Tuesday 8 March 2016

The Future of Air War

Aerial combat is a central aspect of modern warfare, and has proven its importance from the Doolittle raid of 1942 to the latest 6th generation fighter unveiled by Russia.
However, this is poised to change as new technologies enter the battlefield. It will have to adapt or be phased out like the battleships. In this series of posts, we'll lay down the foundations and concepts you will need to grasp so that you too can plausibly predict the future of air war.
The easiest way to understand modern aerial combat is to look at how it is won.

Evolution of jet fighters
This is done in steps.

The first involves electronic warfare. Radars are the first line of defense for an enemy airspace. They detect incoming aircraft and allow the rest of the defense network to act upon an intrusion. Once detected, an incoming aircraft is locked on by Surface to Air missiles and Anti-Air cannons, and is shot down. Unless, this is countered by a variety of techniques, such as jamming, Anti-Radar Missiles, radar stealth or high speed/high altitude evasion.
The MAR-1 Anti-Radiation Missile, developed for the PAF
Once the attacking aircraft are inside the enemy airspace, they will want to escape or engage hostile aircraft. To do this, they require their own radars, and they need to coordinate and communicate between themselves and aircraft dedicated to this role.

Escape, once again, is a matter of high speed and radar or infrared camouflage. Engaging, however, leads to aerial combat. Today, this entails a Beyond Visual Range attack by long-range missiles.

If the BVR attack is not completely successful, attacking and defending aircraft close in for a short-range battle. This leads to a series of Aerial Combat maneuvers or dogfighting that positions attackers favorably for use of Air-to-Air missiles or even guns to take down the defenders.

Variety of long and short range missiles available to the Su-30
Once the defenders are dealt with, and the airspace cleared of SAM launchers, the attackers have gained air superiority. They are then free to engage in bombing targets with precision munitions, or rapidly react to enemy ground or sea force movements.
Bunker-busting is something artillery cannot do and cruise missiles are too expensive for.
So what's happening today?

Without the impetus of actual war between first world nations, changes in the field of aerial warfare are slow, and favour service extensions of existing aircraft to the development of new aircraft. When they do try to design new aircraft, they end up with an ineffective hodgepodge of outdated thinking and contradictory mission parameters.

UAVs are the major game-hanger today. They are cheaper than a modern jet fighter, can stay in the air for extended periods and do not require the training cost of a pilot or the risk of losing a life with every sortie. For most precision strikes, they have replaced the need for both a jet bomber and a long-range cruise missile. They can loiter nearly endlessly over a potential target before striking for a major tactical advantage.
The MQ-9 reaper can stay in the air for 14 hours.
Another important change is the advances made in electronic warfare. Radars and onboard computers are creating and sharing information on the battlefield at an unprecedented rate, and specially conceived ergonomics have to be developed for displaying all of their information for pilots to handle. This has led the transition to helmet displays or even tests in Virtual Reality displays.
BAE systems HUD helmet for F-35 pilots
Technologies that all the latest jet fighters are believed to require a moderate level of stealth and the ability to supercruise at supersonic speeds.

How will air war evolve in the near future?
Northrop Grumman's 6th gen fighter
We can make reasonable predictions based in the latest demonstrators and project goals from the giants of the military industries worldwide (Boeing, Dassault...), at least for the next 50 years.

Missiles will soon be able to fly at hypersonic speeds, such as the BrahMos II. They will reach targets three to six times sooner than conventional air-to-air missiles, reducing the reaction time available for targets and maybe even bypassing some of the traditional anti-missile defenses, such as chaff and flares.
BrahMos-II hypersonic missile.
More importantly, supersonic drones will appear. With improvements in onboard technology, battlefield networks and electronic warfare capability, UAVs will soon be able to compete directly with jet fighters, or even supersede them due to the advantages of not having a cockpit (higher g-loads, less piloting errors, lower weight and more aerodynamic noses).
A Neuron UCAV next to a Eurofighter Typhoon.
Until we develop fully combat-ready AI, these fighter-drones may have to be accompanied by 'handler' aircraft. These are aircraft capable of flying alongside the fighter-drones, but instead of engaging in aerial combat, they stay back and manage the drones. This includes coordinating their actions with zero lag, making tactical decisions (engage or run, fire or no fire) or performing actions that are difficult to automate, such as assessing damage or confirming that the mission has been successful.

