A Professional’s Rambling? Evolution of Airpower – Challenges, Questions, and Thoughts

anil chopra, air power asia, JP Joshi, Airpower,

End of Manned Figher Jet Era?

During an informal chat with Lt. Gen John Thompson of US Space Command, Elon Musk made a very provocative statement and that too, in a room full of fighter pilots. He stated that the manned “fighter jet era has passed”. This happened during the annual US Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida. This statement by the CEO of the much-celebrated Tesla and SpaceX cannot be taken lightly, even if one is a fighter pilot, because the nature of warfare has been undergoing rapid changes. Militaries are very good at vertical thinking; a change sometimes requires lateral thinking. These changes have accelerated in the present ‘information era’, where-in newer technologies and cyber warfare are taking centre stage. While Musk’s statement may not be accurate in its timeline, it definitely has relevance in the present, as well as the future direction of the evolution of airpower. It is a fact that airpower’s relevance and success have always been/ will always be dependent on the employment of leading-edge technologies.

US Sixth Generation Fighters. Image Source: nationalinterest.org

Manned Fighters Heading to Obsolesence?

Rapid advances of technology during the two world wars and the inherent advantages of the third dimension led to accelerated developments in the aviation sector. We have seen this especially with the cutting edge of airpower, the fighter aircraft, which have grown in capability and performance, from the first generation fighters of the mid-40s to the present fifth generation of fighters. Each generation represents a substantial enhancement in the capability of the manned fighter. As expected, defensive systems to counter them have also kept pace, and cover the entire altitude bubble in which manned fighters operate from a low level upwards. These sophisticated offensive platforms come with a steep price tag, and their inevitable early obsolescence, with the advancement of technology. In each of these generational advancements, the role of the pilot; the vital position of the cockpit in the airframe; and the associated life support systems and infrastructure to launch, sustain, and recover these safely, occupies centre stage during design, manufacture, operations, and maintenance. In a world that is seeing a push for driverless automobiles, satellite launches into space and launches to other planets without humans on board, and cruise missiles/ smart weapons proliferating in the air-to-air and air-to-ground domain, it is but natural for Musk to question the validity of a pilot in a fighter cockpit, in a network-centric battlefield environment. Not only Musk, but recent conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh too have given impetus to the efficacy of employing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), in permissive, as well as contested airspaces.

Robotic fighter jets. Image Source: nbcnews.com

UAV Applications

UAVs can be better understood as flying robots that can be remotely controlled, fly semi-autonomously or autonomously through artificial intelligence embedded systems, working in conjunction with various sensors, and other linked and/ or onboard systems. The militaries have thus far employed UAVs for target practice, intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and more recently as weapon platforms too. The latter category is referred to as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). Drones are also being used in a wide range of civilian roles ranging from search and rescue, surveillance, traffic monitoring, weather monitoring, fire-fighting, personal drones, photography/ videography, forestry, agriculture, and even for delivery of goods. In short, drones have multiple applications in both military as well as non-military domains, and also that the use of drones is growing exponentially over the last few years. Is it an opportunity for private industry to step into large-scale defence production, with this dual-use application platform?

Manned Unmanned Teaming. Image Source: aviationweek.com

UAVs – Search for a New Way of War fighting?

The development of UAVs, since their first employment, has been slow, and in ‘fits and starts’. This could be on account of the non-availability of the required technology in earlier times making them ‘expensive and unreliable’ and thus less relevant to the mission, as also the fact that their usefulness was not appreciated by the military commanders. It is a fact that need is the starting point of innovation. Israel was the first nation to appreciate the need for a different way of fighting the air war. This, after it suffered heavy aircraft losses due to the integrated AD systems comprising of Russian SA-6s, SA-7s, and ZSU-24 guns that were deployed by the Egyptians in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Egypt had deployed these AD systems only after it learned its lesson from its stunning defeat in the 6-day Arab-Israeli war of 1967, on account of the pre-emptive Israeli airstrikes that virtually neutralised the Egyptian Air Force.

Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). Image Source: sameerjoshi73.medium.com

Penetrating Integrated AD Systems

1973 Arab-Israeli war:  “In the first three days, the Israelis lost 50 aircraft in about 1,220 sorties. This was an unsustainable loss rate of four percent”. The losses tapered off in due course, after the Israelis had neutralized some of the Egyptian Air Defences (AD), but not before the AD systems had scored hits on a substantial number of aircraft in the Israeli inventory. Before this war, Israel had employed RPVs tactically, only to improve military situational awareness, on the ground. However, Israel’s major lesson coming out of the 1973 conflict was to optimally utilize UAVs to aid in neutralizing enemy AD systems, which it very successfully did in the 1982 Bekaa Valley conflict with Syria. This was probably the first employment of UAVs at the operational level.

