Evolving Trends in Aerial Combat

anil chopra, air power asia, Air Combat

The air combat engagement between Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Indian Air Force (IAF) during PAF riposte after Balakot air strikes in February 2019, is being discussed in air forces across the world to draw lessons for future trends in air combat. One thing that came out clear was the need for long range sensors and high speed long range aerial weapons, with high no-escape zones, and ability to operate in electronic and electro-optical threat environment for ‘air superiority’. Farther and speedier is the mantra. Agility and high-rate-of-turn close-combat could become less important. A USAF study that analysed over 1,450 air-to-air engagements since 1965, found that long-range weapons and sensors have dramatically decreased instances of dog-fighting. The introduction of stealth designed, sensor-fused aircraft with new secure communication systems with multi-domain combat assets would be the foundation for what comes next.

          In the recent past, aided by technology, there has been a fundamental shift in the character and conduct of war and the ability of air power to rapidly adapt to emerging combat situations. The unique combination of evolving capabilities, new operational concepts and technology are shifting the entire warfare into the aerospace domain. Even the surface and sub-surface forces require aerial platforms, weapons and sensors to support operations. Air power and future of all warfare are intertwined. Air superiority, will still be a pre-requisite for all operations to succeed. Very accurate, long-range, short-notice, air strikes will continue to make significant contribution to the end-result of any conflict. At strategic level, quick response sizable airlift, could be a battle-winning requirement and an element of national power. Airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) has become even more crucial for decision-superiority in net-centric warfare. Sensor data fusion through advanced computing, and presenting meaning full solutions using Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already changing the way air power is applied.

          Air power has been the first to take to the ‘system of systems’ concept approach that uses capability functions resident in separate airborne platforms and exploits as single system. Sensor rich Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAV) operating as part of, or in close conjunction with manned strike aircraft, are making the air power seamless and create vulnerabilities for adversaries. The formidable combination of Combat UAV (UCAV) and AI, and the ability to loiter for very long periods, merged with precision-strike capabilities create a very potent system. Currently a ‘human-in-the-loop’, is considerate desirable for kill decisions albeit technology exists for full autonomous operations. Like autonomous killer-robots, there are legal and ethical issues for UCAVs. Air power delivered by a combination of machine and AI is the future.

Air power Attributes

          Air power, offers strategic flexibility in terms of ability to quickly reconfigure for different kinds of missions. The overarching air operations gives capability to project power at far distances without risking own mother land. Air power offers the political leadership strategic choices and alternatives for sustainable and easily scalable levels. Air Campaigns can be executed against different target systems simultaneously. Air Power has inherent capability to provide both kinetic and non kinetic options with pin point accuracy. Air Power can directly influence outcomes and action of the surface forces. Air Power has the ability to simultaneously produce physical as well as psychological shock.

Dominating Aerospace

          The one who controls the space will control the Air in future. Aerospace craft will aim to seize control establishing dominance/supremacy over the enemy’s aerospace assets. They will operate under the control/co-ordination of space-based Early Warning and Control satellites with increased AI. Satellite/aircraft based kinetic and Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) will soon be a reality and will be used for aerial or surface attack. In its quest to dominate the air battlefield of the future, the US Air Force (USAF) is looking at replacing the traditional fighter jet with a network of integrated systems disaggregated across multiple platforms. It could be a “family of systems” to address the range of threats in a highly contested environment. Meanwhile, Russia and China continue to close the capability gap with United States, through developments in Hypersonic and AI, building long-range missiles, anti-satellite and anti-aircraft weapons to foil U.S. forces’ ability to penetrate. USAF’s new strategy includes both stand-off capability and penetrating forces, with increased dependence on space and cyber to infiltrate enemy defences and defend own networks. USAF is looking at concepts like the arsenal plane, hypersonic weapons, directed energy, autonomy, and electronic attack.

