End of the Airpower Age?
You might have read this by Greg Grant at DoDBuzz-U.S. Air Dominance Eroding:
The U.S. military’s historic dominance of the skies, unchallenged since around spring 1943, is increasingly at risk because of the proliferation of advanced technologies and a buildup of potential adversary arsenals, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula…Emphasizing the increasing capabilities of “anti-access weapons,” such as long range precision missiles, Deptula said pilots in future wars will not operate in the “permissive” threat environments of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…
Without functioning ground bases, aircraft cannot operate; the Air Force is investing heavily in shorter ranged tactical aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35, along with a host of older F-15 and F-16. Overseas bases from which these aircraft operate are now threatened by increasingly accurate ballistic missiles in Chinese, Russian, Iranian and North Korean arsenals, Deptula said…Enemies will use cyber attacks to target U.S. command and control networks and satellite relays, the smooth functioning of which the military is now completely dependant.
Part of this problem stems from building planes which take decades to place into service, while technical progress waits for no one. It is also a natural development, as the guided missile, since World War 2 in contention with manned air, is finally gaining ground thanks mainly to the micro-chip. The very need for incredibly expensive stealth to make planes invisible to SAM radar was a hint to us that the military airpower, which commanded so much awe and fear, and was the foundation of American world power like the Navy was for Great Britain, finally had met its match. Back in 2006, yours truly warned of this in an editorial titled “The Decline and Fall of Airpower“:
Modern air strategists look on America’s fleet of stealth fighters and bombers, like the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as the future of aerial combat. In fact, because of excessive costs in the hundreds of millions for each plane, as well as decade’s long development periods, it is likely this generation is the last of America’s long infatuation with manned combat aircraft.
The achievements of airpower have often astounded its critics, as well as disenchanted its advocates…As modern planes increase in cost and complexity, so have their numbers dwindled considerably…Very soon, the control of airpower may return to the ground forces, where it was born. Unmanned planes will perform close air support in the land battle as well as long-range strike and its traditional role of aerial surveillance. The new planes will be easier to design and build, plus much cheaper for mass production, at least until future airpower generals decide they need UAVs which are bigger, faster, and ever more costly.
It could be that the UAVs are as vulnerable if not more so than the manned fighter bomber. If so, they will still be vital in low threat, COIN conflicts we most often fight, and also for long range patrol over the oceans, where there is less of a missile threat. This will happen not because they are better than traditional aircraft, just cheaper, easier to build, and practical. They will even be joined by older types such as helicopters and troops transports of which there are no robot substitutes as of yet. Proof that manned air won’t be completely dead.
But the real power will belong to the SAMs, which will displace the air defense fighter, and mobile missiles performing air superiority roles. The IRBMs, and ICBMs have already displaced the manned bomber in strategic missions, and now with precision warheads will take over the tactic role that we currently use the world’s most expensive planes like the B-1 and B-2s for. Way back in 2004 we penned this:
The age of sleek jet fighters is at an end, even as they reach their peak of performance. Nations now prefer to hide behind massive batteries of surface to air missiles, which too are coming of age. If a US patriot missile can destroy the ejected warheads of elusive battlefield missiles, what chance will a heavy jet fighter have? American and British warplanes are now utilized almost exclusively as “carriers” for guided missiles, bombs, and in the future, UAV’s. Already AWACS planes control the air war as mobile airborne command posts. How easy it will be to replace the bombers and jet fighters in a future war with cruise missiles and UAV’s armed with guided munitions.