Railgun technology will also have an effect or aerial warfare. Railgun-equipped warships will allow the Navy to engage targets up to 200 miles in-shore, reducing the need for cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk or short-range sorties. Soon, railgun artillery will also be available, so in conjunction with subsonic drones, there will be very little need for a short-to-medium range jet bomber. Jet fighters will instead be used for attacking targets that are far inland, require precision munitions such as bunker busters, or for supporting ground troops. 
Expected railgun performance
Railgun technology would also help jet aircraft fulfill their new roles. They'd allow for aircraft carrier catapults that are both more powerful and more gentle than current pneumatic versions, meaning that aircraft will be able to launch from aircraft carrier decks with more fuel and more ammunition, and with less redesign and reinforcement to their framework to handle the acceleration.

What about the far future?
Lockheed Martin's SR-72 Hypersonic spy plane
The developments in aerial warfare in the next 100 years are less predictable, which is a good thing for a writer or worldbuilder. Generally, the most effective weapons of previous wars are honed and perfected for the next wars, at the expense of others.

For example, guided missiles and supersonic speeds phased out gunfighting in jet fighters, until electronic warfare and stealth combat pushed engagement ranges closer again.

Railguns have the capability of becoming the most important weapon technology, replacing chemical propellant guns and cannons. If they become extremely capable, both in terms of raw performance and ease of use, they could completely replace short-range bombardment, artillery, short-range missiles, anti-air defences, point-defense and so on. Anti-Air would be radically more effective if the missiles are replaced by hypersonic projectiles that cannot be avoided or fooled, forcing aircraft into high altitudes or full-stealth configurations.

Missile technology could instead advance by leaps and bounds. They could travel faster and track targets better. Improvements in software could allow them to distinguish chaff from the target's radar signature. Inter-missile communication could allow 'swarms' of missiles to coordinate their attacks and cut off escape routes. Or, they could become cheaper and more compact, allowing each aircraft to become a flying missile boat, able to shoot off wave after wave of missiles at targets at maximal range.

The development of lasers would lead to very interesting consequences. To be able to fly, aircraft are necessarily very light. This means they usually have thin skins with fuel and electronics under it. Lasers are particularly effective against this type of target, so being able to mount a 100kW laser with appropriate optics means that jet fighters are able to shoot each other down at ranges of 20km, basically, from horizon to horizon or more.
Laser-armed jet fighter concept from Northrup Grumman
Lasers would have interesting requirements and lead to a variety of new tactics. Since lasers hit instantaneously, and their accuracy increases over the course of firing the beam, all those missile envelopes and conservation of velocity and altitude in Air Combat Maneuvers becomes irrelevant. Also, lasers would always overwhelm any amount of armoring aircraft would try to mount.

The result would be a ground-skimming subsonic aircraft, sheathed in brilliant reflective paint, maneuvering around depressions and smoke screens to pop out, shoot from above, then duck under cover to avoid return fire. The laser generator would be run by an alternator powered by the main jet turbines. The laser beam can be shot through the transparent nose with great accuracy, or through ports on the back and belly of the craft with lower accuracy and effectiveness. Aircraft would maneuver to position themselves into the blind spot behind the engine. Missiles are either launched in waves or at angles that they cannot be shot down from by defensive laser fire.

High altitude craft would be entirely eliminated if laser defenses becomes effective. Instead, cheap observation drones would be sent up to try and spot enemy ground-skimmers before they are shot down.

Supersonic jet fighters would be useless, since they wouldn't be able to outrun lasers, anti-aircraft defences or missiles. Instead, they'd concentrate on laser defences shooting down incoming projectiles and maneuverability.

The optimal fighter would end up becoming some sort of hybrid-electric Harrier Jump Jet, with reflective paint and laser domes on the front, back and belly.

And after that?