          The USAF and US Navy (USN) are leading the evolution of next generation platforms and Technologies. USAF’s new aerial platforms will have most effective combination of speed and maneuverability, payload, range, and the “right level of stealth”, or low-observability. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), US Air Force Research Labs (AFRL), Boeing ‘Phantom Works’, Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk Works’ and NASA are all aiding the work on concepts of ‘Air Dominance’ for 2040 and beyond. The Americans, Chinese and Russians are all working on the Sixth Generation fighters which will induct from 2028 onwards. Fighter Bomber as a platform is still here to stay. More and more of these will become uninhabited, or optionally manned. The clear line dividing the atmosphere and space is already getting smudged. Aerospace will soon become a common domain with more aerospace-craft routinely transiting up and down, taking advantage of each. Combat engagements will be at a much faster speeds and much greater distances. 

Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) Conceptual Approach

          In its ‘Air Superiority 2030’ study released in 2016, USAF described a long-range, stealthy sensor-shooter called ‘Penetrating Counter Air’, which would act as NGAD’s central node networked with sensors, drones and other platforms. There will be a networked family of fighters with different core capabilities with best technologies. One fighter might be optimized for an airborne laser; another fighter may have state-of-the-art AI based sensors; yet another may be an unmanned weapons laden platform. This will be a much easier approach than having a single platform with so many capabilities resulting in dilutions or compromises. The timelines will be shortened having open architecture with plug-and-play hardware. Also software will be developed in parallel for interchangeable hardware.  3D tools will be used for both design and manufacture processes. In the T-X trainer, Boeing has demonstrated taking its design from concept to first flight in three years. They were also able to reduce by 80 percent the human labour.

          Concepts from the USAF and industry for sixth generation fighter have so far revolved around supersonic tail-less aircraft. Aircraft will feature advanced sensor fusion and AI aided decision making. They will also have Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), and communications that allow big data movement between the inter-service’s aircraft. The system of systems would include communications, space capabilities, standoff, and stand-in options. The USAF and USN common design and technology efforts could include engine, airframe moulds, broadband and IR stealth, and new ways to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum.

Large Platform Concept

          Another study has concluded that the next-generation USAF fighter should be larger and more resembling a bomber than a small, maneuverable traditional fighter. Building a fighter significantly larger relying on enhanced sensors, signature control, networked situational awareness, very-long-range weapons to complete engagements before being detected or tracked, and having power intensive laser and DEW weapons makes sense. Larger planes would have greater range that would enable them to be stationed further from a combat zone, have greater radar and IR detection capabilities, and carry bigger and longer-range missiles. The USAF Scientific Advisory Board has suggested that the Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) platform should combine long range, supersonic speed, stealth and maneuverability. PCA would have substantially longer range to fly long distances over the Pacific, especially in a situation where airbases in the vicinity of China are not available. It would also escort bombers deep into Russia or China, where the anticipated threat includes advanced networked air defence radars. It would include stealth against low or very high frequency radars. Another requirement is significantly larger payload than current air superiority aircraft like the F-22. 

U.S. Next Generation Fighter

          U.S. Next-generation fighter efforts will initially be led by DARPA under the “Air Dominance Initiative” to develop prototype X-planes. USAF and USN will each have variants focused on their mission requirements. USAF seeks a fighter with “enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness,  human-system integration and weapons effects”. It would have to operate in the anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030–50 timeframe. China’s quick aerospace advancement pace is driving the USAF to react. Similarly the USN has a much higher priority on range and speed. AI and optionally manned are becoming critical requirements generally. There is a need for survivability. Stealth is just one piece of the survivability equation, others such as ultra-lightweight armor and counter-directed energy capabilities are required.

