The dream of flying higher, faster and further seems to be translating to another zone of airborne systems, namely the weapons of tomorrow. There is no doubt that for the past five decades, technology has been driving warfare and with every incremental ‘chip’ the leap forward is truly pushing the boundaries. Just when we thought that we may be plateauing out in our quest for implements to fight the fifth generation war, the horizons have opened and allowed us to reach out even farther to regions in the realm of Netflix and Science Fiction. While the age of major wars may never cease and we may never see a totally peaceful world, the nature of warfare has changed in purpose and form.
Two maxims of war-fighting hold true through generations – he who shoots first has the advantage and he who hits the decision points or ‘centres of gravity’ has the critical upper hand. Airpower has and will continue to dominate warfare and will continue to influence the outcome of most conflicts. With total war being ruled out, international opinion has favoured the fighting to be restricted between militaries, to keep innocent civilian population safe. Thus, air delivered precision weapons with suitable warheads to prevent collateral damage have been the preferred weapons of war. Consequently, the sophistication of fighters, bombers and helicopters and now the UAVs and space-based systems, have increased dramatically in the last two decades. Information technology and the improvements in capability of computers have shrunk distances to next to nothing, compressing the time-space matrix. Boundaries between the tactical, operational and strategic domains have become merged in shades of grey.
Having accepted the fact that airpower will be the dominant factor in war in the foreseeable future, control of the air and dominance of the skies assumes an important facet in any conflict. Since control of the air stems from keeping the enemy’s air force grounded or by destroying them in the air, the need to effectively hit the airfields and the enemy’s aircraft (in the air or on the ground) is paramount. But concurrent to the increase in sophistication of weapons and platforms, the counter-measures have (almost) kept pace, making the environment extremely lethal and difficult to penetrate. While bomber aircraft, only with nations who can afford and maintain a fleet, have remained relatively same, save for upgrades in weapons carriage, avionics and engine performance, helicopters have also not had too much of scope for change.
The evolving of the armed and combat helicopter, of course, has made the battlefield more deadly than ever. It is the fighter aircraft, who really provide the penetrative strike force and air defence of resources, who have undergone major changes. From the third generation fighters where designers favoured specified roles for aircraft, such as dedicated ground attack / air defence, to the fourth generation of multi-role, super manoeuvrable aircraft, fighter aircraft have had to change with the times and the lethality of the prevailing environment. The fifth generation, while maintaining the super manoeuvrable feature, has incorporated stealth technology in a big way, with super-cruise capability (supersonic cruise in dry power) to penetrate the increasingly lethal air defence shields likely to be encountered. The fifth generation has additionally seen the advent of the UAV in a big way. No longer limited to the surveillance drones, the prohibitively expensive American MQ series of Global Hawks and Predators have undergone some really significant upgrades, to bring UCAVs (Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicles) into the offensive domain and become weapons of reckoning. But in an altogether different category, the proliferation of small, inexpensive drones, carrying small payloads but operating autonomously in ‘Swarms’ under AI (Artificial Intelligence) control have created a new realm of aerial warfare, probably changing the paradigm forever.
Air defence protection has become so dense and lethal that undetected and unchallenged penetration has now become virtually impossible. Accepting this factor, the only way to reach the target effectively is to give the sensors minimum time to react and engage. Thus, the transition into the fifth generation and beyond is seeing the introduction of hypersonic aircraft and missiles. The arrival of BVR missiles four decades ago and their subsequent improvements in terms of range and increasing kill envelopes has changed the way air combat is now executed. The close combat environment of the gun / short range missile involved sheer flying skills and aircraft performance. This required a very high physical and mental ability to acquire the necessary SA (situational awareness) of the air picture. With long range systems, ‘seeing far’ and ‘shooting far’ is the norm which requires inputs from a variety of sensors, both onboard and external, to provide the necessary SA. So, a consequent transformational shift has come about in fighter aircraft design, from one of speed and super manoeuvrability, to one dependent on sensors, weapon payload and range. Of course, the attributes of stealth, power for super cruise and sophistication of sensors will be integral to the requirement.
The natural progression to sensor reliance allows so much of information to come into the cockpit of a modern day combat aircraft (fighter / bomber / helicopter) today that to avoid super-saturation, massive computing potential to fuse the incoming data, process it and provide only usable data to the pilot in the shortest possible time, is the biggest hurdle the designer has to overcome. In the final analysis it will be the computer that provides faster processed data which will provide the advantage for the ‘shoot first’ option. But there may be a limit to the complexity and power generation requirements which may limit the airborne platform. With artificial intelligence (AI) becoming a major player in UAV operations, it is becoming increasingly evident that the future will see sensor and weapon distribution into associated platforms. Thus, the concept of ‘Loyal Wingman’ has come into being. One ‘Mother Ship’ accompanied by a formation of ‘Loyal Wingmen’ (a la ‘Star Wars’, the movie) with multiple, distributed sensor and weapon load is the air war scenario of the future. Distributed weapon load provides an enhanced flexibility and advantage of the swing-role fighters that already exist, the ability to engage multiple/varied targets in one mission, with far greater flexibility.
With the absorption of new technologies as they emerge, the transition to the next generation of warfare is going to be seamless. Adaptation and adaptive technologies have always been the hallmark of designers of aircraft and other systems operating through the medium of air. The complexity and quantum of data and information being handled and processed to provide solutions in design, development and decision making is what gives the technological edge and lethality to air power. This will go far into warfare of the future.
India’s Tejas Fighter Aircraft
The Dhruv attack helicopter. The AMCA fighter aircraft