Beware the guy with “guru” in his job description

ironman_poster

We all know how well the 3-D internet (that was just around the corner in 1995) worked out, right?  Apparently that sort of wild detachment from reality is not limited to nerd futurists who want you to spend every moment of your existence in Second Life.  I spotted this howler today while trawling for aviation news:

The Marvel comic book character’s suit embodies a futuristic technology that may enhance human capabilities in war, but the current battlefield belongs to a growing swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and robots that could someday give even Iron Man a run for his money. UAVs clocked more than 500,000 hours in the air by the beginning of 2008, performing many of the tasks normally done by piloted aircraft.

“There’s a scene of Iron Man flying against [F-22] Raptors,” said Pete Singer, Brookings Institute defense expert and author of the forthcoming book “Wired for War.” “Those are among the last generation of manned fighter jets.

— Jeremy Hsu, “‘Iron Man’ Hero Personifies Modern Military Contractors“.
Space.com, May 2nd, 2008.

[emphasis mine]

I take no issue with the article’s main thrust, that civilian contractors are increasingly taking on roles once reserved for the uniformed services.  But that little bit of extrapolation—citing the hours logged by UAVs, then the assertion the that Raptor is one of the last of its kind—is pure B.S.

While UAVs have logged an impressive amount of hours, it’s important to note that every single combat-deployed unmanned aerial system today fulfills two roles:  first, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance); second, ground strike.  The F-22 Raptor has some capabilities in these areas, but they are not its primary mission. It is purpose-built to destroy opposition air dominance fighters, something no current UCAS has been ever been asked to do.

It is also important to note that today’s UCASes are operating in permissive environments.  They are not being targeted by enemy aircraft, their heat signatures do not lend themselves to targeting by IR-guided MANPADs, their C4 signals are not being degraded by enemy ECM, their bases are not subject to sustained ground and air assault, and so on.

We have not yet combat-fielded any UCAS system capable of playing in the air dominance realm.  Announcing that the Raptor is among the last of manned fighters is a wee bit premature.  In fact, there are plenty of good reasons to keep pilots in cockpits and not—like USAF’s MQ-9 Reaper/MQ-1 Predator operators—sitting at a CONUS base.

First and foremost because air combat manoeuvring requires situational awareness, quick thinking and judgement that only a human in the cockpit can provide.  There is a reason fighters have those huge plexiglass canopies; take the human out of the cockpit and you impair his situational awareness—which also (and not coincidentally) impairs his combat effectiveness.  This is not a big risk for ISR or strike-oriented platforms in permissive airspace where nobody is shooting back at you, but it’s a risk for UCASes playing in contested airspace.  We will have to develop new UCAS interfaces that make it possible for guys in a building staring at tiny screens to be able to go head-to-head with manned air dominance fighters.  This is doubly important when one considers that going up against opposing stealth fighters means decreased warning and detection time, and a likely return to dogfighting at close range.  One area where UCAS systems will have the edge is manoeuvrability; they will not have to stay within G-force limits that prevent a human pilot from blackout (or redout).

Second, the command and control links from CONUS to overseas theatres are a lot more vulnerable than a guy sitting in a cockpit.  A smart, capable adversary will likely find it easier to destroy the space-based C4ISR links.  You get the double advantage of grounding the UCASes and seriously hampering the American military’s entire network-centric doctrine, all without shedding a single drop of human blood.  Ask yourself whether a present or future Congress would be willing to go to war for dead satellites; my inner cynic says not in my lifetime.  A near-peer adversary would find it politically and militarily advantageous to destroy or degrade network capability with a minimum loss of human life.  If the pilots are physically removed from the cockpit, you don’t have to destroy the aircraft or even the host facility.  You just have to prevent the pilots from being able to communicate with the aircraft.

UCAS systems are certainly a boon, and we are only beginning to explore their capabilities, but I am reasonably certain there will be additional manned air dominance fighters in the Fifth Generation and beyond.

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