Long Range Combat and BVR Missiles

          The one who sees farther and can shoot farther is the winner in any air combat. Most future combat will be long distance, requiring sensors that can see far and missiles that can hit far.  MBDA Meteor the BVR AAM with active radar (Over 100 km) has already been integrated on French Rafale, including for IAF.  Meteor offers a multi-shot capability against long range maneuvering targets in a heavy ECM environment. Novator K-100 is a Russian air-to-air missile designed as an AWACS killer with a range up to 200 km. The new Chinese BVRAAMs PL-12D, PL-21 and a PL-15 variant with successfully tested ramjet technology, and coupled with AESA radar seekers and ranges up to 400 km could be a long-range threat even to stealth fighters and bombers. The Hyper-Velocity Air-to-Air missile will be multi-stage kinetic energy weapon with speeds in excess of Mach 5. Hypersonic missiles are fast evolving.

          The Raytheon AIM-120D is an upgraded version of the AMRAAM with improvements in almost all areas, including 50% greater range (160 km+) than the already-extended range AIM-120C-7). In 2017, work on the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM) began to create a longer-ranged replacement for the AMRAAM to contend with weapons like the Chinese PL-15. Flight tests are planned to begin in 2021 and initial operational capability is slated for 2022, facilitating the end of AMRAAM production by 2026.

India’s Astra Mk-2 is an advanced version of the Astra Mk-1 missile with an Active Radar Homing BVRAAM and estimated range in excess of 100 kilometers. It will be the Indian equivalent of Meteor BVRAAM, with ‘Dual-pulse rocket Motor’. DRDO is working on a slew of Directed Energy Weapons, and hypersonic vehicles/missiles as focus area in next 5-10 years.

Counters to Aerial Missiles

Lockheed Martin is helping the U.S. Air Force develop and mature high-energy laser weapon  pod, including the high-energy laser that will be demonstrated on a fighter jet by 2021. The fibre laser is called Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD. If successful, the technology could be a game-changer that could take out surface-to-air and air-to-air missile threats more cheaply than current intercept methods. Northrop Grumman is working with the USAF to develop radical new laser weapons for supersonic fighter jets. Northrop Grumman will help the USAF mature its plans to use directed energy systems for self-protection on current and future aircraft.

Uninhabited Aerial Systems

Uninhabited aircraft technologies are already proven, and the future is in Uninhabited Aerial Systems (UAS). World is at a transition. There are some who see the JSF F-35 as the last ‘manned-only’ fighter/bomber. Dual use (optionally manned) aircraft are already flying. USAF has already modified F-4s and F-16s to fly them remotely. In France, Dassault leads a multi nation delta wing UCAV ‘Neuron’ of the size of Mirage 2000. UK has a Strategic UAS program ‘Taranis’. In November 2014 a two-year feasibility study was announced by the French and British governments to combine the two programs and call it Future Combat Air System. UAS are autonomously taking-off and landing, including on the moving aircraft carrier (Northrop GrummanX-47B). Autonomous air refueling has been tested. Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS drone ‘Sea Ghost’ looks rather like a stealth bomber and is expected to carry 1,000-pound class weapons. USA is also working on Hypersonic (Mach 6) Strike Bomber which is likely to be optionally manned. Uninhabited helicopter convoys will deliver supplies to troops deployed on combat front lines. The US Army’s dramatic shift to a nearly all-unmanned flight over the next three decades is embedded in the UAS roadmap. USAF’s UAS vision document indicates that by year 2047 every mission would be unmanned.

Drone Swarm and Counters

          Recent advances in chip technology and software for robotics, it has become feasible to design machines exhibiting complex behavior, achieve mutual coordination and accomplish complex tasks. Aerial robots can ascend synchronously, communicate with each other in mid-air and create cross-references. Fixed formation group flights and complex group maneuvers are possible.  The swarm of drones behaves and functions somewhat like swarms occurring in nature, e.g., honeybee swarms, flying in coordination, displaying collective intelligence and each executing a small share of the collective task. Very small Drones – some weighing less than five pounds – can cause devastating effect if they are armed with weapons, and flown in a swarm of large numbers. Because of their size, these drones are difficult to see, hard to catch on radar, and hard to shoot at with conventional weapons, particularly in swarms. Countering them is critical air combat ability. Drone swarms have some weaknesses and limitations too. First and foremost, their offensive could be blunted through the use of countermeasures like electronic warfare techniques, cyber-attacks, laser and microwave weapon systems, small arms fire, camouflage and concealment or pitching a counter drone swarm.

