apertures (radar and infra-red) to detect threats at longer ranges and can carry bigger missiles to strike the enemy before he can hit us.
“What I find most compelling,” the industry source says, “is the idea that we could develop a single, large, long-range, big payload, stealthy aircraft that would comprise the future United States Air Force’s combat arm. You would have a common airframe that could be outfitted with different payloads to do different missions.”
One airframe, the industry source speculates, could provide a strike version, an air-to-air missile version for self defense, a nuclear aircraft, an air superiority version fitted with directed energy weapons, and planes for airborne early warning and ground surveillance missions.
The ultimate expression of this approach: a future US Air Force with a fleet of roughly 400 aircraft “as the core of the United States’ power projection force,” the industry source believes.
“Some elements of the new battle force could be unmanned as well to take better advantage of the big aircraft’s endurance. Maybe we would want to call this aircraft the “Battleplane”—something envisioned by Guilio Douhet in the 1920s. Intercontinental range means this force can strike anywhere on the planet—and concurrently win air superiority. We would not need to deploy hundreds of short range fighters to close-in bases—we could operate from distant bases. Just think of the savings in terms of logistics, development, procurement, and manpower if we went to a single airframe,” the industry source opines.
An astute observer might read this study and conclude that the builder of the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB), with its long range and enormous weapons capacity, could find itself in an enviable position to build that new power projection aircraft. Maybe.
How much chance is there that the Pentagon will embrace such a radical departure from the norms of the last 75 years?
“History says no,” the industry source believes. “How will the Air Force leadership—primarily composed of fighter pilots—react to the idea of using ‘bombers’ to do the air superiority mission?”
Imagine the cultural shifts needed by the Air Force and senior Pentagon leaders to embrace such an approach. Perhaps the impending budget drawdowns, the increased aggression of Russia, and the looming rise of China can help illuminate the future for them.
This is one of those rare studies that we may all remember in another decade and cite in footnotes and wonder that the Pentagon had the courage to act. If we’re lucky. If you want to understand air combat alone, this is a must-read.