UAV 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Image Source: http://www.jstor.org

First Employment of UAVs at the Operational Level of War?

Employment of UAVs alongside manned aircraft allowed Israel to quickly destroy/neutralize Syrian AD systems, as well as inflict losses on Syrian aircraft, with minimal own losses. Israeli drones were used as electronic decoys, electronic jammers as well as for real-time video reconnaissance. This Israeli aerial blitzkrieg brought out many lessons about the employment of airpower, including the utility of employing UAVs. It can thus be argued that the Bekaa valley conflict was responsible for bringing about an attitudinal shift towards the employment of UAVs in conflict, alongside manned aircraft. This can be said to have ushered in “the modern era of the UAV”. The USA was the next country to employ UAVs in 1991.

UAV Night Operations. Image Source: Credit: 407th Expeditionary Group Public Affairs, 8/15/09

First (Botched up) Employment of UAVs at the Strategic Level of War?

The US first used Pioneer drones during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and the Predator drones in Kosovo in 1995. Predator drones were successfully employed in Afghanistan thereafter, initially for the usual intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Subsequently, these were employed as lethal weapon platforms too, in addition to the ISR role. The US employed a Predator drone on the night of October 7, 2001, to fire a Hellfire missile as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, in Afghanistan. The Predator armed drone targeted and destroyed a parked vehicle of Mullah Omar’s convoy, killing several bodyguards. This was a botched operation targeting Mullah Omar. If successful, this would have been the first successful ‘strategic’ application of a UCAV.

Prescient Leadership?

US President Bush’s remarks at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, on December 11, 2001, included a mention of the Predator, when he said that, “The Predator is a good example. This unmanned aerial vehicle is able to circle over enemy forces, gather intelligence, transmit information instantly back to commanders, then fire on targets with extreme accuracy. Before the war, the Predator had skeptics because it did not fit the old ways. Now it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles. We’re entering an era in which unmanned vehicles of all kinds will take on greater importance in space, on land, in the air, and at sea”. With the advantage of hindsight, one can safely opine that these remarks by the US President, in 2001, were very prescient.

India’s Ghatak UAV. Image Source: tfipost.com

Hottest Area that Needs Greater Attention by the Indian Military?

Certain type of strategic information that was once provided only by high flying aircraft and satellites is slowly and steadily being made available through UAVs. UAVs are now practically available covering the entire gamut of air operations in different modes, from man-in-the-loop, to semi-autonomous to autonomous systems, in sizes that are as big as small commercial jets (Ravn X – an 80 ft long drone designed to launch satellites into space is the latest) to the size that fits in the palm of a hand (Black Hornet Nano – a military drone, size – 4”). UAVs are the hottest area of aeronautical development at the present. It is expected that civilian operators of UAVs will outnumber the military ones in the near future. The list of applications for UAVs keeps growing.

Control of the Air – Offensive/ Defensive

A study of all conventional wars brings out the indispensable need for control of the air, both to prosecute a successful offensive campaign in the air, or on the ground/ surface, as well as to prevent the neutralization/ destruction of own assets in a defensive setting. Technology is widening the spectrum of airpower assets in terms of platforms, cost, availability, training, autonomous/ manned, sensors, weapons, and accuracy, to achieve the standard functions of airpower; be it control of the air, interdiction, close air support, ISR, or air mobility. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and technology have democratized the employment of airpower, by removing the cost, infrastructure, and training barriers associated with legacy airpower assets, thus making it available to even nonstate actors, as had happened earlier with the shoulder-fired AD missiles. The diffusion of drones continues to outpace viable counters and defences to them, as on date, making this a real threat, which would need to be countered through an integrated AD network, which can deal with the entire spectrum of threats, from drones to conventional aircraft, and missiles. Drones have minimal radar and IR signatures and are thus difficult to detect by legacy systems. In view of this, drones will pose a viable challenge and threat in a permissive environment, at least in the near term.

Possible SoS solution to air superiority circa 2025. Image Credit: Matt. Source: americaninnovationdefense.blogspot.com

Identification of Need by IA; Piecemeal Approach by All Thereafter?