Sixth Generation Fighters

          Sixth Generation Fighters call for greater speed, range, stealth and self-healing structures; developments that will require new breakthroughs in propulsion, materials, power generation and weapon technology. Self-healing structures in particular would pose a significant advantage over modern-day aircraft, remaining airborne despite taking heavy fire. The system comprises pockets of epoxy resin and a hardener, installed around vulnerable parts of the aircraft such as the underbelly, hatchways and wheel wells. If the area is damaged, the contents of the pocket are released to form a temporary plug, helping the aircraft to operate in spite of the damage. New generation of engines will allow ultra-high altitude super-cruise. The avionics are supposed to withstand next generation electronic attack and cyber-attack, have passive detection, and integrated self-protection. The tailless flying wing, “cranked kite” design concept currently appears the way forward for future fighter aircraft.  

New Engine Technology

          Advanced engines such as Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (ADVENT) will allow longer ranges and higher performance. These engines are expected to be ready when fighters are introduced around 2028. The engines could vary their bypass ratios for optimum efficiency at any speed or altitude. This would allow an aircraft a much greater range, faster acceleration, and greater subsonic cruise efficiency. A variable cycle engine could configure itself to act like a turbojet at supersonic speeds, while performing like a high-bypass turbofan for efficient cruising at slower speeds. A low-bypass configuration would be used for take offs and supersonic flight, and a high-bypass configuration would have high propulsive efficiency for cruising.

Evolving Future Weaponry

          Future weaponry would utilize scramjets for the faster missiles. On 18 November 2011, the first advanced hypersonic weapon (AHW) glide vehicle was successfully tested by USA, as part of the Prompt Global Strike program. Russia announced that its first regiment of Avangard hypersonic missiles has been put into service, in December 2019. Earlier in 2018, China has successfully tested three types of scaled-down hypersonic aircraft models together whose speed will be adjustable for a precision strike towards an unstoppable nuclear-capable weapon. China declared on October 01, 2019, that the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) was operational. Trump administration allocated $2.6 billion for hypersonic weapons research in 2019 defense budget, to keep pace with Russia and China. At these speed a missile could not be stopped by conventional air defence technology.

          Reusable DEW and lasers, used for defensive as well as offensive measures, delivering effects at the speed of light, would be the weapons of the future. USAF’s new Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM) for 2030s would use an improved solid rocket motor having synergized thrust vectoring. It will have improved ‘high off bore sight’ for rear hemisphere kills and ‘lower cost per kill’. The Miniature Self-Defense Munitions (MSDM), will enhance future platforms self-defense capability kinetically, without impacting the primary weapon payload. The long-range missile replacing AMRAAM, would be survivable, and combine air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. Range would be a big factor to counter potential adversaries with Chinese PL-15, with claimed range of 400 km. It will be multiband, broad spectrum – which aids it in survivability and reaching the target. The new solid-state laser systems would defensively create a sanitized sphere of safety around the aircraft, shooting down or critically damaging incoming missiles and approaching aircraft with the laser turrets. Lasers will also be used for attacking targets on the ground with pinpoint precision, and shooting down ballistic missiles. Controlling aircraft’s heat signature while using laser weaponry is being evolved. Newer liquid based lasers promise enough energy to bring down an aircraft (about 150kW) yet is small enough to be mounted on a jet fighter.  A Laser weapon is expected to be mounted on next-generation air dominance fighters by the 2030s.