It becomes too hard to predict. Anti-Aircraft projectiles might becomes so fast that nothing would stay long enough in the sky to fire back. Lasers might instead dominate the battlefield, with beams being bounced over the horizon by mirror drones. Missiles might replace everything else...

Space warfare might extend down to the ground and vice-versa. They would be able to have a clear picture of the forces below, and drop accurate projectiles through orbital bombardment, as well as shoot straight down with infrared or visual-spectrum lasers. In return, railguns can shoot straight up, and ramjet-boosted Anti-satellite missiles might become smaller and cheaper to be used en masse.
Orbital laser platform.
Going further, satellites might be replaced by an invading interplanetary fleet. Orbital artillery and lasers are so powerful that nothing on the ground survives for long, forcing defenders to go underwater or underground. It's up to you to decide. 


  1. That was a very interesting read! Thank you and keep it up!

    1. You are very welcome. There's more to come!

  2. Dear Matterbeam,

    This is extremely interesting! I would add that any lightweight spacecraft armor developed in the future might be deployed for these aircraft as well, possibly mixing things up a bit. Might Phase array lasers striped across the hull allow 'broadsides' between aircraft?

    Ever since I began reading Atomic Rockets and commenting on Rocketpunk manifesto, almost a decade ago, I've been thinking of writing something like this myself. It looks like you beat me to it but I do have some stuff still kicking around, and I'd like to put it to good use.
    Therefore, could I send it to you to see if you might find it to be useful?

    Specific topics I have been working on include:

    The future of naval warfare (both plausible mid-future to far future).

    How to get space (and sea) freightors in the age of the 3d printer and the internet.

    Distinguishing civilian craft from military craft.

    How to write feasible planetary invasions.

    Pirates! (Or how young nations can be made to look like them so they fit in a stealth-less setting).

    How to use heat radiators to make your dreadnoughts look fearsome.

    Armoring heat radiators.

    I could send you a sample article if you wanted.

    Looking forward to seeing you posting another article!

    Geoffrey S H

    1. Delighted to see you here too, geoffrey.

      Super-materials such as Tungsten Carbide and Diamond-like Carbon are excellent for use as armor, as they are both strong and light.

      Aircraft will likely develop coatings and 'armor' for use against lasers, but my impression is that they'll find themselves afflicted with the flying battleship syndrome: able to adapt to situation, but unlikely to be competitive while doing so.

      For example, by the time armor technology takes a leap forward and produces a lightweight counter to lasers, there would be enough spacecraft in low orbit to make aircraft irrelevant. Or, that technology could be applied to missiles and shift the tide away from manned to unmanned vehicles and so on...

      I've been a long time fan of RocketPunk Manifesto, and part of the motivation behind ToughSF is the desire to reunite the commenters from that blog and recreate those incredible discussions we had over there.

      I'd love to receive your notes. I'm already swamped between uni, projects and my own research, so just pile yours on top of the pile of stuff to do :)

    2. Thankyou ever so much! Just let me know which email to send them to. They are only 1000 words per 'article' so hopefully I'm not swamping you too much!

      Hmmm... Did you ever comment on rocketpunk? If so I'm sure I must have seen a comment by you somewhere but I can't work out if I saw a 'matterbeam' there.

      If aircraft survive into the future it will either be as missiles that can be expended or recovered depending on the mission (Project Pluto style missiles acting as bombers?), or with improved stealth technology (more possible in air than in vacuum of course) enabling very short missions. The one advantage an aircraft has over space craft or a missile is that they can hover over a specific location for a long time. So expendable (but still recoverable) recon drones might just about survive into a spacecraft/laser dominant future.

      Military aircraft designers are still going to be in for a shock in the near future though....

    3. Sorry Geoffrey for not getting back to you sooner.

      Send your suggestions to malik8050 at yahoo.com

      I first encountered Rocketpunk manidesto 5 and a half years ago. I commented under other names, but I was younger, so a lot of it is naive or wrong.

    4. I still find occasionally that my comments there come across as naive or wrong... until the comments threats take on a more history/sociological perspective.

      Anyways, an email is on the way. Feel free to have a look.

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