The Indian Army (IA) was the first to recognize the need for unmanned systems in the late 90s. This is understandable as the IA has been directly involved in counter-insurgency operations in hostile areas, and UAVs are helpful tools for ISR. It thus acquired Searcher 1 drones from Israel in 1998, followed by Searcher 2 drones, after the Kargil war in 1999. The Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) followed suit, leading to the Indian armed forces having limited numbers of UAVs, with each service acquiring the systems based on its individual requirement, over the years, starting 1998. As a consequence, the Indian armed forces presently “have some 200+ Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) (distributed between the three services) Searcher and Heron UAVs of Israeli origin and a few HAROP UAVs recently inducted by the IAF”. A study of the SIPRI database also brings out the fact that India has leased a few Heron and Predator (RQ-1) drones from Israel and the USA respectively. All of the above facts point to a piecemeal, very sub-optimal, and tactical orientation with regards to deployment/ employment of drones, in our context. Piecemeal and service-related usage is not conducive to the optimal utilization of airpower, which can only happen when employed in keeping with the basic airpower tenet of “centralized control, decentralized execution”. Airpower assets with their attributes of high speed, long reach, flexibility, and elevation can only be best employed when controlled centrally, except for elements that are dedicated to local tactical action with ground/ surface forces.

IAI Harop UCAV. Indian Defence News

Optimal Utilisation of Airpower Assets?

Optimal utilization of these important and futuristic aerospace assets can best happen under a joint service organization and networked architecture, with IAF being the lead service, manned by a cadre of dedicated UAV professionals, with very different kind of qualifications, training, and mindset from the industrial era war-fighters in all three services; warfare that takes place well away from the heat and dust of the battlefield needs a different outlook, training, and motivation. The networked architecture should cater for a ‘shared’ and fused display of the battlefield, based on the inputs from sensors, platforms, and shooters spread across the battlefield and beyond, including space-based assets. Warfare is being increasingly fought in cyberspace, well beyond the sense organ capability of humans. Humans will be needed to architect intelligent systems that can sense, process, and communicate vast amounts of information and data to make them compatible to human decision-making. This architecture should cater for ISR, target acquisition, designation, neutralization, command, control, communications, and computers.

Joint Service War fighting Doctrine?

All of this has to be based on a joint service war fighting doctrine. We can never be too late to discuss a joint service doctrine at the required level? This doctrine will not be final, but will continue to evolve with time, but a start has to be made, as tools of warfare will continue to evolve with emerging technologies, like machine learning and AI, giving shape and form to ‘ideas’ in the information era. Vertical thinking will have to complement lateral thinking, as technology evolves, and continues to democratise the future battlefield, where-in the defining lines of geographical boundaries are likely to be less relevant, with regards to warfare, as asymmetric warfare and conventional war are likely to be the two sides of the same coin.

India’s Three Service Chiefs and CDS. Image Source: indiatvnews.com

Evolution of the IAF/ Joint Service Vision?

The IAF thus needs to evolve from a total reliance on manned fighters and stand alone AD systems to having a suitable mix of manned & unmanned autonomous systems, and network centric AD and offensive systems; in short, airpower that straddles the entire range and spectrum of offensive/ defensive capabilities. These capabilities and electronic warfare will have to be integrated at the tactical level in the strategic and operational plans of all three services. Acquisitions, Command and Control, communications, jointmanship, and interoperability will be issues that will need to be fine tuned to facilitate a coherent strategy between the three services. The armed forces are taking tentative, baby steps in this direction. Are we still not convinced on the need for a comprehensive vision on the issue, at the joint service level? Time is of essence now, with India straddled between two belligerent neighbours that collaborate. China is way ahead in the practical applications of technology, in the form of UAVs, network centric warfare, cyber, and information warfare. China is also collaborating with Pakistan on manufacturing UAVs and other defence systems in Pakistan. We cannot be found wanting on encouraging our own industry to design, and produce our defence needs; high technology can best be leveraged with a viable public-private partnership, as has been the experience in the USA. This is already beginning to happen, as witnessed in the first few months of 2021, but needs to be expedited through adequate funding through the appropriate channels, and also more importantly, a vision and directions, based on a joint service doctrine, to work towards.

Army – A Tactically Oriented Approach?