Technology Driven Operations

          Technologies are offering enhanced capabilities that are driving operational employment and tactics. Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart structures, and hybrid systems will dictate the future. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth, which involves innovating sensor/processing systems. Thermally efficient, high-performance computing and processing enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Next-generation avionics would be smaller, more efficient and capable of operating under extreme conditions. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semiconductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool, and improves reliability for radars. Systems must maintain competitive advantage in an austere budget environment. The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter, and more structurally efficient compared to conventional wings. This wing will maximize structural efficiency, reduce weight and conserve fuel. Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and bio-mimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory are under development. Things will be build faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. Additive 3D manufacture would create a world with spare parts on demand, faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics, and customized weapons. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change ability to respond to conflict. Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions, and significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, yet drive down costs.

Capability Based IAF

          IAF transformation is being driven from just being platform-based to being capability-based. Effects based, network centric operations are the new normal. Advantage of air power is ability to exploit swing-role capabilities. Modern platforms are critical. Induction of high technology assets is on and existing fleets are going through mid life upgrades. Any modern air force must have at least 40 percent of combat fleet comprising high tech all weather multirole platforms, 40 percent under upgrade, and remaining 20 percent under changeover but still giving strength through numbers.

          IAF today has 4th Generation plus fighters in upgraded Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and SU 30 MKI. Other than Mirage 2000, all are twin engine. The soon to induct Rafale is of 4th Gen ++ class. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) production is slow and the initially planned 123 aircraft could take at least 6-8 years to induct. IAF needs more 4th Gen ++ aircraft. The Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), ran into serious developmental and cost road-blocks, and has been abandoned. The HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fifth-generation fighter aircraft is planned to be a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth super-maneuverable all weather multirole fighter aircraft. Lessons learnt from LCA program need to be imbibed and used to get the AMCA become a success to propel India into the new league. As on date the AMCA is still at project definition stage. At best the first flight could be around 2028 and induction around 2035. With fast depleting squadrons IAF will require 500 new fighter aircraft of 4th Gen ++ aircraft. IAF also urgently needs additional AEW&C and Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA).

Time  to Act India

          Future conflicts will be short, swift and intense engagements against a nuclear backdrop which may be followed by long stabilisation periods. A quantum jump in precision and lethality of weapon systems may result in nonlinearity and increased tempo of operations. Technology intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. The future air combat environment consists almost exclusively of BVR missile duels or, eventually, directed-energy weapons engagements.

          India must accelerate developing the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and long range aerial missiles. India is still slow in developing advanced Infra-Red Search and Track Systems (IRSTS), and the widespread adoption of electronic data-links that eliminate the need for slow and easily misunderstood voice communications between aerial platforms. Lack of encrypted radio was visible, to India’s peril,  during the air engagement after Balakot. Advanced IFF systems, including a completely new encrypted Mode 5, are also crucial. It is also very important for India to ride the AI based UCAV bandwagon. Meanwhile stealth an area where India seems to have little expertise. Hypersonic missiles are crucial for future combat and technologies may be imbibed from BrahMos. India has a long way to go for modern electronic warfare systems which are crucial for air combat of the future. There is normally a long cycle for airframe development but there is a very short cycle to the evolution of software upgradeable electronics, avionics and weapons. Such an approach of upgrades should help. Involving a major foreign player in Joint Venture may also accelerate the process.

           IAF will have to build deterrence and have ability to dominate the air. It will have to induct modern systems for situational awareness, intelligence and precision strike ability. It will require fixed and rotary wing tactical and strategic air transport assets. Transformation would be spread over a period of time. IAF is looking at a horizon of 15 years. Technological advancements and evolving  changes would have to be factored. Future security challenges will be more and more complex, multi-dimensional and non-traditional in both kinetic and non kinetic form. IAF would need to think differently to be able to tackle the various asymmetric and non-traditional security threats and would require more innovative, out-of-box solutions to leverage the prevalent technology. For India to be secure, IAF must continue to touch the sky with glory. It is time to act and think ahead, lest India get left behind once again.

This article was published in Indian Defence Review (IDR) but has now been significantly upgraded

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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