The debate over the future of manned aircraft has intensified of late as a result of a number of factors: looming defense budget cuts, the termination of the F-22 program and delays in fielding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), an explosion in the types and numbers of deployed unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and the proliferation of advanced weapons and sensor technologies to prospective adversaries. The Air Force is said to be considering a design for the new long-range bomber that would allow it to be optionally manned. The Navy is working on an unmanned carrier launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) system. A lot has been written about the waning value of stealth with the subtext that without the advantage of stealth, manned systems cannot survive in an intense air defense environment. The current meme in Washington is that UASs will soon take the place of manned platforms.
The case against manned systems is tied closely to growing concerns about the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat. A2/AD strategies are intended primarily to constrain these capabilities. Anti-access strategies include attacks against fixed forward bases, ports of debarkation, troop and logistics concentrations, aircraft carriers, and command, control and communication nodes. The proliferation of long-range strike systems, particularly ballistic and cruise missiles, could allow an aggressor to launch a surprise mass attack on these target sets.
Area denial operations aim to limit U.S. forces’ freedom of action in and over enemy territory. Advanced, integrated air defenses constitute one of the principal ways an adversary can achieve area denial. Of particular concern to U.S. planners is the impact of area denial strategies and capabilities on the Pentagon’s ability to achieve and exploit air dominance. Without air dominance, the U.S. military’s concepts of operations will unravel.
Proponents of a UAS solution argue that replacing manned systems with unmanned platforms is an answer to the A2/AD challenge. At a minimum, UASs will permit the military to conduct operations in a high threat environment with less risk of casualties. Without the requirement to support and protect a person in the cockpit, new platform designs and tactics are possible that could negate the A2/AD threat. In addition, there is a belief that UASs offer an inherent cost savings over manned platforms (both procurement and operations and support), thereby allowing the military to proliferate the numbers of aerial systems.
What much of the pro-UAS chatter fails to sufficiently appreciate is that when a UAS goes out on a combat mission it leaves its brains behind. Yes, the platform has a computer, a GPS receiver, navigation software, perhaps even collision avoidance and target recognition capabilities. But if a weapon is going to be employed, typical rules of engagement require that there be a person in the loop. Even if the rules of engagement were relaxed, it will be a long time before a computer can equal the pattern recognition capabilities of the Mark I eyeball in the head of a trained pilot. The same requirement for a human decisionmaker also exists for any mission that requires in route re-planning, as when the location of the target is not precisely known or there is a decision required as to which of several targets to strike.
This should not be a problem so long as the communications links between the UAS and the controller are intact. But how likely is that? The Peoples Liberation Army has “gone to school” on the so-called American Way of War. They are fully aware of how much the U.S. military relies on its networks, space-based assets and global command, control and communications. That is why these will be among the first targets in a Chinese A2/AD campaign. U.S. military leaders are now talking of training their people to operate in an A2/AD environment in which communications, navigation and sensing is degraded. Once GPS is jammed, long-range sensors are degraded and communications links are blocked, what happens to the UAS? It will be like undergoing a virtual lobotomy.
Unquestionably, there are important contributions that advanced unmanned systems can make in future conflicts. But until technology allows the forging of unbreakable links between the UAS and its controller, the need for manned aircraft will remain. At least for the next several decades, the U.S. military will need so-called fifth generation aircraft such as the F-22, F-35 and new strategic bomber and lots of them.