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Robot Planes to Save the Air Force

June 17, 2009

071127-F-2185F-005.jpgThe British Royal Air Force and the USAF are battling stringent budgets these days, where in decades past none would have questioned the purchase of advanced fighters and bombers to fill the combat wings of each. Things are so bad that some are even debating the need for air forces in an age seemingly dominated by land threats, with the RAF taking desperate measures to ensure its survival, by striking at its old antagonist the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.

In the USA, with still the world’s largest and most effective aerial armada, Defense Secretary Gates has given the country’s youngest military service a mandate to create a force more relevant to present and likely future threats. Journalist and blogger David Axe gives the details:

Of all the U.S. military services, the Air Force has arguably been the most reluctant to evolve. While the Army and Marines have added forces tailored for low-intensity warfare and the mission to advise and train foreign militaries, the Air Force has stuck to its Cold War-style wings and squadrons, predominantly equipped with high-tech fighters. In his budget announcements, Gates promised deep cuts to the fighter fleet.

Instead of seeing the cuts to manned fighters as a death-knell for the Air Force, Gates is encouraging them to use this as an opportunity for change, into a smaller but still lethal arm of the Pentagon. Utilizing the enhanced capabilities of unmanned air vehicles, UAVs, the service would make itself useful in the numerous COIN conflicts we are currently engaged in, and likely will continue to contend with in future Hybrid Wars against low tech asymmetric threats. Axe continues:

While spending on manned aircraft has slipped in recent years, investment in unmanned aircraft has grown. In 2010, the Air Force will buy 24 MQ-9 Reaper armed drones, for roughly $20 million apiece. The USAF is on track to have 50 “orbits” of Reapers and smaller Predator drones, pictured, by 2011 — double what the air service thought it would have, just a couple years ago. One orbit represents three or four drones, plus their ground stations. In a dramatic acknowledgment of the increasing importance of drones, in April, Marine Corps General James Cartwright, the vice chairmen of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said Reapers would now be counted as fighters.

Though such a force would be useful and even essential for these type of battles we are currently engaged in, Strategypage reveals further Air Force plans for the new drones which may change the face of airpower as we know it:

Over the last few years, it was decided that the air force and navy be allowed to develop combat UAVs to suit their particular needs. The X45 was meant mainly for those really dangerous bombing and SEAD missions. But the Pentagon finally got hip to the fact that the UCAS developers were coming up with an aircraft that could replace all current fighter-bombers. This was partly because of the success of the X45 in reaching its development goals, and the real-world success of the Predator (in finding, and attacking, targets) and Global Hawk (in finding stuff after flying half way around the world by itself.)

We go then from fighting poorly armed insurgents to UAVs taking the place of high performance fighter bombers for striking hardened targets defended by advanced SAM systems. Neither should the Pentagon shy away from the idea that the unmanned bombers will now compete with traditional manned jets, the latter of which are increasing rapidly in price and technicality, due to ongoing attempts to make it survivable in the missile age.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. DesScorp permalink
    June 18, 2009 1:26 pm

    In his budget announcements, Gates promised deep cuts to the fighter fleet.

    Kudos for this, as its overdue. But we’re still going to fill those remaining squadrons with the F-35, so its not all good news.

  2. Heretic permalink
    June 17, 2009 10:19 am

    As good as UAVs and UCAVs are (and may become), they still have an Achilles Heel … their communications. That means EW can render them “lost and alone” in ways that would not defeat a manned aircraft (armed with Mk I Eyeballs, and a control system that uses gin and scotch for fuel).

    If the USAF goes heavily into UAV/UCAV territory, be prepared to see (serious) adversaries start stocking up on EW capability … which the USAF is already seriously deficient in.

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