The first event took place during the Army day celebrations at Delhi Cantt on Jan 15, 2021; the Army in collaboration with a private company demonstrated a new drone swarming capability “with 75 locally designed and developed drones hovering in the sky and simulating a raft of missions including offensive operations”. The Army statement also re-iterated the fact that “The drones executed an array of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled simulated offensive missions and close support tasks during the parade”. In addition, the army spokesperson emphasised that “This demonstration is a recognition of the Indian Army’s steady embrace of emerging and disruptive technologies to transform itself from a manpower-intensive to a technology-enabled force to meet future security challenges”.

DRDO’s Nishant UAV. Image Source: DRDO.

HAL and Private Industry at the Forefront?

The second event was the Aero India 2021 show at Bengaluru, in the first week of February. Besides the usual displays of various types of aircraft, flying displays, and the associated exhibits in an air show, there were different makes and types of drones also on display, which included many from private companies and HAL too; it was evident that Atmanirbhar Bharat and Make in India programmes have started to make an impact on the aviation and defence industry too. The major attraction amongst the HAL exhibits comprised of the Tejas, as also the unveiling of the loyal wingman concept. This concept has become feasible because of the advances in computing hardware & software, artificial intelligence, robotics, communications, sensors, drones, and aerospace technology. This concept is based on the belief that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can, and will, co-exist with manned aircraft, in any future battlefield. UAVs are now capable, better suited to undertake certain missions, and have certain strengths that can overcome the weaknesses of manned aircraft.

DRDO’s TAPAS-BH-201 UCAV. Image Source: DRDO

Are We Ready, as a Nation?

Significance of these two events is that they will have a far reaching impact on our national security. These highlight the importance that the IA and Indian industry attach to the recent developments in airpower, and as lessons from the recent Syrian, Libyan and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is also pertinent to mention that a 2019 Canadian study documents that “in the last decade, 95 countries have introduced UAVs into their military operations. Currently, military drones are largely restricted to intelligence-gathering, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations; however, it has been documented that the militaries of 30 countries own armed drones and almost as many are developing them or have plans to acquire them”. The study further opines that “deployment of armed drones on the battlefield is expected to increase with the steady shift toward network-centric warfare”. Are we working towards optimal solutions to challenges or are we being too parochial, to the detriment of the big picture of national security?

Concept of Operations?

Results of modern war are effectively decided by the outcome of battles in cyberspace; it is well beyond the ‘eyeballs of the pilot’ in the cockpit. The pilot has to rely on sensors to get the information, and then decide based on the nature of the threat and thereafter act; this action can never match up with the decision-making and actions (OODA) of a network-centric air defence system. The UCAVs could be the only way forward to destroy or penetrate a ‘deadly’ AD environment. However, the UCAVs are as yet a concept for the Indian armed forces; this concept of operations has already been delayed for far too long. These need to be adequately funded and the concepts brought to fruition at the earliest, so that these can be deployed in limited numbers to prove their functioning at the field level in terms of developing infrastructure, tactics, manpower, replacements, training, AI, etc. UCAV squadrons can help in overcoming the shortage of pilots, as well as help man some of the number-plated squadrons. Private/ public participation is key to achieving objectives in leading-edge technologies, with adequate tolerance for failures. It is better to pay for our own failures in R&D than pay for it in the form of exorbitantly priced ‘ready to use’ equipment, if we value national security, as a major nation in the world.

The decisive tool in the Nagorno-Karabakh war: the UAV. Image Source: alkhaleejtoday.co

Concluding Thoughts

This escalating cost of modern fighters when coupled with national priorities and limits of budgetary support for the defence; pilot shortage; dwindling numbers of available manned fighter squadrons; our regional threats; and the challenges on a modern battlefield, leads one to conclude that a new way of warfighting has to be employed, especially in the aerospace domain. There has been a concerted effort by many nations like Israel, the USA, China, Russia, Turkey, UK, etc to develop UAVs, with increasing capability, as also as their employment in different roles and modes. UCAVs are capable of executing Air to Ground/ Surface, as well as Air to Air roles. The conflicts in Syria, Libya, and the most recent and widely talked about – Nagorno Karabakh have demonstrated that when properly employed, UCAVs can be game-changers. Air to Air is a frontier that has not yet been practically fully conquered, but with the right push, this too can also be accomplished by UCAVs. How long this will take is still open to question though. Are we as a nation, or more specifically are the armed forces of this nation ready to meet the challenges, jointly?

Author: Wing Commander JP Joshi (Retd) was a fighter pilot in Indian Air Force, and has done Command and Staff College in USA. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Header Image Source: airbus.com

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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