The Reset of the Combat Air Operations Market


2013-11-04 By Robbin Laird

Some have argued that it is the end of the manned aircraft age and the birth of the unmanned one.

But this seems to not have clicked with the global market, which will drive significant manned fighter acquisition in the next two decades.

So-called unmanned systems, better called robotic aircraft or remotely piloted aircraft, are central a key part of the future evolution of combat operations, as are their cousins, combat weapons systems.

Indeed, the mix and match of UAVs with weapons will be a key element of the next two decades of innovation in the air combat marketplace and in air combat itself.

The F-35 will be a dominant driver of change within the air combat dimension.  The F-35 is a flying combat system when deployed in its coming fleet configurations – the US services and the allies – will reshape how ISR, C2 and strike combine in new combinations.

We have referred to the impact of the F-35 as being part of the attack-defense enterprise whereby air combat strike and defense capabilities work more closely with missile defense and various other defensive systems.

My recent visit to Italy underscored that those Italians intimately involved in the F-35 standup in Italy clearly understand the magnitude of the change.  In a forthcoming interview with the new Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force, General Preziosa underscored that the 5th generation aircraft revolution is central to the next phase of airpower.  He added that the Italians would rework the operations of their air fleet based on the lead of the F-35.

Indeed, for the Asian and European allies of the United States as well as the US services themselves passing through the fifth generation air combat revolution will be a central part of the re-set of approaches to combat operations, more generally.

The Rafale will be a major player in the future of Indian airpower assuming agreement is reached. Credit Image: Dassault
The Rafale will be a major player in the future of Indian airpower assuming agreement is reached to build the aircraft in India. Credit Image: Dassault

These aircraft are not simply airframe upgrades – stealth is an enabler for integrated combat systems and not the other way around.

And if you do not pass through the 5th generation revolution can you really focus on the next wave of air combat capabilities?

It would be like preparing for the post I-pad world without have ever touched an I-Pad.

Even considering the future of so called unmanned aircraft will be difficult if you do not understand how fundamentally 5th generation aircraft will use UAVs and weapons.  

In parallel to the fifth generation revolution is the reset of the legacy aircraft market as well.

On the one hand, there will be a significant market re-working how legacy aircraft will work with the emerging F-35 fleets.  The leading European arms manufacturer, MBDA, totally understands this and its new air superiority missile has been designed to operate on both legacy aircraft as well as the F-35.

On the other hand, key players such as Russia, India, and Brazil will converge or compete in shaping new legacy plus capabilities as well.

Russia has built a partnership with India to launch the new Sukhoi which will encompass some new radar and airframe characteristics to create their version of a fifth generation fighter.  And Russia is making a bid to include Brazil along with India in this effort, and this would of course be a major coup for the Russians and create a significant industrial capacity for the Russian designed fighter.

T-50 as seen on the Sukhoi website. Credit: Sukhoi.
T-50 as seen on the Sukhoi website. Credit: Sukhoi.

More generally, the directions, which India and Brazil take, will be crucial in the legacy plus market as well.  Brazil and India have discussed possible cooperation but have not built a solid basis to do so.

Brazil is looking to downselect a fighter and the F-18 seemed to be a pole position until the NSA-related events have taken their toll.  But who then takes the poll position in Brazil? The Russians with the new Sukhoi, the French with Rafale, and the Swedes with Gripen would all hope to be the partner of the global player, Embraer.  It is not just about buying a new aircraft for Brazil; it is about global positioning and exports as well.

For India, the key challenges to sort out are three fold.

Can India split its manufacturing capabilities between Russian and European manufacturers?  Politically, this might make sense but in terms of investments, infrastructures and capabilities significantly less so.

In addition, India needs to finish the task of acquiring its Rafale.  This program remains in process but is not yet completed.  The untimely death of the chief Indian negotiator on the program did not help, as well as issues raised with regard to corruption.  A key challenge facing the French is the ability to work with HAL and guarantee the quality of the aircraft to come off of the Indian production line to be stood up in the future.

And what will be the role of India in exporting off of its lines in the future?

F-35s at Edwards AFB. Credit: Lockheed Martin
F-35s at Edwards AFB. Credit: Lockheed Martin

And as the Indians sort out their air combat future, they are not going to be doing so in a vacuum.

The PRC is investing significant resources in its evolving air combat capabilities and seeks significant global exports as well.

As Lt. General (retired) Deptula has highlighted:

The PLA Air Force is undergoing a real transformation. They’re moving from a force that historically relied on quantitative advantage alone, to one that aspires to achieve a qualitative advantage; but with sufficient quantity to dominate in their immediate region. 

They are accomplishing that objective rapidly, and they’re doing it in a smart fashion, because they’re not just chunking these old aircraft, but rather as it indicates on the chart, they’re transitioning many of them into remotely piloted aircraft. 

They are doing this not in just a traditional “Okay, we’ll just make modern aircraft and throw out the old ones,” but they’re adapting their old aircraft to complicate any challenge they might face. This the quantity piece in their strategy. 

They are building a fleet development strategy that combines both manned and remotely piloted approaches. They know that in a nominal conflict situation that their adversary will have challenges trying to pick out the wheat from the chaff. For example, using manned aircraft with their advanced technologies and electronic attack capabilities, and intermingling them with remotely piloted aircraft that are easily seen. 

That kind of a concept of operations might be used to distract the relatively few 5th generation aircraft that could be put up against this kind of a force within the next decade. 

It’s a simple strategy, but it has the potential of being very effective.

The export side of this should not be neglected either.

Chinese J-20 (Credit: CNN)
Chinese J-20 (Credit: CNN)

As Rick Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, has underscored, the PRC is looking to export its various military systems globally:

They are building new platforms to support global reach and they are even offering such platforms for sale. For example, the LPD that was launched at the end of 2006 was marketed to Malaysia in the middle of 2006.  China’s first LHD design is being offered today to Turkey in a competition for Turkey’s first LHD.  The Chinese LHD might turn out to be twice as big, that’s at least what some Chinese sources say.  

But if they build an LHD for Turkey, then that’s where the first one will go.

Their new C-17 class airlifter will soon be offered for sale.  And they could develop an indigenous turbo fan for that aircraft  quickly to be able to be able to offer it as a Chinese system.

In short, the combat air operations market is in flux, and will be significantly reshaped by the emergence of the F-35, the legacy plus market associated with Russia, India and Brazil and the global outreach of the Chinese military and Chinese arms exports.

And it is not just about market space.  It is about combat superiority.  Being second in the dynamics of combat is not a good space to occupy.  There is always the possibility of being tested in an uncertain world.